This short story was originally published in the Sewanee Review in Fall 2007.
He was nearly finished now. With the axe he drew deep cross-hatched furrows in the bed of the fire, and, shimmying the axehead under the heavy wedges of earth and damp ash, carefully turned the ground over. A mist of cinders rose and fell in the axe’s wake; the large flakes speckled his trousers as they settled, soon coating his legs halfway up the shins with a thick, clinging powder. When he had plowed the ashes under, he began to knock down the walls of his fireplace, uprooting the pillars of collected granite blocks and splinters, the axe a lever to tilt each column and bring it down, a row of stones that overlapped, here and there, almost as neatly as toppled dominoes. Working there in the shadow, he could see his breath flash strangely blue in the chill from the uncovered earth. He began to feel the pulse in his temples and his throat; twin bands clamped around his cheekbones with a cold metal pressure. He left a side upright and stuck his axe in the ground. Straightening, he closed his eyes and let his head fall back. Fiery globes rushed against his eyelids, and he pressed with his fingertips, holding them in; drawing long and narrow, as though hammered to blades, flames, they receded, finally just their tips still aglow, then dimming, then out. As he raised his head, warmth flowed tickling through his neck and shoulders; he kept his eyes shut for a few seconds, listening intently, rapt in the sweep of the returning blood. Then he swatted the cinders from his legs; some had already worked their way into the fabric, though, and made gritty blotches, a rasping cold where the khaki swung against his skin. Bunching the cloth into ridges and rubbing the folds together, he tried to scour these patches out, but managed only to wipe away some bits of ash already loose, and smudged the rest of the mess or ground it still deeper. He scraped the axehead clean on the edge of a stone, sheathed the axe, and tucked it into the sling sewn to his rucksack. Except for the fishing tackle he still needed, the rest of his gear was packed already.
He had decided, this last morning, not to leave right after breakfast as he had planned earlier, but to try his luck once more. There was no hurry; he would get back in his own time. He had arrived late the fourth day, and had had four good days since, better than he had expected, or hoped, rather. Now, as penalty for that excessively stoic preparedness, he was going to have to lug back all the left-over canned rations of chili and corn and baked beans and black beans and pinto beans; it was all the sort of stuff he used to love as a kid, but a lifetime supply in civilized circumstances. Although he had complained all the way in about how heavy the pack was, and had looked forward to an easy load on the way back, he could not bring himself to complain now; it had all turned out too well. He had had everything that he could have hoped for, including a fine catch of pan-sized native brook trout every day.
Today he was not going to work the broad shallows above the upper falls again, though, nor to head upstream toward the rapids where he had taken the best fish yesterday; instead, he would make his way down the hillside between the two waterfalls and fish its lower slope, a chain of pools whose final loop uncoiled, a ribbon of white water, to the floor of a granite-walled canyon. Usually by early June the channel down there at the bottom had narrowed to reveal a ledge of rock shavings along either side, but this year the run-off from a second spring melt, after an April blizzard, had kept the gorge swollen shut. He wanted to go down there and have another look at that stretch. If the weather held, the rocks would be uncovered in another week, maybe even sooner, and he had food enough to tide him over if the fish suddenly decided to stop biting.
He picked up his rod-case and reel, and tucked the book of flies, wrapped with a rubber band, into his shirt pocket. He was not taking his waders; instead, he had just put on the khakis, which dried quickly in the sun, and his spare pair of shoes, sneakers accustomed to hard living.
He had made camp, as they had always done in early summer, in the pine woods, atop the bluff that fronted the river for a half-mile along this side. When he had picked the site, he had thought that it was one of the places where he had stayed before, although when he had gone to make sure there was water near to hand, the spring was a lot farther away than he remembered. He had pitched his tent in a sunlit paddock, but the first night he had awakened twice, the first time to pull on a shirt, the second to put a sweater on over it. As late as May here, once or twice after a cold night he had come across fallen pine needles sheathed in ice; the thin capsules had melted almost right away between his fingers and the needles, still green but already brittle, chafed to powder.
It would be hot today, though, even in the woods; he could feel the heat as soon as he stepped out of the pine cover. He headed downstream along the edge of the cliff, then angled back into the woods. The woods had a rich chill odor, like the underside of a stone. Trunks and branches threw a lattice of shadow across every clearing. A sharp crack off to the left made him start; he whirled and saw a bush swing shut to cover the retreat of some small animal.
