It was a glorious day.
The sky was as blue as an old flame’s eye and the leaves jumped against it in martial flags: Orange for Oak! Scarlet for Maple! Yellow for Birch! The sun was hot, and the breeze was cool. Everything was molten and crisp, crisp and molten by turns. I have always loved the fall. Summer’s veil lifted; the air becomes a lens making everything brighter, crisper, more vibrant. Even the fish become incandescent in their dreaming lies. Days like today you aren’t just alive, you are sure you are alive.
I felt every heartbeat as I looked at Dayan standing at the sink. Morning’s long light glowed around her. It would get tangled up in her lion’s mane and roam around there all day. I swear, you could smell the light on her.
I remember once, when I was teaching skiing up at the Pass, my friend Sue and I were the last ones in the parking lot. She lost a pearl earring, a present from her fiancé, as she took off her shell. It fell into six inches of fresh powder which sparkled under the lights like a moonlit ocean. We fumbled in the white blanket for it, but it was an impossible task in the glittering night. The next morning I drove into the lot with my friend John, parking across the lot from where Sue lost the earring. In the middle of putting on my gear I suddenly started walking across the parking lot. John called out “Where are you going?” To which I replied “To get Sue’s earring.” And I did just that. I walked 200 yards and put my hand into what was now twelve inches of light powder and pulled out that single pearl. My life was like that a lot I guess – lots of easy misses and a few incredible hits.
“What are you daydreaming about?” Dayan asked from the sink. But she smiled when she said it.
“You, always you. ” I said looking up from writing the little notes I always left for the kids. Sometimes a puzzle, sometimes a bit of wisdom, sometimes a poem; so much to say, and so little time to do it.
“Me, or fishing?” Why is it that truly beautiful woman can never believe it?
I put down my pen and looked at her, “You are the dream I dreamed until it came true.” She was looking out the window, I’m not sure she heard.
Dayan was my pearl. I fell in love with her when I was twelve; it had just taken me until I was forty-five to realize it. I was adrift and I reached my hand right into time and pulled her back. Now, here we were together and I was still falling more in love every day.
“What are you up to today,” she asked?
“Well now that you mention it, I thought I might take a wee walk by the river this morning, until the folks out West wake up. Then I’ll check in with them.” Somehow I’d convinced people I knew enough to be a consultant, which means I got paid more than I ever had for doing less than I ever had. Honestly, I could probably do most of it with a smart phone from the river, if I didn’t equate that with fornicating in church. “How about after that I come in and help at the café?”
I got up and walked over to the sink to put my arms around her as we looked out the window together across the fields to the White Mountains. A lifetime is lived for moments as these. I kissed her neck and she reached back to stroke my cheek. “That would be nice.”
“In that case, I better get to work.” I kissed her again and grabbed my rod as I headed out the door.
“Have you seen my forceps?”
“Did you leave them in the bathroom again, pulling out eyebrow hairs?”
“Nose hairs,” I replied. “And I only do that for you.”
“Gross.” She wrinkled her nose and flicked suds at me.
I crossed the field and paused before the cool shade of the woods to look back, but she was already gone from the window. She had her own daydreams. A lifetime of cruel men had left a sadness in her I could not erase, a distance I could not close.
I walked down the trail through the woods. I missed these woods when I was out West. Here, you could strike out anywhere through the hardwoods, choosing a path between the trees. The ground was wrinkled like and old skin and everywhere was history lying like a carpet of dead leaves in old foundations, bottle dumps, stonewalls. In the West, the evergreens closed on you like a funeral shroud, their deep, cool shadows hiding the pain of the new lands and mountains leapt at you shrieking off every new horizon as impassable as the infections of underbrush. I had relatives older than those states.
The trail took me through the fields behind the house, into the woods that dropped and then opened into a valley sparsely decorated with copses of trees. The freestone stream that ran through the valley was the kind of place that could spoil a man from traveling dreams. Fish more plentiful than large, more large than wary. You could get your taste on here and put to rest the devils that are exorcised by trout for a while. Hardly a day with less than three nice fish; and sometimes in the double digits, if you were feeling greedy.
