Fiction | June 01, 1993
Pale Morning Dun
That evening we crawled under the fence and looked at the house where old man Fario had died. Wooden slats were nailed over the windows and the front door was padlocked. The grass was brown like the weeds along the road. Some of the branches were dead on the willow tree.
“What do you think?” I asked.
Jerry looked at me and smiled. “No problem.” He found a stick, broke it in half, put one piece between his teeth and handed me the other. We slithered forward on our bellies like Chuck Norris in the movie playing at the Bijou in Livingston.
We got across the dead grass, past the willow tree, and Jerry held up a hand. I stopped, bit down on the combat knife, my ear cocked against the sounds of the jungle.
“What is it?” I said.
“I heard something.”
The wind came up from the meadow where the stream ran. It lifted the American flag old man Fario always kept poking from the house. The stripes rolled, turned over and fell limp, like a wide red and white fly line. Something in the roof creaked.
The house had stood out here for as long as anyone could remember. The somber grey, which you see painted on a lot of the old places, was gone, the wood, slivered and bleached. Two pillars held up a portico which arched over the front steps. In the late afternoon, with the sun behind the cottonwood trees, it looked like the entrance to a cave or the deep, dark water beneath an undercut bank. Over the years, coming up from the stream along the dirt road toward home, we had seen a figure, wavering there in the gloom.
We were curious about him. Because he never went to town, never, as far as anyone knew, even left the house—food, medicine and an occasional shirt or pair of boots drifting in to him from the stores along Front Street—he was mysterious and untouchable.
Now he was gone, disappeared to that deeper mystery, about which few ever spoke, even on Sunday, to which our own Grandpa Alan had gone one evening last year while Jerry and I were kneedeep in Horseman’s Run. Gramp loved to flyfish, even when his eyes got so bad he couldn’t see the tiny imitation riding the crest of Horseman’s Run, and Gram had to stand just out of his casting arc to tell him when to strike. He taught Jerry and me all we knew about trout, the patient, gentle rhythm of flycasting and the faithfulness of releasing everything we caught. The evening after Gramp disappeared I fully expected he would come in from the hill where he went to watch the sunset and take his place next to my mother.
We studied the house, hunkered down in the dry grass and weeds. We had no idea why anyone would board up the windows and fasten a lock to the front door of such a lonely place, unless it was to keep us out. This was, of course, the thinking of boys, who believe that life coincides with their passage upon the current of time, for hadn’t we often hidden our rods and crept about the perimeter of the house, hatching a plan of attack, but prepared always for flight?
“I don’t hear anything,” I said.
There were underground storage rooms. We had observed the old man remove the chain, throw open the heavy wooden door, descend invisible steps and vanish beneath the house. It was then that we were at our boldest, crawling up to peer over into the emptiness and gloom. We never saw him. But we heard him—scrapings and grindings and the thick sound of things being moved, and his voice, low and muttering. We were amused that, deep down in the dark, the old man talked to himself.
We made our way round to the side, the odd calls from the jungle, the grotesque shapes of dying trees, the ashen fortress itself rising above us more dangerous than anything Chuck Norris faced, far back in enemy territory.
The cellar door was locked. Jerry grabbed the rusted chain and shook it. From the hollow below a sound returned, met itself, fell back, returned again. Jerry struck the door. The sound came with a growl, collapsed, mounted the stairs, moaned against the heavy wood, disappeared.
“There’s no way in,” I said, “c’mon.”
“Maybe we could climb up,” Jerry said, pointing to the second story. “Maybe there’s a window or something.”
“And maybe this isn’t such a good idea after all. They don’t want anybody around here, Jer.”
“Who doesn’t? Mom says there aren’t any relatives. They can’t find anybody to do the funeral.”
“Well, somebody put up the boards and those locks.”
“The sheriff, probably.”
An older brother is an ambiguous thing. He goes first and shows the way, but he also charts paths into trouble.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Well, what would Chuck do?”
I grinned. “Fall back and reconnoiter?”
He punched my arm and stood up. “We’ve been doing that for years. C’mon.”
We had never seen the back of the house. It was concealed from the road, which dropped off sharply to the stream, and by the time we got up and by, a stand of cottonwoods blocked the view.
