I came up from sleep on the way to a long-forgotten lake. The memory was insistent. Consider this, this needs your attention. This time on the passenger seat, with the milky light and the chill pressing in at the windows and the small anxiety of being driven too fast to the long-forgotten lake. How does time between dreaming and awake open these roads? I lay in bed and floated back and forth between two mornings. Here it was December in England; the windows blue black. There it was summer, and we were driving down one of those dirt roads that wasn’t open year round. A long rattling cut to a bowl of water ringed by a high pine ridge, with a bank of fog lifting as we pulled in.
Lake Mansfield Trout Club was in the National Forest, past Nebraska Valley where my friend’s dad lived, but I’d never heard of it. You had to be a member and my young man was, like his father and his grandfather. It was a place for closemouthed gentleman Yankees, who dealt fair with the farmers and wouldn’t scorn to get manure on their shoes but sent their boys away to be educated with the sons of bankers and lawyers and politicians, the men who run the show.
And he was running my show, or trying to. I let him try. That morning he rowed me out in a skiff and I trailed my hand in the water because we all know that is what one does in this situation. The flies were making a disturbance above the surface and little lips of water came now and then as the trout rose. In reverent tones he explained that fly fishing was one of the great mysteries, fly-tying was a dark art and casting wasn’t something you got the first time or the second, third maybe not ever.
I tried. These physical challenges always interest me. I tried to master that flick, that carefully spontaneous tremble, my arm flipping back loose jointed, slackwristed, playing it out like a new dance step. Over and over I cast into the water, the coloured guideline splaying slow shapes through the air. Light things never fall as fast as you think.
No fish bit. I have never in my life caught a fish and a good thing, too. What would I do with that throat gasping on the line, that cold rusty blood mixing with the slime, the scales losing their brightness even as I held it, hesitating? I’ve seen it, though. The summer I was eleven I ran around with a boy, one of the slowest boys in my class. He didn’t talk much. He fished. He charmed brookies and rainbows out of Thatcher Brook, while I sat on the bank with the cheapest pole they sold at Tru Value Hardware and watched him. I didn’t get what it was about our friendship that made my mother sad. But now, if I cast my mind back to those mornings on the bank the force of his mute adoration comes through loud and clear, and the whole setup troubles me.
Now I want to catch a fish. I want to put high waders on and walk right into the river. What an audacious thing to do! Making my own road. Making my stand. Unmoved. Triple-sealed, watertight. Confident. Taking my time. Well outfitted, but carrying my gear lightly. I’d assess the options and pick a notch under low branches, a place where the water pools slow. You can feel them down there, those dark bodies darting past the inside part of your seeing. When you cast the air parts for it, the water catches it and that fish there, that sleek lithe beauty will come, she will come, beating up from the depths, from the quiet places below the underworld. She comes and she has always been coming shhhhhh
The moment your fish closes a mouth on the hook is called ‘the take’. Ernest Hemingway would have us believe that the fish is the one with the agency. ‘We speak of killing a trout with a rod,’ he wrote, in Death in the Afternoon. ‘It is the effort made by the trout that kills it.’ That may be. But the fish would be alive had you, the fisherman, not entered the scene with your hook and your bait. You sit real still and let her impale herself on her own desire. Are you picking up what I’m putting down?
I want to be everything. At different times I want to be the fisherman and the fish and the girl on the bank saying ‘WOW, that’s a big one.’ Each of these are roles, only positions, we are, each of us, bigger than them. The thing is to be aware of what position you are in. And to be able to choose. Sometimes it is necessary for me to temper my anger by thinking of the men I love, one by one, and considering their vulnerability. My old boyfriend, he didn’t catch any fish either, that day at the trout club.
Kate Feld is a writer of short fiction and essays whose work has appeared in Minor Literature[s], Neon, Caught by the River and Banshee. She runs creative nonfiction journal and reading series The Real Story (therealstory.org). She lives in Manchester, UK and tweets at @katefeld
Featured Image Credit: Winslow Homer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons