Grendel, Leviathan, rainbow kraken; elixir of golden truth or corncob calumet?
“Whoa! That’s a real by-god Native American person down there by that waterfall.”
She pulls over. “What makes you think so?” Forever skeptical, this 40-something kid forgets I cruised the Caribbean for five years, my first mate a Kuna Indian.
Crabbing down the bank, I hail, “How do I get to Shaver’s Fork?”
He points his pipe upstream, a New Age gadget, glass and chrome, no calumet. Fetid wisps of smoke drift into the falls, folding into mist.
Who else but a Cherokee, squatting on a rock, dreadlocks sprouting from an indigo headband like a crow stuffed in a coffee can.
“Say, is that tsal agayun’ li you’re smoking there, chief?” Wherever I find Native Americans, I ask around for Nicotiana rustica, old tobacco eight times stronger than a Lucky Strike, grown in lightning strikes, stowed underground in deerskin, hair-side out, used these days for ceremonies, and to commemorate the poison they laid on Sir Walter Raleigh a while back as an act of long-range vengeance.
There’s a corncob pipe in the glove box, a hillbilly gag acquired from a welcome center after we’d spent a night in a place raped by mining—truncated mountains, jagged craters, bloodshot clay spray-painted with grass seed and abandoned to four-wheelers and gaunt elk roaming chain-link perimeters dreaming of forage and euthanasia.
“Ugh,” he weeps, wiping his nose, offering.
“I’m good for now,” I say. “How about I score a pinch for later?”
The girl up there honking. Afternoon oozing west.
Three months from now we’ll watch these woods fill up with snow, the stems of autumn leaves snapping beneath the weight of diamond dust, spilling whole galaxies into the tawny beams of morning sun. But now I sit on a warm rock dripping shadows. I knot a bead-head dropper on the Dave’s Hopper that duped a fingerling, light the corncob stuffed with rustica, and through a cloud of pungent smoke I watch my fly box—damn—wink through a riffle, bob around the bend.
I hop off my rock, loping downstream and giving chase, sloshing crotch and jamming toes, spooking trout from here to Maryland, until it dawns on me it’s a rhododendron bloom I’m after and all my pricey flies have gone the way of the fishes.
Where File Creek meets Shaver’s Fork, the bird-track map makes sense. Railroad tracks, for stocking trout by the boxcar. I snag a pale brookie just upstream from a Fish For Fun sign nailed on a juniper.
“Aw,” says the girl tugging on hip boots, “a baby!” A woman’s heart for infant creatures, scorpion or shrew. Without her censure, this fish would sizzle in a skillet—my first catch in West Virginia, July having stewed all but mud cats to lethargy.
A sheepish grin puts supper back. Writing or fishing, I’m haunted—this editor, who wasn’t even born when I returned from some Asian mischief. Yet still she mothers me, ever since flying to Belize to get me out of jail, my yacht stripped raw by pirates, abandoned like a shoe on a dead reef in the Bay of Honduras.
She says I’m not a sailor, should return unwanted to the classroom, out of harm’s way. But no: I’m more than that. I’m all I’ve ever met. I’ve drunk up chicha, eaten crocodiles, and have a heap of noble work still left undone.
She’d have me finish novels, bury life in print and sum it up, but old men know the final quarter is the time to grab the ball and run, not huddle up.
Her love would undo what I’ve done. Yet I must also love this muse and warden, whose nurture underrates a winter lion in his time to roar, not yodel on in swan songs sung too long.
I give her all, is why I ramble on.
“And on,” she sighs, wading up as I start down, alone together.
Yikes, bare shins twisting braids of white-haired water witches. It’s cold enough for arctic smelt in here, this lonely, lovely river stained sepia by summer rain, these windshadows burnished bronze by summer breezes.
I pause with heavy breath. The leaden air I suck transmutes, and everything turns amber, amber, amber—windswept clouds spun Rumpelstiltskin gold in fencing strobes of sun.
Here’s déjà vu: Bit by a rattlesnake one fall, I watched an autumn breeze transfigure Georgia pines and all the world to shades of El Dorado, a gilded world with vibrant undercoats of tarnished antique gold.
