This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
by Joshua Allen
Howard thinks about his wife more often than not these days. The buzz of the reel when a fish is hooked and makes a run reminds him of the way his wife Sara used to hum to every song. She never sang the words. You don't know the words to a single song in all of recording history, he would tease. Happy birthday to yooou, she would start, but somewhere around the third "happy birthday" she would revert to humming. He would always hum right along with her. He rolls one more cast upstream far enough away in the deep water that he can only assume his fly is dancing below the surface on the end of his invisible leader. The orange piece of yarn he has tied halfway up the leader produces no telltale stall. So, he reels in the thick green fly-line to try a new spot. Do you love fly-fishing more than me? she would ask. Depends, he would say with a grin, how much do you love flyfishing? She slapped his arm. Do you? she would persist. Absolutely, he would respond as he pulled his vest out of the
closet. Prove it, she would roll lazily away from him, only breaking her gaze at the final moment. Sometimes he would try harder than others to prove how much he adored fly-fishing, but in the end he was never the die-hard he pretended to be. He used to ponder how great it would be to arrive at the river before dawn, like he'd planned. Now, as he hooks his fly into the cork grip of his rod, he wishes she were still around to make him late. He looks upstream and considers the terrain. The easy route is the shore, but he still has enough pride to wade up the stream. Besides, getting back in is always loud, disruptive. He decides, despite the river's early season depth, to wade. On the occasions when his father had taken him on his fishing trips to Navajo Lake (always when all his father's friends were out of town), he used to sit in his dad's Chevy pickup and trace this same river with his eyes. He followed it inch by inch as they curved along the road. Sometimes he would have to strain to keep it in view; sometimes the river would dip behind a tall embankment and all he could see was grass, maybe a few twisted trees. On the right, as they ascended the hill to the spillway, the Navajo emerged, dotted with specks of the sun and boats. The occasional bald eagle would circle at the far end, near the thicker trees, waiting for its eye to catch its next dive-bomb victim. On the left, the San Juan River flowed out like a leak
sprung from the massive concrete structure. They passed over the dam on the way to the boat ramp, and if he sat high on his seat, he could see the slope that pointed to the river, a giant stone water slide. "I heard some teenagers tried to slide down that last year. They never found the bodies." His dad said this as an afterword to the car ride, a foreword to the day of fishing; it was how he knew they had arrived. He always added, as a postscript, "Maybe some day I'll teach you how to fly-fish. Would you like that, kiddo?" I heard some kids tried crossing down here earlier this week. One of them caught some water in his waders and was swept downstream. Happened so quick, his friends didn't realize what had happened. He inches forward towards the deeper water, testing the depth with the end of his pole. He sees the kid dragged under, blinking out of existence while his bewildered friends call his name to the banks. Little steps, that's the key. Kids these days are always in such a hurry. He steps down and the water goes from knee-deep to almost above his chestwaders. It pushes him, insisting that he is going the wrong direction. Tons of water flow against his entire left side, attempting to correct his mistake. This is one of the few places of solitude on the river. Upstream not five hundred feet is at least a dozen fishermen.
Further up, by the dam, maybe fifty more. They fish where the schools are so big they can see the fish across the river at its widest point. The men line up along the strips of land in the middle of the river and the edge, cursing when they get tangled in each other's lines. Most of them aren't even from the Southwest, let along New Mexico. Mostly they're tourists looking to take a trophy from the famed river. He and Sara used to pass them by with disdain. He fishes downriver, where his father first taught him to lift and roll his line, using the current as weight, loading the rod to shoot the fly to the perfect spot. Down here he can always find solitude. Down here, you rarely see a fish at all. When you've fished long enough, you don't have to see it with your eyes, you can look at a spot and know that he's there, feeding, breathing, moving only when absolutely necessary. Such a place is only ten feet in front of him. He steps up on a shallow ledge and squints at the eddy. The river ripples over the rocks, mottling the detail of the riverbed. It looks only a few inches deep, but he knows better. The ripples flow into a lichen-coated rock and are deflected away, leaving a navy-hued pool behind. There, his eyes penetrate only a few inches of the river's depth. There's a trout in there, maybe a big one; a king. This is his domain. Occasionally another fish will dare to enter the
stillness, but the king chases it away with only a brief dart. Otherwise he sits there, letting mates and food find him. He doesn't have to move because the river is filled with tiny orange and yellow worms that simply flow into his open mouth. He never has to chase a mayfly or bee on the surface, never has to dig for a midge. In this river, he gets all he needs by just being patient. The king is suspicious, cautious. He didn't get to be that big by thrashing around like a minnow. The slightest disturbance will make him quit feeding, perhaps for hours. * * * Howard had only caught a trophy once. It had been well over twenty-five inches, by far the biggest he'd ever caught or seen live. He'd battled it for almost half an hour. It had been smart, jerking upstream, relaxing, then sweeping across the deep water where the current was heaviest. His leader was ten pound test, the fish was more than a match so he'd let it run when it moved, reeled like mad when it paused. When he'd finally fought it within net range, his right wrist was throbbing. His friend, fishing from the shore, had jumped up and down like a two-year-old.
