Time is but a river, in which go a-fishing.
by Reid Bryant
In a July of our youth we sat, legs touching, on grass still wet from last night’s rain. Sun was climbing over Bigelow Mountain, and with dawn’s departure the big night worms retreated, too, leaving spheres of castings atop the soil. We dug our hands into fistfuls of Timothy and wiped them cool on the backs of our necks, swatting blackflies swarming from bank-side cedars. Beside us a grouse alighted in the greening raspberry tangle to spear a hopper, tilted a head at our presence, and thundered away. I tied a Yellow Sally to Kimberly’s tippet and straightened a casting length, stretching the line and leader between a thumb and gathered fingers. Limp coils fell onto her knees, folding back and forth across her thighs, the proximal smoothness of her skin a captivating possibility. In distraction, the line, growing thinner, burned the pad of my thumb with a shiny stripe. I blew on the Sally and fluffed the elk hair wing, and we rose, walking through the lightening meadow, our shins soaked with the morning.
The sun was shining between cedar tops as we slid down the bank to Whitney Brook, the water all chimes and whispers. A big balsam had fallen during the night, revealing the pulpy heart rot that kills the aged, weakening them slowly, inside to out. How long had this elder stood alone, a thinning shell? And how many times had we stumbled against her, breaking our fall?
Kim flicked the little Sally out over the first copper pool, into the sparkle of foam and tumbling crystal, and then came the slash of a tiny brookie, too small to swallow the hook. Just a child, this trout, and like children, like us, open wide to possibility. So Kim cast again, just to see. This time a dragging drift, the elk-hair Sally skating across the pool. Kim cocked her elbow and rolled again, a trout slashed, tiny and thrumming, attached to a girl and a sliver of summer morning. The rod bent and she smiled, not caring if she landed the fish or not, whether it was big or not, even if it were a trout or not, caring only that the hum of line and rod connected her inexorably to life.
She lifted her rod tip and guided the tiny trout my way, and I kneeled in the gravel to release it, gasping in my palm, a tiny male barely spanning my hand, radiant haloes of blue-red-white on sunburst flanks. Kim knelt beside me and it became electric, darting, slipping into invisible shadow to its lie. We moved upstream, into the arching cedars.
These years since, Whitney Brook still patiently carves its way into the heart and bedrock of the Northeast Kingdom, the grouse still roosting in the cedar-tops, there to be seen or not. And we, older now, these many years married, have children of our own, lives to distract us from the warmth of the sunshine pouring like syrup over the crest of Bigelow Mountain.
How many years since we fished together, how many summers since we sat for a morning lost in birdsong, lay for a night under stars pocking an October sky? And how long since we took the time to hold magic in our fingers, to soak ourselves in the glory of a dawn meadow?
On nights I sometimes awake with her hand in mine and I bring back the July morning, saddened by its distance, amazed by what has blossomed between us since. Two daughters growing fast, each with a spray of freckles across a nose so recognizably hers
Could we have known, on that July morning, had we listened harder to Whitney Brook tumbling toward us over the rocks, that all this lay ahead? Or has this life that unfurled a perfect roll cast over the years simply been the reward for a faith we didn’t know we had?
October now, a frost stiffening the last hay of the year, showing white on the field beside the valley stream I have taken as my latest mistress, the dappling of my footprints an unwavering line over the final rise to the road.
I stop and look back on footfalls that will show dead against the grass by afternoon, will show dead brown until winter covers it beneath a blanket of snow, and I think of the buck I didn’t shoot in this same field Novembers ago, the deer that stood and watched as my wavering hands centered his shoulder, waited, finally breathed out, and dropped the rifle back into my lap, my arms exhausted from holding them there, finger firm against trigger guard. The enormity of the moment hung heavy in my shoulders, my back weak with indecision.
Turning forward again, I trudge onto a cobble-sand bank that opens wide and black into a pool bent around a logjam of spruce and cedar. Crouching, my fingers numb in the cold, I open the fly box clumsily to choose: a Golden Witch, a streamer, a fly for big fish, having long since turned from the tiny brook trout of our lost July. A big fish man now, the wild colors muted in the expanse of two-hand trout—browns, lying in predatory half-sleep near the stone and cedar-snag bottom.
Where did my love of the little trout leave me, my love of the perfect haloes so precise on heaving flanks? Gone, perhaps, with the last bouquet of July forget-me-nots that we gathered along Whitney Brook.
So I rig the short leader and tie on the heavy streamer, the rod working full and deep as I pay out line. Once more I am lost in the mystery of this game we used to play together, the wait as the leader descends in the lessening rings, the slow return of floating line on black water. A savage strike and a flash of receding butter-gold, the big trout a taker for my trickery, hurtling back with visceral condemnation.
A smile tightens my dry lips. I am awash in frost dawn, in the arc of pulsing bamboo, the line slicing into the black dark water. And then it stops as abruptly as it began, the line limp, floating back toward me, the leader trailing as lifeless as frozen footprints. I think of her suddenly, at home now, still asleep, the girls gone to lives of their own manufacture.
Are you stirring yet, aware that I’m gone? Do you ever remember, just before dawn, when you wouldn’t cast in front of the men, when you refused to believe the tight-looped whisper of your line was such a thing of beauty? Remember the joy I felt, the pride, as I had made for you and the girls the finest cane rods, your names inked black beneath the varnish, putting this magic into your hands? Or had these tokens of expectation stolen the beauty from you? Maybe you knew that nothing could touch the small-trout perfection, and so between heavy volumes you pressed your forget-me-not bouquets and wondered at my greed, my selfishness. And in this way did we somehow diverge, finding magic in memory and in the sepia tone of nostalgia?
Yet in these moments, sitting in dawn’s last frozen breath, have I ever loved you more?
Upward we traveled, the sun at our backs, catching trout incidentally as we moved deeper into the heavy green of summer forest. Fully warmed now, the thickness of the morning humidity gone, its weight no longer in our clothes, we stopped on a rise to dig like raccoons for wild cucumbers. Kim nibbled hers, then lay belly-down on a moss-covered rock, dropped her head to the water, drank gently, and then, closing her eyes, pushed her face below the surface.
Rearing back, she wiped wet strands of hair from her face and called me over, fingering a place where bare mica glinted ragged and new through the emerald moss, her finger tracing the depression of a cloven hoof in the soil nearby: a fawn, startled at our presence, its hoof shearing the moss with legs not yet sturdy but familiar with the urgency of escape. Kim touched the moist remainder of the scar, and we felt for a moment like Indians, even as the margins of the wet trace slowly receded to dry.
When we were young, we stood in a stream with rods in hands and faith in our hearts, and it all made perfect sense, standing there together on a July morning.
We looked ahead, up the copper staircase spilling boundlessly toward us, and we chose a piece of that dancing water.
Somehow, when we were young, it never occurred to us that a piece of water didn’t exist, that the place we chose to place a fly, 30 feet up ahead, had already swirled past our bare ankles on its way downstream.
It never occurred to us, so we worked out line, hurling a weightless bit of feather and floss to a place that was no longer there, but it made perfect sense that a trout was there, somewhere under the water that had long since departed.
And all of a sudden we were joined, in a perfectly beautiful arc, to life and love and poetry, dancing between our hearts on the end of a silver string.