The woods opened into a meadow that took him to the edge of a ravine. He bounded down the heavily wooded upper slope, braking like a skier in the mulchy, layered carpet of dead leaves, leaning into the hillside, weight on the uphill leg. Where the bank steepened, to keep his footing he had to zigzag in wide, scuttling traverses. Only a few trees were scattered here, birch saplings mostly, undermined by erosion, their exposed roots braided into cables. He grabbed the slender trunks to slow his descent and felt the roots yield. He skidded on his heels to the bottom of the cleft. On either side the growth fell away as the ravine walls steepened, until they were trimmed to bare rock faces.
The place where he came out was not very far below the upper falls, but the hillside rose sheer above him, so that he could not see them from where he stood. Farther down, and from the other side of the river, there was a clear view; that was where he had been the other evening. There was no easy way to get down there from here. Although the water was not much more than thigh-deep anywhere, the downhill sweep of the current was so treacherous that he did not dare wade across. He scrambled down the shore until he came up against an impassable overhang, where the water’s long grinding had worn down the base of the cliff as cleanly as if it had been sheared away in a single piece. With a quick side-step he bounded from a pebbled island to a boulder, then, keeping his weight on the back foot, he reached down a step and tested a likely ridge just out of water; the stone lurched underfoot, and he jiggled it until he felt it tip and catch, fixed in a newly cleared socket in the streambed. He loped across a bridge of polished stones, so evenly spaced that they could have been planted there, teetered on the last one, and just managed to stretch down onto a long sandbar.
He squatted on his haunches, catching his breath. A drop of sweat slid the length of his side, and he shivered. He rolled up his sleeves. He had not even noticed the past few days that he was getting sunburned; he had scarcely felt the sun. The reflection from the water must have made it imperceptibly sharper. Today, though, he would feel it; everything would. Although the sun had risen not more than an hour ago, the glare from water and stone already scorched and blinded. All over the hillside scales of mica flared in pinpoint explosions.
He assembled the fly-rod, lubricating the ferrules with dabs of oil from the sides of his nose, and fastened the reel in its mount. The cork of the handle, spongy and pebbled once, was dark and smooth, sweat-varnished; he should have gotten a new one long ago. The fly he tied on was one of his own devising, which imitated nothing in particular he had ever seen, but had nearly always worked here.
This was the hardest part of the river to fish; the current dragged a fly down the sheer pitch almost before it landed. He made his way along the main stream where it tumbled down a series of terraces; then he followed a gentler channel down a number of switchbacks, cutting corners, leaping cascades. He fished the deep backwaters where the stream overflowed its turns; from one of these holes he pulled in, on successive casts, two rainbows, so rare here that he thought he must have caught the same fish twice. He stopped again and sat down on the beached end of a huge birch, probably tossed down here by the floods that spring.
Propped on his elbows, he leaned back and looked up the hillside; he had not yet come down far enough to be able to see the falls. Seeing them the other evening, from so far below, he had had only the vaguest notion of how high they were: between ten feet and twenty, he had guessed, unable to remember, though he had gone off them hundreds of times. When the water was low enough, you could wade above the falls, careful to stay wide of the deep flutings in the rock bottom, where the current sweeping down through the chute would carry you over. From between the dropping sheets of white water jutted a ledge that had seen long service as a diving platform. As usual, Andrew had been the first to go off it, the summer they had turned eleven or whenever it was, simply walking out there one day and stepping casually down. He had waited for days after that, while Andrew pointedly had not jumped again. At last, one unwilling foot dragging, he had managed to limp sideways just short of the edge, then had stood there, unable to go forward or back, watching the massive folds of swift water at his feet; sculpted by the stone it ran over, the water itself had seemed stone. Just as he had been about to go back the way he had come, hoping that no one had spotted him, he had noticed something move in the pool; leaning over, he had seen Andrew swim out to stand on the underwater pinnacle that was concealed by the broadhead of white water right below him and that he feared like sudden death. Once in position, Andrew had nodded, and, as though that were the signal that he had been waiting for all along, he had launched himself, with unimaginable daring, in a wild splayed somersault. Ape-men relocated to the north woods, both had soon graduated to heedless, chest-thumping leaps, in the heroic manner of jungle renegades. Yet there was a fear that never left him. The dive always took him deep, so that even when the current lifted him to the surface, he never rose fast enough; always, as he was about to break through, the last of his hoarded breath seeped away, and sometimes, then, he had to fight off a seizure of panic — senseless, a child’s — that the light above would darken as he reached for it, the surface draw slowly out of reach and finally out of sight. The first breath he took then was deep and searing, and he had to keep his head up as he swam for the sheltering arm of rock downstream. Here they sprawled to dry in the sun; the water rolled off their tan pelts, and on the rock it printed their silhouettes, longer and broader by half then their own bodies.
