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Tuesday, January 28, 2014
by Kat Mueller
We usually ride in silence. Sometimes we listen to talk radio. Or more like he listens to talk radio and I daydream out the window. There’s never music, always junk food. When I was a child I’d sleep in the back of the Suburban in dim twilight or dark night, with the smell of wet dog and the flicker of headlights, as he listened to talk radio. The drive is always long. Always. Coming and going in the dark. I have to ask to stop to pee, because he’ll drive forever.
This trip is no different. The drive is long. The air silent. But my heart is heavy and he knows it. My gazing out the window is different now than when I was a kid. I have the eyes of a refugee.
We stop in Cheyenne. We stop in Casper. Buffalo. And again in Sheridan— because I had coffee in Buffalo. I ask to stop, so we stop. We eat gummy orange slices and Boston Baked Beans. I hate them. But they’re there, stashed in the console like they have been forever. So I eat them. He listens to talk radio as I watch the countryside speed by the window and I feel like
I’m standing still.
It’s nearly sunset when we arrive and our legs are stiff. We stretch and unload and he starts a fire. It’s not cold, but he starts a fire. He always starts a fire. The country is beautiful and quiet, just as I remember it from the fall. The grass is green now, the crisp wind replaced by a pleasant warm breeze. The tall cottonwoods line the water, pure green against the clear sky that is now taking a hint of pink. Bighorns push up mighty in the far-off southwest. In their shadow a mountain that looks like a Bundt cake. The bugs are noisy. Grasshoppers. Crickets. What-have-you. The red winged black birds are busy complaining about something, as always, racing from tree to tree. I sit in stillness. He joins me after a while. It is perfectly
peaceful and it’s making me start to feel my skin again. Begin to feel like I live in this body as the sun disappears beyond the Bundt cake.
We rise early the next morning. I pack the food; he rigs the rods. It’s always this way. My job is easy, because neither of us eat much when we fish. Cheese. Coffee. Boston Baked Beans. The same ice chest. The same Stanley thermos. The morning is clear and perfectly spring. The bugs and birds are at it again. As I make my way to load the boat, hoppers leap from beneath my feet. It makes me think of the river and I get a little foreign quiver inside; something that feels like excitement. We fold the cover back on the boat. One fold at a time. Another, and another, the way we’ve always done it. Fold the cover to the bow. It takes no discussion. The rods are rigged and ready with whatever he has chosen. I slide them into place. Push rain coats up under the bow. Tuck the ice chest.
We drive in wading boots through the grassland. Pheasant make narrow escapes. Wild dogs bark. The boat click-clacks behind us. We let in at the dam. As I hold the boat the power of the water coming out of the dam makes me feel small.
We push off. I take to the front as he rows. He begins, as he does. Just as I expect him to.
“Get your rod.”
I do it.
“Cast at ten o’clock.”
I do it.
“Mend again. Just put a bunch of line out there.” he says.
I do it.
“Get ready. A fish is going to eat that.”
I get ready. It starts to drag so I pick it up.
“Too much line. Take in some. You can’t cast all that line.”
I do it. I cast. He wants ten. I give him ten.
“You gotta wait on the back cast. Let it straighten out. You’re gonna make a mess.”
I do it. I wait.
I throw some line back on the water. Mend. Mend again. He slows the boat.
The rig is drifting smooth. I hear him telling me in my head, but he doesn’t say it. A fish is going to eat. I’m ready. Wait. Wait... The indicator drops and I lift my rod tip. It’s on. The fish takes off to the right. I let him run and begin to assess in horror the quantity of fly line at my feet. I frantically start putting it back on the reel. It’s under my left foot. It’s wrapped around my forceps. My pack. I’m getting panicky and fumbling with my left hand as I hold tight on my right, hoping my index finger has a better idea of appropriate pressure than my mind does. This requires a level of grace and coordination I don’t have. Even as a girl. But I continue to put line on the reel until the fish turns and starts heading straight at the boat. At me. So my left hand goes from the reel back to stripping handfuls of yellow line. The boat is turning a bit, as they do, and I can’t get this fish on the reel. My heart is pounding and I’m starting to feel like a circus act, with the line, and the turning, and the fumbling. My father’s eyes on my back. His mouth silent. But I do. I get the fish on the reel. Finally. And I fight him like a girl. Fight him to the right side of the boat as my dad prepares the net. The fish resists, as fish do, and I’m afraid to push him. Don’t rush him... I can hear my dad saying in my head, so I let him run again. I bring him back to the left of the boat, this time,now turned almost horizontal to the river. The fish gives. He comes in, with my arm burning and my heart racing, right to the net that my father has outstretched. A beautiful fat Montana rainbow.
