The Big One
by Michael Blumlein
It was a Sunday, early summer, and the four of them rose early. Burt picked up Pete, then Carl, then Nick. They hit the Bridge by eight, and by half past nine were tooling through the Central Valley. Burt and Pete were holding forth on their marriages. Both were so happy to get away, even for a scant two days, that they couldn’t help but talk about what they were leaving behind. The wives, especially, took heat. But eventually, even the most lively conversation runs out of steam.
“Let’s talk about something else,” said Burt, a suggestion that met with widespread approval, then silence, as everyone tried to think of a topic to rival women.
Someone mentioned the weather, which everyone agreed was good, and someone else the price of gas, which everyone agreed was not. Having reached consensus, they moved on to other matters. They talked about the market, about first mortgages, second mortgages, about sports. Baseball, hockey, soccer, football, basketball, tennis – they all garnered at least passing attention, for all were now in season, to one degree or another. It was all sports all the time, at last, and why had it taken so long? They talked about the river forecast (high flow, low visibility), and they talked about the prospect of having fish for dinner.
“I guarantee it,” said Pete.
“Sure,” replied Burt. “We’ll stop at the market.”
They talked about everything they could think of, and when they were done, they returned to the subject of women.
They were on a fishing trip, but to get to the fish and the great outdoors, the man in nature thing, it seemed they first had to deal with the ladies. For Burt this meant a witty, if prolonged, account of the trials and tribulations of his marriage. He and his wife had separated, and now they were back together, though not sleeping together.
“No sex?” asked Pete, aghast.
“What’s that?” was Burt’s reply.
The one time they had tried, their son -- with exquisite timing -- had allowed the pet hamster to get loose, a placid and not especially speedy creature that in short order was eaten by the family dog. Burt felt that the act, if not premeditated, was certainly suspect.
Carl didn’t quite understand. “You blame the dog?”
Burt was bemused. “Now that’s an interesting question. The dog, OUR dog, whom we love and cherish, I would have to say was acting like a dog. It is the son whom I have some question about.”
“He wanted attention,” said Pete. “He was jealous.”
“I believe he was. Though if he’d been in the bedroom, pity is probably closer to what he would have felt. After the disgust, of course, at seeing his parents naked in bed together. Fortunately, he was spared the trauma, though the price was high and not a pretty thing to see. I had never really thought of dogs as predators, but it turns out they’re quite good ones.”
“Blood and gore? Rending of the flesh?”
“Surprisingly, not as much as you might expect. That said, I think I speak for the whole family in saying that a little goes a long way.”
“Poor guy,” said Carl, referring to Burt’s son.
But Burt liked to have the last word. “You wouldn’t say that if you were the hamster.”
Burt was a businessman, dedicated, ambitious and successful. He liked to say there were four pillars to his success: seeing the big picture, taking calculated risks, not micromanaging, and having fun. He used these same principles with his friends and family. The trip was his idea, and, fish or not, no one doubted it would be a success. And after this one, there would be others. For Burt, every success was an opportunity for more success, and every failure was a chance to learn.
In the case of his son, the debacle with the hamster was one of these chances, and he had used it as a lesson, delivered in the form of a lecture. A well-meaning lecture, but a lecture nonetheless. To his wife, attempting to comfort her son, it was ill-timed and heartless. Burt felt otherwise. For the record, he had a heart. It was a good heart too, just not as good, or at least not as big and forgiving, as his wife’s. What man’s heart was?
“That’s the thing,” said Pete. “They out-heart you all the time. They do it first thing in the morning, when you feel like crap, they do it at night when you come home from work and feel like crap, they do it in their sleep, they do it eyes closed, back turned, watching TV, they do it blind, deaf and dumb.”
“It’s a good thing,” said Nick, who, for as long as they could remember, was a moderating influence on the other two. Burt and Pete counted on him for this; they needed him the way a comic needed a straight man. He was known to have a decent marriage, but more than that, he was a decent sort of guy. He did not go in for slander, smear or malice, which was a strike against him to be sure, though not a fatal one. He behaved and expressed himself with kindness, forethought and restraint, much, indeed, as their wives might have behaved and expressed themselves had they been men.
