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On the Water

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A taste for adventure

You’re 13 years old. You’ve commandeered a flat-bottomed, rectangular dingy somewhere, not your own, and you have it out one early, July morning, out far from shore on the Pend Oreille River in the big flat below the Long Bridge. The water is clear; so clear you can see the bottom at 25 feet and the sun glistens off the smooth surface of summer as it bores into your memory, imprinting details of the day on your young mind. You feel like Huckleberry Finn, you and your friend Steve. Life is all adventure, the better parts of it, and that’s what you live for from day to day, waiting for days like this when the sun warms your soul and you breathe it in and you are glad to be alive.

You’ve caught yellow perch on this water, fishing worms deeply near the bottom and they were of size quite palatable, 12 inches, and it was enough to make you proud.

Every time a fish is hooked there’s a countering joy that leaps inside you. Excitement comes at you from the clear shine. The water carries it, like something in the current. Surprise lurks in the depths just out of sight where you can’t see it.

On this day you’ve rowed the small boat farther out than you would normally go, probably further than you should have. You look back across the water toward where you live and you hope your mother is not looking, not worried, because the day is too perfect for worry, the sky so blue. The water carries you above another world of green-tinted weeds and fish that dart from your shadow as you peer through the surface looking for them, wishing for them, wanting them to bite your shiny, brass spoon as it wobbles just there, just barely in view as you row. And then there’s a quick form, a larger fish, come quickly to your lure and it takes it, takes it in, has gotten itself hooked and now turns to show its massive side of white silver and your jaw drops as the rush of adrenaline causes your face to flush. The tip of your rod bows down to the weight of the fish, as if he were a king among fish and to you, he is. And you don’t know if it’s a male or female but you don’t care because to you it’s a “Gosh, he’s BIG!” It’s a trout and one of size and you find yourself suddenly praying that it won’t get off or break your line because this fish the biggest fish you’ve ever seen or even felt on the end of your line and it makes the perch of your past look small and you’ve got to land this fish somehow.

Steve jumps about in the boat beside you volunteering the net that suddenly is too small, too short for what you saw in the water and you don’t know how you’re going to land it. The fish is strong, peeling line off your boy’s reel with incredible speed. It rolls on the surface, not jumping, but the roll is massive and you see the slab of it, bigger than your dad’s arm in width. You are helpless before it. The line peels off and you crank to hold it, pull back on the rod, but the line peels off anyway and suddenly there is no fish on the end of it, only heart dropping slack, a thin monofilament white laying slack across the still, smooth surface. And two boys sit down in their boat so far out in the water and say nothing to each other, both staring at the smooth, reflecting surface which now becomes the mountains of Schweitzer upside down…and blue sky.

Steve says something a boy would say but words do not form on your pouting lips of dismay. You just sit there and stare at the mean reflection knowing the fish of your lifetime has left you there with nothing but a taste in your mouth, dry, and you see suddenly how far out you’ve gone, far out into the realm of the bigger fish, where you know you’ll come again because that fish has bit into you and left his mark. You lay the rod down in the corner of the boat and pick up those childhood oars again by their handles and you row quietly back toward where you are supposed to be. Steve tries to console you, but you don’t answer him. You’re thinking of the next brassy spoon you’ll buy and how you’ll return again with stronger line. But you never do. 

Sometimes, on other glassy mornings or at night when you’re alone before sleep, you wonder what it might have been like to have landed that fish, to see it, huge, laying in the bottom of your boat, to take it home and hold it up for your mother who would have taken a picture, and how it would be to look back again through a photograph to check on its size and be sure.

That fish would visit and revisit you through life, swimming into your mind fondly at surprising times, letting you feel once again its quick strength, torpedoing silver, then roll for you again on the surface sheen, more clear and better than any papered graph, leaving the savory taste of almost. Maybe that was a greater gift; the fact, I mean, that you didn’t land it because a great fish like that, breaking off, showing itself and then gone, made a fisherman out of me. It made me look out the windows of school when the sun was just so and the weather just right. It made me buy lures and take trips, learn new ways to fish and develop a caring for this water, a wish that it would remain clear and so full of life like that, such great things for a boy to hold onto and for the man he became to wish upon others. 

How is it that such a simple experience remains through life when there is no physical bounty? I guess I’ll never know if the flesh was as good as the memory because the memory is all I ever tasted. Yet somehow I think it was better. It makes me care about the water, makes me care that there’s life in it, that there are great fish as well as lesser and that they are abundant. 

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Dwayne Parsons Dwayne Parsons

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