The decay was worse. Spring rains always revived the front yard with wild flowers and sent out occasional shoots below the willow branches which had died the summer before, so that coming along the road, we found even the dark place beneath the portico less forbidding. But here the ground had been scraped so that not a blade of grass grew. Broken pieces of machinery were strewn about, rusted into the earth like iron bones. Beneath the rear windows were stacks of packing crates, their ends split open, boxes of electric motors, broken appliances and power tools: he had earned money by fixing things. There was only one door and it too was locked.
“Goddamnit,” Jerry said.
A few paces from the back door was a firepit. I went over to have a look while Jerry studied the house for a way in. Around the pit were a few charred embers, bits of blackened metal and glass. A rusty gas can sat next to the pit on a block of wood. I kicked at the ashes. Something turned over and caught my eye. I picked it up. It was a perfectly white shirt button of a kind I’d seen all my life. The center holes where the thread goes were broken.
“Hey, Tom,” Jerry called.
He was stacking some of the smaller boxes on top of one of the crates.
“That screen up there,” he said, “I don’t think it’s fastened. C’mon.”
The light had begun to fade. The air was getting damp. The dust we had kicked up hovered above the ground. Beyond, in the trees that obscured the house from the road, shadows pressed together. The edge of things was gone. It was the time when sound does not rise but spreads, like voices across a stream, yet there was no sound, not the slightest murmur, even from far away. I looked at Jerry. He floated upon the dust, hands on hips, watching me. I looked back into the trees. A bell had come down over us.
“Mom will be fixing dinner,” I said. “We’d better get in.”
“We’ll tell her the afternoon hatch was late and they were rising like crazy. She won’t care. Help me here.”
We made a pile of rubbish on the crate and Jerry kneed his way to the top. He squatted a moment, then stood slowly erect. “There’s a piece of rope in that box by the door,” he said, “grab it.”
When I returned, he had already lifted the screen and was raising the window.
“Wait a second,” I said, “Jerry,” but his legs vanished over the sill. It was a full five minutes before I saw him again. I knew what he was doing. Sometimes on the stream I’d look back and he’d be around a bend fishing on his own. He didn’t care anything about how I felt when I expected to find him and he wasn’t there.
Then his head came out. “Wait’ll you see this,” he said. “Throw me the rope. I’ll help you.”
I shimmied up the house and dropped inside. It was a small, square room like a bedroom, but it was bare, not a stick of furniture, not even a rug. A door led into a hallway. Jerry went through and I followed.
The other rooms upstairs were empty too. The bathrooms had no towels or soap or anything to make you think they were used.
“What’d I tell you,” Jerry said.
We crept down the stairs. There was a large, open space that looked right at the front door. Through the dirty windows on either side I could just see the fence where the road was.
“It’s filthy in here,” I said.
Dust was on the tables and chairs, the curtains and lamps. When you took a step, a pillow of grey rose from the floor. There were no pictures on the walls, no photographs on the counters, none of that stuff people have strewn around. We went through all the rooms and all the rooms were the same. It was as though someone had not lived there but only floated about.
“Let’s go,” I said. “This is creepy.”
“But where’d he sleep?” Jerry asked.
In the kitchen the sinktop was bare, not a glass or a cup. A door was at the far end. Jerry went over and opened it.
It was a small room, like a porch. Inside was a stool and a cushion in which there was a deep impression. Before the stool was a brass telescope, shining softly in the fading light. Certainly the old man had some consolation, then, for the house stood above the most beautiful place in the world. Another door was off to one side and Jerry tried the knob.
“Locked,” he said. “Must be the cellar. I’d sure like to get down there. I wonder if it’s the same. He was always shoving stuff around.”
I was looking through the telescope. Beyond the cottonwood trees lay the valley of my boyhood. In broad, green swells it rose toward the arrowhead peaks of the mountains. I felt a softness for the old man. A heart that regarded such things could not be dark. I lowered the telescope. A narrow passage had been cut below through the shrubs and limbs. I could see right down to the slick patch of grey and the black arms of the big oak that hung above the water. I stepped back and the stool went to the floor. I pointed. Jerry hurried over and squinted through the lens.