And if that wasn’t enough, he was also the fisherman among them. He’d fished his whole life, initially with live bait, then lures, and for the last fifteen years, strictly flies. If there was a hierarchy among fishermen (and there was), he was at the top. To Burt, a relative novice, he was above reproach. To Pete, more seasoned, he deserved the respect due veterans. Thus was he allowed to flirt with heresies where others would have been summarily dismissed.
“A woman should have heart. You want a heartless woman?”
“Cold beer and heartless women,” said Pete. “Now you’re talking. You’re playing my song.”
Carl had yet to speak on the subject and was not expected to. His experience with women, compared to his friends, was slight. Indeed, except for sports (the knowledge of, not the doing), he was not adept at much of anything. He was definitely not a fisherman, which left open the question of why he’d been invited on the trip. The guys had hung out as kids, but hardly at all as a group since then.
“When was the last time we got together like this?” he asked.
“Like this? said Burt. “Never.”
“You always ask that question,” said Pete. “Why is that?”
There was a side to Carl, a rather broad side, that rubbed Pete the wrong way. Always had, though he’d forgotten about it, had no cause to remember, until now. Carl had a stiffness to him, an ineptitude, a gracelessness. He was awkward in public and ill at ease with himself. Moreover, he had a tendency to focus on the past, which Pete mistook for nostalgia, a trait he had little patience for. In fact, this was Carl’s way of coping with a present that at times seemed to unfold at random, and at breakneck speed. Commonly, he felt behind in the conversation, and rather than saying something stupid, which he was easily capable of doing, he took refuge in events that had already occurred. For someone who was truly obsessive about the past, this would have provided an endless source of material to hash and re-hash, but outside of sports and a few selected recollections from boyhood, Carl had a restricted memory. Given some of the things he had witnessed as a child, this was not necessarily a bad thing, but it did explain why he tended to remain quiet, and when he did speak, why he favored asking questions to making statements of fact.
“Pete’s marriage,” said Nick, coming to his rescue. “His first one. That was the last time. At the bachelor party.”
“Ah,” said Burt. “The bachelor party.”
“Carl wasn’t there,” said Pete.
“How would you know?” asked Burt. “You were barely there yourself.”
“We all were there,” said Nick. “It was a great party. More than great. Exceptional.”
“Exceptional for me making a fool of myself.”
“I wouldn’t disagree,” said Burt. “What would you say it was? The booze? The pot? The entertainment?”
“All of them,” said Pete. “And that one girl. God help me. I should have known better. But what can I say? I have a weakness for women.”
He might have said he had a weakness for water, for both quenched his thirst. He was capable of amazing feats of adoration and devotion, sometimes far beyond what was good for him. He had followed women all around the globe, both invited and uninvited, made love once for three days straight in Durango, Mexico, for two days in Ulan Bator. And then there was that glorious night on the beach of Waikiki with, who was it? Claudia? Yes, Claudia, the brilliant and boozy French ex patriate, the two of them rutting in the sand like drunken turtles. No one believed his current marriage would last, no one but Pete himself, whose optimism, charm and innocence were matched only by his capacity for repeating his mistakes.
“I guess I did learn my lesson,” he said. “I’m a one woman man now. One’s enough.”
“Good for you,” said Nick.
“I’ll believe it when I see it,” said Burt.
“Believe it,” said Pete. “At my age, one’s all I can handle.” He grinned. “What I mean is, one at a time.”
They made it through the Valley before the heat got stifling, flying free and easy up into the foothills where they had to shift gears as the road began to wind and climb. At Twin Pines they stopped for gas, food and fishing licenses. Burt talked up the woman at the counter and got an earful. The rivers were running high on account of the hot weather. Fishing was so-so. There’d been a burn at Five Mile Creek caused by lightening. Three mountain lion sightings on the Middle Fork, and a near confrontation. The bridge at Lacey Falls was out, the one at Copper Creek should be okay. Chloe’s Grocery was up for sale, as Chloe was in the process of getting a divorce. Frank’s Video, on the other hand, was closed for good, and thank the Lord for that. The man had been arrested for pedophilia.
