Monday, November 29, 2010

Waiting for a Fish—

We have been under the weather these last few days, Hokumburg, so we are offering this overwrought and perhaps overly sentimental chestnut from a few years back. We hope to be back in the fray in a day or two and hope this will suffice until such time. It is only a story, and stories should never be told the same way twice, and I would probably tell it different today. But it is, as they say, what it is.

When my Grandfather died he left me a rusty fishing tackle box, an old battered Stanley thermos, and a river full of memories.

I remember many a time we drifted lazy with the current in the jon boat, sunlight dancing across the ripples our lines made on the quiet surface, so I had to squinch up my eyes to keep the sparkles from blinding me. And I remember Grandpa poking through his tackle box, pulling out a snarl of hooks and feathers, shaking out the tangles a good five minutes until only one lure remained in his hand, and then holding that lure up for my inspection. Then, with his glasses on the tip of his nose so he could look down over the top of them at me in the other end of the boat, he'd begin to reel out a tale about the apocalyptic battles he'd fought using "this very same green scazzywaggler you see before you" in his never-ending quest to hook and land his mortal nemesis, Ol' Gaspar.

I smiled inside me.

Maybe my Uncle Jim was right about Grandpa always casting his line a little ways downstream of where the rest of us fished. You see, according to Grandpa, Ol' Gaspar was an ancient pike who prowled the shadows beneath the south bank of his favorite spot 'neath the bluffs. In time Grandpa came to believe that this fish had somehow swum down here from the Great Lakes during the Wisconsin glaciation nearly 10,000 years ago. Apparently, when the ice finally retreated northward, Ol' Gaspar had grown so fond of the Ozark climate that he decided to take up permanent residence.

Now a 10,000-year-old fish is strange enough for most people in its own right, but over the years, to my Grandpa, Ol' Gaspar became much more than just a particularly old fish. In his mind, this specific fish took on an
almost mythological quality, becoming a kind of archetype of freedom and downright pigheaded cussedness--something like Moby Dick was to Ahab, in a way. The difference being everybody in the great blue ocean could see that white whale. Nobody but my Grandpa ever saw Ol' Gaspar.

Even when I was but a little scamp, I suspected it was all nothing but a fish story. But when Grandpa would pour us two mugs of Myna's famous hot okra soup from that beat-up thermos of his, push his spectacles up on his nose, lean forward resting his elbows on his knees, and commence to spinning those stories like he was giving out slack with a new Zebco reel, I believed as much in the scale and fin existence of Ol' Gaspar as I believed in the strange witchery of that magic thermos which, though some spell-struck sorcery, held a piece of warmth from Myna's kitchen all through the cool autumn day and gave it back to us in the chill of the evening when we least expected it.

But that was all a long, long time ago.

About twenty years have passed since Grandpa died, and to tell the truth, I probably hadn't thought much about that old river in years, when my son Yeats, who's just a month shy of eight, stumbled across that tackle box and thermos in a steamer trunk stashed way up under the eaves in the attic, and asked me why, since we had all this "awesome fishing stuff," we never went fishing.

Well, I guess over the years I had gotten a little too busy for such things, what with casting my line for bigger fish--at least it seemed at the time they were bigger fish. Anyway, that very next weekend, Yeats and I borrowed a jon boat and drove out to see if we could find Grandpa's spot. What with everything that's changed in the world over the last few decades, I was surprised to find that old river right where I left it all those years ago. I thought they would have turned it into a Walmart by now.

That afternoon was the first time I ever told Yeats about his great-grandfather. And I tried to show him how to bait a hook, like Grandpa taught me, and how to cast, and where the big ones like like to hide beneath the pawpaws nigh on the bend where that big old sycamore leans out over the water like it's fixin to dive in and go for a swim. And I taught him how to stay real quiet and just listen to the world around him and to feel the wind in his hair and the sun on his back and smell the soft perfume of the rose mallow and the spotted cowbane in that breeze, heralding the change of the season.

A nuthatch was giving the scold to its mate somewhere in the scrub above the place where that beaver damn used to be.

And while Yeats squinched up his eyes against the sparkles, and the afternoon silently flowed by, and the shadows of the trees stretched out across the water like the long arms of time reaching out from the coming night, I just sat back and watched him stare at his line.

I couldn't tell you how long I sat there like that, but after a while I realized that I wasn't looking at my son anymore. Oh, there was still a boy in the other end of the boat all right, but instead of Yeats it was some other boy sitting there in the bow, waiting to feel a tug on his line, just as boys have forever sat in the fronts of boats and waited for a fish. There was something disturbingly familiar about this boy, but I couldn't quite put my finger on what it was.

And then it hit me. He was me. Through some weird mischief of light and shadow, I saw the boy I used to be, sitting there in the front of the boat, just like Grandpa had seen him over the top of his spectacles all those years ago. It seems I had somehow cast my line into some primal current and was waiting for whatever lurked just beneath the glassy surface to give me a tug, maybe pull me right out of myself and into someplace I had left long, long ago. And for a while, I existed entirely outside the realms of time on a kind of listless river where past and present and future were all tangled up together like the lures in Grandpa's old tackle box. And I felt that in another moment I would come face to face with the inexorable Soul of the Universe--the Big Crawdad himself.

And then something splashed the water and I snapped back from wherever I'd been.

"What was that?" Yeats whispered.

I smiled inside me.

The wind had changed around to the north, and I could feel the darkness come creeping down over the hills behind me like a cat, and I wanted to turn around and look that night right in the eye and dare it to come on and gather me into its embrace. But for some reason I couldn't do it. I couldn't turn around and face the darkness that would inevitably take this day away from me. "No!" I wanted to shout. "For godsake, no! Please! There are too few days like this, don't take this one away. I don't want to end up as just a faded memory to this boy!"

But I was silent.

And though it was only mid-October, I could feel the winter coming in that wind. I pulled that battered thermos out from under my seat and poured us each some okra soup--Myna's recipe. And when we reached out to each other and I handed him the mug, I suddenly saw him with his own son, floating lazy through eternity in a jon boat and telling my grandson or even my great-grandson all about me. Laughing and saying, "Now, my old man--there was an odd fish." I saw all this as clear and plain as I saw the last flecks of that purple sunset reflected in that sleepy river.

It only lasted a second.

Then it was gone.

And as we rolled slowly on down that timeless stream, my son and I, the crickets began to call softly to one another, just as they had when that other boy fished these waters not so very long ago. And there was a haunting sorrow in their song, as if they too mourned the ending of the day. One by one the stars came on their watch, and the ghosts of a thousand dead fishermen stared out at us from the shadows under the trees as we drifted by.

"Did you hear that splash?" he said again.

I bent over and opened up that old rusty tackle box.

And there it was.

That ragged green scazzywaggler, its hook rusty and broken, its flukes tangled up in old line, just as Grandpa had left it. But its fabric was worn and faded now beyond any capacity to tempt even your average 10,000-year-old fish, much less an archetype. I pulled it out, shook it, and cradled it in my hands as if it were a sacred talisman, a wish-bringer.

And with the moon just peeking up over Avenel's Knob and sparkling on the water, I started telling him about Ol' Gaspar


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