JEREMIAH LOOKED AT THE LINE OF FIR TREES AND COULD SEE THE AFTERNOON SKY IN THE GAPS WHERE THEY OPENED UP. He heard the gurgling sound of the river coming closer to him as he walked. To Jeremiah, the river was home, with its steady lullaby of murky water and clean coldness. He saw the path he used to get down to the water and started down it, winding through the brambly thickets that clung to the banks. He heard footsteps through the leaves and watched as a young man, maybe twenty or so, emerged from behind a thicket of bushes. He looked up when he saw Jeremiah and gave him a half wave in greeting.
“Nuthin bitin’ today, and the current’s pretty rough. You might not want to go down there.”
“Thanks for the advice son, but I was fishin’ this river longer than you’ve been alive. I think I can handle it.”
The young man looked at him a bit skeptically and shook his head as he passed. Overhead he tossed “Well, good luck out there. Have a good one.” Jeremiah started back in the river’s direction. He walked a few paces before looking back over his shoulder to see if the man was still visible but he saw nothing except brush and sky. He pulled the bourbon from his pocket and took a swig.
As he made his way down to the river, he saw that all the other fishermen who might have come out for the day had left. They’d gone home to return to a warm house and probably some good food and company, wives whose hands would still be warm from feeding the fireplace. Jeremiah was alone though, with his river.
A deep breath of the crisp air, the bite of it in the back of his throat, rich with the scent of pine and decaying leaves, momentarily cleared the warm bourbon haze that had settled over him. He had come here for the solitude. He could have given a hundred reasons for coming here but it was the solitude that drew him back time and again. The pebbly beach stones crunched beneath his boots as he sat down to pull the fishing tackle from his bag. He took out his trusty black Spinnerbait from the tackle box. Laying the box on the ground while balancing the rod on his lap, he proceeded to tie the lure onto his line with a cinch knot. As he took a lighter to the extra bit of line his hands shook a little with the ghost of an earlier anger over a fierce fight between him and his wife Jenny. They had been fighting a lot lately, arguments over little things and big things. She would yell at him for leaving the toilet seat up but he knew it wasn’t that, it was the stack of unpaid bills on the dining room table. He forced himself to move with a concentrated slowness. He wished he were a little more sober, because being buzzed meant he would need to slow down so that he wouldn’t forget something before going into the water. When what he wanted to do was get into the water that very minute, to catch the trout that was waiting out there for him. After he had his fish, maybe he’d pick up a bottle of wine on the way home, her favorite blush, and cook the fish himself. It had been so long since he’d seen her face light up with pleasure; he had a hard time remembering what her face looked like when she was truly happy.
He liked to think of the fishing rod as an extension to his body. He knew the lines, its weight, and the heft of the rod, its angles and curves. He knew how to move it to make it sing through the air and how to twitch it at just the right moment to catch fish. And using it had grown that much sweeter since he’d taken on extra hours at work. The thrumming aches he’d developed from lifting boxes receded to nothing under the swish of the rod’s tail through the sky.
He finished stringing the line and placed the poll beside him on the ground. Then he took off his wading jacket, grabbed his waders and pulled them up over his clothing so that the only parts of his body left uncovered were the top of his chest and his arms. He was thicker around the middle than he had been when he began fishing the river as a younger man, the waders fit him more snugly than they had but they had seen him through many good days on the river. He adjusted and tightened the suspenders of the waders, cinched the belt at his middle, and put the jacket back on. Then he walked back over to his bag to get the other bottle of bourbon, and placed each bottle in its own large outer pocket and began his walk towards the water’s edge. Its coldness, that the waders and protective clothing diminished, would be even less noticeable under the heavy buzz of the bourbon. He knew the dangers of the river and knew that he ought to be careful.
As his boot touched the river’s edge, he smiled with the thought of landing the big one. He knew out there swam trout measuring no less than eighteen inches. One had been caught by his close friend Burt; when he’d shown Jeremiah the trophy picture, Jeremiah experienced a kind of joy that mirrored that of his friend’s. The largest he’d ever caught was an eight inch Cutthroat, and it was just big enough to hold with both hands.
As he put his foot in the river, he immediately felt the strength of the current. The river was high from the springtime snowmelt. It made moving towards the center a slow process. As the rocks beneath his boots changed to mud he could feel the drag of the riverbed reluctantly release his foot with each step. The water in the center of the river ran stronger than the water by the shore, and Jeremiah dug both boots into the mud. Breathing deeply made him conscious of the beating of his heart. He killed the bourbon from the first bottle with one last swig. Beneath him, crayfish darted to and fro; they watched as Jeremiah’s footsteps fell slow through the dimly lit, silty water. He drew back his arm and cast the line, watching as the lure arced through the air and hearing the familiar sound of the reel as the line unwound, followed by the satisfying “plop” of the lure hitting the water. From his right, there came a sharp crackling in the brush and a pair of sandpipers rose in flight, their bellies flashing white against the sky’s blue.