He was surprised by what he could still remember, and how sharply. For so long he had not given a thought to any of this. On the way in he had been afraid that he might not even be able to find the river, coming from the north as he did, along a strange route. Every night the week before, he had studied the way he would take, trying to fit, to the crumpled spirals and blue threads of a topographic map of the country, hills and stretches of water that he remembered. At first glance, the map had looked strange to him, of a country he had never seen. He had stumbled from one unfamiliar name to another before he had come upon a mountain, twenty miles northwest, that they used to climb almost every year, late in the summer. Trying to make his way to the campsite from there, he had followed a nameless run whose dry bed had usually been their trail home — to see it on the map was a surprise — and he had found himself hiking the country in his mind. He had envisioned every bend of windings which, on the map, were too sharp and serried to trace with his finger; he had even ventured a shortcut or two, through the woods between one cusp and the next. Now and again, however, he had needed to pause and reconnoiter the landscape. Usually, when that had happened, he had backtracked and discovered that he had gotten ahead of himself — had forgotten a piece. Sometimes, though, when he had thought that he knew exactly where he was, a look at the map had made him lose his bearings altogether; he had pushed on, then, and eventually the map’s version had become realigned with his own. At last he had reached the main stream, just above the Bends, a serpentine through marshy woods; although the junction was still a long way upstream of their campsite, it was here that he had always felt suddenly refreshed by the thought that they were nearly back. Then he had glanced down at the map and seen marked a channel with scarcely a dent, islands strewn throughout its length. He had made his mind up then to forget about the trip, and would have done just that, had he not noticed, in the fine print in a bottom corner, that the most recent survey of the area had been done in the ‛thirties. Over seventy-odd years that reach must have been twisted, by the river’s flooding, into those bunched oxbows, and the islands joined seamlessly to the shore. Those places that he had never heard of, he had in fact known all along, but only by the names that he, or one of the others, had given them; it had never occurred to him that any of them might be called by some different name. But, those fears gone, he had begun to fear that even if he had managed to hold the river intact in his memory, the river itself would have changed by now; he might come upon it at a place so altered — by an oxbow, a landslide, a sandbar built up or ground away — that he would fail to recognize it, mistake it for another stream.
He laughed now at his thoughtlessness and fretting; he could have saved himself the worry. He knew the river, the country it ran through. Maybe he knew them better, now, than anyone else — even better than he had known them the last time he had come. Then, with Andrew, it had seemed like early spring, but had been earlier than that, despite the warmth of the day; it must have been much earlier, midwinter, toward the end of January most likely, over thirty years ago. Seniors, they had taken his car and headed up from college in the middle of the week. For four hours they had driven, much too fast, schussing through drifts spilled from the high ridges of plowed snow along the shoulder. Heading into a long downhill curve several miles past the turnoff for the College Grant, he had found himself staring across a wide meadow at a farmhouse of brilliant white clapboard, the green shutters bright as beacons, snow banked level with the windowsills. Reflected in the ice-draped windowpanes, the radiance of the whole field was focused to a single crystal, hugely magnified, that twirled on its axis as he squinted and blinked. Just then they had hit a patch of frost heaves; the steering wheel had almost shuddered out of his grip, and the back end of the car had swung into the other lane. Still half-blinded, he had turned calmly with the skid and pulled the car straight again. When he had heard the horn and seen the pick-up heading for them, they were coming out of the turn still astraddle the yellow center-line. He had managed to brake and swerve just in time, keeping the road somehow; in the side mirror, he had seen a cloud of snow, then brake lights flashing twice. He had expected to hear a word or two about his steering, but Andrew had held his peace. Then, looking over when the road was straight again, he had seen that Andrew had his feet up on the dashboard and his head tucked against his right shoulder a baseball cap tilted down to shield his closed eyes. When he had next glanced over, Andrew’s head had lolled toward him, and, cocking an eyebrow without opening an eye, Andrew had held up thumb and forefinger to indicate how near a miss it had been. On an adrenaline-fueled impulse, he had put his foot to the floor, and they had both broken out laughing. As far as he could tell, though, Andrew had not opened his eyes until they had finally pulled off the road.
They had hiked in on snowshoes, three hours more, sweaters tossed over their shoulders like capes, the sleeves knotted across their chests. Snow had sprayed from the laden branches of evergreens; it had shot down the backs of their necks, sudden points of cold, a spattered tingling. They had come down toward the river along the causeway of an old logging road. It was just dusk, and they had stopped to put their sweaters and parkas back on. Freezing sweat had caked their eyebrows; steam had curled from their faces and necks and hair. He had been laughing — at what, he could not remember — and Andrew had laid a hand on his arm and shushed him. He had thought that Andrew had spotted something, a fox or a deer, and he had turned his head and stood there, scarcely breathing. There had been nothing to see, but after a time he had made out a faint rustling, like that the wind makes through a distant stand of trees, and he had known then that if he were to step back a few paces, he would no longer hear it; he stood just within range of the sound of water.
