APRIL 2008 – NO. 23
The Good Fisherman
This month's original short story
Caddis flies swarmed above the green-gray water as Rachel cast her line out into the current. The sun had set behind the white caps of the Mission Mountains only minutes before, and the lingering light hung in a haze above the tree-lined bank. Rachel reeled and the line jogged, grew taut and held. Her small arms flexed.
"I've got one. Dad, I've got one!"
The pole arched forward and Rachel held the line tight, lowered the rod's tip. Nearly nine, she'd caught plenty of fish before, but still needed help. Her father crashed through the grass from upriver, his fishing vest flapping and his blue Montana Power cap flipped up on his head, about to come off.
He secured his hands around hers on the pole. "I've got the pole, you reel."
Rachel reeled while her father coached: slower, keep your tip down, be patient. The fish appeared underwater as she reeled it closer, scales lucent against muted stones on the riverbed, tail waving through the water. As Rachel pulled it out, her father stepped forward to grab the line and spray from its body flecked the front of her shirt. She bent down to see the fish close-up: only a small rainbow trout. Her father worked the hook from its mouth, his upper lip curling to the side with concentration, while Rachel chanted softly, "Don't hurt it. Don't hurt it." When he finally disengaged the hook from its mouth — lucky it didn't go too far in — he told her they would have to throw it back.
"Throw it back?" she said, her voice a slow whine and then rising, "No." The small fish flopped in her father's hand as he pulled the hook away.
"Rainbow are catch-and-release from Cold Creek Bridge all the way down to the lake. You know that."
"But I caught it all by myself. I want to take it back and have Mom cook it for dinner. I want to show her that I caught one." Rachel brought her right hand up to her mouth, worked a dried piece of hangnail between her teeth.
"Stop chewing your fingers."
She struck her hand out to the side, hitting down a swath of tall grass surrounding her, the stalks bouncing back up too easily. That morning, driving to the campsite with the air swirling furiously through the cab of the pickup, he father told her that they should catch some fish to bring back to her mother. She used to love eating brook trout — Rachel had imagined them sitting around the kitchen table, eating fish that she had caught, fish her mother had cooked, her mother's fine hands delicately working bone from buttery flesh.
"Come over here and turn it back like a good fisherman," he said, motioning her over with an outstretched palm. She stood with her arms folded, away from the bank, eyes like saucers about to drip. "Come on. We'll be able to tell Mom all about it and she'll be proud of what a good fisherman you were being."
Rachel tried to remember the last time her mother was proud of her. Ever since they'd lost the baby, her mother was different than she used to be — not fun anymore, definitely not proud. Rachel stepped over and slipped her wet hands inside her father's, skin against fish scales. Flopping and gasping, the fish wiggled as she lowered it toward the water, the scales creating friction against her palms while cool water slipped gently over the outsides.
"Now just like we've practiced," her father said.
The fish relaxed against her hands once it was completely under water, able to breathe again. She held it on the edge of the current, like she'd been taught, left her hands around it and let it sit for a minute, then slowly released it. The fish lingered for a few moments inside her outstretched hands and she wondered if it would rather stay with her than swim away. Her mouth opened to form the words and as her hands moved to reclaim the fish, it darted into the main current and vanished under the swirling water.
"Do you want to be done for tonight?" He hooked her line onto an eye of her pole, reeled it tight. "We'll try again in the morning. Maybe those brookies will be biting by then, hungry for some breakfast." He gathered his pole, the empty wicker creel, and the tackle box with a wriggling jar of night crawlers in it. Rachel hitched up her sagging jeans with one hand as they walked.
"Watch that branch," her father said, as the end of her pole snagged against the tree. Rachel backed up, lowered her rod, and continued. He put his hand on her shoulder, guided her through the trees. "Hey, chin up. We have s'mores waiting for us."
She raised her eyes from the brown weeds and her dirty sneakers, nodded ever so slightly. He led the way back to their camp, Rachel trailing a few steps behind.
They sat around the fire on folding camp chairs, the smoke rising between them, cutting a diagonal line towards the ink-black sky. The river was visible through a gap in the slim trunks of the lodge poles, light from the stars reflecting in flickers off the black, moving water. Her father's Miller Light bottle tilted in his chair's cup holder as a bat winged across the clearing and Rachel pulled her flannel shirt closer around her shoulders.
"Are you going to make another marshmallow?" He reached for the pile of logs behind his chair. The fire burned slow, the coals hot and exposed.
Rachel shook her head, "No."