“Good,” he says, and I smile.
We continue downstream and I cast at ten o’clock to the boat. Sometimes nine. Sometimes eleven, but I pick up and put it back out at ten. The rod is heavy and big for me, so I struggle a little until I find my groove. He watches me from behind and I wonder how ugly my cast is. How nauseated he is to witness it. Farther downstream we take to shore on an island. We always stop here. It’s a good spot. He instructs me again.
“Head 20 yards up. The fish are three feet out. Don’t walk into them. They’re shallow. Get a long drift. Let it tail out.”
I do it. I’ve taken many fish out of this hole on my own, but I do it. I do what he says. Because he knows. And it’s how we do it. I head up—guessing at what 20 yards might look like—find my spot, and cast. I get a fish on immediately.
He calls up from below. “What you got goin’ on there?”
I bring the fish right up in the shallows of the bank as my father has taught me to do with no net. It’s slimy and flopping around. I set him free after a moment and he rushes away. It feels good. I get my line out again and get another fish. Just like that. My father is below me still, fiddling with something. He’s standing in his stance. The way he always stands. His silhouette only that of my father.
He calls to me again without looking up, “Don’t show off now.”
The fishing we experience is what we’ve come to call “stupid fishing”. And when you say it, you have to smile. It’s part of the effect. I fish all the way down the run as my father fishes the back side of the island and up to the top. I catch as many fish as I miss. It seems like a lot. I fight a seriously pissed and seriously strong fish for quite a while, with my heart racing and
my hands fumbling, until the delicate balance of too much pressure and not enough screws me. I lose him in heavy water. I break off to the split-shot and tie all the shit back on. Tippet, fly, tippet, fly. I stab my finger. My tongue. My finger again. Who hooks their tongue? I think. I can hear the sound of a thrashing fish from where my father exists somewhere beyond the bushes. I think about the fish I lost. My flies in its mouth. My inner soundtrack plays circus music in my head. My father comes around the bend smiling.
“Stupid,” he says.
We make our way down the river as the sun moves across the sky. From island to bank to wherever. He drops the anchor. I pull us to shore. In silence, for the most part, we do this. My father watches me fish. Directs me. Then he goes above or below and absolutely murders it.
“Keep your rod up. Keep him out of that heavy water!” he yells to me.
“Keep your rod up!”
I do it. I don’t respond.
He comes down to me from time to time to net a fish when the shore is too far. A big Brown breaks off at the net during a fumble.
“Don’t ever let anyone net your fish.” he tells me.
He always tells me this when he breaks off my fish. I put the rod down for a while and pick up feathers that blow across the shore. As a girl it was rocks.
Now it’s feathers. I sit in the shadow of old cottonwoods on a log chomped by a beaver. I watch my father fish. We listen to the sounds of the river. Wave at passing anglers. In silence for the most part.
“We’re going to get a hatch at sunset,” he says, as we travel to the next spot.
I nod, mouth full of Boston Baked Beans.
I remember as a teenage girl wondering what he was thinking in this silence. If he was thinking I was doing drugs. If he was thinking I was having sex. If he was waiting for the right time to ask. And I wanted him to ask me, because I wanted to tell him that no, I wasn’t. That I was good. That he could be proud of me. But he never asked. Now, as an adult, I know why he never asked. Why we never spoke of such things. It’s because it’s not what he was thinking in those times of silence. He’s not sizing me up, nor waiting for an optimal time to drop an atom bomb of a question. He’s thinking about fish. Only fish. And I know this now, because it’s what I’m thinking. The only thing I’m thinking. Occasionally my mind drifts to home. To my shambles of a marriage that waits for me there. What the family I have made are doing right now in my abrupt absence, but a rising fish is enough to snap the thought away. And we both hear the sip and watch it. And we’re both wondering what the bugs are doing.
