Mark bundled beneath the hood of his sleeping bag and pondered the precipitation. A week of perpetual wetness had made damp feel dry and a moment’s respite from the rain seem a change in the seasons. His view was faded canvas, the saturated tent material his refuge during the few hours of darkness during the Alaskan ‘summer’. He lay at just the right angle on the cot so he didn’t hurt, could forget the drift of his body into the snags and hydraulics of aging. He reached for his waders behind his head and cool air snuck into his synthetic cocoon. Moving from warm darkness to the cold light was less painful done quickly.
Warmth finally crept into to his clothes and he knelt to leave the tent. The miracle that was Dennis still slept on the opposite side. Mark wondered if Dennis’s body was fighting the cancer in his mouth or if sleep wasted valuable living time. For a moment, Mark forgot his own ills, felt like he was primed to go forever. Cancer hadn’t caught him yet, neither had ALS or a heart attack. They were searching though, reaching out, hitting friends each year that had once been imposing physical specimens, leaving behind Mark and his health. Part of him was thankful, most of him was thankful, but he couldn’t help looking over his shoulder. He glanced back toward the tent fly to Dennis and stood up outside.
The river was six feet away, his spey rod rigged and ready. He had set it out the night before to be the first awake and on the river. Yet youth was well ahead of him. The rest of their camp was already awake; one guide cooking breakfast, the other painting Rembrandts with two hands and a 500-grain line. Dennis’s son Harrison stood on a boulder at the top of a seam in the river and launched line at a forty-five degree angle, dropping the fly to soak in the sweet spot. It had been four days on the river and Mark could still watch the three younger anglers without growing bored, playing with water tension, the loading of line and manipulation of physics into beautiful casting loops. Mark waded to another stretch of water and let fly a black leech pattern. He finished strong with his bottom hand in his chest, line rolling out along across the air. If he hadn’t had started his morning watching Harrison snake rolling line two thirds of the way across the water he might have been pleased with his cast.
Mark stopped looking over his shoulder at the younger generation and focused on not focusing on his elbow. It stopped every other cast short, a nagging arthritic annoyance brought on by fighting salmon for a week. Alaska was not some stocked tributary of Lake Erie, an easy drive-in to the best run and hole, chucking in a bead and lead. Alaska was a life’s work, a world where time only passed with fatigue, a place where Dennis would live as long as the rest of them. Mark’s angling career was peaking, culminating in a wet world in the lost corner of his home continent. He pulled out a cigar from the pocket of his wading jacket in some attempt at celebration and leaned his head in close to his hands and sparked a cheap gas station lighter. The hand-rolled tobacco was too damp. Or maybe it was too early in the day? Or was it Dennis’s cancer? Dennis couldn’t smoke. Shit, Dennis couldn’t even chew food. Gazpacho, bland soup and ice cream but no damned cigars.
Mark pushed the cigar back into his pocket with the lighter and looked over his shoulder. Harrison was battling an aerial salmon that needed a net. Dennis hobbled out of his tent like some fish-netting zombie of joy and held the oversized boat-net in one hand and his unbuckled waders in the other. His first attempt at landing his son’s salmon saw the fish swim between his legs, a pirouette from Dennis to avoid the line and a landing that would’ve pleased Olympic figure skating judges. Harrison laughed and yelled at his dad to net the fish from the head but Dennis tried to trap it like a kid after a frog with a cup, hopping and laughing, missing each swing. Mark smiled; Dennis was younger than Harrison for an entire minute. When the fish finally came to net, Dennis sat on the bank, breathing hard and slapping his son on the back. It all lasted a moment and a half for Dennis, but fatigue came quickly. And fatigue was time. Mark bent his elbow and took a picture.
It was morning on the river and Mark tried not to shit his pants. Fishing was suddenly secondary. A rapid the guides called Blackhole was below them on the river and all he could think about was his kid nearly dying in a rapid somewhere on the other side of the planet. If his kid almost died, full of youth and energy, what the hell was he supposed to do as an old man relying on someone else to guide him over the whitewater? Or were they supposed to go through the whitewater? He sat in the middle of the raft holding on tighter than he had been gripping his rod for salmon and prayed the young man behind him was up to task. He looked over his shoulder. By the time he turned back around water ran through his beard and he had to shake his head to throw the foam off of his face. Blackhole was below them somewhere. It was the bane of his fishing existence, a boat-crunching, raft-flipping riverine singularity of dread.
