Fiction by Dan Harrison
When I woke up this morning, before Julia and the kids, it was raining. One of those soppy rains, slapping at the windows and softening the world outside. It was a rain that makes you want to stay home, close to what makes you happy. It was a rain that makes leaving hard.
I unearthed everything yesterday and laid it on the garage floor. Waders, boots, rod, net, extra line, Dad’s old box of flies. I don’t fish as much as I used to, and the first day comes later in the season each year. Still, the ritual remains, and that’s what I love. The slow inventory, making sure everything has its place. I feel closest to Dad in these moments, my fingers retracing the lines, the buckles, the hooks, with their thin barbs.
The rain hammered against the garage door as I packed the car. Once I was ready, supplemented with a change of clothes, lunch, and a thermos of coffee, I opened the door and let the day rush in, its cool arms embracing me, whispering promises of the river.
I looked at a small piece of paper fluttering in my fingers. It was torn from a notebook, the ink smudged but still legible.
Jumping Pound creek. Deep pools. PMD?
He took me fishing only once, but I still remember how he taught me to hold my rod backwards, so I didn’t catch and snap the fragile shaft in the brush. I remember the waders he gave me, his old pair. They had a small hole in the left knee, and I spent the day emptying ice water from my boot.
I remember his cast, how the loop of thin line caught the sunlight, just briefly. His arm stretched out behind him, then pointed forward, gracefully laying the line on the glass of the river. Dad didn’t talk much, but the beauty of this motion gave me more of him than I could glean from any conversation. I saw the freedom he felt, the connection that ran from the river eddying at his knees, through his torso, his arm, the rod an extension, all the way to a small clump of hair and feathers looped around a hook.
When he caught a fish, I was ready with the net, drawing it high above the water, its lithe body wriggling in the sunlit air.
“Put it back in the water,” he snapped, “but keep it in the net.”
I quickly obliged, watching it swim small circles around its new enclosure.
He continued. “We respect the fish. This is their home, and we’re just visiting. If you learn nothing today, learn that.”
I nodded and watched as he pried the hook from its cheek, his thick fingers working deftly. When it was free, he cradled it just below the surface until it darted away, carried off into the current.
I remember how he sat in the car with a notepad and pen, how that scratching sound filled our silence.
“What are you doing?” I asked him.
“Taking notes,” he grunted.
“Where we are. What it’s like. What worked.”
“So I know to come back.” His tone stayed gruff, but it was patient.
“Do you always come back?”
He considered the paper in his fingers, then squinted at me. His eyes were tired, his cheeks leathery from the sun. He picked up my hand, placed the paper in my palm, and closed my fingers.
“When the fishing is good.”
A week later, I found Mom at the kitchen table, head in her hands, tears on the wood, her body wracked with loss.
It’s funny, how quickly a family can splinter and a house falls silent. My sisters grew up and drifted away. I left for school and lost myself in the pace of my early twenties. I forgot who I was and who I had been and we all kept moving forward, each a ghost in our own separate afterlife.
As I pull off on the side of a gravel road, two hours from home, the rain peters off. I see the clouds begin to crack, as if a light beyond the horizon has been turned on. I see the rain-spattered windshield, and I’m thinking of Julia now.
Before I turned off our street this morning, I looked back in time to see her turn the bedroom light on. By the time I took the exit off Highway 1, I knew that she would be sitting down to breakfast with the kids.
I felt a flicker of sadness that I was missing this Saturday morning. It’s my favourite ritual, how we all gather in the living room and the house fills with the smell of coffee and the sound of rain, and the air is cool, but the blankets are warm.
Sometimes I feel like I’ve been let into a life where I don’t belong. The world ended when Dad left, so I ran away, looking for some history I could sift through. As if my past could know what drove him away, as if we can ever really find our ghosts to ask them where we went wrong.
With Julia, I began to piece my world back together. It felt like I was stepping into another life, one that was less shattered than mine. When I came back to Calgary, I was a stranger once again, the city bereft of memory and grief.