“Jesus,” he said. “Horseman’s Run.”
* * *
It seemed that everyone turned out to bury him, as many as turned out for my grandfather’s funeral. Mom was forgiving, so Jerry and I went to the stream.
We like to get there before the sun touches the water. Everything is dean and new and fresh, the stones are damp, the air is crisp and clear, the cottonwoods stand green against the sky, the river comes down like blue steel, thudding against the rocks, frayed white over the marbled bottom.
I know now what flyfishing means, but even then Gramp had taught us to observe. “Don’t jump into the water right away, boys,” he would say. “Look first, and look right in front of you, against the bank. That’s where the big ones lie.”
We crept forward, half bent over, our rods behind us. We knew the river as well as we knew our own bedroom. Just here the stream swept round a curve, dropped through a riffle, then opened into a still, dark pool. Below that was Horseman’s Run.
“Trout feed ninety percent of the time beneath the surface, boys,” Gramp had said. “If you want to catch a lot of fish and big ones, weight your nymphs and bounce them right along the bottom.”
He had taught us how to rig up, how to cast, lift the rod and concentrate on the leader for the slightest hesitation. We had watched him create the dark-bodied bugs that were so effective, for Gramp had studied the river for years. He even taught us how to tie the killer nymphs ourselves, but it was the duns that fascinated us.
“Those nymphs crawl around down there a whole year,” he had said, “before they swim to the surface, break out of their skins and float along drying their wings. They live only a day more, and that’s not long, is it, boys, to be so beautiful.”
When Gramp tied those thin-bodied ephemerella, as he called them, on size-18 hooks, their pale green bodies and diaphanous grey wings reminded us of tiny, unmoored sailboats, and when the duns themselves were adrift upon the surface of the pool, we watched as an entire armada of delicate, translucent ships spun and took flight.
That’s when the trout came up, finning easily in the slack currents, their snouts tap-tapping the surface as they took the duns one by one. It was the best time to flyfish. Everything was there. It was what Jerry and I loved. It was what Gramp, in the end, could no longer see.
“It’s still a bit early for the hatch,” Jerry said, kneeling in the wet grass above the stream. “Let’s put on some nymphs and go down after them.”
We rigged up and spread out. I made a couple of false casts and dropped my brown nymph just above the shoulder of a big rock. When the leader skipped sideways, I lifted the rod.
My arm came alive, the weight of the fish throbbed in my hand, the line ran past me and a 17-inch rainbow shot out of the water, curving and uncurving, wet silver and pink. “Fish on!” I yelled, the rainbow coming down, shaking its head, the leader popping like thread, everything going slack and no weight. “Lost him,” I called, but Jerry was stumbling along the bank, his rod arched dangerously, the line cutting a scratch across the steel blue water. The fish jumped twice. I watched as Jerry did all the things Gramp had shown us. Finally he removed the barbless hook, looked at me and smiled. I raised my fist. It beat anything Chuck Norris could do.
We fished like that for an hour or so. The sun went to the tops of the trees. The shadows flattened over the river. The air grew warmer and the dampness left.
“Look!” Jerry shouted.
Sure enough, in the heavy water above were tiny grey sails sculling down to the pool below. I couldn’t fish right away. I never can when the duns first come up. I have to watch them, suddenly upon the surface, their wings drying for that one day of life above the stream.
“It’s impossible to imitate them truly,” Gramp would say, holding one up so that the light shone around the veins in the wings and filled the pale olive body. “Thank god we don’t have to, or else we would be obliged to find some way to use them to catch fish, and I don’t think we could do that, do you, boys?”
I did not understand then what he meant, but I knew he liked to watch the sails too, and I would find him sometimes standing alone smoking his pipe and staring out over the water. He was the smartest man I ever knew and it was right to fool trout with delicate imitations. What a surprise it must be to lift up for something so easy to have, only to find the sting in your own mouth. It was good then to remove the hook, hold the fish in the current until it recovered and let it go, so that it sank down in a remorse that spared a few duns overhead.
I looked over at Jerry, who was busy snipping away the nymph and knotting on a dry fly. Circles had begun to form beneath some of the sails, and the sails disappeared.