He had been away a long time since then, far longer than anyone had thought he would — more precisely, than they had told him he would ever be able to, perhaps as a kind of bitter dare. For his part, he had given himself up from the beginning, for good, to that new life. Not that he had expected it to be easy; indeed, he had expected a pain to linger, like the indelicate reminder of a phantom limb, in the space left by the missing part, the part that he had torn himself away from. But there had been no such pain, at least at first. He had been ablaze with an anger so pure that sorrow could have no part in it, and for a spell he had found himself virtually whole, if not exactly good as new; it was only later, when he had had time to take meticulous inventory of his blessings — one leg, right; one leg, left; etc. — that serious pain had set in. But those darkest obsessions had run their course. Now he had to wonder whether he had not known all along, especially when he had denied it most vehemently, that he would come back, at least to this place. Of course, he could have gone at any time, and had not; for over thirty years, he had not been here.
This had been the best place in the world for him; but the war had changed everything. He and Andrew had both been drafted into the army upon their graduation from college, and it had never occurred to either of them to do anything but go and fight. Their fathers were proud of their own service in World War II; and the sons for their part not only considered Vietnam as a just war against Communist tyranny, but also had an unspoken hankering to see combat, which they regarded as the ultimate sporting trial of their manhood. He had been the first to get sent over there, and it did not take him long to understand that this affair had little to do with sport. His tour of duty was mercifully brief: six weeks in, a shell fragment had chipped a notch the size of a shirt button out of the top of his right kneecap. Although he did not care to admit as much, especially to himself, it was the kind of wound he had been hoping for since his first firefight: just serious enough to send him honorably home, and not in a bag. He would be left with a slight hobble and the rather more troubling awareness that he was something less than the man he had hoped he would prove.
He was home on leave, walking with a cane, before Andrew had even shipped out. His folks and his hometown friends gave him a hero’s welcome, so that it was hard for him not to feel unabashedly heroic. That multitudes of his fellow Americans, including a fair number of his friends from college, looked upon him as a baby-killing fascist caused him no distress. He knew how the people who really mattered felt about him, and it was for their sake, and the sake of those like them, in America and in southeast Asia, that he had risked everything. The misgivings he had about his own courage were forgotten for the time being, and his limp took on a bit of a swagger.
Andrew had missed the homecoming festivities, being detained by final preparations for his departure just as his friend had made his arrival. Everyone knew that Andrew would return from war crowned with glory; and he did win a Bronze Star. His own homecoming was less festive than it might have been, however: with two weeks left in his tour of duty Andrew had had his legs removed at the hips by a mortar round. He spent seven months in hospitals, and, the day he got out, after a gathering in his honor at his parents’ house, he killed himself with his own shotgun. Some losses are past enduring, even for those born brave, and perhaps especially for those who loved life most.
At Andrew’s insistence, he had not been to see his crippled friend during the long convalescence and rehabilitation; and he had heard of Andrew’s suicide from his own father the morning after. The Army had him shuffling papers in the snake-ridden depths of Louisiana while he waited for his discharge, and he had gotten a three-day pass and flown up for the funeral. Nothing else in his life had been so sad. The worst of it, he thought at first, was that he must have known all along what Andrew was intending to do; he was the best friend Andrew had ever had, and he ought to have foreseen this and tried with all his might to stop him. But the more terrible truth was that he too had thought Andrew’s life was no longer worth living, and death could not come too soon. Moral failure clung to him like jungle funk, and his own life seemed all but unendurable. Of course, most men can get used to just about anything, as long as their pain remains strictly moral. Still, that you can wish your dearest friend dead out of sheer horror at the misery he has been reduced to is one of those things most men would prefer not to know about themselves.
After Andrew’s burial, he had sleepwalked through the remaining three months of his service, then upon being mustered out had moved to Boston, where he found work swinging a sledgehammer for a construction firm that transformed derelict warehouses into toney living quarters for daring young tax attorneys and advertising executives. The job left him dead tired at the end of the day, and a few beers after work eased his way into a sleep without dreams: what more could he ask for? The town in which he had grown up was only an hour to the north, but he almost never went there; nor did he ever revisit their old haunts way up in the woods, although his father suggested more than once that they go up there for a few days’ fishing.