The guide turned the raft perpendicular to the current and Mark was sure of his doom. A gray mass of boulder protruded in front of them and before he could make the decision to bail, the raft swung back to his right, nose pointed downstream. No use looking over his shoulder to see his guide; he could hear the laughter. Mark lost sight of the horizon, held on to the ropes in the raft.
Somewhere at the end of the universe Dennis was laughing again; it was his fuel, his reserve of energy that he called on to fight fatigue. Mark had a moment for a cigar after the rapid and tried again to light the hopeless wrap of rapture in his hands. He felt a puff this time, something close to a tease. And Harrison started yelling. He stood above a seam so perfect it could have welded the world. Enough room for three anglers and enough fish for twice that amount. Mark shoved the cigar and lighter into his pocket, brushed the whitewater from his beard and unfurled his line toward the opposite bank.
Nothing on his first few casts, he looked upstream at another shout from Harrison; Dennis was fish on, fighting a king. A guide paired with him for the net. Not thirty seconds later, Harrison’s line went taught and he set the hook, clutched the bottom of his reel and readied for a fight. Mark focused back in on his own casting. Two, three more swings across the river, three more stabs to the elbow.
On the fourth cast he was as young as he had ever been. Line raced off his reel into the backing and he eased the take with the bottom of his blistered hands. Both guides were netting Harrison and Dennis so Mark had to wait. He steadied his arm and started to reel, pull, reel. He was besting the fish. It glided in almost too willingly, and Mark waited for a last run at his feet. None came. He grabbed the tail and turned to let out a yell, no guide needed.
Harrison knelt nursing his fish to life and Dennis was sitting again, on the gravel with fish in hand. Mark put the rod beneath his arm and hauled the fish a few more yards upstream to stand with Dennis and Harrison. This time he was in the photo. For some frame, some moment, all three of them were the same age. Dennis had a life ahead of him, Mark’s elbow didn’t hurt and Harrison was the same generation.
Fatigue didn’t hit until they left the river.
Ohio was smaller than Alaska. The rivers were smaller. The fish were smaller. Steelhead were no king salmon. Mark released a young jack into the glass-framed river and pondered his recent fishing crescendo. Even full grown, the small steelhead wouldn’t reach the elbow-straining strength of a king salmon, match the strike on a swung fly. He was comfortable again on his home river in the Midwest. He knew where the fish were, how to add weight and change the size of flies to fit the water. No guide necessary. No one younger than him to teach him how much he didn’t know. His roll cast was as crisp as any snap-t from a spey rod and his presentation was a matter of when, not if. No Blackholes on this day. No rapids at all. He blew into his cupped hands despite his white middle fingertip. A crude gesture imposed by the weather.
Mark tucked his rod under his arm and trudged up the bank. He stopped at likely seams and had a quick look through windows in the water for any holding fish. The next hole upriver was taken, some young kid thought he got the best of the old guy with snow in his beard. Mark moved up past the youth, partly out of angler respect and partly because it made him feel crafty. He would just run through the index of fishing spots in his head and be fine.
Mark reflected on what kind of angler he would be had he picked up a fly rod in his twenties. Some kind of socioeconomic group-think had him baiting his hook with worms for fifty years. Good thing his kid was a spoiled little asshole else none of them would have picked up what had become their most passionate pursuit. Youth to thank yet again. His mind wandered to the ease of trolling, jigging, drinking. And a cigar. He patted his chest pocket but what he pulled out was left over from Alaska, a damp stump of wrapped leaves and no lighter. He’d be better off throwing it in his lip. The buzz of a trolling motor started to sound good, started to remind him of his youth, when he was the one with energy and time.
The fish in the next riffle stopped any reminiscing.
It was some kind of buck and when it moved its wake wreaked havoc on the edge of the shelf ice. Destruction was scale and Mark was pleased to be of a size safe enough that the calving river ice was of no threat. He froze and cupped his hands to the side of his eyes to be sure of what he saw. No reading glasses necessary, no guide to point it out. This was a bad ass fish. He looked over his shoulder to see if the young angler downstream had seen him.