The plan was to fish that afternoon, spend the night at Burt’s cabin, fish the whole next day and return to the city either late that night or early the next morning. Burt had had some luck on a stretch of the Middle Fork called Mosquito Flat, and with Nick’s blessing, he took command. From Twin Pines they drove another twenty miles east, climbing steadily on good California blacktop, passing Gold Rush towns with names like Confidence, Hope Valley, Emigrant Rest and Indian Gap. At five thousand feet they turned off the highway, heading north on a graded gravel road that followed the crest of the ridge for a mile or so through mixed pine and fir forest before giving way to dirt and abruptly plunging downward. The Middle Fork was at the bottom of a canyon twenty-five hundred feet below them. On foot, with a pack on your back, going down would be a chore, but coming up would be a ball buster. In a vehicle it was the reverse. Burt engaged the four-wheel drive, rolled up the windows to keep the dust out, and slowed to a crawl. The dogwoods, with their creamy, cross-shaped blossoms, were in bloom; everything else was either green or brown. It was a bitch of a drive, but at length it was over. The four of them tumbled out and assembled their gear.
The water was not as high as they had feared. Boulders, completely submerged in Spring, were now visible. This was good news, as they made for plenty of eddies and pools, deep and cool this time of year, any one of which would be the perfect hiding place for a trout.
The daily limit was two per person, two fish caught and killed and eaten. There was no limit to the amount of trout that could be caught and released. For this reason, and to make it more of a sport, barbed hooks were illegal. Releasing a fish, a point of pride among the vets, required a complement of virtues: the skill to hook one, the patience to land one, and the mercy to set it free.
All the men but Carl wore fishing vests. All but Carl owned their own rods. Nick clipped a landing net into a ring on the back of his vest, and Burt, never one to be left standing at the station, did the same. Rods in hand, they set off up the path that hugged the bank of the river. Pete fiddled with his reel until he got it spinning smoothly, then followed. Carl waited until all three were well out of sight, then brought up the rear.
To say that Carl knew nothing about fishing would be to say a hitter who’d seen fastballs all his life could never hit a curve. It was possible, but the chances were slim. When he was seven, his father had taken him to a trout farm where he had snagged, eye-holed, fought, lost and eventually landed his limit. The brutal satisfaction of the day was tempered by his having to gut and clean the fish. He didn’t like it as a boy and he doubted he would like it now. Nonetheless, he’d brought a knife, though it was a jack-knife, not a fishing knife, and it was old and dull.
A quarter mile up the trail he found a nice flat piece of granite that jutted out over the water. Some tangled fishing line hung off the end of a bush. The spot was exposed and hot. Not uncomfortably hot, although he guessed the fish might think it was. His memory of the trout farm, in addition to the satisfaction of bringing in his quota and succeeding in his father’s eyes, was of a day so suffocatingly hot and a lake so small and smelly and dirty that the fish seemed frantic to leave it, preferring the quick death of the hook to the slow, excruciating, oxygen-deprived one of staying behind.
He picked out a lure, the one he thought the prettiest, a flashy bit of silver metal that shone and shivered minnow-like in the water. He tied it to the line in a fair approximation of the knot the salesman had showed him, checked above and behind him for potential snags, then squared himself and let fly.
The lure landed at his feet. He tried again, and this time hit water. The third time the line caught on the branch of a tree. Ditto the fourth. His next cast was better, and before long he had a rhythm going. With practice his casts got bolder. Twice he snagged on something underwater but with an effort was able to work the hook and line free.
The afternoon wore on. Upstream Nick was catching fish, five already, two of which he released and three he kept, giving one to Burt in the unlikely event they ran into a Fish and Gamer. Pete was getting bites but hadn’t landed anything and had already lost three lures. Carl had not lost any lures, which, from a certain point of view, constituted success. On the other hand, he hadn’t had a single bite. He was slightly bored, mildly frustrated, but on the whole content. Expecting nothing, he had met and even exceeded expectations.
But wouldn’t it be fun to actually catch a fish. And not just any fish but a big one, a trophy fish, a gamer. He knew that they were out there, and he tried to read the river, looking for spots he thought they might be lurking. There was a rapids just upstream with a king-sized boulder, below which lay a deep, protected pool. There was shade from the boulder, oxygen in the stirred up water, and a steady stream of food: it was what Nick called trout heaven. Raising the rod above his head and angling it slightly backward, Carl let fly.
It was a perfect cast. The lure struck dead center in the pool. He let it sink for a few seconds, set the lock, then slowly reeled it in.