In time the end of the war had come; and as he had watched the news footage of South Vietnamese climbing the walls of the U.S. Embassy compound in Saigon, frantic to get aboard one of the departing helicopters and escape their broken homeland, a rage such as he had never known before seized him. Tens of thousands more of our sometime allies would surely be put to death, and everyone in the States would only have to change the channel in order to avoid troubling himself about him. All the sacrifices had been for nothing. Andrew’s life was worth exactly nothing. Hot nausea pulsed in his gut and bent him double. That night he decided that he would no longer be an American. A week later he moved to Montreal.
There he had made a life for himself, and a satisfactory one in several respects, though there were stretches when he could not help thinking himself in enforced exile, wrongfully separated from the life he should have had. Everyone else could see he was an absolutely free agent able to come and go as he pleased, but he regarded himself as having no choice in the matter, bound by a burning vow he would rather not have taken.
Gradually, the connections to the old life frayed and broke. Friends and family loved him, but the heat he emitted either scared them off or pissed them off or wore them out. New drinking buddies or girlfriends were no replacement.
He had worked in construction at first, starting as a laborer and ending up a carpenter. After ten years, severe boredom had set in, and he had enrolled in a landscape architecture program at McGill, served an apprenticeship with the best firm in Montreal, then founded a business of his own; putting picturesque woodsy touches on upscale suburban housing developments earned him a respectable living.
He traveled every chance he got, by himself or with the girl of the moment, fishing for muskie in Saskatchewan, skiing in British Columbia, climbing Mounts Kenya and Kilimanjaro, scuba diving off the Great Barrier Reef. When the Berlin Wall came down, he got on the first available flight and joined in the celebration; joyously drunk for a week, he had the time of his life.
Thereafter he cultivated a taste for the cities of the former Soviet empire, and spent vacations in Prague, Tallinn, Warsaw, Budapest. Always a quick study at languages, he would load up on Berlitz audiotapes and cram for a couple months before his journeys, picking up enough of these thorny tongues to engage the locals in rudimentary chatter. Although a New England WASP by birth and upbringing, he felt oddly at home among these Slavs and Magyars, who were eager to shed the ingrained dourness of the conquered and to savor the bold sweetness of the first freedom they had ever known. They appreciated the pleasure he felt for their sake. Almost invariably he introduced himself as a Canadian, but one night in Budapest two years ago he went home with a forty-year-old woman of cat-faced loveliness who spoke pretty fair English, and before the night was out they had told each other everything: she spoke of her father, a dissident professor of linguistics who hanged himself in prison after his torturers had inserted a glass rod into his penis and shattered it; he of the war and his decision to turn his back on virtually everything he had loved. As he listened and spoke his heart, the most overwhelming feeling he had known for a woman welled up within him, and he felt on the verge of falling in love. But after he had said his piece she was silent for a time, then burst forth: she could not understand how he could forsake his native land, delicious America (the Tokay talking), which she and her countrymen and millions of others throughout central and eastern Europe had regarded for desperate years as the only hope they had of ever being free. Her defense of his homeland grew heated, to the point of treating his contempt for America with contempt. Many had suffered worse than he, and he ought not take his losses so personally
To have his deepest feelings challenged, even derided, like this set off a series of emotional detonations that he actually felt as cruel stabbings in the back of his head. It was the most desolate he had been for years. Usually he didn’t much care about having turned out the way he had, and he certainly never felt obliged to apologize for it; but that night he had believed that something better than what he was used to might be possible, some kind of deep connection, and to have that possibility so abruptly withdrawn left him woebegone and mean. In the morning he kissed his evening’s passionate acquaintance goodbye with emphatic indifference; that was the last he saw of her, and the last thought he entertained of a woman’s love.
The world still held loves besides those to be found in a woman’s arms, but they were few and far away. His mother had died eight years ago, and, when his father had asked him to come down for the funeral, he had said he couldn’t, as graciously as he knew how, his heart scalded by sorrow. Since then he and his father had pretty well lost touch, and, unless he were to go down there soon, it was unlikely they would ever see each other again.
His father’s passion for woods and waters had ignited his own when he was seven or eight years old; so it was out of blood devotion that one night he had resolved to visit once more the place he still loved more than any other, where he had known the best of friendship and fatherly love. And the fishing trip held, just possibly, the promise of a new direction. After a day and a night here, he knew for certain that his life was incomplete without this river, just as he knew it would not be right to let his father die without going down to see him again. He couldn’t say at that moment that he had reached a decision, but the decision was definitely forming itself within him. The step he had taken in coming here was looking to change his life, and he was about ready for the change.