The swish-swish of Jerry’s line went out over the water and the size-18 dun imitation fluttered to the surface directly above a widening ring. The fly drifted, Jerry mended the line, a dark snout showed, the fly vanished, Jerry lifted the rod and a trout the size of my arm came out of the water and raced downstream. Jerry stumbled and laughed, trying to keep up. A thrill went through me. The duns don’t understand or the trout. But everything is caught. Everything is let go. Everything is perfect. Nothing in the whole world is so grand as flyfishing.
I tied on my imitation and for two hours Jerry and I worked the long pool and the riffle that dropped toward Horseman’s Run. Then we sat on the bank, our feet in the water, and looked up at the sky.
“Chuck doesn’t have this,” he said.
“No way,” I agreed. “There aren’t any trout streams in jungles.”
He looked downstream to where the big oak hung over the current. “Let’s do the Run. It’s still good. There will be a few duns. We can find a rise or two.”
I looked at the deep, curling water. It was water hard to wade, unbroken at the surface, but heavy and swift. Lunkers held at the bottom and rose to the duns in the eddies and slicks. The biggest trout were in Horseman’s Run.
“You think we should?” I asked.
“Sure, why not?”
I shrugged, looking up past the oak to the tangle of brush and limbs.
We stepped down, hunched over into our stalk. A circle formed near the bank just below the point where shadow met light. Jerry went to his knees, inched forward, his rod bowed back and forth, the line whispered above my head, the fly settled to the water, spun a little, caught a seam, then disappeared. In a couple of minutes he had landed and released a nice rainbow, scanned the water and then crawled down to another rise.
I watched, creeping along behind. We came under the black oak. The few duns that drifted on the Run seemed abandoned and lost. The fishing was tougher and that was all right, that’s how we liked it. I kept looking up through the branches and brush. There was nothing, but I couldn’t fish. I just stared up through the jungle of limbs. I knew we were there, floating in the center of the lens.
* * *
All through high school and into college, when Jerry and I went away, the old house remained boarded up. We never tried to get inside again, and I was surprised when my brother lost interest in our most dangerous scheme, to sneak down into old man Fario’s cellar. There were two reasons. Chuck Norris left the Bijou in Livingston, and Jerry discovered that Alison Sharp, who lived two houses up the road, was actually a girl. However, as the days passed, I still could not help stopping a moment each time we walked by, and after awhile, Jerry, ever more impatient, went along, leaving me to stand alone before that monument to age and decay.
It seemed finally to have stopped changing and to have taken on a timeless ruin. The walls, beams and columns were at last uniform with whatever weather might do. The roof stopped curling. The space beneath the portico grew permanently dim. Even the willow trees found neutrality between leaving and staying, the dead branches as appropriate as those which had managed to live. The house came to inhabit space, much like a large stone or the dark oak above Horseman’s Run. After awhile it was just there.
But something did change. Though he went first, my brother and I had always been two faces of one thing. We did everything together, our dreams and hopes, our failures and accomplishments occurring with remarkable consistency. But with Alison Sharp along, Jerry seemed to lose interest in flyfishing, about which, Gramp had said, there was always more to learn. I found it hard to believe he could drift away like that, but, more often than not, I went to the stream to stalk trout alone.
At first this was intimidating. Jerry and I had a system. When the fishing got tough, we tried different imitations and methods until one of us found something that worked. Now I was left to figure out everything myself, and sometimes, when I cast for hours over water that contained fish, I felt confused and betrayed. Later, when I walked up the road past the old house, I could not stop. I could not even look. Something was there, wavering in the gloom beneath the portico.
But the most remarkable thing happened. I asked Jerry to go fishing with me one morning, which was the only time I had a chance at him because Alison was a late sleeper. He said, sure, we got everything together, even talked strategy, but she called and said she was going shopping with her parents in Livingston, wouldn’t he like to come too. And he said, yes, can you believe it, so the next morning I got up before everyone, fixed myself a sandwich and went down to the stream while it was still dark. I was mad, madder than I’d ever been, and I sat on a rock to wait because it was so early I couldn’t see the water.