All at once, the line twitched. He froze. It twitched again, and gathering his wits, he jerked the rod to set the hook, and went back to reeling. Now there was resistance. Oh what resistance! The tip of the rod bent like a question mark, and the line became so taut it seemed about to snap.
What a fish this was. His heart leapt at the thought of it. A monster fish. A record-breaker. A Leviathan.
But no. There was no play in the line the way it would be if a fish were on it, no play at all.
A snag then. Of course. What had he been thinking? Deflated, he swung the rod back and forth, tugged and yanked and pulled, but couldn’t work the hook free. Common sense told him to cut the line and move on, but something stubborn and proud inside refused to give up.
Wedging the rod in a crevice of the rock, he took off his shirt, glanced up and down the river to be sure he was alone, then removed the rest of his clothes. Quickly, lest he be seen naked, he slid into the water.
The current was strong, and he hugged the shore, grasping willow branches to steady himself. Once he left the bank, he dropped down on all fours to keep his balance. The water was snowmelt and painfully cold. His hands and feet were numb by the time he reached the pool.
All around him the river churned and foamed, but the pool was smooth and calm. The lure was visible near the bottom, winking like a jewel. He drew a breath, steeled himself against the cold, and before he could change his mind, leapt in.
Steeled he may have been, but the shock left him nearly senseless. His chest felt caught in a vice, and his head began to spin. He remembered a merry-go-round from childhood, heard laughter, felt embarrassed. He was on the verge of blacking out, and maybe for a moment he did, but then suddenly, his mind cleared.
A veil, it seemed, had lifted. He felt remarkably good, filled with something peaceful and serene. Had he died? Was this the afterlife? He couldn’t be sure. But clearly it was a different life from the one he’d known. He felt weightless, and for the first time in memory unashamed. It was one of those moments that people talked about. He felt connected to the world.
Sharing the moment with him was a fish. A big fish, maybe the biggest he had ever seen, and maybe the prettiest too, with a long pink stripe on a field of silver, fins like veils, and two enormous glassy yellow eyes. It hovered in front of him, somehow seeming to hold its place in the water without moving, and regarded him, first with one eye, then the other. It seemed intelligent. More than intelligent. The way it eyed him -- shrewdly, knowingly – and the way its mouth hung open as if about to speak.
This was no ordinary fish. It was something different, something special: Carl felt this in every fiber of his being. This was a creature out of stories, out of legend, primal, ancient, mystical. It had power. Divine power, he thought. Plainly, this was more than a fish.
But there were fish in the water, ordinary ones, unconcerned by the strange-looking mammal in their midst, fish that under any other circumstances would have long since darted off. Carl wondered if they were under the creature’s protection, if it were some sort of guardian, or shepherd. He desperately wanted to know its identity, the truth of it, but sadly, his lungs gave out first. He thrashed to the surface, greedily gulping air, then dove back down. He looked for the creature, returned to the surface for air and looked again. And again. Peering in every nook and cranny, widening his search, braving the chill. All without luck. It was gone.
The canyon of the Middle Fork ran east-west, and in summer the sun was visible throughout the day. It swung by overhead like a marble in its slot, and at dusk, the air grew thick and golden. Caddis flies, midges and mayflies swarmed and flitted in the air, and in response, the fish began to rise. They broke water with little plops and splashes, leaving concentric circles in their wake. It was the time of day to have your rod in hand, the time to have your line, any line -- a bit of twine, some sturdy thread, a length of string tied to a stick -- in the water, but Carl had other things on his mind. He was thinking about his encounter, basking in the afterglow of what was obviously an epiphany of some sort. All his senses were heightened. He felt a well-being unlike any he had ever known. The water was splashing and gurgling beside him, and beyond it he heard a million other sounds: the rattle of a kingfisher, the whisper of the wind, the call of an owl, the caw of a crow. Closer by, he heard a rustling in the bushes. His first thought was that a mountain lion had come to take a drink. Moments later, Pete appeared.
Tucked inside his vest was a plastic bag with two brookies. “A little on the small side,” he admitted, adding, as every fisherman has added at some point in his life, “I probably should have thrown ‘em back.”
He felt guilty but not too guilty. Then he noticed that Carl wasn’t fishing. He also noticed that his hair was wet.