Yesterday, not even 24 hours ago, my father and I sat across from each other at Chuck E. Cheese. I wore my smile, as I always do, but my eyes couldn’t hold it up. I’m weary and my age is showing in my face from stress and crying. This stress. Birthday cakes, in-laws and friends, presents and noise. My precious child who has no idea what is about to happen to his life.
Everyone looking at me. And my father’s heart that’s aching for this boy who has become the apple of his crystal blue eye. His heart aching for the boy and for me: his baby girl.
“You wanna go fishing?” He asks me.
“Yeah,” I reply, “I’d like to go fishing. I’d love to go fishing. But I can’t. Not now.”
I dole out coins from a plastic cup to my excited birthday boy. He squeals something about guns and runs back into the madness. I smile again at my dad. But I want to cry, deeply ashamed that I can’t seem to hold it together for these people. These lovely people whom I adore.
“Let’s just go,” he says. “Now. After this. Just go grab your gear and we’ll leave. Be there by sunset.”
I shake my head. No, I can’t.
I turn and watch the two grandmas talking. Being cordial. My mother graceful and kind, as always. And I have to get the hell out of here.
“Okay,” I say, “let’s go.”
And we are here now on this river that seems like a million miles away from the ringing games, screaming children, and five-hundred-pound stone on my chest. My family, my child, my husband: watching me lace up running shoes. All of them wondering if I have the guts to go. All of them with an opinion why I shouldn’t. And the judgment is suffocating. I need this day. On this river. I need to breathe. And my father is handing it to me like a life raft.
As dusk comes, we approach the hole we’ve been planning for. Anticipating the sunset hatch. We set anchor below a butte in a turn of the river that runs slow and deep. We watch. The water is just about black now in the shadow of the butte and the temperature is dropping. I put on my jacket. Warm up my coffee as my father is tying on something. Biting line in his teeth. Flipping through boxes. Tying knots with his eyes on the water. I wait, getting a chill. A little mouth breaks the surface. Then another a few feet away. And another. We say nothing. Bugs are landing across the dark water. Floating like little mini sailboats on the sea. He hands me the rod.
“Okay. Get it out there.”
I do it.
I pick the line up and shoot for a fish that’s rising up above the boat. I miss.
By a long shot. I attempt again.
“To the left. Out more. Do you see that? Do you see that fish?” he says.
I see a black mouth on black water. It’s popping up intermittently. I don’t see this fish that my father speaks of. I don’t possess, among other attributes such as grace and coordination, my father’s X-ray fish vision. What I see could be one fish, could be five.
I false cast and try to avoid the Russian Olives that tangle themselves up the butte behind me. I try to count in my head how many times he unhooked me from the bushes today. How many flies he tied back on. My thoughts come back to focus on my cast. I search deep for rhythm. Timing. Grace. I wonder what I look like to him. To anyone. My one girl circus. I cast out over the location of this feeding fish. I cast several times until I nail my distance.
I set it softly on the water. It drifts with the rest of the sailboats. I can’t even tell the difference. A nose rises and sips it in. I lift my rod. The line goes tight. The air is quiet and cool. I let the fish tire out and then bring him quietly to the boat. Touch him. Release him.
“Your cast is excellent,” my father tells me.
My heart swells. A midge lands on my face.
The rises are getting more frequent and the bugs thick. We exit the boat quietly and wade waist deep into them. I hold onto my father’s shoulder. The fish are rising now in such numbers it’s creating an effect that makes me think of a hot tub. I have never seen anything like it. I cast to them as my dad stands at my side. I set the fly on the water. Soft drift. Quiet take. And then the fish goes bonkers. Jumps. Runs. Runs some more the other way until I bring him in. My dad nets my fish. We smile at each other in this silence. My dad heads off to fish below just as I hook another fish. He returns again, sighing with a smile. As I fight the fish, my dad hooks his net to my back.