Look, look! I marveled to the pal who sped me to a surgeon.
Hang on! he said.
Now, free of angst, I watch again a leaden world transmute—a mountain stream, wood, tree, and rock imbued with aureate magic. Shivering, I sit on a warmer rock, anoxia of the chase fanning this lonely river valley with a golden breeze that sizzles aspen, bone-white sycamore, and ash to miraculous transfiguration. Broke loose by dizzy-headed coughing—how did they get Sir Walter to smoke this stuff?—another rhododendron plops in the drink. Well bless my soul, I’ve stumbled on a perfect place to fish: a little waterfall, plunge pool of molten iron webbed into a net of flaxen gold, as if this moment stalks me orbiting against the clock into a ducking vortex with the bead-head on the hopper, spinning in and out of time and self.
But wait! A flash of white eclipses half the pool and swallows up the whirligig of tandem flies, tumbling, a towel in the port light of a washing machine, flagging out of sight into the chiaroscuro of slashing light and sepia shadow.
Throbbing heavily, this thing turns inside out, a flower folding in upon itself. Dead weight and living pulse too strong to be a fish. But what? Some lobe-fin throwback from a mucky age? Landlocked salmon? Water witch? Uktena? Water cougar? Siren or Lorelei?
A 3-weight rod won’t pry this kraken up, but like the new-growth green of orchard switches, neither will it break from lashing childish legs in howling circles.
Thump, thump it goes. Sparring, shadow boxing, throbbing around down there, getting bearings, making plans.
I know I’ll never land this monster’s mother; I just want to see her, know how big she is—what the hell she is.
She shoulders from her cave to take a walk, feel out the opposition. Then quick as youth she jerks my line downstream—joo—joo—joooup—my yo-yo of a reel spewing line out to the backing. Then pausing for a somersault in amber air, she shatters all the world’s unraveling tapestry, splitting even me in two. One half, a younger me, gives chase downstream, kicking lace behind him like a coot. My other half, a gargoyle squatting on his mossy rock beholding the blither spirit in gilded nimbus and a better hat, who waltzes stones across a sighing river—rod high, immune to gravity—in a poetry of motion that puts to shabby shame Brad Pitt on the Gallatin near Missoula.
So goes this interplay of youth and jaded doppelgänger until a sudden clack of knees on stone recalls them both—the stuff of dreams and meat and uncut rustica, converged into a single epiphany of howling agony.
Then pausing for a farewell somersault into the amber air, the fish-monster flies—Sweet Lord and Holy Mackerel!—shattering topaz into shards, trailing pearls and prisms. What is this thing that flashes arcs of Iris, and where’s my editor? Who’ll witness this and who’ll believe?
This fish and I are bound and tethered by tangled line and moiling webs of blood from leaking knees snatched at by minnows. My hands support her throat, saw her through quicker water. I feel a colder pulse, more frantic even than my own, a knot of tachycardia, a twisted vein in palsy ribbed around by numb arthritic fingers. A kinship of fellow mortals inspired by ragged lungs in hyperventilation.
She kicks away and sinks into a stagnant pool a fathom beneath a mirrored gargoyle’s sagging face, a wobbling rainbow canted on the mica-spangled sand and polished pebbles. She’s suffocating, stressed past recharging breath.
A nimrod Beowulf plunges down to swim her up before I know it. A frail old fart in foggy spectacles on a dripping nose emerges through the mosaic of fractured sky, dog-paddling with one paw, the other hooped over a giant fish like wino lovers crabbing home.
I’d never shame this rainbow to a record book. It never crossed my mind—I swear to God, except a time or two—and I’m loath to mount her visage rocking glassy-eyed on an Airstream wall beside memento mori of turkey beards. I’d sooner snag my lip while gnawing off the dropper and have her drag me to her treasure cave to hang with cloudy carapace and mortal coils. But now, a duel of clumsy cunning has broken her, doomed her to carrion for swarming crawfish.
