|watercolor & ink ~Doris Loiseau|
Twenty miles to the west, in the higher ranges beyond the river country, a furious elephant head of smoke storms against the summer sky. The prevailing westerly wafts smoke upriver. My eyes sting and water. A yellow jacket orbits my head while I rig a new tippet at the picnic table in the yard. There’s something apocalyptic about the yellow jackets. I’ve never seen so many, never seen them so aggressive. They are dense near water, and a neighbor’s cow was stung blind trying to drink through the layer of yellow jackets covering a water trough. Hotter weather and they produce more young – and winters lately haven’t been cold enough to kill them down. Same with the tree beetles flaring the pines from yellow to brown. The woods are as dry as gunpowder.
|watercolor & ink ~Doris Loiseau|
The government is selling the trees to eliminate the fire hazard, the policy creating a combustible wasteland of neck-deep logging slash and exposed soil baking in full sun. The ridges beyond the river bluffs have lost their sleeping mammal profiles, the scalped tree lines abruptly broken with the obtuse mechanical angles of fire roads and clear-cut logging jobs. I backhand the circling yellow jacket and it falls stunned into my coffee.
The radio pulls in a jazz program. The blare of a horn from the open cabin door assembles into John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. A riot of birdsong erupts from the woods beyond the yard, momentarily syncopating with Coltrane, Garrison and Tyner. I listen. The players push order to the edge of chaos, they explore that strange borderland, then agree to surrender instrumentation entirely. They chant – “...a love supreme… a love supreme…” – and the chant sounds ironic to me, both mournful and joyous at once. I watch the crippled wasp struggle against the coffee dregs.
Ariel gathers some things and puts them into her daypack. She’s going to walk down to the river with me. I’m fidgety and restless and ready to go. She knows I want to fish.
We cross the road, push through a meridian of tall grass, cross the railroad tracks, then pass through shadows under the pines, emerging into full light at the riverbank. We surprise an osprey ripping the guts out of a trout on the edge of a gravel bar. It lifts its wings and hurls itself into the sky, the trout intestine a dangling exclamation point. The sun is still heavy on the water. It’s a little too early to fish.
Ariel strays off poking along the shore, bending to pick up an odd bone from among the stones. She holds it up for me to see – “Pelvis?”
“Yup. Looks like a pelvis. Maybe an otter."
She absently performs a single provocative gyration of her hips while musing over the interesting construct, then places the bone back as she found it and meanders off down the bank looking for other secrets.
I move back toward the trees and find a spot in the shade, the end of day red sun almost touching the bristled ridge across the river. I sit, observing.
There’s the smell of smoke from the distant fire, but also the regular incense of pine pitch, hot stones, and cold water. The river smells like trout. Summer’s breaking swell accelerates with the momentum of climaxing events, human and not, yet the trout remain a fair constant, feeding with nearly perfect fidelity, at least for a short spell in the evening.
The sun passes behind the mountains, shadows reach to bridge the river, the sky turns injured pink and the undersides of mare’s tail clouds glow red. Then the river turns red and for a moment it is like a river of fire. As the sun sinks lower it cools to a river of blood.
Swift hunting spiders spring from their hiding places among the stones, assessing me as I pass from the trees to the river. They dash back to their crevices when my gaze falls on them. “Go ahead and hide, the sky is burning and the game is on,” I tell the spiders.
A banner of current unskeins from the tip of a rocky point. The seam formed at the confluence of the faster mainstream and the slower water under the point runs for about sixty feet before tailing over shallower water. Working down the length of the run quartering empty casts, I see a few sedges but not much else besides the yellow jackets hunting close over the water. It feels off. I quit casting, sit down on a stone, take a drink from the water bottle and sit watching the water. I watch for a long time.
Approaching twilight, a trout rises on the seam.
The old grass rod delivers.
The trout, a good one, pounces the swinging fly hard enough to break the tippet.
The line hangs limp, weightless in the coursing vacuity. I moonwalk back from the river’s edge, the broken tippet flapping from the rod tip.
A strange gull lifts on the curly breeze, head tilted, alert for scraps, while I tie a new tippet to the leader. It looks like a gull I’ve seen down in Baja. I look over my shoulder at Ariel sitting cross-legged on a flat rock, a thin blonde Buddha, her sketchbook open across her lap, pencil poised above her knee, watching the gull. Ariel doesn’t miss much, which scares me sometimes yet comforts me too. She returns to her drawing and her hair falls from behind her ear the way I like.
The new piercing that nice trout was now sporting in its lip had been an experiment, I’d only tied two. I scan my box, pull the remaining one, tie it on, and hike upriver to check out a fresh seam.
My fly hunts down the eddy seam. The few rises are mostly beyond casting range. The water is black, hard. I cast to the stingy water while losing light.
Ariel finds me, her stuff put away in the pack. Reluctant to leave, I wind in, and then a trout rises, an easy cast from the bank. Ariel sees it too and without a word takes a resigned step aside.
Pulling line from the reel, I slink hunched into position for the cast.
The trout takes the fly on the first drift.
We raise a short ruckus along the bank, me and the trout.
And the trout blows itself out with the effort.
Carefully, I press the yellow and black striped fly from the corner of its jaw, and we admire the 18-inch cutthroat laid out like a newborn in the rubber net bag. It’s a boy. Big head on him, deep bronze down the flanks, and oddly shaped, fingerprint-sized black spots, the deepest black, the blackness of black dwarfs, extinguished hearts of exhausted stars constellated on the tail and rear half of its body. The orange slits under the lower jaw glow like firebrands. Gripping the trout by the tail, I hold it upright until a surge of firm energy passes into its body. I let go, the trout kicks away, the dark water absorbs its light and it is gone.
A cool breeze gusts from the river and enfolds us, clean, bending the stems of tall grass, yellow tops fat with seed. We sit together on the river stones and watch the stars appear.
“It’s good. The fishing is good isn’t it.” Inwardly amused, matter of fact, Ariel means it as an affirmation not a question. She is linked in congress with the moons and tides of this world and her observations can usually be trusted.
The night is exquisite and the stars are very close. A saffron glow illuminates the sky behind the mountain where the full moon will rise soon. I contemplate the dark river where I see no desolation and all appears secretly well.
Everything passes. Nothing lasts.
“Yes. It is good,” I allow, finally. Early stars course down the arc of sky, the river whispers and clucks. I hear myself emit a sigh. I purse my lips and nod, hoping she is right, hoping it is so.
Steven Bird 2016