BY ALEX LOBERA
Copyright is held by the author.
WHEN I turned eighteen, Grandpa gave me as a gift a brand new fishing rod, made of Asian bamboo and wrapped with thick bands of red and blue silk. “This rod reminds me of you. It is long, lanky, and it bends easy, but it hardly ever breaks,” he said. I was excited to use it, but also apprehensive, because it was new and it wasn’t my trusted old rod that was ancient when Grandpa first inherited it. That old rod was made of American hickory that was so old it was faded, as if in its old age it had forgotten what color it originally had been. But Grandpa gave me this new one, so I promised I would use it, and I did, and is the rod I still use today, so many years later, now that I’m as old as Grandpa was when he passed it on to me.
On my first fishing outing after my eighteenth birthday, a trout bit my line, and then came halfway out of the water so that its eyes cleared the water line. It stared at me for a long time. I think it decided I was not dangerous, probably sensing, correctly, that I would not do anything without higher approval. I could feel Grandpa’s gaze on me. Eventually, the fish got tired of waiting, and spit the fly out, as in vomiting in disgust.
“You can’t wait forever, son,” Grandpa said. “You have to reel it in at the proper time, otherwise you’ll lose it.”
Eventually I got good at catching, always wanting more. Grandpa would chastise: “we should only catch what we need to eat, not one more.”
One Sunday, Grandpa took his usual spot on the near bank by the large boulder. I moved further upstream, where the current was swifter. When you caught the upstream trout, they were usually bigger because they had to swim harder just to be able to hold their place.
The current was swifter than usual that day. I cast at a small dark fish hole and waited. No fish bit. I moved upstream, maybe a good water mile, and prepared to cast when I looked across to the far bank. A girl, glistening with dew, lay on one of the large boulders. She was around my age, maybe a bit older, lying on her belly. Her skin was a shade of olive with a shine and darker undertones which reminded me of tempered steel. Her hair was black and glistened, putting obsidian to shame.
She was naked. I could not see her face.
I stopped in mid step and made a splash. She raised herself on extended arms, her breasts dangling. I turned away from her, in embarrassment. After a short time, I looked back, expecting she would be gone. To my surprise, she was still there, facing me. Smiling.
My heart beat so loud I thought she might hear it, and so hard I thought the vibrations travelling down my legs would disturb the water in which I stood. I forgot to breathe, and when I remembered I had to, I forgot how. I cast upstream, wanting to do anything but stare. The current brought my fly back to me.
I thought I must have imagined it, the sight of Her. I turned and forced myself to walk back to Grandpa. When I reached him, he was holding a large dark trout upside down. I told him about Her.
“The river is misty at this hour. It creates mirages. You know what a mirage is?”
“I’m not a child, I know.”
I started walking back to the house. Grandpa lingered for just a moment, looking at the far bank.
The next Sunday came. “Ready to catch your fill, aren’t you?” he asked. I said I was. He took his usual spot, and I ventured upstream. The far bank was obscured by mist.
I cast my line. It wasn’t long before one bit, and as I struggled to reel him in, the mist around me stirred and lifted.
The girl was there, on the same boulder as before.
I stopped struggling with the fish and looked at her. She raised herself, exposing her bare breasts. She waved. I stood in place, not wanting to stir too much, lest the mirage disappear. The mist descended again, and covered her boulder. I retrieved my line. The fish was gone.
I walked back to Grandpa and said “she was there again.”
“Mirage,” he said.
During that week, Grandpa seemed distracted, and didn’t talk much to me. He would disappear into his basement for hours on end.
He had never done this before. He never liked to be alone. I think it was because Grandma had died many years ago, so long ago that I never knew her. Before I came, or so I’m told, Grandpa had been alone for a long time.
That Friday, out of curiosity, I went downstairs to the basement. I saw him with a Bible in his hand. He yelled “get out of here!” That was the first and next to last time he ever yelled at me. He slammed the Bible shut, but before it closed, from the open page I caught what a reflection of something deeply purple.
The next Sunday, there was no mist, and She was back. She smiled. I made myself busy with the minutiae of looking busy. I started, slowly, to cross the river, expecting her to fade, or to get up and run, but she seemed relieved when I reached her. I stood there. She rested on one elbow facing me, water droplets dripping from her curves. She wore a necklace of silver and a stone that looked like amethyst. It glistened with same moisture as the rest of her.
I reached into my tackle box without paying attention and pricked my finger on a scaling knife. I yelped and she laughed, a short staccato laugh repeated three times. She extended a hand towards my injured finger. I offered it to her.
The loud yell caught me by surprise. Grandpa was standing on the opposite bank, holing a large dark trout by the line. The girl covered herself with a pale blue robe, and ran off. I waded back to Grandpa.
“What were you doing?” he asked.
“She wasn’t a mirage,” I said.
“I can see that,” he said. He paused and then said, “go home.”
It was my turn to pause.
“I wanted to talk to her.”
“Did you?” he asked.
“No. You interrupted us.”
“It’s a good thing I did, too. Now, go home.”
“I’ll talk to her next Sunday,” I said.
“You will do no such thing, son.”
“Because I said so. Now, go.”
I did as I was told. As I reached the bank, I looked back, and there was Grandpa, taking slow steps towards the now empty boulder, holding the large trout in front.