“What happened? Hook a big one and it pulled you in?”
“Very funny. I got hot and took a swim.”
Pete toyed with telling him that swimming spooked the fish. Given his feelings about Carl, it wasn’t hard to find fault with him. But he had his quota, and more than that, the river’s magic was working on him. It’s all good, he told himself. It’s fucking wonderful.
“Any sign of Nick and Burt?” he asked.
Carl shook his head. “Last I saw they were still fishing.”
Pete nodded and glanced at the sky, where the light was concentrating westward. “What do we got? An hour, hour and a half, left? Still time for a few more casts. What the hell. Mind if I take a stab?”
Carl made room for him on the rock, then watched him work, envious of the grace and beauty of his casting. Pete used a high release, and once his spinner hit, he pointed the tip of the rod down at the water. It was as though he were commanding the fish to take notice of him, to drop what they were doing and line up. His first few casts were downstream, which was counter to the prevailing wisdom that downstream fish were wary on account of the scent of humans upstream. But he’d had luck with this, though no luck now, and after awhile he switched directions. He tried the far edge of the river, which was now in shadow, then a riffle in the rapids, then the pool where Carl had been. Nothing happened for five, six, seven casts, and then he got a bite.
“Whoa,” he said, as he set the hook and took up the slack in the line, then watched it spool out, despite a healthy drag. “That’s a big fish. That’s a motherfucker.”
Indeed it was, and it put up a motherfucker of a fight, but at length Pete prevailed. He reeled it in, and taking no chances that the line would snap, lifted it by hand from the water. It had small black speckles on its side, a long pink stripe on a silver background, pale fins, a huge and muscular tail, and enormous yellow eyes. Its gills flared as it struggled in vain to get oxygen. But it didn’t flop and thrash and squirm around, which was odd for a fish. It made no effort at all to get away, just lay in Pete’s hands as though it had given up, or didn’t care. Pete cradled it a moment, half-mesmerized, then bashed its head on the rock until it was dead. Then he stood back and admired it.
“Now that’s a fish. Whoa is that a fish. Hell, it’s even legal.” He glanced at Carl, feeling generous. “Want to do the honors?”
“Gut it. It’s all yours.”
Carl was stunned. He told himself it was just a fish, with just a fish’s bulging and accusatory eye, which, as if to make things easier on him, was filming over. Without thinking, he reached into his pocket, felt his jackknife, palmed it, then all at once let it go, coming out empty-handed.
“Use mine,” said Pete.
He shook his head. “No thanks. To the victor go the spoils.”
Pete smiled. “Fair enough. I’ll do the dirty work, but I’m over my limit. I need you to carry it back.”
Reluctantly, he agreed, assuming that he was being tested, not merely by Pete, or even mostly by Pete. There was a lesson here, something he did not fully understand, but he was determined to see it through. The fish, now stiff and lifeless and -- you couldn’t get around it -- fishy smelling, no longer seemed quite so godlike. A divinity it was not. But maybe, just maybe, it was a divinity’s messenger.
It was dark by the time they reached the cabin. The men were tired but happy. Spirits were running high. A night in the woods, a bed beneath the stars, stars you could see...who could ask for more? Burt uncorked a bottle of wine, while Pete fried up the fish. Upon receiving his portion, Carl felt a profound uneasiness. The size of it, the thickness...he knew where it came from and what it was. Another test, but of what exactly? He so desperately wanted to do the right thing.
Before he could change his mind, and before any of the others had so much as lifted their forks, he stabbed it and thrust a piece into his mouth. It was tender and sweet, and slid down his throat like butter. When it entered his stomach, he felt a glow, which spread like the ripples trout made when they rose. But like those ripples, it was short-lived, and within seconds, like a dream, it was gone.
After dinner Burt got a call from his wife with the news of a new arrival on the home front, snuck in, as it were, through the back door. A rat to replace the hamster that had been so cruelly devoured. He took the news with equanimity, but after hanging up, had a good deal more to say. In a word, he was skeptical, and sought the group’s opinion. What could he expect from this newest family acquisition? Any useful advice?
“Rats are smart,” said Pete.
“You know this for a fact?”
“They are,” said Carl. “I had one once. It learned to do all sorts of things.”
