UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION
Fishing The Wind
Derek was cool when he fished, didn’t try too hard. The whole experience, not just the catching, was what made him love fishing. The smell of wildlife, the buzzing of grasshoppers, the way the essence of sagebrush hit his tongue,
For him it was a dance. When he read the river and chose his fly, he led. The moment a trout rose to check it out, he followed. With a rainbow on his line, the tippet a tenuous connection between them, Derek felt every twist of its body and responded, running upstream when it ran, letting line pull through his fingers when it dove. When one managed to get free from the hook, Derek never regretted using no barb. It just deepened his pleasure with the ones he did land, cradling the fat, soft bellies in the water and circling the muscular tails with a gentle touch as the fly slipped effortlessly away.
Derek approached the hole through the cover of trees. A brown rolled for his fly here last week and spit it out before he could lift his rod. He was a little slow that day, and the huge brown was gone before he realized she was there. He knew what hid in the darkest parts of this river; he’d hooked prize cutthroat and rainbow along this stretch where he rarely met another person.
He thought he knew all about “the one that got away” until this one, until he caught sight of the massive green back and bright colors that made him guess female, heard the depth of the swirl, saw the space between the widening circles left behind when she dove.
From behind a rock, he roll-casted several times into the hole. The caddis fly drifted across the smooth surface by the bank where the water darkened. Much of the water in this canyon was fast, with deep eddies like this one behind massive rocks. Holding his line high, out of the way of the fast water, he flipped the fly to the head of the hole several times and let it float through. Nothing. Then he tried a streamer. The brown probably had this hole all to herself, and she was not taking his flies.
He reeled in and headed through the willows, rod tip high behind him. He would be back.
He walked downstream and came out of the willows into a patch of river rock. The canyon walls and boulder peaks lifted him out of his funk and helped him keep walking. For a moment his mind was suspended in deep blue sky framed by granite. A red-tailed hawk called overhead and echoed into the pit at the center of his body. Indian Paintbrush and Purple Aster called in a different way, saying, “Ground, ground, ground.”
They came to Dubois, Wyoming, for the mountains and the fishing. That was eight years ago. They found a small cabin thirty miles from town near the Wind River. He was from Virginia. She was from Kentucky.
The cabin was a steal. Who would want to live so far from a town that itself was a spot in the wilderness? Jules got excited and took charge of fixing it up, re-chinking the log walls, building a polyethylene greenhouse to extend the growing season for vegetables, digging a new hole for the outhouse, clearing a path to the spring. All they had to do was figure out how to make a living in a town of less than a thousand. They got seasonal jobs at a dude ranch cleaning and doing maintenance and found they could stretch the money out through the winter months. Their expenses were low: bulk dried goods, kerosene, propane, gas for the pickup and chain saw. And fly tying materials.
Derek already had a good set of tools. He had been fishing a few seasons, and the streams in the area made even a novice seem good. With the tying of his own flies, the connection to the river deepened.
Jules set up a fly tying bench in the corner of the cabin. She wanted to learn and started with shiny Renegades, an easy fly to tie and one that worked on a lot of different water. She always kept a hook in the vise, and sat down at least twice a day, if not to tie, then to run her fingers through fur and feathers. She organized spools of thread and tinsel according to the colors of the rainbow.
Jules had a good roll cast and could drop a fly under a bush from a tree-lined bank. She still forgot and picked a trout up by the bottom lip sometimes, a habit she had from spin fishing for bass with her father when she was a kid. It’s not that she didn’t care about the trout. She used barbless hooks, like Derek, and released her catch right away, sometimes not even raising the fish from the water.
Jules held a fish up for Derek to see, her thumb in its mouth, bottom lip bent down over her forefinger.
He had fished with the purists, and they taught him how to handle trout to minimize damage, to cradle them in the current till they swam off. Jules bristled whenever he tried to tell her.
“Nice rainbow, Jules. Hey, you’re gonna break its jaw.”
Jules’s face reddened. She lowered the trout to the water and released it.
“Trout are more delicate than bass,” said Derek. He studied his fly.
“Yeah Mister Trout Fishing in America. He’s fine. Didn’t you see how he swam off?”
“Yeah, freaked out about having his jaw almost broke.”
Jules walked upstream to fish in front of him.
This wasn’t about trout lips. Derek knew that.
The first time Jules got pregnant was a year after they moved into the cabin.
“Derek, I’m two weeks late. I think we’re pregnant. Is that good? Do you think that’s good?”
“Jules, that’s great. I think.”
She screwed up her face and bit her lip.
“Of course, it’s great, Jules. Why wouldn’t it be great?”
“I’m not sure I know how to do it.”
“You’ll be a good mother. I know you will.”
“I’ll help you.” He held her and kissed her forehead.
She softened and curled into him. “Yeah, maybe I will.”