There, in the shadow of Old Man Willow trailing his brows in water full of the tumbling leaves floating away like our brighter days, stood a crane focused on a minnow he had lost and seen. I watched him as I strung up, pictures of Dayan ran through my thoughts. One might say I had a knack of landing on my feet. Another might say I had a habit of getting knocked off of them. I hoped that I had finished making all of my big mistakes.
I made a few casts on the three weight strung with an October Caddis, the only fly I brought with me. Like I said, the fish here are not complex, and neither am I. In the quiet water I’ll drift it through as a dry, picking up a few small fish, then run it through the ripples wet like a tiny muddler to get any lunkers lurking on the bottom. It works and it gives me time to not think, if you know what I mean. If you are not careful, you can weigh yourself down with doodads and gizzymewhats, spending all of your time sorting gear and turning your past time into a fetish – as if fishing were about catching fish.
When I started casting, I realized there was more breeze than I thought, but eventually I put a few nice ones out. I stopped to remove a wind knot from my line and remembered fishing with my father. Trying to impress him with my august depth, as young men around their fathers are wont to do, I said, “You know, what I love about fishing? When I’m in the right frame of mind, it doesn’t even bother me to take out a wind knot.”
My father kept fishing but tossed a few words up river to me, “A man in the right frame of mind shouldn’t be getting wind knots.” Or did I just now hear that in the wind and the water? I’m not an old man, but already the banks of the river are populated by ghosts who converse in burbling tones.
I was just downstream of a small island covered with trees in autumnal flames. The back channel rejoined the stream here, forming a little eddy in front of me that tailed off into a seam where I’d caught many a fish loafing on the line.
I worked the knot out, pulled the leader through the guides, gave a few water-loaded casts to get some line out, and did a double haul to send the line to the far bank. And then the very strangest thing happened to me: Everything went dark and I fell forward with the momentum of my cast, facing downstream, one eye and half of my mouth in the water. The last cast fell in a pile, only half finished, and I thought, “Is this how it ends? A cast not unfurled, an unfishable fly? Is this how they will find me at the end of the glorious day?” I watched the fly spinning in the eddy, so slowly.
I remember once a Black Beret friend told me there are only two ways to die: lack of air, and lack of blood, which really was a lack of air. Funny how those things come back to you at times like these. I certainly would like to have breathed just then.
It seemed unjust that whatever had hit me could not at least let me finish my cast. A beautiful, tight loop unfolding across a favorite stream, watching the fly descend as gently as a snowflake – that was a proper death. Instead I was disgraced by a heap of line piled in front of me in an obviously aborted cast. Grown men would talk of this and shake their heads as surely as if I’d fouled my waders. “Such a shame,” they would say over their bourbons and scotch, “poor bastard didn’t even get to finish his last cast.” Never mind that I’d had one million irreproachable tosses, each as perfect as a Paganini note. No, that one last cast that would be the measure of the man. That would be the image I took into the afterlife.
Of all the things I’d left undone, and here was that Caddis drifting listlessly, its ambitions left unfulfilled. What a cruel world, to strip me of that at least. My acquaintances, I thought, would resort to that cliché best rolled out to appease the mourners, “Well, at least he died doing what he loved best.” (At least? What is least about death?) My true friends would grieve not my passing, but that damn last cast of inconsequence. “Poor bastard, didn’t even get his last cast out.” And that would be my true eulogy, one cast short of a full life.
It’s not a lie what they say. You do see your life go by in front of you. The odds, I thought, have finally run out. No more pearls in snow banks. Dylan Thomas came to me then, to rage against the dying of the light.
Oh, to rage! My belly was as tight and dry as a funeral drum. I was terrified of the cold, hard ground. I thought, when I die do not bury me, just let me dry up and blow away.