“Sit up. Climb on my shoulder. Play catch. Beg for food.”
“Catch?” asked Nick.
“We pushed a little ball back and forth.”
“This was an athletic rat,” said Burt.
“Either that, or it knew which side its bread was buttered on,” said Pete.
Burt nodded. It was good news either way. “So you think it’s safe to assume our rat is smart enough to avoid being eaten?”
He looked to Carl, who, by virtue of his experience, was now the resident expert on the subject. Carl felt flattered, a rare sensation, which made the truth that much harder to disclose. His rat, in fact, had been eaten, and the fault was entirely his. He’d taught it only too well, to the point of robbing it of some essential part of its nature. He had trained it to be so trusting that on the day he’d inadvertently left the cage door unlocked, it had ventured out without fear or caution, thereby falling victim to Carl’s other pet, a normally docile cat.
“Yes,” he said. “It’s smart enough. If you’re smart enough to leave the cage door locked.”
“Amen to that,” said Burt, whereupon he and Pete, along with a bottle of scotch, retired to the deck outside. Nick and Carl remained in their chairs.
For awhile neither of them spoke. Carl had a storehouse of conversation starters, bland and impersonal, none of which seemed right for the occasion. The day’s events had left their mark on him, and he had deeper thoughts. But he feared sounding stupid. Or worse, being ignored. Of all the men Nick was the most approachable, but this was no sure thing.
As children he and Carl had been playmates; by adolescence they’d drifted apart. Nick was smart, athletic and popular. Carl was none of those things. Carl, frankly, embarrassed Nick.
There was one particular incident. Nick was a star on the high school baseball team, and in the last inning of a crucial game, Carl, a fill-in, had let a routine grounder trickle through his legs, allowing the winning run to score. Nick had been the pitcher of that game, and afterwards had been irate. Contrary to every lesson of good sportsmanship he’d ever learned, not to mention his school-wide reputation as a good guy, he let Carl have it, in front of all their teammates, called him out and publicly humiliated him. ‘What were you thinking when you joined the team,’ he had screamed, spittle flying. ‘What are you ever thinking? What’s with you, Carl? What are you doing out there? Hasn’t it occurred to you that you don’t belong?’
He was just a kid, frustrated by losing. Caught up in the moment. That he could accept. But taking it out on Carl, the weakest of the weak, the meekest. Targeting and scapegoating him...it was a terrible thing to do, and it haunted him. Carl had had a rough life, and in some small but finite way he had made it worse.
“Long day,” he said.
Carl nodded. “Yeah. I’m going to sleep like a log.”
Nick glanced at him. “How you doing these days, Carl?”
“You still selling insurance? At that place? You still there?”
“Yeah. Still am.”
“You like it, huh? The work. It suits you.”
“It’s all right. It pays the bills.”
“Funny, I never pegged you for a salesman. Back when we were kids. Never would have guessed that’s what you’d be.”
Carl was surprised to hear this, the surprise being that Nick had thought about him at all.
“I was thinking back to high school,” said Nick. “Senior year. Remember?”
“Sure. Giants finished 2 games out of first. Niners won their first Super Bowl.”
“You remember that baseball game we played? The one against South City.”
Carl hadn’t seen this coming, but a lifetime of defensiveness had given him the tools he needed to protect himself. Almost effortlessly, he swept the failure and humiliation of that day under the rug, replacing them with a happier memory, the Montana to Clark pass that same year that sent the Niners to the Super Bowl. That was the year his sister died of cancer, six years to the day after their mother had also died of the same disease. Both had melanomas, and now he had one, too. He’d gotten the diagnosis a month before. The doctors were urging him to get treatment, but he was thinking he’d let nature run its course.
“I want to apologize,” said Nick. “I was a real asshole that day. I had some stuff on my mind, unrelated stuff, but hey, who doesn’t? That’s no excuse. I’m really sorry.”
Carl shifted in his chair. Confessions made him nervous. Not only did they stir things up, but he assumed there was a catch.
“Don’t worry about it,” he said. And then, as a afterthought, “I’m sorry that it’s bothered you so much.”
“I’m sorry that I hurt you.”
“It’s no big deal.”
“And that I waited so long to say something.”
“Yeah. No problem.”
