A thunderstorm, a trout fisherman, and the eternal shade.
by Reid Bryant
First published in Gray’s Sporting Journal, July 2015
Where Gold Brook crosses the tar road, you’d barely notice it. Hemmed in by birch whips and willow on the low side, it splits a valley hayfield so big that the brush-choked freestoner is merely a hint of motion through the stems. Blink once and you’ve missed it.
On the uphill side it’s a bit more obvious. It comes off the mountain in a tumble, flattens and spreads over the cobbled streambed, then narrows and tumbles again. Under a high sun it glitters, but deep shadows encircle the plunges, and the root-cut banks are dark. There was gold in there once, or so they say. All that’s left of any value in the little stream now, at least in the bank’s estimation, is the real estate through which it wanders. And that real estate, you can bet, is worth as much as gold.
It all takes place in a Vermont ski town, where the New Yorkers and Bostonians go north to get away, pushing out the locals. Once there was a dairy farm nearby, but the smell of honest cowshit got it shut down. The scattered Holsteins that still dapple the hillsides are now just yard ornaments, the pink flamingos of the one percent. Perhaps with gentrification most honest things are lost, though the Holsteins don’t seem to mind. They grow fat on store-bought hay, and placidly avoid mastitis.
What’s left of old Vermont still glints beneath the surface of Gold Brook: trout, tiny and perfect, stunted by the scarcity of food. Despite their value on the open market, these hillsides are miserly. But this same privation makes the trout more eager, and provides a wealth of opportunity. A bushy dry, dribbled behind every boulder by seven feet of Tonkin cane, elicits a slashing take and a heartfelt if misbegotten battle of wills. The trout generally lose. They lie in the shallow water—brilliant, even radiant. They’d gladly keep fighting till the oxygen poisons them, but so much passion packed into such precise form moves too quickly from joyful to heartbreaking, and so I release them. They become once more part of the motion, then just shadows, then just another bit of treasure on the streambed.
Above the road, spruces swallow the stream. Big conifers have a way of hushing a sunlit world. On the summer days and evenings, the light is flatter under the spruces. The canopy of overhanging boughs dampens sound and turns the stream to a breathy gurgle. Outside, in the slanting light, the singsong of chickadees and the buzzing of cicada over the hayfields grow distant.
Today, it’s churchlike here. The fish keep on eating, but I can’t help but slow down, listen closer, and see a little more. I tie on a new fly, an overbuilt Wulff. The sifted light, the amplified sound of moving water in a confined space: these things make my world decidedly smaller—make me smaller, too, and I feel in the weight of the shadows a breath of apprehension. I cast up toward the bubble line and strike too soon to an eager take. I throw the fly higher, with more slack, and make it right. The fine tip of the cane rod dips and dances. A sliver of color comes to hand, enraged, and I bend to cup it in my wet palms. This little buck barely covers one of them. I pry the Wulff from his lip, tilt him down into the current, and let him slip away. He hovers for a moment, frozen in the fear that followed his rage and our formal introduction. In a moment, he’s gone. I flick my fingers and strip in line, and dry my fly in the over-fed false casts that are really just theatre. Pretty soon I let the loops of line go again, and watch the fly unfurl and settle, like a bit of August milkweed fluff, onto the surface of Gold Brook.
So it goes, up the stream and over the boulders. I work the seams and the darkest slicks. The trout keep eating, and the spruces close tighter. It’s all falling water now. That prismatic haze that splashes up makes rainbows in the air, turning it succulent and substantial. I can feel the damp when I breathe. Through the spruce-tops the sky shows gray, and the ceiling is dropping. It doesn’t matter. The bugs are starting to pop. Little Yellow Sallies, the odd mayfly dun and fluttering caddis; they’re come in earnest now. More bugs for the trout to choose from.
Far to the west there’s a rumble. A July storm is a thing to see, gathering on the horizon and brooding. Over the cornfields and hayfields and hills, you can see the deliberation. Some days the weather just postures, while on others it throws roundhouse punches without rolling up its sleeves, catching you full in the face. On those days the weather leans into an afternoon with a sideways wind that bends the cornstalks nearly flat.
It all follows that eerie calm, that absence of motion and sound wherein you can almost hear the barometer dropping. In the spruces there is no tipped hand, no rippling corn, no pewter sky to see gathering. Instead the weather comes quick. It pursues an echoey stillness and an ozone smell, arriving with big raindrops hard as hailstones. It’s a lash of weather angry enough to be almost scary, believably so.
The lightning is coming now, and the sheeting rain with it. Two bends up is shelter. Slipping over rocks, I bang a shin and bloody it a little. I wonder whether the water or the nearby trees will prove the more likely conduit, conveying a zillion volts through my body and back to bedrock. A sense of insignificance moves me faster, making me shiver. Then there it is, a span between the spruces, a covered bridge suspended high above the stream. The locals call it Emily’s Bridge. I scramble up and into it, dripping wet, and walk to the very center, away from the weather at either end. The day bellows wind and rain, a roar, not a rhythm, on the corrugated roof. The floorboards are gritty with road sand.
This place isn’t a comfort. It’s haunted, well-known to locals, its legend appreciated by the transplants as a token of the backwoods charm they bought and paid for. The darkness, the roar on the roof, and the weight of the queen-post trusses suspend the place in a solemn mood. It’s all underscored by the stories. I shift there in the coolness of the bridge and start to shiver, uncertain of the refuge I’ve taken.
It’s a grim legend. A century back, when Stowe was still an outpost of dairymen and tree-cutters, a local girl, abandoned by her would-be husband, took her own life overlooking the starlit plunges of Gold Brook, the carols of falling water all around her. It’s said that her ghost remained in the bridge ever after, remains here still. The kids don’t swim here, the revelers don’t linger. A late-night visit on a beer-soaked dare gets humorless fast; the shadows descend, the party ends. It’s a palpable unwelcome, the kind of stuff the locals wish they could offer the folks from away, but can’t quite justify. Legends and ghosts have all the time for pretense, but none of the obligation.
I shiver and think these things, think about the spirits. I’m spooked and cold for real now. Soon enough some headlights show; a bending hum comes closer, and a car turns up the road from town, in the direction of the big new houses in the hollow. It turns to shine the bridge with mechanical light, and fill it with mechanical sound.
White Range Rover. New Jersey plates.
I can almost feel their deliberation; it would be egregious, now, for them to back up and leave. “You need help?” they say, idling in the lit-up space.
I have to think a minute.
“No,” I say. “These summer storms pass quick.”
“It’s raining like crazy out there,” they say, pleased by their Samaritan gesture. “Let us give you a ride. You must be freezing.”
“No. I’ll wait it out.” I step back towards the trusses, making room for them to pass.
And so they go, leaving me in the rain, and the thunder, and the haunted place.
There I stay, scared and cold and a little lonely, no doubt like Emily must have been. But at least what remains for me—tiny trout and legend and a freestone stream—is as timeless as the weather itself. It too will pass, and return Gold Brook to summer sunshine, an elemental streambed, a flash of gilt water full of trout.
Despite the ghosts, or maybe because of them, I’ll wait here to see those things return.