“Here. Just take it,” he says, and he heads down to partake in this bubbling madness of noses.
The light is almost gone and the water to my waist is cold. I’m starting to shiver. If we had people waiting at the takeout for us, we’d be in big trouble tonight. But it’s just me and my dad and this ridiculous wet dream of a midge hatch. We’ve got nowhere else to be. I wade slowly back to the boat with my arm burning a burn I’d never complain about. I get back in the boat and bundle up to my neck for warmth. I watch my father in his stance, his black silhouette against the water, fishing with precision and grace. I think about him at my age. In my situation. If he was as confused and ashamed as I. If he still is. If any of this ever goes away. And a fish rises to his fly. His line goes tight. I smile and think... stupid. And for the first time in my entire life I realize: I am him. I am my father’s daughter. Through and through.
Kat Mueller is a photographer, writer, and third-generation flyfisher. As a little girl, she dove into the wrong race and beat a pool of boys at 25 yard freestyle. She never lost her love for the water. She lives in Fort Collins, Colorado, with her son Sam, husband Geoff, and wild dingo Mike. You can view her writing and fine-art photography at www.katmuellerphoto.com.
Thursday, January 2, 2014
by Rick Bailey
She follows me back to my office. Her name is Donna.
She wears jeans like all the other girls. Only hers are the baggy kind, the comfortable fit for a woman in her thirties. She sits in the front row, one leg crossed over the other. It bounces, this leg, like she's a piece of machinery that's idling. It's the sixth week of class, and I know this about her: She hasn't been to college in fourteen years. She has two boys. She has a husband whom she has left but who refuses to leave her. Whatever we read in class she reads as if her life depended on it. This week it's Ibsen. To most students, reading “Ghosts” is like swallowing a horse tranquillizer. To her, the play is like liquid light, and she chugs it. Sitting there in class, two students over from my desk, she is a presence.
I unlock my office door and let myself in. "What's up?" I say, dropping my books on the desk.
"I just wanted to tell you I may have to miss class." She leans against the door frame and tells me what I was afraid of. It's the husband. He's hanging around. She's fears he is going to take her kids. She's afraid.
"It shouldn't be a problem," I say, "if you have to miss." I tell her I can work with her.
"It's just that I'm enjoying this so much."
I tell her we're glad to have her in class. "That Paster Manders," she says, referring to the Ibsen. "When he tells Mrs. Alving: "'We're not put on this earth to be happy.' How can he say that to her?" She shakes her head. "Those people are so miserable."
"Just wait," I say.
She laughs. "I saw ‘Ghosts’ on the syllabus, you know what I thought of?"
It's my turn to laugh. "Patrick Swayze?"
"In school, like in ninth grade, we did this thing called levitation." She gives me an embarrassed look. "Did you ever levitate?"
Did I ever.
My first time was tenth grade. I was at Sandra Bremer's house. I guess it was a party, boys and girls together on a Saturday night, not couples, just six or seven unattached kids together, and someone said we should play "Let's pick him up."
"You lie on the floor," Sandra said, "and everyone gathers around the person. You say these words together, and then, using just your fingertips, you can pick the person up."
We moved furniture out of the way. Someone shut off the lights. Then we took turns volunteering to lie on the floor, pretending we were dead, while the others gathered around, looking down at the dark form on the floor. It was a very solemn ceremony.
The first person said, He is dead. One after another, going around the circle, we took turns repeating that line and those that followed.
Gone from the earth.
Stiff as a board.
Light as a feather. At this point we bent down and slipped two fingers of each hand under the person's body.
The leader said, Let's pick him up.
And we did.
It worked every time. The dead person, no matter how big, would practically fly up to the ceiling, where we held him for a split second, before lowering him back down to the floor. We would gasp and scream for a minute or two, terrified and amazed by this mystery in the dark, then ask for another volunteer. No one tried to understand what was happening. We didn't want to understand it. It pure joy. It was like direct contact with the supernatural.
When there were no more volunteers, we switched the lights back on, put the furniture back in place, and turned on Cat Stevens. If there was a scary movie on TV, we'd watch that.