Nick gave him a look.
Carl stiffened. He had no idea how to respond. “I have a question for you.”
“You bet. Anything.”
“It’s about fishing.”
“Yeah. How do you catch one?”
Nick absorbed this for a moment. He had hoped for something different, something deeper, something more along the lines of a heart to heart talk. Confession, discussion, forgiveness, redemption: something like that. He had forgotten how unequipped Carl was for such things, how guarded he could be.
But he was a man of his word. “How do you catch a fish? First off, you have to learn to read a river. Second, you have to learn to think like a fish. Reading a river isn’t hard, but it takes practice. You look for the riffles, the holes, the shady spots. Where it runs fast, where it slows, where the water’s nice and cool, where it’s too hot. Basically, you look for places that a trout would want to hang out. Which gets to the second point. What does a trout look for, what does it want out of life? That depends somewhat on the trout, the time of day, whether it’s breeding season or not, stuff like that. But the one constant, the one thing you can depend on, unless there’s been a big hatch and they’re completely stuffed, is that a trout wants to eat. That’s what gets him up in the morning, dressed and off to work. Food. Your job is to give it to him.
“But trout are smart and wily, the big ones especially. You can’t just toss out food or dangle it in front of their faces, because they won’t buy it, they won’t bite. They know what’s real and what’s not. You have to convince them that you’re real. If you’re fly fishing, that means using a fly that’s actually out and on the river and presenting it in a way they recognize. If you’re using a lure, it means convincing that trout that your lure is another fish, a minnow usually, and you have to know how that minnow acts. Trout are predators, ferocious when they want to be, and ferociously territorial. Sometimes they’ll bite out of pure aggressiveness. Sometimes you can trick them into thinking they have to defend their territory. Once I got a trout to bite by annoying it so much it finally got fed up and took the bait. But most of them won’t be taunted like that. They’re too suspicious and they have good memories. When they see something that doesn’t look right, they’ll just ignore it.”
“You think a fish ever wants to be caught?”
“I’ve seen some who like to fight. Almost like they took the hook just for the chance to show off. And one time I had a fish jump in the boat. But that was pure accident.”
Carl did not think his fish got caught by accident. His fish, that’s how he thought of it, the one that Pete reeled in. He did not think it had taken the lure out of hunger or aggression either. When Pete pulled it out of the water, before its eye went dead, the eye had met his. A look passed between them, a look that seemed to tell him why it had taken the bait and made the leap, the jump from life to death. It had to do with fearlessness and sacrifice and, strange to say, humanity. The strong had to look out for the weak. The eye seemed very clear on that. Big fish had to take care of little ones.
“It goes like this,” said Nick. “The trout takes the fly, we take the trout. Predator becomes prey, if you want to think of it like that. But it works better for me, or at least I get more satisfaction, more pleasure, when I think of it as one predator outsmarting another.”
The men slept hard and woke early. Morning was near perfection. Light grew in the east, turning blue, then green, then gold, spilling over the mountain crest. In the broad drainage below the cabin, pines and firs stretched as far as the eye could see. The air was crisp and clear. The men stood outside, their breath misting, their hair unkempt, their faces happily unshaved.
After breakfast Nick held a clinic on flies. Judging by the previous day, he thought that an assortment of nymphs and emergers should do, but he was a boy scout when it came to fishing and left nothing to chance. Every day was different on the river. Every river was different every day. He recommended a variety, and he and Burt stocked up. Pete cracked open a brand new Panther Martin lure to go with his Super Duper, yellow Roostertail and gold Kastmaster. As a reward for carrying the big fish, he gave Carl -- poor, abashed Carl -- the lure that had caught it. Then the four of them piled into the car.
They stopped in Twin Pines again for sandwiches, where they got the tail end of a story of a meth lab bust the night before, then the report of another cougar sighting on the Middle Fork. A male. Seemed like the big cats were getting bolder lately.
They decided to try a new spot on the river, a few miles up from Mosquito Flat. After parking, they took an old Forest Service road that was wide enough for the four of them to walk abreast. Carl couldn’t remember the last time this had happened, marching along shoulder to shoulder with his buddies. Pete was smiling. Burt was singing, unabashedly off key.