When we first crossed the river, Dad stood in the water and turned back to face me.
“It may be shallow,” he explained, “but that current can sweep you off your feet.”
I nodded. My arms dangled by my side, the fingers of one hand clutching my rod. The water rushed past, dark and green. My eyes picked out a leaf, watched it twirl in a slow circle, suspended in the current for a breath, and it was gone. The river drove on.
“You have to test each step,” he said. “The stones are covered in algae, and it’s easy to slip. Take your time, be careful.”
I watched him wade further in, saw the water well up against his hip. With his advice fresh in my ears, I remained close enough to grab at his belt in case I slipped, terrified that the current could take me. It never occurred to me that he himself might slip. That in his rush to get across, he could forget to check his footing.
It scares me, this restlessness, and knowing that it’s in my blood. As the storm continues to burn off, I sit in the car and listen to the tick of the cooling engine. It strikes me that I could turn it over and begin to drive. Drive until it starts to rain again. I could follow the clouds, always keeping my body beneath a grey bank of sky, the car basking in fat drops of prairie rain.
I blink and I see, in that moment, Julia’s hand reaching to pull the curtain aside. I see her yawn, staring out into the brightening day. I see the raindrops spattered on our bedroom window, the same pattern on my windshield, and I know we’re beneath the same sky. I know my footing is steady, even as the river wells up around me.
By the time I lock the car, the leaves are glistening and shimmering in sunlight. They soak my shoulders as I brush past them, my feet wading through heavy grass.
There’s a faint trail in the undergrowth. It’s more a path of depressed grass, but it’s distinct enough from the rest of the forest and it runs downhill. I hold my rod backwards and press on, my eyes peering into the thick brush for a way forward.
The trail grows increasingly unclear, and I begin to worry that I may have lost my way until I break through a final stand of trees onto a gravel beach. It’s maybe ten feet wide and punctuated at points by low scrubby plants. The far bank is a sandy cliff, the entire hillside crumbling into the river. It tumbles around a corner upstream, roiling white-water broken by jagged rocks, before calming into a fat and serene ribbon. It pools on the far side in beautiful eddies, slows down and quickens. I see the seam, that bliss point where the fish wait outside the current and catch food that flows by. The water is clear, and through the shimmering body I can see a rocky bed. I know that this is deceiving, though, and that the river is deep.
I set my bag down on the stones, fix my rod, and begin the ritual of tying a fly onto the tippet.
“What’s that one?” I remember asking.
“Pale morning dun,” Dad replied. “PMD.”
His fingers moved slowly, sure of themselves, and I watched as he tied a small fuzzy clump onto his line. He ran the thread through a tiny eye, twisted it seven times, poked the tail through, and spat on the knot before pulling it taut. “It’s the ritual I love. More than the fishing,” he explained.
“Why are they all different?” I asked. He had given me a small plastic case to hold; I was examining the rows of flies, feathers, foam, and hooks.
Dad pointed to a cloud of insects rising like fog off the water. “Different bugs hatch at different times, so we use flies that look like them to trick the fish.”
“How do the fish know?”
He only smiled at this and stepped forward to cast his line.
“What’s your favourite?” I pressed.
“Whatever catches fish.” His line arced through the air and laid itself on the water. I listened to the soft clicking of his reel as he adjusted his slack.
“Sometimes I think the fish know more than me,” he said, finally.
Cast your line and reel it in. Cast your line and the river takes your fly. Tie a new one on and give it back. The water has an appetite greater than our own. A shadow of a trout swims away with your fly caught fast in its lip. Tie on again. Watch the tapered line submit itself to the current, see how it eddies and pools. A wrist here, a hand there, feel the cool water hold you tight. Each cast pulls a moment from the air and sends it downstream. Tend to that moment until you give it to the current.
The river itself is a body that does not remember. There are no footprints in a river, and wreckage is only washed further downstream. I can feel it pulling me away from Julia’s light in the window. The river is a body of raindrops, and they, like all our sorrows, wash into a greater watershed.