I calmed down after awhile, ate my sandwich, the sky got a little white above the far hills, and that’s when it happened. A shiver ran up my back. I felt him standing behind me, there in the trees, smoking his pipe, his fly rod leaning against a stump. He was waiting too for the sun to come over the steel blue water. And his voice said, “Be patient. Sit and watch. Don’t always be in a hurry.”
The sky grew lighter. The surface of the stream appeared beneath a soft glow. I heard a splash, then another. Trout were rising but I couldn’t see them. Then the color of the current separated from the dark, far bank. More splashes, but now I could see and there was nothing, no duns, nothing, but the splashes were everywhere, the trout were feeding, but on something I couldn’t see. I bent over, put my face right on the surface, the splashes went on, the trout were eating something that wasn’t there. I took off my hat and held it in the current. Against the band appeared tiny grey worms with the stubs of half-formed wings. Nothing that Gramp had tied was anything like them.
I looked back at the trees. Had he truly been there, I wouldn’t have been surprised, for I felt closer to him at that moment than I ever had before. There was a dimension to flyfishing I had never imagined. That morning, as long as they allowed, I sat watching trout feed on invisible bugs.
The next day I went with my mother on her weekly trip into town to buy groceries and asked her to drop me at the library. She couldn’t have been happier, of course, thinking that I had finally gotten serious about school, but the books I was looking for were books about flyfishing and flytying, and I found one about entomology and put it conspicuously atop the stack I checked out. Mom pronounced the word silently in the car later and smiled and nodded her head.
I read everything I could get my hands on. Any spare money I came by was spent on fishing books. I collected bug samples from the stream and peered at them through a magnifying glass. I began to tie new patterns, some of them more powerful as trout catchers than the ones Gramp had showed me. I learned about egg laying and emergence and spinner falls, water temperature and behaviorial drift. All this impressed Jerry and sometimes, when he’d find the time to come along, I’d outfish him. He’d say, “What the hell are you using?” I’d hand him one of my imitations, tell him how to fish it. “What is it?” he’d say. “It’s just a fly,” I’d say. “I’ve never seen one like this, where’d you get the idea for it?” I’d shrug my shoulders. “Well, what do you call it?” “Pale Morning Dun,” I’d say, and turn so he couldn’t see my smile.
But most of the time I was alone. I spent a lot of time sitting on the bank watching the water. That was as important to me now as fishing itself. In all this I felt closer and closer to Gramp, who, it sometimes seemed, was in the trees behind me, watching and smiling. I usually went upstream, though, and did not like going down, unless I had to, and then only as far as the pool above Horseman’s Run. I could not bring myself to fish Horseman’s Run alone.
The meaning of it all, to a mind as young as my own, was a respect for trout I had never found when it mattered how many I caught. Knowing them, their behavior, habits and needs, made it impossible for me to intentionally harm them. It even seemed unfair to create a pattern that would more easily trick them. Their beauty, bravery and innocence humbled me. Gramp was right. They were too noble to kill. I had to release every one I caught.
The time came finally to leave. The nearest college was fifty miles away, but I wanted to go to the University with Jerry and that was another hundred and there were no streams. It was as though that part of my life went on hold while I studied for what I thought then was more important. Alison was there and it wasn’t long before I had a girl. Everything got serious. Everything mattered.
I had never really experienced anything like what I found away from home. The University was old and right in the middle of the city and they had a brick wall around it. The stuff I’d seen only on television roamed the streets outside. Gangs, drive-by shootings, car-jackings, armed robberies. The first week I was there a girl who lived in the dormitory with Alison was raped. A lot of the city people had moved to the suburbs, but apparently that wasn’t far enough because, with regularity, somebody got mugged or held up out there where the lawn grew.
I knew even then that it was a matter of time before our small part of the world was discovered by refugees. A few homes had been built before Gramp died. People had moved in from towns as small as Leavitt and Gardiner. What would happen when the suburbs themselves let loose? People wanted land and trees and no burglar alarms or bars on the windows. Who could blame them for envying the safety and beauty I had always known? Though life in the city rewarded initiative and Jerry found the excitement of being there almost as stimulating as Alison, I was of a different mind. I decided that, when my education was done, I would return home. I knew that what was along the stream where my grandfather had taught me to fish was more important than anything else the world could offer, and though I might not become as prosperous or as famous as Jerry, who had decided to be a big-time trial lawyer, I would make my way, and I would have the stream.
