The boy had been coming up to his uncle’s farm his entire life. He’d helped his uncle cut pulp and hunt deer in the fall. He’d fished the lakes and river with his cousins and uncle for years, but now, at 13, he desired to see what lay beyond, to catch the fish that must be bigger in a lake he hadn’t tried. He’d spent the winter dreaming of this trip, waiting, but the snow delayed him and ever so slowly changed into water and sank into the lawns and drains of his neighborhood. On the drive up from Chicago, his mom had given permission and issued warning in the same breath. “You may go adventuring as much as you like, but be careful.”
The morning buzzed with excitement as the boy shivered into his Levis and t-shirt. His socks whispered across the dining room floor and into the kitchen. He made toast, spread preserves on it to the very edge, and put two pieces, face together, into a baggie. In a second baggie, he placed a hard-boiled egg and the saltshaker, hoping it wouldn’t be missed. The boy stepped onto the back porch, slowly closing the creaking door behind him. He slipped into his high tops and grabbed his coat off of a nail, dropping his food into his pocket. A beagle bayed as the boy stepped into the yard. Walking across the barnyard to the shed, he opened the door and took out his fishing pole and tackle box. Opening the box to inspect his lures, he fingered the hooks, feeling the sharpness of the barbs. The boy anticipated the surge of a fish strike in every muscle. This was the day.
He walked down the gravel road that ran in front of his uncle’s farm. One half mile along, he approached a bend in the road, slipped past a gate, and headed down a two track toward the river. As he walked, he imagined his Mepps sailing across the water, the little spinner and minnow dropping in to entice a bass. The chill of the morning drew his mind back to the present, though. The wetness of the morning, the dew of grass and weed, seeped through his pants as if it had a mind of its own, attaching itself to human flesh. He remembered hot autumn days with the buzz of deerflies attacking the back of his head. On those days, the river was an oasis, a place to swim and run along sandbars. “Oh, it’s high,” he said out loud as he came around the last bend of road. Rising over its banks, the Black pushed past the trees and dense brush of the shore. “No sandbars today.” It surged.
The boy knew what to do. His uncle had cautioned him often when they came to the river. “If you get into trouble, just swim with the current, Frankie. Don’t fight it or you’ll drown.” He knew he could make it. He just needed to get wet. The spring river was cold as it inched up his legs, tightening his stomach. Deep Lake lay only five hundred yards back in the woods on the far side, a hundred yards below this landing. The boy felt the pull of the water against his body, but he didn’t fight it. He held his pole and tackle box high as the water swept his legs out from under him. He felt the need to pee and let its warmth run down his legs and into the river. With one hand he half-swam half-bounced off the bottom and made land on the far side not far from Biddle’s creek. The creek flowed out of Deep Lake and into the Black. Wet and cold, the boy pushed through the brush back into the woods. His feet squished in his shoes, and the end of his rod danced with the branches of trees. Though the sun was rising, darkness hung low in among the trees. Eventually, the forest opened up and the sun shone bright but cold. The boy shivered and looked out across the mist rising off of Deep Lake.
Crouching down, he got the Mepps out of his tackle box and laid it in his lap. He unhooked the snap-swivel off the eye of the rod and attached the spinner. With the weight of the reel and rod balancing in his hand, the boy rose, swung the rod and line and lure back, and pivoted his wrist forward, toward the black glass before him. Spinner and minnow sailed through the air and disappeared into the water, leaving only an expanding set of concentric circles on the surface. The boy reeled in the slack, counted, “One, two three,” as the lure sank deeper, and he began to reel it back in. Nothing. The boy launched his lure again and again, covering the points of the compass, searching below the surface of the water. Working his way down the shore, the boy spied a willow growing at the water’s edge stopping him short. The branches kissed the water in a long arc creating a cave. The boy grabbed the treble hook of his Mepps in one hand and pulled it back, bending his rod double. He released the lure, and it shot in through a gap in the branches into the cave. Again, he reeled in the slack, counted and began retrieving the lure.
A strike…not just a fish biting his lure, but that electrical surge he had imagined all morning ran through his body. The fish headed for deeper water, looking for cover, but the boy lifted the rod-tip high and tightened his drag a couple of notches, listening to the reel sing. The fish tired before the line gave out, and the boy began to reel again to turn the fish and force him in. Several minutes later, fighting, slowly turning the crank, the boy caught a glimpse of the fish: all eye, scale and splash. And it saw him. Again, the bass headed for deeper water, wiser. But the boy had fought fish before, and the fish came in. Tired out, the bass resisted little as the boy grabbed its lower lip and hoisted it up out of the water.
Warm now, the boy sat down, fish in one hand. He backed the treble hook out of the fishes’ lip and placed it in the grass. He grabbed his stringer out of his tackle box. Pushing the wire through the bottom lip, the boy closed the clasp of the stringer and dropped his catch back into the water. The boy knelt down then, rubbing his hands in the water to get rid of the slime. Hungry, he took the baggy of toast out of his pocket and ate. Then he took the egg, peeled and salted it, and bit down through the hardened yoke with the first bite. For the rest of the morning, the boy fished and the skies began to darken again. The boy worked his way around the lake, anticipating another strike with every cast, but none came. The winds swung the willow branches back and forth like a lazy broom as the rain began to fall. Thoroughly soaked and getting cold again, the boy decided to head home.
After threading his way back through the woods, the boy came to the river’s edge. With the added weight of the fish, the boy now had trouble keeping his gear out of the water as he entered the river. Again, he worked his way in step by step, and the current took his legs out from under him. This time, though, it swept him away from the road he had come down on the far side of the river. It swept him down where he’d never been before. Frightened, the boy tried to swim, but the stringer tugged against his hand, the fish sensing freedom. The fight was on again, but the world of boy and fish had converged. The boy opened one of his hands, giving the fish its freedom. Still he floated downstream, and still he fought the current, struggling for the far shore. As the boy felt his strength ebb, his feet bounced on the bottom, and he caught his balance. But as he tried to take a step, his feet didn’t move. The river too had desire.
The rain came down thick, and the river pushed against his legs. He reached beneath the surface, water rushing up his sleeves, the warmth of his body carried downstream. He pulled. Both feet embedded in the mud, he pulled. One foot slipped free of his shoe; he took one step towards the bank. Placing his weight on his now bare foot, the mud sucked it deeper, down into itself. “Help,” he whimpered, but the rain drowned his voice. “Help,” he cried weakly, knowing that no one could hear. The river responded with its gurgling. On his hands and knees, like a struggling animal, the boy wrenched first a hand, a foot, then another hand free as he inched his way towards the shore. The closer to water and mud he came the easier he slipped forward. Water above and below became one as the rain came down hard upon boy, river, and land. Scrambling up the bank, he lay on his stomach, panting. The boy began to weep; his tears mingled with rivulets that slid the short distance down the bank, adding the salt of his body to the river. The river took it, gladly carrying it down to the ocean, the place it all began.