Her daughter tells her she should not fish alone. Her daughter, Sarah, calls most Sundays.
“Mother,” she says, the sirens of a distant city blaring in the background, “you really shouldn’t fish by yourself anymore. Especially at your age. It’s dangerous.”
She forces herself to laugh when Sarah tells her this, to show there was never an admonishment so absurd. How could she tell the girl, 1,500 miles away, that she has no choice? That without Sarah there is no one? And anyway, Sarah hated fishing.
She cannot adjust to this role reversal, to being chastised by her child, and so—childishly—she wants to defend herself. She wants to say she has to challenge herself in this way because she is losing that other challenge, the one Sarah doesn’t even know about. But then, right there for her daughter to hear on the line, she would come unreeled all the way to the final inch of backing; thin and exposed, with everything floating away around her, so instead she asks how Sarah is liking medical school and Sarah jokes about the cadavers. On the phone with her daughter, she laughs because she cannot cry, and these seem to be her only choices. Weep and go slowly mad like the woman in the attic, or laugh and go fishing.
The path along the riverbank is not well-worn and yet, save for a few spots barred by heavily-limbed snags and dense stands of lodge pole pine, it is at least discernible. She has trod along it for years, but this trail has been here since the last glaciers dug a trough for the river and retreated to let succession have its way. She cannot know this, of course, but she feels it in her bones as she walks. It is possible that the path is maintained by the traffic of a few other intrepid anglers, but she has never encountered any along this stretch of water, amazingly. Blessedly.
If you look at a map of Montana, blue scrawls etch across this corner of the state like veins, webbing and pulsing with life just under the skin, where you can’t quite see clearly enough to know what’s happening. Despite all the rivers, it still seems like there are more anglers than fishable waters, even in Montana.
Ultimately, her path is probably kept clear by the deer, whose droppings are scattered about the ground with the pine needles and dead aspen leaves, and the elk, who come to browse the riparian vegetation when the hunters drive them out of the mountains with their horses and rifles, or when the snow begins to fly. This year the snow has arrived early, even before the hunters.
She traces elk tracks along the trail, the snow making the bottoms of her feet tingle inside her boots. This kind of cold comes only from fishing, traversing frozen ground on the thin soles of uninsulated wading boots, and it is an uneasy cold, an invasive cold. A feeling to which she should be accustomed.
To the west the clouds sit low, the wounded sky a deep purple bruise, swelling as she watches the tall blue sky diminish eastward sliver by sliver. She does not turn back, nor does she quicken her pace. The air smells damp, but also sweet with the tang of the pines. The weather bothers neither her nor the fish, so long as the temperature hovers just here. It is probably a little too warm for more snow, and what is the sense of fretting over rain while standing in water?
A raven soars overhead, circling with the underside of its broad wingspan exposed to her. The mountains rising up along either side of the river valley create thermals, and she wonders if it is playing on these currents. Or maybe it waits for death to visit the canyon.
She begins to hear the huff of her breath. Her heart picks up, slaps like a trout on the line, and beads of water gather on her temples, matting her graying hair onto her face. When she first learned to fish—30 years ago now—a walk this far wouldn’t have winded her. Of course, everything was different then.
The strip of trees between the river and the narrow stretch of valley breaks for a few paces, and she sees the inglorious houses lined up along the pastureland. When she first discovered these pools, she only needed to pull over past the cow gate and traipse directly across the rangeland, the cattle pausing from their grazing to raise their heads and watch. A whole herd of longhorns, speckled brown and white—she still remembers them—used to live here, meander down to the river just like she did. Once they were used to her, a few curious ones would try to follow her down to the river, to drink from the cool water, but she would shoo them away with her fly rod. The cattle scared the fish.
There are too many houses now, just as there are too many anglers, and each seems intent to push out the native populations. Only the wisest and wariest remain, so that the fish are harder to catch and a heavy-set, middle-aged Montanan must struggle along the snarled riverbank, wading against the current when the growth is too thick, so as not to trespass on posted land.
The cows were eventually sold and then the ranch, too, and the land yielded its final crop, plowed under and sprouting foundations. The houses grew almost as tall and broad as the mountains around them. Against such a striking backdrop they looked like sickness. An incurable disease that mimics itself over and over, whispers cruelly, hello, we are here for your lifestyle. If you cannot defeat it, you might as well ignore it, she thinks. She looks down at the water swirling around her boots and resumes her slow, cautious steps up the slick river bottom. Swallows away the urge to look back out across the valley until the trees begin again.
When she finally reaches the pool the water is howling, butting up against the exposed rocks and rolling over to show its white belly in spurts and caps, now and then leaping up and over the rocks with a plunk so loud it startles her even on the shore. She completes her rigging: strike indicator, split shot, girdle bug, tippet, and, finally, a blaze orange egg at the end of the line. It is a frigid autumn, this egg will work. The browns should be eating the eggs they have laid below the surface.