There's a reference to levitation as a party trick in The Magician's Own Book, or the Whole Art of Conjuring by Arnold George & Frank Cahill, published in 1862. The authors describe it as "one of the most remarkable and inexplicable experiments relative to the strength of the human frame." In their description, they emphasize that it is a "heavy man" who is lifted when his lungs and the lungs of those lifting are fully inflated with air. The authors trace this magic back to an American Navy captain doing a demonstration in Venice. The critical detail, according to George and Cahill, is the breathing: "On several occasions [we] have observed that when one of the bearers performs his part ill, by making the inhalation out of time, the part of the body which he tries to raise is left, as it were, behind."
Two centuries earlier, Samuel Pepys refers to levitation in his diary entry on July 31, 1665. He provides an account of leaving London to attend a wedding, noting in that week alone, some 1700 or 1800 people had died of plague (one tenth of the London population died that year). Pepys and his party arrive too late for the ceremony, but in time for dinner, cards, talk, and prayers. After helping put the newlyweds to bed ("I kissed the bride in bed, and so the curtaines drawne with the greatest gravity that could be, and so good night..."), he goes to a bed which, consistent with customs of the time, he shares with another guest.
Before sleep, the two men have a chat. "We did here all get good beds, and I lay in the same I did before with Mr. Brisband, who is a good scholler and sober man; and we lay in bed, getting him to give me an account of home, which is the most delightfull talke a man can have of any traveller." In the course of their conversation, Mr. Brisband speaks of "enchantments and spells" he has recently witnessed in Bourdeaux, France: "He saw four little girles," Pepys writes, "very young ones, all kneeling, each of them, upon one knee; and one begun the first line, whispering in the eare of the next, and the second to the third, and the third to the fourth, and she to the first." They whisper these words:
Voyci un Corps mort (Behold, a dead body)
Roy comme un Baston (Still as a stone)
Froid comme Marbre (Cold as marble)
Leger comme un esprit (Light as a spirit)
Levons te au nom de Jesus Christ (We lift you in the name of Jesus Christ).
With one finger each, they raise the boy as high as they can reach. Brisband is "afeard to see it," and disbelieving, calls for the cook to come, "a very lusty fellow," meaning large, and, in like manner, they lift him as well.
For a while, every time that group of friends got together, at Sandra Bremer's or wherever, we shut off the lights and played dead, picking each other up. We reveled in the mystery of levitation. Like those little French girls, what we were enjoying was essentially child's play, like telling ghost stories, though, in our case, we didn't have bubonic plague adding spice to the experience. Looking back now, I marvel at the fact that we never dropped anyone. What were the chances? But no one banged his head on an end table. No one fell and broke an arm. I'm pretty sure my preferred role in the game was the dead guy. Lying on the floor, eyes closed, listening to the chant, then feeling myself lifted into the air was a rush, not so much out of body as an in-the-body experience. Some nights, along with levitation, there was talk of séances and hypnosis. I remember seeing kids bent over a Ouija board. Wouldn't it be freaky, someone said, to see into the future?
Sure, but what if you had to see all of it?
If there's any wisdom in becoming an adult, it's knowing that you don't want to know. We grow up. We marry and have children. We divorce and find ourselves alone again. In search of ourselves we fly off to faraway places and then come back home, still searching. Our parents, spouses, and friends, sometimes even our children, sicken and die. Between these events, there are the levitations, moments of genuine sweetness and mystery you share with other people. Lying in bed with Mr. Brisband, Pepys observes, "I have spent the greatest part of my life with abundance of joy, and honour, and pleasant journeys, and brave entertainments," thinking of the wedding, the time with friends, as "greatest glut of content that ever I had; only under some difficulty because of the plague."
Seeing Donna in class, reading and thinking and sharing, was like witnessing a levitation.
A week passed before I heard from her. She called me to apologize for missing class. She was in a shelter. She said she couldn't talk long. She said he didn't know where she was and that her safety, and the safety of her children, depended on keeping her whereabouts a secret. I told her to take care of herself, we were just finishing “Ghosts”, she could come back anytime, write the paper, pick up where she left off.
When we hung up, I knew I would never see her again. A week passed, then another. Nothing. That was it.