He would know what to do when the time came. Right now, his throat was dry as could be. He knelt beside the water, where the channel funneled between the wings of a buckled granite slab, and water seemed to jet from pores in the stone; it fanned into shells the breadth of his hand, arches ribbed with animate silver fibers. He drank greedily; the cold gave the water a sharp iron bite; his lips stung with the chill. He paused, gasping, then bent again, as though drinking had only made him thirstier. He ducked his head and let the fountain spill over his face. Then he drank again in great gulping draughts, until he had to press his tongue hard against his teeth to ease the cold ache.
He still had a long way down to the canyon, and there were other spots before that which he wanted to fish. He got up, stretched, and headed down. Soon the slope grew gentler, and he took a more direct route down, fording some of the shallower channels. The abandoned shells of stonefly nymphs, fiercely horned, mud-washed, their backs split cleanly as along a seam, stuck to midstream rocks. He flicked one off with the rod butt. The papery husk wobbled in the current and was sucked under.
Midway down the hill, all the streams dropped to form a wide, oval pool, thirty or forty yards across. The fastest water at either end simply cleared its own passage through the basin, then slanted down a long chute; the river split into two channels, bending away from each other, like a pair of tongs, before they converged some two hundred yards downstream. He kept to the right. From where he stood, the quickest way to the next pool was along a ledge that slanted down the bluff face above the rapids. The drop was fifteen feet at its highest point, but he had taken that way down before; the ledge was wide enough to be safe.
The hardest part was getting onto the ledge in the first place; it was above waist height. To get up there he would have to kick his right leg out high and use it to pull himself up. He could see, though, that if he tried to get a leg up first, he would have to lean out awkwardly to follow it. Reaching out with his right hand, he felt for a crevice in the wall, a foot or two above the ledge; he hooked a promising edge, pulled once, pulled again, harder, and a chunk of rock came away in his hand. He threw it into the woods on the other side of the pool. He reached out again, planted his fist on the ledge, then extended his right leg slowly and set his foot down, poised on the ball, just outside his hand. He wanted a surer purchase, but if he stretched any farther to slide his heel up there, he would lose the leverage he needed. All his weight on the right leg and arm, he leaned into the cliff, and straightened the leg slowly; high along the outside of his thigh a muscle began to bubble in spasm. He heard the tip of the rod ticking against the stone. As he drew himself up, his knee crackled, and he lurched forward slightly, onto his braced arm. But the knee held and he swung up smoothly the rest of the way.
He looked down at the pool, an almost circular crater with an evenly sloping, pebbled shore. From that height the surface of the water seemed motionless, drawn taut, but a fine tracery of shadow streamed across the bottom; its shifting mesh betrayed the current’s intricate grain. Near the other shore, a boulder, its crown inches below the surface, unraveled the sheet of swift water into eddying strands. Downstream of the rock he could see, printed on the sand, the whorling bulge it made, the folds crinkling, ragged, sliding over and through each other, with a moving center. Flung from the edges of the rock, black discs glided, spinning, the tracks of whirlpools; some burst into fragments, while others just shrank and vanished. As he made his way down the outcropping, he saw four trout in a diagonal file, gray wraiths, hanging in the boulder’s shadow.
Entering the stream at the bottom of the pool, he waded against the current, in almost up to his waist, deeper than he liked. He unhooked the fly from its rest, and, with a tug, unreeled several loops of line, the slack nipped between two fingers. With his third false cast he was out by the boulder, catching the fly as it was about to light, and drawing slack on the backcast. Then, as the line shot forward, the coil unfolded so that the lure dropped softly, upright on its spikes of feather, the wings of a floating insect. The fly twitched toward him in the current’s sidelong pulse, and a hole, drilled from below, opened just ahead of the swinging leader. He felt the tug even before the hole snapped shut. He pumped his forearm and set the hook. The line yanked straight; the rod jumped, bent double, and the reel handle whirred. In a few seconds the reel was stripped to its bottom layer of line, and the metal spool shone between the green coils. Desperate, he jammed his thumb into the reel, slowing the flight, then smothered the knob with the heel of his palm and stopped the run dead. He was afraid the rod would snap under the sudden tension; he thought he could actually see the line stretch. Something should have broken, but the trout was still on. At least he hoped it was the trout; for a moment all he felt was a weight, unyielding, as though he had just staked sole claim to the river bottom, and he was afraid that the fish had fouled the line on a snag and gotten loose. He lifted the rod, then dipped it and reeled it, recovering the slack. By inches he won the line back. The rod tip wagged as the trout ground against the streambed, trying to dislodge the hook. He had never had a trout run on him like that before. He knew it was not one of the fish he had spotted from above. He was sure it could not be a brook trout. He wanted a sight of it. Just then the line cut the water in another run, and the trout rose — its broad sides silver-gray and freckled, a brook trout after all — flexed at the height of its leap, shrugging off a pale shadow of water that trembled into vapor before the fish slammed down.
