Nonfiction | June 01, 1987

At the bends, the creek is slow and dark. Elsewhere it breaks into rapids, and smooth stones are visible under the wobbling clearness. The stones are jade, chalk, and all shades of brown—from buffalo to eggshell. On the hard surface of the water, the sun shatters. Grass springs like hair over the cutbank. New green willows tangle with skeletons of the old. On the horizon, mountains collapse upward to sustain a vast theater of sky. Clouds blunder on and off stage. Occasionally there is a grumble from the wings.

Our hero sees none of this. Later, as the sky darkens to violet and the clouds roll salmon bellies, the beauty behind him nags like a faulty neon sign. But just now he is fumbling gently over the surface of the pools with a tiny twist of feathers. They flourish at the end of a long line attached to a bamboo whip. The whip, through its cork stock, is an extension of his hand, which is an extension of his whole brain—as if one trunk nerve had sprouted from his palm and snaked out to explore, gingerly, the surface of the water, a puff of dendrites scudding over the obsidian mirror before every fret of breeze.

His concentration is so intense that the mosquito on the back of his hand goes unremarked. Its capillary proboscis has struck a gusher. The tapering body jerks in rhythmic spasms, engorging, turning pale rose. There is, actually, little difference between the bug and the man: the senses of both suck at the world in utter, mindless greed, unaware of a future, of impending death. The man crouches on the skin of the planet, which at the moment (fortunately) does not twitch. Earth itself is parasite to the sun, and in the far reaches of the galaxy lurks a mighty hand that could idly swat the whole system into a bloody spot.

Flat and gray on the bottom, mounded above like mashed potatoes, one of the clumsy clouds skids in front of the sun. Stones, cowbirds, dry grass, fenceposts—everything glows, cooling from incandescence. A light wind wrinkles the water, which is now opaque, like tarnished metal. The fly bobs along the riffles like the white cockade of a tiny patriot. It is a Royal Coachman, with high, scimitar wings, a red silk body, two black ruffs and a long swallow tail. Near the cutbank it is caught in an eddy, and hooks in a slow arc. Then, all at once, it vanishes into a small vortex, a sneering water-mouth. Deep in that mouth a red tongue flickers.

There is a sound like a two- or three-inch tear in silk, or one turn of an eggbeater. The hand bearing the bloated insect moves, fast as a bird taking flight, and the bamboo whip curves, trembling. The long nerve-line has connected with something vital. Life jerks at both ends, above and beneath the water. The fisherman plunges up and down the bank through the shallows, his elbows flapping as if he hoped to take off and follow the mosquito (who has at last become airborne, though blind drunk on blood). The man’s lips spread over his teeth, and he utters hoarse gasps: “Uhn-uhn … no-o-o … bastardsonofabitch … no … uh-uhn . . .; no you don’t. . . . ”

One hand strips in line until the red tongue is gabbling at his feet. Then in a swash the trout comes out of the water, whacking on the stones of the bank. He clutches it, and the cold pulse of the body goes through him like an electric shock. The other hand pulls a knife and brings the handle down sharply to club the fish at the back of the head. A long, staccato shudder, and the creature relaxes, gills flared.

He examines his prey. A blunt arrow; dark, speckled green on the top, a dull white belly; red-orange, bright as an Indian paintbrush, under the gills and at the base of the ventral fins. Cutthroat.

Quickly, performing a routine chore, the man cuts a forked willow stick, one prong much longer and straighter, to make a crude hook. He slips the pointed shank under one gill cover and threads on the trout, smearing the willow with blood and slime. Then he tosses the limp thing under a bush and covers it with a handful of damp grass. He marks the spot with an odd stone, or two sticks propped together, for he has lost more than one, returning downriver in failing light, unable to distinguish one bend or rapid from another.

For a few seconds he looks up and out. The mountains, naked but for rags of snow. The meadow, a sweep of timothy pale as gold. Here and there sagebrush, shaggy old dwarves. A few abandoned buildings, warped and frosted by the weather, lurching permanently across a pasture. A metaphor tries to take shape in his mind: The light … the light … is something … it is … it is…. He grunts. Picks up his rod. Reels in slack line. Blows the bedraggled fly into bloom again.

On to the next hole.

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