He thought about the still-full bottle of bourbon in his right pocket and thought about how he’d be able to drink some. He held the rod in one hand and with the other reached into his pocket, pulled the bottle free, unscrewed the cap and drew its mouth to his lips. He glanced towards the bank of the river and took a deep breath. He loved the silhouette of the trees against the sky, the sound of the river as it wound its way along its course, the way the brush on the banks of the river were laden with flowers and berries in the springtime. The liquor was sharp in his mouth but it spread warmth throughout his body, which had grown quite cold in spite of the clothing.
The sky’s light filled about half the sky now and the air was free of any sound except for the flowing water and his shallow breathing. He put the bottle back and took the rod in his hand again. There was no tug on it yet. He wished for the bottle again but felt the familiar blurriness and pounding blood in his temple from the drink and decided it could wait.
He thought about Jenny’s body and a fierce desire swept through him. He released some line; the trout were there, he was sure of it. There were giant logs ahead and Jeremiah knew the fish could be found there, gliding along the silt of the riverbed. When he brought in his catch he would have to come in quietly, so as to not wake the baby. Jenny would be rocking in her favorite chair, not getting up to greet him, and looking small against its thick cushioning. That was OK. He would bring it to her.
Jeremiah drew the line back so the rod bent a little. He pulled against the current, taking a few steps backwards. The mud sucked at his feet again, and he almost lost his balance. Then he felt the unmistakable tug of a fish on the end of his line. Jeremiah reeled the line in a little to entice the fish so that on the next strike he could set the hook.
He wanted to see Jenny look at him like she had done on their last date. It had been well more than five years ago but that look still held a sharp impression in his mind. He had taken her out for a fancy dinner and followed it with their favorite bluegrass band. They had gotten buzzed, not drunk, and laughed a lot. One moment he caught a look in her eyes that said he had given her a treasure. It was a glowing heart gaze and it said there was more good in him than he himself knew.
The fish tugged hard on the line. Jeremiah yanked sharply and he knew he had hooked the fish. It pulled the line from the water and the rod felt dangerously alive in his hand. Jeremiah took another step backwards and pulled the rod up with a sharp inhale of breath.
Jenny had never looked at him like that again. He had caught her looking at their newborn like that though, and the memory still made him wither in discomfort because he had been jealous of the baby, that his daughter, not he, was recipient of that love. The only thing he wanted now was to cook her fish and sit beside her at the kitchen table and just watch her eat. Maybe have another glass of bourbon with ice and sip it till only ice was left and then he would sip that too till the last cube melted on his tongue.
He had been so focused on his daydream he hadn’t noticed how closer he had come to the river’s center. The water was much higher here. He silently cursed himself for drifting off like that.
“There you go, baby. Come to papa.” The voice didn’t sound like him. The river blurred a little, into a brown softness he rather liked. Goddamn, I’m drunk. Isn’t that just whiskey’s way, sneakin’ up on a man? The rod leapt a little forward as the line gave another, familiar tug. Jeremiah swayed a bit, let out some line and breath. His feet pushed against the current.
On land, a bullfrog’s song rhythmically punctuated the otherwise silent twilight. Threads of pink and mauve light spread across the indigo sky. A few stars twinkled and the moon’s reflection moved with the slight rise and fall of the current. Jeremiah heard the water’s rush in his ears, pulsing, its coldness sharper than before. He wanted another drink. But not until I’ve reeled in, unhooked and netted this mother of a trout biting the end of my line. In his peripheral vision he could just make out the dark edge of the water touching the top of his waders. There was another tug on his line and the rod bent in an arc. He held on tight, his hands straining hard against the pull. There was little line left and Jeremiah pulled hard against the reel frame with his left fingers. His fingers were very cold though, and it was difficult to get a solid grip.
As he pulled on the line it tightened and Jeremiah watched the trout soar out of the water. It was gigantic, its body thick and heavy. He could hear his blood pounding in his ears and felt a little nauseous. The sound of its body striking the water’s surface made him dizzy and he faltered, leaning forward and as he leaned the water rushed in over the top of his waders. He gasped at its electric shock. Still, the line tugged. He had not lost the trout.