For three months they prepared, built a baby cradle, cut baby blankets from a flannel sheet, drove to Lander to shop yard sales for baby clothes. Jules wanted a natural birth without medical intervention. She was going to wait until later in the pregnancy to see a doctor. They fished almost every day, believing the river was good for the baby, knowing it was good for them.
“Derek, do you worry about how we’ll do it?”
“I think they just eat and poop for a long time,” he said. “It’s nature’s way of giving new parents time to get the hang of it.”
“No, I mean the money. How we’re going to have enough money.”
“Shhhh. The baby will hear you.” He put his hand on her belly, kissed her on the ear, and whispered, “Don’t worry.”
She squeezed his hand.
He bent down and spoke to her belly. “Baby, you will be rich. Rich in love.”
One day Jules came back from the river pale. She’d gone fishing while Derek was building a storage shed. She went into the cabin without a word. He followed her.
“The baby’s gone.”
“I lost the baby. By the river.”
“How do you lose a baby by the river?” he said. Then he saw the blood on her legs. “Did you…”
“Get away.” She pushed him away and fell onto the bed, sobbing.
It felt like he should do something, but he wasn’t sure what. When he approached her, she cried harder. He went to the other side of the room and sat in a chair. He wanted to be outside.
“Jules, are you okay?”
She cried herself to sleep.
She got pregnant three more times over the next six years. Every time, she carried the baby for two or three months and then lost it. The third time, she went to a doctor in Lander. He did tests and couldn’t say why she was having the miscarriages.
“Derek, do you think it’s because of me? Or maybe because of something wrong with us together?”
“No, Jules. There’s nothing more right than you and me together. Do you know anyone else who could stand to live with either one of us out here in the middle of nowhere?”
“I mean something wrong with our genes together or something.”
“No, it’s just what is,” he said. “It’ll be okay.” But he knew by her face it was getting less and less okay.
Then she got pregnant again. She didn’t go to the doctor this time, or get the cradle out of the storage shed. She wouldn’t do anything but sit at the fly tying bench and tie flies. She tied humpies, grasshoppers, Royal Trudes, Green Drakes, Blue Duns.
“You should get pregnant more often,” he tried joking. “I’ve never had my fly box so full.”
Jules glared at him and pushed her hand into a patch of elk hair on the bench.
He didn’t know how to talk to her about this. He just knew he loved her and needed her more than fish need water.
She miscarried again, and after this last loss, Jules was different. For one thing, she became a fish hog. She hooked and released just about every trout within fifty miles of their cabin. Whenever they went fishing together, she strode upstream, pulling a fly from her hat, and got her line in the water before Derek put his rod together. She never slowed or stopped to give him a turn in front of her. She didn’t pull her fish from the water any more, not even to show him a big one. If a fish was hooked deeper than the lip, she held the line taut and got the clamp down its throat, freeing it without ever touching the fish’s body.
Sometimes Derek just stood and watched her. She no longer fished from the bank. She was in the water, sometimes to her hips, even in fast water. When she bent to free a trout, it seemed she might follow it.
Jules started making up her own patterns. She stopped tying anything recognizable. She tied in fibers from plants, her own hair, even her fingernails and toenails. She gave many of the new flies to Derek. He was walking around with parts of her in his fly box, on his fishing vest and hat. Every time he let one of the new flies drop to the water, he felt he was offering up Jules.
“I haven’t seen this one before.” He took a new fly from the bench and inspected it.
“First of its kind.” Jules was busy with tweezers at the vise.
“Looks kind of like a mosquito, but moving.”
“Yeah, that’s my hair for wings.”
“But your hair’s blonde.” He looked more closely. “Oh.”
Jules only made love outside now, and only where she could hear the current. If he touched her in bed or anywhere in the cabin, she pulled away. Outside, she was the one to show she was interested, with a look or by saying, “How about here?” Derek wondered if it was because she wanted him outside or because she didn’t want him inside.
She had always pulled water from the river to bathe, but now she jumped in, even in winter. In summer she lounged on the rocks to dry, her skin and her long hair shining in the sun. In winter, she built a fire in the woodstove, pulled on snow boots, and went naked to a spot on the river where she kept the ice cleared from the bank. She pulled her boots off, jumped in over her head, scrubbed her soapless scalp vigorously, and came up gasping from the cold. Then she jumped out of the river and into her boots, ran back to the cabin, and wrapped up in a towel by the stove, her skin a blotchy red. At these moments, her eyes sparked with some fierce thing Derek couldn’t name.
They were fishing the deep mid-summer holes in the canyon. These holes were best fished from the bank, in places where there was one to stand on, or from the large boulders that jutted out into the river. But Jules was in the water, sideways to the heavy current, digging her shoes into the loose river rock that shifted under her feet as the river tried to wash her away. She had to balance her attention between staying on her feet, moving against the current, reading the river, and casting her fly. Derek watched her in awe. This was almost as good as fishing itself.
Jules moved upriver and Derek turned his attention to a deep hole with a downed pine tree lying across the middle of it. He was thinking how much he loved downed trees across the tops of deep holes and was trying his fly along every inch of the lower edge of the trunk when he heard a sound upriver, like a big fish rising. He looked and no Jules.