"It's huge! You gotta get that thing mounted. I'm gonna go grab my camera!"
With his left hand he'd held his fly-rod out of the river. With his right, he'd scooped his net toward the fish. It had bolted when it felt the disturbance and he'd felt his line finally give. He'd pulled his net out, expecting to find it empty. But the mighty fish had been trapped by the green nylon network, and was staring at him with one eye. Its red and purple stripes were especially bright. It had been mating season, then, and the fish had been loading up on food to compete with the younger stock. Howard had been excited, imagining the fish on a lacquered plaque in his den. What would Sara think? Oh, Howard... she would be trying to smile and be happy for him. How could you kill something so beautiful? He'd heard his friend wrestling through the brush, no doubt with his waterproof camera in tow. Howard had taken his needle-nose pliers from his pocket; gently, he'd freed the tiny number fourteen hook with its piece of yellow chamois chewed almost off. He then had put the net in the water, and had guided the fish upright with his hand, careful not to touch it with more than his fingertips so he wouldn't damage its sensitive mucous coating. The fish had regained its composure quickly and let the stream take it away a few yards before darting off into deep water.
"Where'd the fish go, Howie?"
"Ron, I've told you I hate 'Howie,' haven't I?" Howard had tied a new fly to his leader. Ron's waterproof camera had dropped to his side. "Oh man, it broke your line after all that?" Same size fly, same size leader as that day, Howard thinks as he trims the excess line with his clippers. He stuffs them in his pocket and takes the rod midpoint, bending the tip to within reach. He stretches to reach the tip, leaning over the deep water. He grabs it at the same moment his clippers spill out of his pocket, sink quickly and come to rest on the edge of the ridge. Howard sets the rod on the shore, then rolls up his sleeve as far as it will go. He takes a deep breath, eyes locked on his clippers, and plunges his hand into the water. His elbow follows, then his shoulder, and finally his face comes to rest on the surface of the water. It feels like ice rushing across his cheek. Howard's sleeve unrolls into the water as his hand turns into an icy claw. He slaps around the riverbed for a second before locating his clippers. As soon as he is certain they are in the grip of his fingers, he slides his arm out of the water. He slips the clippers back into his pocket and starts rubbing the feeling
back into his arm and fingers. The screaming pain begins to dull in the sunlight. Bright red, his claw melts back into a hand. The water is cold enough to freeze, his father used to say. Only the motion of the current keeps it liquid. In fact, the water is so cold, if you were dragged under, you'd probably die of hypothermia before you drowned. When his left hand is warm enough, he picks up his pole and begins stripping off several yards of green line. He grabs the leader, minding the hook, and pulls the line through the eyes of the pole, letting the current help it along. With his line several feet downstream, he lifts the tip of his rod and moves it upstream, loading the rod. The rod finally snaps forward and the line shoots up and out, just above the spot where the king waits. The leader, invisible to the fish trails behind the thicker line. The tiny worm passes the rock without event. He repeats the roll cast a few more times and each time the line moves steadily downstream. It should be hitting this fly. "You're so stubborn, sometimes." Sara would tell him, back when she still had reasons to laugh. A smile touches his face, "Just like your Dad." He pulls his line in and swaps the small orange worm with a small chamois worm tied to the same size hook. He lets out the
line again and flips the fly to the far side of the rock. As it passes, the piece of orange yarn floating on the surface hesitates, uncertain it should proceed. The water drags past it, leaving a light V on the surface of the water. He gives the rod a quick flick, pulling the line with his free hand simultaneously. The line pulls back as the fish shoots out of his kingdom into the open terrain of the river. It jerks and sweeps across the river, moving upstream sideways like an oar. Howard fights the king, but not for long. The fish surrenders, in the end, easily. When he brings it to his net, he finds out why. "Swallowed the hook." He thinks of the first time his dad said those same words, when he was eight. At the time, he thought that fish was the biggest in the lake, but it had been probably no bigger than the size of his grown-up hand. It was a silver and black crappie that had been hiding underneath an overhanging tree, feasting on gnats that came to close to the water's surface. The worm Howard'd had on his hook had been much more appetizing and much less mobile. The fish had it swallowed before Howard had felt a twitch. His dad had tried to free the hook with a pair of needle nose, but wound up ripping its guts out. Howard remembered puking into the lake, seeing the fish with its intestines hanging from its mouth in their live well.