The coals smoked and sparks shot into the air as he leaned another log onto the fire. The sweet smell of burning pine lingered in the air. Rachel's stomach was full after eating two s'mores for dessert, both with four squares of chocolate. She was glad to have a change in what she ate: hot dogs and s'mores instead of the bologna sandwiches her mother slapped together for her at home, or that she made herself, standing on the stepstool to reach the high cupboard for the bread. She remembered a time, before they lost the baby, when her mother used to make lunch and dinner every day. Not only bologna either, but soup or casserole or noodles. But now Rachel often ate bologna, the meat congealed into slabs and tasting like limp rubber between the spongy slices of bread.
Her father took a drink of his beer and she remembered her hot cider, sitting on the ground in the tin cup, cooled enough to drink. The cider slid down her throat and settled in a focus of heat in her stomach. The Milky Way cut a swath of white cotton candy across the sky.
"I see the Big Dipper!" Rachel pointed north, smiling with her dimples. A mosquito buzzed next to her ear, the sound unwieldy and sharp; she swatted it away.
Earlier, her father had applied bug spray liberally to her ankles and neck. Where you're the sweetest, he said. She'd choked on the fumes.
"Yep, that's the Big Dipper," her father leaned back in his chair, a hazy apparition through the smoke from the fire. "See the little one?"
Rachel squinted for a minute. "It pours into the big one."
Her father slid his chair around the fire until he was next to her.
"Yep, and there it is, right there. If you follow that line of stars — see — from the Big Dipper. Go straight up for a bit and what do you find at the end of the Little Dipper?"
"North Star!" Rachel smiled from her accomplishment. "You know them all, right, Dad? All the stars?" She asked this question every time they were out looking at the stars, while camping or when they were out on the deck behind the house with the porch lights off. Sometimes they would sit out on the deck on plastic lawn chairs and look at the stars, both of them forgetting about her mother inside, still in her housecoat from the morning, watching endless game shows, soap operas, and sitcoms.
Her mother never came with them on their camping trips anymore. Her father said it was a nice treat for her mother to have a weekend all to herself without a thing in the world to do. But she used to have fun camping; she and Rachel would spend all week getting everything ready, making trips to the grocery store, packing the car, and then on the trip they would lounge around in their bathing suits reading ladies' magazines and baking in the sun until they couldn't stand it anymore. Then they'd run for the river — jump in and float — the icy water biting away the heat.
But that was before the baby, her sister, was lost. It was how everyone talked about it now: losing the baby. As if it had been simply a matter of someone's carelessness that the baby had gone. Her mother's stomach had been swelling just enough to notice — they were considering glossy cards of paint colors for the baby's room — and then one day all the preparations were over, everything over. Rachel was so excited for the baby to come, to have a little sister to take care of and play with, and then the excitement was for nothing. The baby was too small, her father had told her when he picked her up from her grandmother's house, where she had been sent to stay overnight. She just couldn't breathe, her father said. Her lungs weren't ready yet to breathe. And when they got home, they sat outside on the porch for a long time even though it was beginning to snow. He told her it was nobody's fault. They had sat on the cold deck chairs, Rachel's arms curled tightly around herself, as a layer of white covered everything in sight.
Rachel thought about the way her father was at home now, the way he moved around her mother, tried to stay invisible and mostly succeeded and she wished that she could become as invisible, but someone always managed to see her. She bit at a loose piece of skin on her thumb.
Her parents had argued last week, when Rachel was in bed, and she had woken up to their voices coming through her door, open just a crack to allow light from the hallway to come in. She wandered out to the living room in her nightgown, sleepy, the wooden slats beneath her feet cool in the night air. Her mother sat on the couch in her robe, smoking, and her father stood leaning in the doorway to the kitchen. He took her back to her room when they saw her, tucked her back in and told her to go to sleep, but she heard the voices again and crouched in front of the cracked door to her room, listening.
"I can't even get her out from underfoot," her mother said. "Not even for a minute."
"We woke her up," her father said. "You can't blame her."
"Oh I know. She's a faultless child, right? That's the way you'd like it."
"Margaret." Then there was silence for a few minutes. "I'm off all this weekend. What if I take her out camping for a couple days, let you get some rest. Some time to yourself?"
"Do whatever you want to do," her mother said. "I'm always the one watching her. It doesn't help you get through your day when you're always tripping over a child, right there in the way."
Her father had promised he'd take her out the next weekend, and Rachel stayed crouched down by the door for a few minutes, even after it had gone quiet, and then slid back into bed.
The next morning, the hot air in the tent woke her to sweat behind her ears and on her neck, her torso jutting awkwardly out of her sleeping bag. The sleeping bag next to Rachel was empty. He was most likely out fishing already. The earlier the better, he always said, when it came to fishing. Fish are hungry for their breakfast early. She slid her legs and arms out of the cotton long-underwear she had slept in last night, pulled on her father's worn tee shirt that lay across his sleeping bag, and zipped open the tent. The morning chill surprised her as she pulled on her tennis shoes outside the tent flap and swatted away a mosquito. Her father would be fishing on the other side of the trees, close enough that he could hear her if she called.