At first he thought she must have climbed onto the bank. Then he saw her fly washing back toward him, bouncing like mad on the rapids, a long length of her mint green line floating down behind it. He ran up the bank to the place he’d last seen her balancing on an underwater ledge in the current at the edge of a hole. Here the fly line disappeared down into the water. From a high boulder on the bank, he could spot her blonde hair waving before it sank too deep to see. He jumped in feet first and the height of the boulder shot him like a torpedo toward Jules. His feet bumped her and he reached down to grab her hair.
He kicked against the heavy resistance of his shoes, trying to reverse direction. He was running out of air when he got going upward. The cold water numbed his body. He felt nothing now but the pain in his lungs—arms and legs dead, sure he was going to die and she was gone. He kicked furiously, going for air. He had to get back down and find Jules.
He surfaced, gasping. Jules heaved up beside him and clutched his head, pushing him under.
Now he could feel her body jerking in his hand, her hair still caught in his clenched fist. The pulling and clawing made his mouth fly open, almost made him breathe in, before they surfaced again, both of them choking and coughing.
He got behind her, her body limp now, and pulled her to the bank, dragging her out of the river. She lay on the ground curled on her side for a long time, gulping air and shivering. Derek curled up to her and held her. The shadows of pines reached over them, the sun lowering toward the canyon wall.
Jules stayed in the cabin for three days, mostly in bed. Sometimes she sat at the fly tying bench, but she didn’t tie any flies. She just sat running her hand over hackle or brushing the side of her face with a feather. Every time Derek tried to talk to her about what happened at the river, she said she didn’t know.
She came out the morning of the fourth day and sat beside him on the porch. The sun was rising above the trees and grasshoppers were waking up and clicking around the meadow.
“Perfect day for the river,” he said.
“Yes, but I want you to drive me to town.”
“Is there something you need? Are you feeling okay? Do you want to see a doctor?”
“No. Yes.” Jules looked into her coffee cup, not at him. “No.”
“I have to go. I can’t stay here anymore.”
The clicking of the grasshoppers was ratcheting something down in his chest. The sun was mocking, gleaming off the river in the distance like nothing was happening.
“I just have to go, Derek. I know I have to go.”
“But where are you going?”
“I don’t know.” Tears were running down her face.
“Are you coming back?”
Derek let Jules out at the main intersection in town. She had a backpack, the same one she was carrying when he met her over eight years ago. She plopped it down on the side of the road and a dust cloud rose up and settled again. She hadn’t asked him to go with her. He didn’t want to go. He didn’t want her to go.
A silver truck outfitted with spotlights and a gun rack in the back window pulled up to the four-way stop. Spin rods and rifles hung in the rack. The two guys in the truck called out to Jules, asking if she needed a ride. Derek’s body tensed, ready to jump. Her body was unexplainably relaxed as she shook her head and said no. She wouldn’t do that right in front of him. The poachers drove down the road.
She leaned toward Derek and touched the hood gently, then waved, stepping back. She didn’t look happy, but she didn’t look like he felt. He was glad he was sitting in the truck because the only thing he could move was his foot, and even that took everything he had. He drove off slowly and glanced back in the rearview mirror. She was going to stick her thumb out, and he couldn’t bear to see it. He pressed his foot to the accelerator and dust rose up in the rearview.
He walked into the cabin and saw the fly tying bench. He grabbed his rod and vest and went to the river. He fished for hours, not catching anything, not even reading the water, just false casting over and over again like rocking himself, and occasionally letting the fly hit the water wherever it wanted.
He opened his fly box and pulled out one of Jules’s creations. Her cut fingernails were the fly’s curved wings at rest. The tail was made of her hair. He curled his fingers around the fly and tightened his grip until the hook dug into his palm. He tipped his head back and let out a howl.
The river made sounds he’d never heard before, melancholy notes that plunked into his heart and resonated. The day was hot and heavy, the river so dark it absorbed the rays of the sun. Everything melted down, flowed. Even his knees were liquid. What was holding him up? He walked across a point of river rock to a riffle. The small round rocks shifted slightly under his feet and their hardness was comforting.
He made his way through the canyon and dropped his fly into a dark hole behind a boulder. The brown rose and spit his fly out before he knew what was happening. His heart leaped and almost choked him when he glimpsed the long, green back and the rush of spots and circles. He would come back here again and again until he could cradle her in his hands and release her himself. She was beautiful.Kathy Conde won the Hemingway Festival Short Story Contest and has twice been a Glimmer Train finalist, as well as finalist in the Rick DeMarinis Short Fiction Competition. Her short story collection, More Than One Way to Break, was a semifinalist for the Iowa Short Fiction Award. Her work has appeared in CutThroat, Orbis, Pearl, *and others. She is past fiction editor for Bombay Gin, Naropa University’s literary magazine.
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