Away with that! By God, if she must die, I’ll build a fire right here with soggy matches, cook and eat her gravely as a cannibal an only child, host made by danse macabre on two ends of an orchard switch and eaten. Where should our rainbows fade but down the gullets of a kindred kind, committed to the timeless fang and claw of definitive predation?
I fumble up a passing stone to bludgeon her. So what’s a couple hundred yards and who’s to know? And man’s law, anyway. Alone, the girl upstream, in all these million acres of shrinking wilderness.
An amber bubble wobbles up and winks—I’ll know! the fish mouth yawns. And you will, too, you lawless son of a bitch. But go ahead, I’m tired and grown too old almost to catch enough to eat.
To kill a talking fish—more blasphemous than murder. Then we are swept into hissing run, tumbling over rocks that crawl upstream above the buried voices, when suddenly a sluggish tail kicks free into a twisting, effervescent chute: a miraculous resurrection.
“Good God, what happened?”
“A fish,” I whisper, shivering. “Don’t speak, just feel this slime on me. Oh, don’t you see the very air is fretted even now with golden fire?” Thin arms span monstrous fishes, amber skies.
She wipes her hands. Her skeptic squint. “You’ve got your shooting glasses on,” she notes, this Apollonius, her sharp eyes melting every shade of fantasy. “You lost the Polaroids a week ago in Tennessee.”
And true enough, the glasses off, the splendor dims a shade—but not altogether.
“She slimed me boot to belly. Just feel of it all in through here.”
Back at the Airstream, she measures me as for a coffin. Her seamstress tape snakes ankles polished bare by seven decades of socks. It crawls beneath her fingers around a knobby knee made proud from kissing stone. It slithers past atrophied thighs loosely bound in Jockey briefs. It stops as if to coil upon a fleshy mound around the rifled crater of a belly button.
How thin these flaccid limbs have grown so soon through age and jailhouse dieting; dull alabaster, tattooed with marbled veins of lapis lazuli, crosshatched now with ruby scratches like a child’s switched in howling orbit.
Uncapping pen, she enters measurements into the flyleaf of an ex-wife’s Bible, the kind of thing a woman leaves behind with fondue forks to make more suitcase room for silver.
“You didn’t stretch her out a little bit?” the cynic says.
“For who? This keeps a living fish from growing!”
“For whom!” she edits. “My, my, is this a little much?”
Behold a fated love affair! This girl who touched my slime and still lacks faith, the relic of a wet belt coiled yonder, minutely spangled in Lilliputian sequins, with one much larger diadem of cloudy mica.
“You had slime,” she says, “all over you.”
“I never claimed she was as long as me!”
“As I,” she clucks. “No, not even you can write that in a Holy Bible.”
So unembellished here by burnished leaves, October snow, or offshore breezes lies the bottom line, raw statistics noted in a holy text absent of names of born and dying kin:
Rainbow 31.5 inches. 7/26/09, 5:30 pm, Shavers Fork off File Creek Rd. 3 wt line w/6x tippet, #8 Dave’s Hopper, bead-head Woolly Bugger dropper.
The fish I grappled for my soul and lost to water spirits, released back to the web of living things by the better man we all become by dying.
Great fish will spawn or go by process through the bowels of poets, kings, and beggars. Our lives sans soul embossed on Grecian urns or buried deep in odes. Without some testament, our rainbows fade into the common light of day or flit away on threadbare spinner wings.
Our souls, thank God, are lent, not lost, to water spirits, hostage underneath the river stones where they belong. Our mortal portions stagger home to walk with sweethearts, wives, and friends, but when we feel the loss most keen, we take a Bible out and read a testament beneath a maiden name who never set a stylish foot into a travel trailer.
By wrestling angels, devils, editors, and fish, we learn what snatches souls and how to get them back. So where’s that matchbook map, my 3-weight wand, and Uktena scale and corncob calumet? There may still be some residue of windbroke hope for grace to conjure pristine rivers, golden dreams. n
On the frontier of his seventh decade, O. Vic migrates via Airstream between his South Georgia home on the Flint River and the bones of his great-great-great-grandparents in the North Georgia mountains, where he fishes with the worms that hath eaten of his ancestors.