The sun broke through the trees as she clomped towards the river, stepping carefully to avoid tripping on her shoelaces. The grass was wet with dew and it soaked into her socks as she walked.
Her father sent a fly swooping across the surface of the water. His right arm moved in one fluid motion, back and forth, while his left hand fed the line in and out, both limbs working together in a delicate balance. After a few casts, he let the fly slide onto the top of the water and his pole bent under the weight of a hooked fish. As quickly as the pole bent, it snapped upright again.
"Daddy," her voice came out smaller than expected.
"Well, good morning," he said in his teasing voice, turning away from the river. "Nice of you to finally join me." He looked at his watch as if in disbelief over the time.
"Did it get away?"
Her father looked back toward the water. "Yep, he was a tricky sucker." He started up the bank towards her, the rubber material of his hip waders squeaking as he walked.
"Let's get some clothes on you," he said. "These mosquitoes will eat you alive."
Rachel looked down at her bare legs between her boots and her father's tee shirt. Three red welts swelled up from her left ankle. She noticed that she itched behind her knees. Her father put his hand on her shoulder to guide her back to camp, but she reached up her arms to him.
"Aren't you a little too old to be carried?" her father asked, but even as he said it, he reached down an arm and scooped her up. "What do you think about eggs-à-la-campfire for breakfast?"
The eggs were fine with her, but she didn't respond, only wiggled her head into the spot between her father's chin and chest, and breathed slowly.
Even though her father reminded her that it was the worst time of day to catch a fish, Rachel insisted that they fish after lunch, before they left. She still hadn't caught a fish yet, one she could take home, show to her mother. She cast by herself off a rocky beach, into an eddy to the side of a logjam, the quiet spot right before the water was thrown sideways, and then sucked under the logs. She flicked her wrist as she let go of the line, allowed it to sit for the right amount of time, then reeled it back: 30 minutes of casting and she still hadn't caught anything. The line drifted with the current and Rachel watched two squirrels chase each other up and down the thick trunk of a ponderosa on the opposite bank. Her bobber made an awkward plunking sound each time it splashed into the water.
Her father had caught two fish already at a spot further up the river from her: one cutthroat and a large rainbow that swallowed the hook and couldn't be thrown back. They had both been good fish — large and healthy — and she imagined them twitching in the wicker fishing basket, not all the way dead, even though her father had pounded their heads against a flat rock. Her line sailed out again, not quite hitting the hole she was aiming for. The red and white bobber rocked persistently at the top of the water, riding the current until it was well below the hole. She reeled. She probably wouldn't catch a fish anyway. When her father had hooked his two fish, he yelled for her to come reel them in and she had, tromping recklessly through the grass and underbrush to see the fish come out of the water, to feel their struggle vibrate through the line. But reeling in someone else's fish was never like catching your own.
There was a nudge on her line, then a bite. She kept the pole tip down, positioned her feet in a wide stance and the reel clicked with reassurance as she worked the fish in. Rachel didn't call for her father, but kept reeling — slow and steady — trying to do everything right on her own. Finally she could see the fish, right under the water next to the bank: a small brook trout, just big enough to keep. She reeled the fish up onto the bank and set her pole down to get a hand around the slippery fish. It flopped violently, flattening and wetting the grass on the edge of the bank, its gills working a frantic rhythm.
Rachel pinned the fish under her sneaker and then squatted down to grab it with her hands. She looked up the river at where her father was fishing, partially obscured by tall grass and a gangly pine tree. She saw his line cast out into the river from behind the tree.
"How you doing, Ann?" he called.
"Fine," she yelled back, hoping he wouldn't come over, that he didn't see her reel the fish in.
The hook made a clean catch, right into the outer lip of the brook trout's mouth and with her hand firmly gripped around the fish, the hook only took a moment to remove. The fish was not flopping as much now, seemed to be losing its energy from thrashing about. Rachel sat down on the damp grass, legs curled under her, and held the fish in her lap. It was green speckled with a deep red on the underside and near the top fin. Its gills and mouth strained open rhythmically, eyes wide and glassy.
"You don't have any lungs," Rachel said, running her hand down the fish's side. Dry grass cracked as her father moved away from her, up the bank. She watched for his line to drift out over the water again, but it didn't come. The fish started to dry, its scales exchanging their wet sheen for a rough glint. Rachel continued to run her hand up and down the flaking scales as the gills gasped, the mouth moved in a slowing cadence. She watched the fish for a long time, cradled it in her lap, until there was no movement at all.
They stopped at the Mercantile to fill up the gas tank and buy snacks for the trip home. Rachel sat at the picnic table on the wide porch, eating an Eskimo Pie, watching the cars blur by on the highway. No other cars pulled in to the dusty lot.