Whatever he gained, the trout took back again; after several more flurries and dashes, he was no closer to landing it than when he had hooked it. To make things worse, he had left the landing net at the campsite; to carry it the way he had come down would have been too awkward. Now he would have to play the fish right back to the shore, and hope that he would not get snarled on some rock or branch in the shallows. He shuffled backward slowly; pebbles and gravel slid underfoot; the current hauled upward at his knees, and at each misstep it lifted him off the bottom.
Just before he reached the bank he felt the fish give up. When the dangerous tension eased, he pressed the advantage. He checked a last attempt at a sprint; as the trout rose, a few feet from his reach, he could see how rapidly the gills were working, and although it still thrashed and feinted, he drew it in steadily.
He bumped it over the stones in the shallows; the bluish green hump of its back, an island that had slipped its moorings, floated toward him. His right arm extended fully so that he held the rod, a fragile arch, slightly behind him, he dipped and brought up the heaving trout. His thumb pried open the gill flap and hooked a grip; he felt it scrape along the barbed ridges of cartilage. No one would have believed the size of the fish. It looked so sleek, yet its girth was tremendous. He could barely fit both hands around it. He held it out at arm’s length, amazed at its heft. He was sure that no one had ever caught, or even seen, anything like it here, maybe anywhere. He turned it and watched the sun sparkle on its sides. The largest brook trout that he had ever seen in these waters could not have gone any more than four pounds, and that one, an uncle’s trophy, had been cause for rejoicing so fierce that, by the next morning, both the festivities and their occasion had all but vanished from the common memory. This one was easily twice that size; it was just as well that there was no one along to insist on the appropriate rites. Holding it out there was starting to make his shoulder ache. Besides, he had to put it back in the water.
He set the rod down upright, wedging the butt between stones so that he could have both hands free. To make sure of his grip before he removed the hook, he pressed with his fingertips behind the other gill, trying to open it. A bright curve of blood traced the outline of the gill cover. He pressed again, and a drop of blood burst from the swelling arc and rolled down the fish’s side. He pulled his thumb out from the gill; a forked trickle, darkening already, slid down the back of his hand. He turned the fish to look down its mouth; the nylon leader disappeared in the welling blood. He probed for the hook with his fingers, but could not find it. With each breath the fish took tiny beads popped to the surface; along the rim of its mouth they clustered into a rich red froth. He picked the rod up and gently laid the trout in the water, acing upstream; the current rinsed the blood from its throat, rusty puffs that were swirled away and quickly dissolved. Revived, with a sudden frantic resolution the fish tried to lash free. Its struggle was driving the hook deeper. He scooped the fish up and hoisted it from the water.
He laid the trout on a flat stone, and pinned it beneath his hand. Its tail thrashed, and a string of excrement drooped from its belly. With a tug on the line, he pried its jaws wide enough to slip a finger through, then wedged them open as far as he could. The fly, its hackles of feather matted and glossy, lay deep in the gullet; he could not reach it through the fish’s mouth. Edging two fingers through the gill flap, he could feel the metal of the hook through the slick, bunched feathers, but when he tried to fit his thumb in, the trout made a choking rattle in its throat and he knew that he was tearing the gills. Unable to get a grip, he withdrew his fingers; a clotting thread swung between them a moment, then sagged and broke, draping itself across his knuckles.
Prickling warmth danced down the sides of his face, as though a wire had cinched around the crown of his skull: it was going to die now. The blood just kept rising, a slow leak. He could see, through the almost transparent skin of its throat, the dark branching where flesh and muscle had absorbed the blood. There was really not much chance the bleeding would stop. He could not afford to wait and see. Since he was unable to work the fly loose, the best he could do was to cut the line and put the fish back into the water. He unfolded his penknife. He could not see the fly now, but drew the blade along the line until he heard metal click on metal, then backed up and sawed neatly. When the leader went slack, he pulled the line free, the tip frazzled and wound into a corkscrew where he had cut right through the knot.
He set the trout down in the water. As soon as he relaxed his hold, the trout lurched, helpless, spun broadside by the current. He propped it carefully, lacing his fingers in a cradle beneath its gills and belly, and righted it. Looking at it now, he did not see how it could have struggled the way it had. The fight was gone; somehow it even looked smaller there in the water than it had on shore.