But the cold against his flesh was not like any cold he’d known. Ice, instead of blood, felt as if it swirled in his veins, making him want to scream. He filled his lungs deeply with air and his throat contracted but no sound came out. The rod slipped in his hand but he didn’t drop it. He would have to drop his rod and lose both it and the trout to the water. Anger rose in him and he screamed and the scream sounded strange to him, alone as he was with no-one to hear him. A group of quail rose up over the grass in a mutiny at the sound. Jeremiah tried pulling his foot upwards in order to step back but his foot had been caught between rocks. He could not move, but looked towards the shoreline anyway. It had to be more than a quarter mile away now from where he stood, his foot stuck, in the river’s center. The rod was still in his hand and that seemed absurd now but he couldn’t release it. Don’t need to cut it loose, yet. I can still pull it in with me. His breath was coming in whistling exhales and he tried to speak to himself as he would to Sandy, their shepherd mix, during the lighting storms that sent her shaking under the table. That’s alright. Cold’s not gonna get me.
Even as he reasoned that the trout could he his own he knew it to be impossible. His flesh stung with the blinding cold and his foot still stuck. He trembled violently. The water swirled in brown eddies around him; it sounded nearer his ears but he could not be certain by the dim sliver of rosy light that twined the indigo of night. He sensed he existed in an ocean, not his river, not the place he had fished as a child and then as a teenager before the war and then after. He felt the rod go tight and then slack. That slackness meant one thing. The trout was gone.
“Goddamn it!” he cried, to the bullfrog and the quail and the river, none of whom cared. He felt angrier than he could recall ever having been. He had just wanted one good fish. He wanted to set things right.
Panic blossomed inside of him, and his chest ached. The rest of him felt numb and heavy. The rod. The rod was gone. He hadn’t planned on that. He hadn’t planned on any of this. His hands turned to stone, like his body, like the boulder his foot was caught beneath.
“Arrrhhh,” He heard a voice and wondered if it was his. As though from some cavernous place he listened to it curse the waders, the river, and the trout. It simply wasn’t fair that this should be happening to him. He hit the river with his arms as hard as he could. It didn’t hurt because his arms felt nothing. Still, he felt silly thrashing his body that way and stopped. Taking a deep breath, Jeremiah plunged his body underwater.
If only the boot could come off. Pushing his weight downwards, he struck his hands first against the sharp edge of rock and continued reaching down, feeling for the boot with his fingers. Then he felt it. It was wedged between rocks; both the heel and tip were caught. He yanked but his hands slipped against the rubber and then he was being forced up by the current. He arose from the surface, sputtering and coughing, his heart thumping hard against his ribcage.
His skin tingled, as though thousands of hot tiny needles struck and it made him sad, deeply sad. Jeremiah wanted to cry, but instead took a deep breath and dove underwater again. Hands, frozen with cold, made knowing if he held the boot in a firm grip nearly impossible. As though from a long ways off, he heard the sound of his voice under the water, sounding mangled and angry.
The current tried buoying his body upwards but he fought it, thrashing his arms downward. Somewhere, near his struggling body, laid his rod. Further still, at the dark bottom, swam the trout. It had been one damn big fish.
Jeremiah could not get his hands gripped tightly enough on the boot to get it off.
Jenny. He wanted to ask his wife something but wasn’t sure what it was; something to do with the baby. Maybe to not forget to bring it to see grandpa; the poor old man hadn’t seen Cindy since she was born. There was something else too, some other reason for coming here today. He could no longer remember. The water wanted to pull him downstream but his foot was still stuck. He didn’t feel angry anymore, just confused. He heard some guttural hum and looked for its source. It sounded close by, but he could see nothing. The current was as high as his chin. He felt his body being pulled down. He no longer cared to curse anything or anyone. Whose fault was it but his? The dome of the sky covered him like a blanket. He wanted to pull it to his chin and lay back. Frozen into blue blocks of ice his hands had fallen, in surrender, to the water. He no longer felt drunk. He felt tired. If he could just rest, for a little bit, his energy would come back. Then he’d get that boot off for sure.
It might have been hours, or minutes, when he opened his eyes again. Sun blazed from high above. Warmth spread through his extremities and it felt so good. The morning sun was warming his body and the water. But the sun kept getting hotter. His arms suddenly felt blistering, then searing with fire. His clothing had caught fire. Heart pounding, he clawed at the straps of his waders, pulling out one arm and then the other. He pushed them down to his stomach and pulled the top off and flung it away. It did not help. His chest felt consumed with fire.
He stopped what he was doing to look around him. There was no sun, no light. Just him, the bitter cold water, the trout swimming below. No-one knew he was here besides that fisherman he had bumped into on the way in. He might not see Jenny again, or his daughter. He had ventured to a place he had not meant to go, far beyond fishing the river alone or daydreaming about bringing home that trout.
As the arms of the river enfolded him, Jeremiah dreamt of reeling in the trout and, grasping its slimy fins, giving it an honest look. He removed the hook and let it back into the water and watched it swim away.
On the shore, a deer, its doe-eyes shining with moonlight, had stopped to nibble on the springtime buds of grass. It looked for a moment towards the spot on the river where the silhouette of a hat floated steadily downstream before turning away, the white flicker of its tail the last of to be swallowed by the woods.