Her father shook coins into his hand, pushing pennies aside. "This will only take a minute." The payphone was against the store, next to a bulletin board advertising cabins for rent, guides into the Bob Marshall, a used four-wheeler for sale.
"Hi hon. Yep, we're-" He leaned back against the wall and crossed his eyes at Rachel. She smiled back.
"In time for dinner, I think. Did you get a chance to relax?"
Rachel took a giant bite of her Eskimo Pie. He turned and winked at her. She took another bite as soon as the first one was down, the cold burning her teeth.
"No, I'm just trying to ask about your weekend is all."
He turned away from the booth and toward Rachel, hand outstretched with a few crumpled bills. He held the receiver away from his mouth. "Go buy us a couple pops for the road, ok? Get whatever you want. I'm thirsty." He made a face and grabbed his throat like he was choking. "Parched." Rachel accepted the bills from his hand and heard her mother's voice, sharp and rapid through the line.
The bell attached to the top of the door jingled as she entered the store; the woman behind the counter glanced her way. Rachel pulled the hem of her tee shirt across her face, wiping away the evidence of ice cream. She chose a Coke for her father and an orange pop for herself, then changed her mind and got a root beer instead, sliding the orange pop back into the cooler.
The woman behind the register, her short hair curled into a tight helmet, smiled at Rachel as she placed the pops on the counter.
"How was that Eskimo Pie?"
"Good," Rachel said, her fingers sticky on the folded bills.
"You go fishing this weekend?"
"Did you catch anything?" She smiled at Rachel and dropped heavy coins into her open palm.
"Yeah. One all by myself."
"Isn't that something? You must be quite the fisherman."
Her father was still on the phone when she came out, his back to the door. He pressed his hand against his forehead, ran it over his head where his hair was starting to fall out, then let it drop to his waist.
"No, I'm not trying to put on any pressure. I'm doing the best I can to hold this together."
Her father turned and Rachel stood next to the picnic table, the sodas in her hands.
"You'd be proud of Rach. Caught two fish without any help. Had to throw one small rainbow back, but we kept —" Her mother interrupted him and Rachel could hear her voice through the line. Her father turned towards her and smiled, his teeth too large for his face.
It was clear to Rachel now, listening to her father talk, her mother interrupt, that the ideas she'd had about bringing home fish for dinner, the three of them sitting around the kitchen table, were useless ideas. Ideas that weren't going to come true. They would return home with this fish, but it wouldn't matter. It wouldn't be enough.
Rachel walked out to the pickup, climbed up on the tire to get into the bed of the truck. Her father continued to speak into the receiver, his back turned towards her, while Rachel sat on the dusty bed of the pickup and flicked open the green cooler. She picked her fish out of the cloudy layers of cubed ice by its red tail, avoiding its watery eyes, and nudged the lid closed again. She swiveled to see her father, still on the phone, the receiver pressed tight to his ear. Rachel shuffled along the asphalt to the side of the store, a dirt lot overrun with weeds, an old water pump almost hidden in knapweed. She could no longer make out what her father was saying on the phone, only the trace of his voice.
The river ran behind the store, along the highway, and then turned back into the woods down river. Rachel followed a small trail down to the bank and squatted next to the river, the fish cold and rigid as she held it upright in the water. The fish turned on its side as she let it go, exposing the delicate, white underbelly. Rachel thought about all the pictures she had seen of newborn babies, their flesh so tender. She wondered what her sister's little body had looked like, what it might be like if her mother were waiting for them at home with a baby in her arms.
The fish floated into the main current, one eye up. Rachel stood, her arm stretched forward and empty, and watched the white belly of the fish bob in the wide water until the current carried it around a bend and it disappeared. There was a thin layer of dust over her toes.
Rachel stopped at the old water pump as she walked back toward the store and moved the handle up and then down, using the whole force of her body against the resistance from the metal. She knew it was broken, but she pumped the handle up and down, the rust turning her hands orange, no water coming out. The knapweed scratched at her arms.
"Where have you been?" Her father came around the side of the store, his face slack with relief. "I thought I'd lost you. You know not to wander off like that."
"I know," she said, letting the handle of the pump go, moving her sore fingers toward her mouth, then down to her sides. Her hands smelled of fish and metal.
Rachel pulled herself into the cab of the truck and made her body small against the passenger side door. The pops sat, warming, on the picnic table.
"Alright, let's hit it, kiddo. We're going to be late now." He slid into the pickup and started the engine. Rachel didn't mention the pop as they pulled out of the Mercantile, headed south on 83.
As the truck picked up speed, Rachel watched the line of yellow dashes in the middle of the road, one by one being swallowed up by the truck. It seemed to her as if they would go on this way, the same, forever.
Original art courtesy Rob Grom.
Back to Top