She hasn’t always been a good mother, and some part of her still wonders whether she is—the part in constant battle with that other part of her, who gets on the phone on Sundays and tells Sarah that nothing has changed back home. Says that she didn’t answer her phone on Tuesday because she was at the library. Tells her everything is fine. Still, she reasons, all judgments about her parenting aside, she never feasted on her young come hard times. What a bizarre existence, being a fish. What a blissful one, too. One day when you strike at your meal you get a painful surprise, and you are either the sorer and smarter for it or you are breaded in the skillet. In either case it has all come and gone so quickly, and she envies this of the fish.
The fish, who are not biting. As her line drifts downstream she squints at the water. A seam creases the broad river, further out where the fast waters on her side merge with the stiller pool by the far bank. She wades out a few more paces. She hates the feel of the current against her legs, and she suddenly realizes that she does not hate it because it is tiring to wade through or difficult to cast into, as she had told herself all along. She hates the current because it is terrifying. She cannot overpower it, she can only try to outsmart it. So far she has succeeded, moving her upstream leg first and then drawing her downstream one only even with it, never ahead. Waiting to lift one foot until the other is firmly planted.
She has never lost her balance in the river. So far, her cunning has kept her upright. But always there is the current, a ferocious rage tearing at the fabric of her waders and her legs within them. Lately, she wonders if it is best to resign herself to its bidding.
She casts into the seam and a big brown—20 inches at least—rises a few feet from her fly rigging. Her casts are not for distance, so she takes another step nearer to the seam, hoping to fool the brown with the nymph and egg swirling past under the water. Each time she raises a foot off the bottom the river clutches at it, desperate to tug it downstream, and she must trust in the other one, still adhered to the rocky floor.
The water is up over her hips now. She wishes she hadn’t lost her wading belt. Her legs feel slow in the cold water. The dark wound of the sky finally seeps, then opens altogether in a steadily icy rain. She ignores it and casts again, letting the line drift as naturally as possible. All things under the surface must move with the will of the current.
She looks up to the opposite bank and notices something brown below one of the stout pines. It is a cow elk, bedded down beneath the boughs of the lodge pole. Instinctively, she scans the tree line for others. They are herd animals, it cannot be alone. Yet she sees none. She wonders how long the elk has been there without her notice. Their eyes meet and its brown ears perk. The elk gathers its legs beneath it, sluggishly, and she wonders if perhaps the elk has not seen her until now, either. It rises unsteadily and runs in a crooked pattern until it hits a low-hanging branch on another tree several feet away. It falls in a heap—at least it looks like a fall, although she cannot be certain because once on the ground it remains there for several minutes, resting. She can see its flank heaving in what looks like distress. Where is the rest of its herd? It should not be alone.
It looks back at her, rises again and pitches forward, finally settling into a crouch beneath the tree. Several more minutes go by, quietly somehow. Then, slowly, the elk’s legs buckle and fold again beneath it, and its black nose sinks onto the snowy ground. Has it removed itself from the herd on purpose? The image of the circling raven, wings outstretched high above, returns to her, and she wonders what sort of pact they have made.
Suddenly, her reel groans and spins to life. Line strips off with a squeal. She has forgotten about the fly rod in her right hand. She looks down at it and sees the rod tip arcing just above the water, and she knows she has entered that brief yet timeless instant where you hold your breath and wait for the surface to break, even as your body—automatically—begins the business of pulling in the fish.
Just as quickly as it comes, that stillness is gone and the fish rises and fights. It is the brown she saw before, the one she was after. But now she is unprepared.
The fish makes another crescent above the rushing water and then disappears, line tearing off the reel faster than her cold, thick fingers can grasp at it. The elk is still atop the bank, lying in the snow. The fish is disappearing downstream and she realizes her line is drawn out. Afraid she will lose the whole thing, fish, flies, line and all, she gives up trying to grab the line at the reel and lunges instead for where it streams out of the end of the rod.
The quick motion of her upper body throws her out of balance. One of her feet begins to slide across the layer of slime between boot and rock. She pitches forward, then leans back to recover. But she has done so too jerkily and now the other foot is sliding. The rod shoots out as she throws her hands back to catch herself. But there is nothing to hold on to. She grasps at the air around her and then at the water when she hits it. She floats weightlessly for an instant, but the moment is brief as her waders suck thirstily at the water around her. Her legs kick, her arms flail, brush against rock too slick to grab hold of. Her heart races, but her body seems clumsy, detached.
She finds she is amazed at how something—how she—can drift on a current so rapidly, when the very act of drifting always seemed to convey something idle, comfortable. Then again, she finds herself wondering in the midst of the current, isn’t this the best parting she could have asked for? The most natural? You are either the sorer and smarter or you are breaded in the skillet.
Would a good mother have told her daughter the truth? She wonders for a moment. That her body has betrayed her? But no, let Sarah think the river has taken her prematurely. Her hands still dumbly claw at intangibles, but in her mind she moves past. Past the weary elk, past the browns no doubt waiting for food to drift by below and seeking out their own eggs. Past the houses dividing and reproducing at such an abnormal rate down here in the canyon. Past the raven, circling above.