Dad taught me that fishing is a ritual of taking back what the river has stolen from us. It’s a pursuit of failure, a dirty poker game. You’re losing from the moment you step in. The rainbow trout holds many moments in its mouth, and your feeble hook can only pull so many back. I say all this to say that fishing is not a bountiful game. It is a game of briefly giving yourself up to something greater.
Dad also taught me that nothing is ever taken from the river, only given. The river pays its debt with gratitude: a fat rainbow on a snowy fall day, a great bull from the hole that has only ever skunked you.
Still, I ask too much of the river, as if I could pull enough glistening bodies from the water to furnish the empty rooms he left behind.
Instead, I satisfy myself with the brief fantasy of falling back and feeling the embrace of the water. I could let the river take me downstream to the ocean. I could float beneath a great tapestry of sky, careless and always moving towards some greater body.
When I return home, Julie will ask how the fishing was. I will tell her that the river was good to me, that the fish were generous. I will not tell her how, on my way back, I first turned West, rather than East, and drove for ten minutes towards the sun as it speared itself on the mountains.
I will tell her that the river was good. I will not say that it can never be good enough, because the river is not my father, and I am unable to give myself fully to the river because I, too, am not my father.
When the sun is low and my shoulders ache, I unlatch my feet from the stones and return to shore. The light comes down the canyon and, briefly, I wonder if the river could actually be on fire. The trees bow in a gentle breeze and the water rolls on. The world is most beautiful in these moments, and though I am unable to hold all its beauty, I try my very hardest.
Upstream, I see the sun catch a line in flight. Droplets of water flick off and are gone in the haze. It makes a perfect U, first behind the rod and then in front. Behind again, and a familiar, graceful flick sends the fly towards the river. A man is standing right where it bends out of sight, silhouetted against the darkening bank. The water wells up around his chest. I see the tip of his rod jerk once, twice, and bow fully towards the surface. He rears back and over the roar of the river I can hear the whizzing sound a reel makes when the fish run.
There is a moment of calm as he and the fish and the river are in perfect balance, as if the world agrees, but it’s broken by the fish flinging itself up over the water. Its body bends to catch the light, the most powerful creature I have ever seen, struggling to free itself from that which holds it back. It hangs in the air for a moment too long, and I see the man set himself and begin to reel in.
When his rod bows less, it seems as if the trout will allow him the privilege of landing it. He steps back towards shore, head trained on the water, and the fish jumps again.
There is no beauty this time, no, this is a desperate act. In the dying light I can see the muscles that run the length of its body throw themselves side to side and, just as it begins to fall, I see his rod snap back. The fish tumbles into the river; the line tatters in the wind.
The fight is over and I am thankful, eager to get back to the car. Still, I linger for a moment to watch. The man catches his line from the air and hunches over, intent on the work of his fingers. Though he is far, and the light is dim, I know they are sure and slow.
The trout swims downstream towards me and stops in an eddy by my feet, where the water makes lazy circles. The fish keeps itself in place with small flicks of its tail, though its movements are tired and slow. I imagine I can see its little lungs heaving, its body on fire. This fish did not choose today to give itself up today.
I see the fly now, poking from its bottom lip, a short trail of line still attached. The thin white hairs, the beige and yellow body. Pale Morning Dun.
When I look upstream, one last time, the man has nearly disappeared around the bend. Still, he turns in my direction, lifts his hat, and waves it in the air. Then he turns to walk upstream and is gone, given back to the river.
At my feet, the trout has recovered from its bout and twitches, sending itself back into the current. I reach into my pocket and pull the piece of paper out. Jumping Pound creek. Deep pools. PMD? It seems so frail now, so insignificant. The ink has tried its hardest to cling to the paper, and even that was barely good enough. All that remains is a suggestion, a memory, a feeble promise of the past.
I let the paper flutter from my fingers and land in the palm of the lazy eddy. The paper darkens and the ink runs until it dips under the surface, and the water, darker now in the dying light, closes its fist.