He held it there a long time. He no longer noticed the cold. Bubbles so tiny they appeared solid, pearls, nestled among the swaying hairs on his hands and wrists. After a while he let go of the fish again; this time it listed slowly, then, fins jabbing like oars, caught itself and swung true. He stayed there, down on one knee, watching it. Its jaw hung slack, and the gill covers jerked open and shut. He could see the bright fronds quiver as the water flushed over them. The fish was still except for the heaving of its sides, the fluttering gills. Once it began to tilt onto its side and float upwards, and he thought it was dead; but before it reached the surface it stopped itself and headed right back down, settling effortlessly. Reaching down, he drew a finger teasingly along its side, but the trout did not budge. He left his hand hanging there; his fingertips grazed the fish from time to time. When he got up, he did not know how long he had been waiting. All he knew was that he had done his part; it had nothing to do with him any more.
He was still a good distance above the gorge, and in that stretch there were three more pools that he had saved for this morning. He was not going there now, though; he was heading back; he wanted to get out as quickly as he could. He started upstream, but when he looked up at the rock wall and thought of the step down at the top, his legs went wooden. So he headed downstream after all, below the pool, and forded the river where it widened and boulders broke it into several shallow channels. He headed up through the woods, taking a shortcut that would bring him back to the river across from the ravine. Soon the river was hidden by trees, and its roaring grew hushed as he climbed, so he could no longer be sure that what he heard was not the wind through high branches. Watercourses gouged by snow melt, every one now a dry cobbled ditch, furrowed the hillside; he ticked off each one too wide merely to step over, and when he had crossed the sixth, he followed it down the slope. The river grew louder, distinct again, though still unseen. At last he caught sight of it through a break in the woods, and he bounded down, only to find another upgrade where he had expected the shore to be. He climbed again; the sound grew louder still, louder than he could remember having heard it before, and near the crest of this ridge a cooling dew, so fine he thought he was starting to break a sweat, beaded his face and arms. Near the top the grade flattened, and as soon as he could see over it, he stopped: he had come out right below the upper falls. A thin smoke of spray wavered in the air; the breeze wrinkled and frayed its edges. Soaring in the heat currents high above the bank, a myriad blackflies, their wings invisible, bobbed and darted like specks of ash. He stayed there for a time, looking at the water.
He went down along the shore, crossed back over, and went straight up the ravine, leaning into the slope and kicking toeholds into the soft ground. Near the top he hoisted himself up by the trunks of young pines. When he got back, as he was putting the reel back in his pack, he scraped his thumb across the rough canvas and winced. A milky oval capped the ball; the tips of a red wire, where the racing line must have branded him, stuck out from either end. It was starting to throb. He tried to shake the sting out of it. The lid of dead skin, still soft, flapped open on its hinge; the tender flesh beneath was surprisingly white, bloodless, and its corrugations were startlingly clear and precise. He bit back a laugh. He did not have time to bother with that. The cut was nothing; once, he would not even have noticed it. He fastened the back pocket of the rucksack, then went over to the fireplace and shoved the remaining wall over with his foot.
Now he was almost ready. Through the heat mist the hills far to the north rose pale as clouds. That night he would make camp in those hills, maybe in a spot he was looking at right now, probably not far from the headwaters, though past them if he could; the day after tomorrow, if he kept a hard pace, he ought to make it all the way back. He pulled off the wet sneakers and pants, swabbed his feet dry with a towel, and put on a pair of jeans, gray cotton socks, and his hiking boots; with a twig he worked loose several tiny pebbles from the deep crevices of their soles.
There was nothing left for him to do: he shouldered the pack and he started. With the first few steps he could feel the chafing drag of the load, so heavy already, pulling the tips of his shoulder blades together. He had wanted to stay along the edge of the bluff, but before he had gone a hundred yards the sun drove him into the woods. After a while he was heading downhill; that was still the most difficult for him. He leaned back a bit and came down hard on his heels, trying to keep control; his stride lengthened, doubled after a few steps, and the pack shrugged higher on his back until its weight swung him over forward, and he gave way to the momentum of his fatigue. He did not even try to pull up when he hit level ground, but simply let the weight slow him back down to a walk. As he shifted the pack lower, he saw that the trip back was as good as done now. He already knew the way as completely as he would know it when he had finished, as though he had just sighted, from the rim of a desert valley, the track he would have to follow down into the middle of it — a ribbon only slightly darker than the rest of the ground, dwindling to a thread, then invisible from that height but stretching on, he could be sure, on and on with no sign of relief, through a dry land, far beyond reach of the sound of water. It was the first time he had ever thought what a long way it was. His eyes on the ground just the next step ahead, he kept on through these first quiverings, and it was neither to speed his return here nor to ease his parting that he wished then — starting, almost certain it was his own voice he had heard — there were some way, at least, he could be sure it was dead.
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In Another Country