I managed to get home sometimes, on holidays usually, and I always felt guilty when it was time to go. I couldn’t fish in the off-season, and I stayed at school to help earn money during the summer. Jerry often wasn’t with me anyway, and, worst of all, Gram was slowing down. She sat a lot looking out the window at the hill where Gramp had watched the sunset. She was hard of hearing and did not like asking you to repeat what you said, so she had started talking to herself, always about the past. She didn’t talk really, she whispered, just loud enough so you could hear if you were close. Maybe that was because she was hard of hearing to herself as well, I don’t know, but I thought of Gramp a lot when I was with her now, stooped and busy with her loneliness.
And then she died.
It was the end of my junior year in the spring with Jerry one term ahead and almost done with pre-law. We went home and neither of us said much the whole 150 miles. I knew he was going over everything and how, with Gram dead, something had closed and we would truly drift apart.
After the funeral we all sat around remembering and Mom got out the old pictures. I hadn’t seen them since I was a kid and was struck again at how beautiful Gram had been and that Gramp was so tall standing beside her.
“She was the most beautiful woman in the county,” Mom said, tapping one of the pictures.
There was Gram in a long white dress and her hair on top of her head and on either side, two tall men dressed in suits with high collars. I recognized Gramp. He was thinner, with a long chin.
“Who’s the other guy?” I asked.
“Mr. Fario,” Mom said.
Jerry and I looked at each other. We stared at the photograph of three people, two of whom were so close and had shared our lives so fully, and this other, who had lurked always around the edges. Mom took the picture of Gram and Gramp and Mr. Fario out of the album and set it on the table.
“He was a fisherman too,” she said, “but with bait. He never threw anything back. Finally Gramp would have none of it.” She tapped the photo. “I always thought that was so sad.” She shook her head. “The place has been sold, you know. A doctor and his wife from Livingston bought it. Want the peace and quiet of the country, I suppose. This whole area will be filled some day, you just watch.”
Jerry and I drove out to the old house. Nothing was there, only the frame, floor and roofbeams and the shell of the portico, which hung now over steps that were full of light. The half-dead trees were gone. The ground had been plowed and graded. Everything had been cleared from the back. Two men were unloading fresh lumber from a big truck and stacking it to one side. We walked over.
“Well, I guess they saved the shell,” I said to one of the men, “but that’s not much. We’re neighbors.”
He shook his head. “It’s going too. The interior wood was okay. That’s why we took it down piece by piece, and those beams. The old stuff looks good as trim, but it’s going right to the ground. They’re starting over.”
“From the ground up?” I asked.
“Everything,” the man said.
We went to the cellar. The door was gone. The heavy concrete steps dropped away, and even now, with the house virtually demolished, the sunlight like a clean, new wave everywhere, at the bottom of the steps was a darkness as profound as night.
“Let’s take a look,” Jerry said. He put a foot on the first step. I didn’t move. “What’s the matter?”
“That’s what we always wanted to do, get a peek down there.”
“Jerry, let’s go fishing.”
“We haven’t gone fishing for a long time.”
“You don’t want to go down there.”
“It’s just a hole.”
We stood, Jerry with one foot in and me floating helplessly.
Then he said, “Screw it, maybe there’s a hatch,” and we left. A letter came at school ten days later, only it wasn’t a letter, just an envelope with Mom’s handwriting. Inside was a clipping from the Livingston Herald. The cellar had been torn up. Beneath layers of concrete they had found the remains of three young boys, neatly in a row. They took Fario out of the cemetery and put him into the ground behind the state penitentiary in Jefferson County.
I did not go home for a long while after that, and I never spoke to Mother about the sons who had been spared in childhood. She never said a word to me.
I went to the river. The water beneath the big oak was gloomy and still, but I knew that, momentarily, light would come and, one by one, miniature sails would appear. To have a chance at life, each pale dun for a time must drift, ignorant of the forms that wait below. That seems to me now eminently fair, and when I too can no longer see the fly, where else would you expect me to be but here, on Horseman’s Run, waiting for a rise.
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