The breeze was picking up, and leaves blew into the water, they spun like little boats, each gayer than my concoction of feathers and glue. The oaks, ever the last to give up their leaves, gave a death rattle behind me. The little pile of line was sitting just at the edge of an eddy. The current was tugging at it just a little, pulling it out into the stream.
The fly was still spinning in front of me slowly getting pulled into the current.
My boys, my new boys that came with my once and future love. I would not be there any more. I had not said to them, “A house is not a home until it has love.” How can a man leave such a task undone? In the longest night I had not dreamed such dreams of success, nor could I have foreseen this end to a dream I dared not have. A lifetime spent homesick for a place I’d never been, now I was expelled before I’d barely got in.
The underwater eye was open too, though it was blind. I do not see how I could’ve closed it. The other eye roamed under no control but perhaps following the movie of my thoughts. A hawk, I think, flew by to inspect me. I used to see a lot of hawks, and eagles, ospreys and owls too. Raptors. They followed me while I fished and shone like dreams in my headlights at night. Closer and closer and more and more often they came to me. Once, in the forest in the small hours an owl touched my cheek with a feather as gentle and poignant as a fantasy. Messages whispered on wings I could not decipher.
I thought about moonbeams then, and my Dayanne, whom I would never see again.
Some things you can never have
Dancing through your fingers
Like a moonbeam
With a laugh
Keep on reaching
For your dreams
I think it’s gone
Then I hear your name
I smell the wind in the rain
Just a tickle there in the current. I could see the fly break out of the eddy, pulling leader, then just a little line. I couldn’t even move my eyes to follow it. I cheered it on. Let the boys in the bar talk about something else. It was a damn glorious day.
If I could’ve laughed about that now, I surely would’ve laughed until I drowned. Oh, I wanted to laugh again, out loud. To die laughing. Even to laugh at my cast. Now that is something my friends could toast. “The say he drowned in two inches of water, swallowed it laughing. That fool, I guess you can always laugh in the face of death, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t going to die.” I needed a merry wake.
I’d spent my time beneath the paper mountains that steal the light from the day, each new day a dry shave with a dull blade, never happy. All these years I thought I was killing time, and it was killing me. Finally, an epitaph, if only I could record it. But you can’t have what you want until you know what it is. That is what I would tell my sons: do not do these things that I have done. Do not be wild men.
I like to lay
Under the cool shade
I like to listen
Of days gone by
Drops of honey
Sliding past in my mind
I smell the wind in the rain
The breeze fetched round now, the fly was almost to the edge of the eddy and then slowly, so slowly, it got pulled into the current. I watched it drift away pulling that sad mess of line out with it. The faintest things will give a man hope. Not to live a breathing life, but to be well-remembered. “Go little Caddis, go. You who have served me so well these many years do not fail me now.” I was drunk, I think, or something near it, as that line drew out, such a short cast, not even played out the full distance before I had been cut down and it with me.
I remembered then my grandmother. When the priest came to see her he found her talking to her dear departed brothers and sisters. He said “Kitt, there is nobody here.” To which she replied, “I know, they will come back when you are gone.” The ghosts on the bank were watching me now, expectantly, their murmurs were coming stronger.
There the dancers
Are a forest whirling
When the music thickens
I let them take me in
You cannot worry about
The mistakes you’ve made
Can’t worry about future tides
It was in the flow true now, the line paying out under the fly’s minuscule drag. I could see it drifting faster with the current, on its way to its intended destiny. And then it was gone. I wish I could say I was apathetic, after all, we’re all like salmon in fresh water, just meat rotting on the bone and what difference does it make what we do or leave undone?
But I was not apathetic. I was raging in my way.
When the line suddenly jumped and ran down stream, pivoting the end of my rod towards it, my eye went dark. Any cast with a fish on the end is a good cast. Now my friends would have a good end to my tale. I thought last of Dayan inside me, and I was still falling.
In the very quiet
I hear the gentle notes
Of your voice
I smell the wind in the rain
What a glorious day. If life was a dream, I would like to wake up, mayhap to dream it again.