I arrived home and waited. It didn’t take long for Grandpa to come back.
“I’m a man now,” I told him.
He smiled. “No, you are only eighteen.” He turned and went up the steps.
“I will talk to her next Sunday,” I said, louder than I had intended.
He turned to face me halfway up the stairs, and slowly made his way down, towards me, one step at a time.
“You will do no such thing. My house, my rules.”
He stared hard at me. I tried to stare back at him for the first time in my life. I did not succeed.
He entered the house, leaving the door open for me. I wouldn’t come, so he let it close gently and went inside.
He didn’t call me for dinner. I stayed on the porch that night until late, way past his bedtime. I walked around the house, inspecting it, again looking for something to do while I did nothing.
The house had been repaired and redone over the years by its different occupants, prior generations of my family that left their imprints in history in the form of lumber in walls that required constant fixing. I had done some of the repairs myself, and could barely tell where my old repairs joined the older repairs of those before me. The house was made of the wood of the ages, of different shades and tints, and from different trees. There was some oak, plenty of pine, maybe some chicory, and other types that not even Grandpa could remember or recognize.
The house creaked that night, as it did every night, like an old man that complains of the weather regardless of what the weather is like. Each kind of wood made its own particular sound, as if the oak was trying to tell something to the hickory, and the pine would interrupt with a different drawl.
That week we didn’t speak at all. I wanted Sunday to come, but when it did, I was afraid. As we walked to the river, he said:
“Remember what I told you.”
We reached his spot. I thought of walking upstream, towards Her, but I could feel Grandpa’s gaze on the back of my head. I entered the river not ten yards from him. I didn’t go to her. I cast, more like threw the line into the water, right where I stood.
Grandpa noticed my bad cast. Good.
He made one of his artistic high-arching overhead casts. I reeled in, and cast again. My fly floated perfectly to the water this time, and after a quick second or two, I felt the tug of the line. But I was not paying attention. I was looking upriver. Grandpa was not happy.
As the fish tugged at my line, I felt Grandpa approaching me. I reeled my line in, just a little. The fish, trying to escape my hook, swam upriver. He pulled harder than any other fish I’d ever caught. I imagined sharks would pull this way. I followed, leaving Grandpa behind.
The fish pulled harder and harder, and I could not reel him in. As he bobbed up and down, a large dorsal fin broke the water. It was not the serrated fin of a river trout. It was large and curved backward with a straight posterior edge and it was shaded in grey. It looked like a shark’s fin.
The trout/ shark kept pulling me upstream, and Grandpa’s voice boomed through the river as he called my name. But I was now far from him. I could see the girl, glistening on the rock. I took one more step, and then my shark/ trout jumped out of the water. Only it wasn’t a shark anymore, just a large trout. And then I realized I had not caught a shark, and I had not been pulled upstream by it. I was still standing in the same spot. Grandpa was just behind me.
I had to reel hard, and the glistening trout fought me. Its dark skin, shiny in fresh rushing water, was like the girl’s. I could almost reach out to touch Her, a shiny idol, a dark precious stone, beckoning me.
With one last heave, I managed to pull the trout out of the water, until it hung inches from my face. As we headed back to the house, I did not put the trout in the basket, but held it in my hands, caressing its wet skin as it buckled for the last time.
The Sunday after that, Grandpa was late getting up for fishing. I was ready, and pacing. I convinced myself I had built up the courage to go to the girl. I knocked on Grandpa’s door.
Nothing. I opened the door and as my eyes adjusted to the dark of his room, I saw him in bed, with the blanket up to his chin. His eyes were closed. I walked to him and tried to wake him, and when I touched his cheek it was cold and clammy.
The funeral was the next day. Nobody showed. He had left behind a simple will in which left me the house and all his things, except for the Bible. He wanted to be buried with it, and in the will he asked that I do not open it.
I did as he asked.
The week that followed was the first time I was ever alone. I missed him. The house was him, old and cranky and ever-present. I followed my usual routine, as if he was watching. But as Sunday neared, I decided that even though the house was him, it was no longer his.
Eventually, Sunday came. I walked to my spot in the river which was as always covered in mist. I waded across, excitement now carrying me, and when I reached the other bank the mist was so thick I could not see three feet ahead. But I made my way to her boulder, and as I reached it the mist lifted.
She wasn’t there. Her amethyst necklace was. I waited until nightfall, but she didn’t come. The next Sunday I went back, and the next, and then the next. After months of returning and not finding her, I took the necklace with me.
I married a few years after that, and was faithful to my wife in all things but one. Until the day she died after forty years of marriage, I never hid anything from her, except for the secret of the dark girl in the river. That, and the deep purple amethyst necklace I still keep in a Bible I hollowed out years ago in order to hide the one true thing I cherish. Whenever I remember Her, I caress the necklace, the closest I ever came to touching Her skin.
When I do, invariably I go fishing, back to the same river, and after I catch some fish, I make my way to Her magical rock, all the while remembering Grandpa’s words, “you have to reel it in at the proper time, otherwise you’ll lose it.”
I leave my best catch on Her boulder. Maybe I do this because, when I walk away, at the end of the day, I can look back upon that rock and see the dark glistening skin which for a microsecond lets me believe that She is back.
Maybe it is an offering.