After half a mile the road narrowed to a single file trail that wound through brush before depositing them at the river. They got their gear together, then Nick and Burt and Pete took off. Carl, as was his habit, brought up the rear.
He found a little pebbled beach, where he fished for an hour without a single bite. On what turned out to be his final cast, he snagged his line. Trying to free it, he snapped it, bringing an end to his dubious distinction of never having lost a lure. For awhile after that he watched the river, his mind drifting, his senses pleasantly dull. A cloud of tiny insects hovered over the water…he had no idea what kind they were, and the trout themselves didn’t seem to care about them a bit. A trio of swallows, on the other hand, were feeding to their heart’s content, soaring, diving, slicing through the air with abandon. High above them, tilting on the upper drafts and seemingly indifferent to the goings on below, were the ubiquitous vultures.
He had a bite to eat, splashed some water on his face to wake up, then went to look for his friends. On the way he was enveloped by a swarm of mosquitoes, a fair number of which landed on his arm, probing it briefly before puncturing -- or attempting to puncture -- his skin. Apparently, they found nothing wrong with his blood, which gave him a kind of grim satisfaction. Having cancer shamed him, and he knew it would only get worse. Maybe he would go ahead and have the treatment. It was possible, he supposed, that doing something about it would actually help.
The trail he was on paralleled the river, and where the canyon narrowed and its walls steepened, he was forced to climb. At the top of the climb, he paused to catch his breath. Downstream, he saw Nick, crouched over the water, head and neck stretched out like a bird of prey, a crane or a heron. Not far from him, Burt was sitting on a log, rod between his legs, tying on a new fly. Upstream of both of them Pete was balanced on a rock, making long, smooth casts across the water.
As he came down the trail, he heard a rustling in the bushes ahead. It was the sound a squirrel might make, a large squirrel, stirring up dead leaves. Pete heard it too...Carl saw him turn, and then he saw his eyes grow wide. His mouth opened as if to speak, and then he froze.
From out of the bushes a head appeared, followed by a long body, then a stiff and black-tipped tail. Neither of them had ever seen a mountain lion before, but there was little doubt that this was one. It was lean and muscular, with a tan coat that blended with the surroundings. Its head was angled downward and swung slowly back and forth as it walked. For a moment Carl hoped that it might not notice Pete, but this was nothing more than wishful thinking. It had noticed him from the beginning, had noticed all of them, and had already selected the one that was the most isolated and had the least chance of escape. It halted briefly, perked up its ears, glanced from side to side, then crept forward.
Pete was paralyzed with fear. The lion let out a deep and terrifying growl. It regarded its prey, which was now within striking distance, crouched down, flexed its powerful hind legs and prepared to pounce.
Carl yelled and looked for something to throw. Finding nothing, he raced ahead. Pete shouted at him to get back. “Don’t be stupid,” he croaked. Alerted by the noise, Nick and Burt began to throw rocks, which fell harmlessly short of their mark.
Carl edged sideways until he was in the lion’s field of vision. It glanced at him, but a glance was not enough. For what he intended, he needed its full attention and knew instinctively what to do. It was the same thing he’d always done to avoid attention in the past. He made himself look small. Small and meek, inviting the lion to consider him in lieu of Pete.
It growled, unhappy with this wrinkle in its plans. Eying the newcomer, it snarled and bared its teeth to study its reaction. Clearly, the new animal was frightened: its pupils were wide and its arms were trembling. It smelled different than the other one. It was sick. Tempted, the lion shifted position and prepared to attack.
Ever so slowly, Carl reached into his pocket, feeling for his knife. Careful to avoid sudden movement he drew it out and with one hand opened the blade. He could not remember the last time he had used it, although he did recall that it was dull. Still, it gave him confidence. It made him feel that he was someone to be taken seriously. Shifting his weight onto the balls of his feet, he raised his hands to a fighting position. He was no great hunter, certainly no great man, but he could think with his eyes open. He could feel things, he had friends, and he could act.
About the Author
Michael Blumlein is a writer and a physician. His most recent novel, The Healer, has been called "a landmark in its genre." He has been nominated twice for the World Fantasy Award and twice for the Bram Stoker Award. He has written for the stage and for film, and his novel X,Y was made into a movie. Click to hear an excerpt of his latest story, which is also the opening of his newest novel, still in progress.
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