Howard's leader disappears into the fish's mouth, the tiny hook buried somewhere in its gullet. He could try to free the hook, risk disembowelment, or simply cut the line and risk starving the fish. He certainly was a king, greedy to the last. He takes out his pliers and tries once to free the hook. The fish jerks at the most inopportune moment and the pliers tear into his fragile gills. Damn. Howard unsheathes his fillet knife and picks the fish up, belly-side down. With a flash he brings the dull edge of the knife down on the king's skull. It seizes, then goes limp. Working quickly, he inserts the knifepoint in the fish's belly and opens it up to the jaw. With one pull he frees its gills and bowels, tosses them on shore for the raccoons or coyotes to enjoy. He slips the fish in the large mesh pocket on the back of his vest. As he's putting the knife back into its sheath, he fumbles and the knife dives into the water. On its way to the riverbed, the razor sharp edge plunges into the soft rubber of his waders. The water, sensing with its inexorable algorithm of pressure, the breakdown in Howard's protective gear, fills all the open space it is able to so quickly he has no time to react. The force and weight of the water is more than Howard can resist as it pulls his leg down and deep. The water hits his chest and his lungs clamps shut, forbidding his breath. More water rushes into his waders and Howard begins to thrash and tear at the
suspenders as they cut into his shoulders; he fights to keep his head above the water. He feels the pressure suddenly give from his left shoulder. He stops moving, but has no idea why. He realizes that his right hand, somehow above water, is locked onto an overhanging branch. The strap cuts deep into his right shoulder as the river, quite insistent, continues to drag his waders and his body. If my grip slips, it wouldn't be suicide, not really. No one could blame me, not if I just couldn't hang on anymore. I could finally be with Sara again. She lay on the sterile green sheets, wasted. Cancer had beaten and raped her once-beautiful body. Her eyes fluttered halfway open, fighting the teary discharge squeezed out in sleep, in pain. He wiped them off with a soft linen handkerchief. Her eyes were open, but buried in shadow; her sockets looked empty. Her lips cracked apart and a breath escaped her lungs. "Please kill me, Dad." "It's Howard," he took her hand, "it's me." "Please, Dad . . . don't hurt me anymore." The machine that pumped breath into her was an arm's reach away. He moved his hand in its direction. It wouldn't be murder, not really. He could never murder his wife. He would be ending
the suffering of a beautiful rainbow trout that had been gillhooked, left for dead. A song occurred to him, their song. He started to sing, growing louder as his hand settled back into his lap. Another noise crept into the song. Sara was humming along with the song, staring in no particular direction at all, but seeing something he wished he could see. His singing turned into humming and as the song ended, he realized he was humming the song all by himself. He strains with his left hand to grab the branch his right hand is clutching. When he gets a grip he lets his right hand go and the suspender is finally able to pull off his shoulder. His head shoots out of the water. With this newfound breath of air, he pulls himself onshore before he can start to feel the pain. Curling into a ball, trying to will the pain away, Howard hopes he has not come to rest on a fire ant hill. He doesn't know how much time passes before he is able to pull out the fish from his vest. He lays it out on the ground, trying his best to wipe the wet sand off its body. What if I were as pretty as a rainbow trout? She had asked him once, right after she found out. Well, then, I'd never have to go to the river. She had smiled, absently humming some old tune from their days in high school. Would you finally love me more than you love fishing?
As Howard lays the grass in perfect rows across the trout's body, he hears a distant hum. He rolls over on his side and presses his lips against the trout's fading red stripe. He feels the river flow over his body, but it is no longer icy cold. It pulls his eyelids down. The distant sound of humming, from far in the back of his throat, soothes him toward sleep. He covers the trout's body with his hand and lets the river carry him away.
This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?