At peace with what we love and lose, and love the more for losing.
By Reid Bryant
First published in Sporting Classics Magazine September/October 2015
Looking back on it, I can barely remember the contours of Wolcott Pond, and sadly, these 15 years later I might not even be able to find the place. It’s disconcerting to remember a place in the gut but to realize that the details have been lost beneath the detritus of age and memory. But the feeling always comes to me this time of year, when the sun takes a shallow path across the late-summer sky, and I recall the image of one magnificent fish and sunlight sifting through fir boughs and the certainty that something was soon to be lost.
I was house-sitting at Ann and Dave’s that summer, as they had taken North on another of their long journeys into Labrador. Much to my surprise, they’d asked me to watch over the place: the garden, the house, the wood-fire cook stove, and Tobey, the aging Brittany. Even I was skeptical of my ability to keep house, just an 18-year-old kid after all, and none too responsible by any account.
As they pulled onto the dirt road and honked a goodbye, Tobey raised his head and followed the engine noise. He whined once and looked at me then dropped his head on his outstretched legs. Soon all sound of the car disappeared, leaving only a breeze in the grass of the sheep pasture. Somehow, though, despite the silence, the end of a season clattered to the ground all around us. I sat down. With a hand on Tobey’s head, I leaned back against the fence.
Vermont’s seasons probe the boundaries of possibility, much as the Green Mountains push at the northern borders of our country. A summer in Vermont is condensed into a wildly succulent couple of months, when all living things fill to bursting on the lushness of the season. Love is made, offspring cast upon the wind or settled firmly in the belly, and then it’s over. Something shifts in August, foretelling the wood smoke and frost, a jubilation of color, then the clamp of winter over the hills. Summer is but a pair of glowing months, and I sat there drinking in the end of it, noting the metallic sadness that hinted at the coming fall.
I’d fallen in love the previous year, with a girl I’d no more understood than deserved. She was, in fact, as lovely and fleeting as anything I’d yet known, with hair the color of oat-straw and a childlike, pigeon-toed gait. She was strong and blue-eyed; her name was Jackie. She came from a poor and proud and splintered family. Maybe it was this that I loved most, her willingness to look straight at the collapse of her people and still see beauty, to seek it in fact, in the simple designs all about us.
We walked together over the dirt roads of the village, and we rejoiced in the grit of the winter. She wrapped me in a blanket beside her on a north-facing hillside above Wolcott Pond one night, and introduced me to the Aurora Borealis. There, dancing somewhere over the water, reds and greens and honey-golds streaked down toward us, creating a light that cast its own shadows on the darkness. It was all so magical and so mysterious that it scared me a little, as I could no more make sense of this cataract of color than I could understand the girl whose hands were wrapped in mine. All I knew was that both were beautiful, and that neither were quite what they seemed.
I opened my eyes when the sun dropped behind the trees. It was cooler. I was hungry, and Tobey and I walked up through the pasture and back toward the door. We went inside. Tobey ran right for his bowl and scratched the slate floor. A loaf of bread lay on the table, and I broke off an end for him. I chucked it in his bowl and he inhaled it, and snuffled around for crumbs that were not there. I got a beer from the fridge and walked to the phone; I’d call Jackie to tell her that Anne and Dave were gone, and she should come down from her room on the Common.
We ran Tobey beside Wolcott Pond that evening, beneath a crisping twilight. The dustiness had left the air, edged out by a heavier chill. Bats and nighthawks swooped, circled, became a kaleidoscope of motion upon the purpling sky. Tobey drifted through the firs chasing intangibles, and emerged only to pounce amidst the wet hummocks of the pond edge. His purpose was more frivolous than mine.
I walked beside Jackie near enough to feel her warmth, her closeness anyway. She never reached to take my hand, and I dared not force hers. I pointed out the places where the big bass lay, hoping words would fill the gulf, and wondered aloud where all the July fireflies had gone. Jackie shrugged, pulling her steps from the squelching mud. The space between us undermined our proximity. I reached out to her once, and touched her hand as she pushed a strand of hair behind her ear. She stopped walking and looked at me, but somehow not with reassurance. She looked at me as if from a distance. I took my hand away.
A bullfrog grumped from the muddy edges, and I turned toward it. The night was coming quicker now, and engulfing the day in that glow of a moon just rising, and a sun just set. I surveyed the shallows for the frog, looking for something real on which to focus while fear eddied in my heart. The water had achieved a cellophane skin. It grabbed the sky and threw it back, undulating with the goings-on of shallow water. Panfish smacked the lilies. The bullfrog shut up. A good bass swirled hardby the deadheads, setting me free from my thoughts. That reflexive excitement filled the frame enough to make my heart beat hard, but receded with the ripples, till the fear and distance were centered again, and a wet dog slipped past my leg. I looked over at Jackie. She too was looking out over the water.
“We should get Tobey home before we lose him. You can stay with me at Ann and Dave’s if you like.” I hoped she’d look at me, but she didn’t. Her eyes hovered somewhere over Wolcott Pond.
“I have too much packing. I’ll need to leave on Thursday, if you can still give me a ride to the train in Montpelier. My gig with the forest service starts on the 20th, and I need to see my mom in Keene before I go.”
We’d been over the plan so many times. Its finality hung in the air, and we didn’t speak about what lay beyond it, the plausibility of our fracture spanning a thousand miles and a half-year apart.
“I should get some sleep anyway.” She turned back toward the car.
I lifted a bleached beaver chew from the mud and chucked it into the water. Tobey turned to chase, but thought better of it. I opened my mouth to speak, but Jackie had already moved on. I followed her sucking footsteps away from the glimmer of dusk, and into a place fully dark.
I dropped her off at her room. There wasn’t anything to say, and she knew it and stepped onto the sill. I followed her to the door, and reached for her and pulled her back and hugged her hard, hoping to find something in our immediacy, some understanding, but there was just the cool presence of her body and her hair against my lips as I awkwardly kissed her ear, and wanted to cry and couldn’t. She pushed back and walked inside.
I lay in bed that night and watched the moon creep across the window. Mice skittered in the attic crawlspace, and Tobey’s feet paddled in woodcock dreams, while I waited for the alarm. I rose as soon as it chimed, punching the plunger and swinging my legs out of bed. It was dark and chilly, and my bare feet were dry on the plank floor.
I walked out of my room and groped for the light switch. Missing my mark, I felt the painting at the head of the stairs list sickeningly. I found the light with my heart beating hard and flipped it on, straightening the painting and noticing it for the first time. Abstract, and ugly in its abstraction, it was the image of a fisherman adrift in his canoe. His face was a smudge of color, all reds and blues and grays. The rod in his hands was just a knife cut through layered paint, but it bent against the pull of a heavy fish. I went downstairs. The stove was cold, and I stirred the coals and put the kettle on to boil.
Under the same moon, I drove over the North Wolcott Road in the dark, with the radio on and my windows rolled up. I reached for the tea in the cup holder and took a long burning swallow that stung from the whiskey in it. Behind me, the first ream of pink appeared over the White Mountains and the sky was crisp with stars. It always seemed that as the nights grew colder, the stars shone clearer, as if the thick summer air had muffled them. There were twists and turns over Town Hill that I can’t see now any more than I could see them then, and a hollowness in my heart that I still remember clearly.
I pulled off the road beside Wolcott Pond just as the individual branches on the firs became distinct. There were moose tracks in the mud. I undid the half-hitches and swung the canoe off the car, and put together the sections of my old Orvis cane. I tossed the remainder of the tea into the mud. I was not yet ready to think of myself as a morning drinker.
I worked the edge of the pond slowly, throwing a green and yellow popper in against the shore and chugging it back. It was a mindless sort of fishing that produced with enough regularity to make it reasonable, and I traced tangential lines around the margins of the pond as the sun rose. A sunrise is a wonderful thing at times, reminding all the world of the gently passing moments, and, in the early part of the day, the possibility for nearly anything to make itself clear. A beaver waked against the bank warning me with his tail, and I dipped a paddle, working around to the cove that remained in shadow. There, the beaver chews stood stark and straight and skeletal, and somehow promising, and looking over at them, I felt ever more alone.
In moments of sheer melancholy, there is a substrate of truth that justifies the indulgence. Alone in the presence of beauty and impending demise, I let the sadness wash over me. I breathed in the end of summer, and the necessity of a lost love, and the departure of the first grown-up year that I was intimate with. It was all so present to me, so essential and acutely sacrificial and I just kept casting that old 5-weight, working closer to the quietest, most still place. Against the rising sun, the reflection on the water was undistorted, and the world became huge for a moment, and bright, and I became infinitesimally small. And then the reflection opened up, bending the colors into a vacuum that became shattered negatives of sky and hills and a monstrous, golden fish that was still going up, having scooped my popper en route to the sky.
A big fish can do funny things to a fisherman’s heart. In that moment, when the smallmouth crashed down and cut a corner and headed for the snags, I had a moment to feel the weight of him, and the weight of the water, and the line in my fingers singing out, slick-wet and spastic.
Jackie was gone then, alongside the Northern lights and the cavernous feeling, and there was instead a bile bitterness for this fish that had become a presence in my morning. The burden of him, the superior secrecy, the lineage of a thousand Vermont autumns and catamount trails and beaver flows was all right there in a straight line to me, and the possibility of losing him was at once near, a presence beside me in the canoe, tangling the line that jumped from the coils around my feet. I hated that fish for the potential of him, and decided then to cling to him at any cost, to let him run me clear over Wolcott Pond for the day if he wished, forcing me to miss whatever there was to miss back home. I’d stay there and win and take that fish and keep him forever, keep him safely in my sight, a stuffed and painted effigy on the wall that would never elude me, that would hang me in this summer forever.
The smallmouth came up fast and far out, and the line sliced the water, bowing as the fish outpaced it. He rose, and hovered against the morning in perfect profile, and I saw myself as an older man, watching the fish exactly like this, tacked up on a wall, in a world that had moved along, growing temporally as the weight in my heart anchored me in youth. I clung to that image and cling to it still, and remember it more perfectly than I ever could have in the presence of a plasticky skin mount—but then, I have no choice. The fish tumbled back into Wolcott Pond and the electric heaviness departed the line and the popper burbled to the surface to sit there still and nonsensical, among the deadheads and snags.
I miss Wolcott Pond in the way I miss summer, even as I sit against fence posts, aware of its passing. But age and time and moments that disappear give back a peace with the things that slip wordlessly away. There is love there, among the Vermont hillsides, where Tobey now rests under the branches of an apple tree, turning back to rich black soil, and Wolcott Pond remains in the shadow of fir trees.
And Jackie is there too, somewhere, sifting through the Northern lights when the winter is coldest and darkest and more honest than cruel. And it is perhaps the most beautiful thing I’ve known—a peace with what we love and lose, and love the more for losing.