Mark unhooked his egg-sucking leach from the guide closest to his reel and pulled line out carefully, fearful the clicking of his reel would spook the brute in front of him. Who needs king salmon when there were fish like this? He dropped a few drifts above and watched as his flies moved by with no interest from the fish. A new dropper, extra lead, a head swerve but no strike. The glow of the snow faded. He moved one step closer and tried again to display something edible to a creature intent on nothing more than procreating. The lack of light cancelled his final casts and yet the knowledge of the size, the sheer existence of such a steelhead in Ohio fed him excitement, intent, youth. It was a small sliver of what had been Alaska, the feeling fleeting, the lost puff on a cigar that had never lit.
Work was too slow the next day and had been for some time. It raged while paying for his kids’ educations but now that they were out something was telling him he didn’t need the money. At least that’s what he told himself when he wasn’t looking over his shoulder. Some new company, someone younger with the energy of a spawning salmon. He was old news. Weird haircuts were in and snow flecked beards were out. Why buy from the past when you can connect with the future? Ten more years, max, and he was out. Five more than he should be working but with revenue years like this he had no choice.
Mark needed something else. He made one more phone call; a company he had been working on for a few months, developing relationships making presentations running budgets. Mark’s contact loved his program, wanted it implemented. It was something else he could do on his own, without the next generation showing him how. He was the guide in this world, the veteran. It was probably the most excitement he’d had since Alaska. A different kind of risk, but risk nonetheless. Some kind of financial Blackhole. The phone rang one ring more than he liked; someone pondering the repercussions of answering on the other side. Mark had made thousands of these calls over a career, he didn’t need to finish catching up about families and health before he knew his risk wouldn’t be rewarded. Company politics or something. He hung up the phone and grimaced at his elbow.
The water in the river was welcome, the sloping shale floodplain buffered any noise from the road and his rod filtered foul thoughts of failure and fatigue from fully forming. The walk-in had him shed a layer and a wading jacket. Mark returned to the seam that held his fish the day before and after a brief scan through polaroid glasses; he saw the same fish.
Mark clipped off his rig and re-tied; no mistakes on a fish like this, not with a second chance. He approached from a different angle, walked further downstream to come up on the other side and attempt a different presentation. He rolled his line to the top of the run and threw in just the right amount of mend. It felt like a drift that would give him a chance of landing the fish. Thirty drifts and fifteen flies later he was wondering what a young guide would do.
Mark could not take so much time on one fish without imposing some anthropogenic naming scheme. The scientists had already categorized the fish, locals added names of chrome and steel to set it off. Mark called it Moby. The fish was big, Mark was old, and he wanted to see the damned thing in his net.
He followed the flitting of the fins and the patterns Moby made as he held his place in the river, discovered his tendencies and behavior. He had some kind of territory set up; a small kingdom where he was the king. King steelhead; some new species, another human categorization. Mark wondered how many hours he could spend on one fish and part of him welcomed the evening shadows, the end of the day. Moby continued his patterns, moving without moving in the crisp water cloaked in natural camouflage. Maybe Mark did need a guide, maybe he couldn’t land this fish on his own. Was there something he had forgotten, some technique someone younger would know? He reeled in his line and took off his sunglasses for the walk back to the car. River politics or something.
Mark was a terrible sleeper when something was on his mind and there was always something on his mind. The idea of Moby slipped away when Mark returned home and learned a friend had six months to live. Crazy form of cancer. Made Dennis seem blessed; mouth cancer was nothing. The family was moving up weddings so his friend could be there and he was openly talking about his death as a deadline on the work calendar. He had kids too, the same age as Mark’s. And a wife. Mark snuck out of the room so as not to wake his own. A morning walk did nothing to stop the inevitability of the sun rising in some uplifting way, indifferent to the night’s news, the previous day’s failures. He loaded the car with his briefcase and a change of clothes and left in his fleece for the river.
Mark watched Moby for a full half hour before attempting a cast through the noiseless mist. The fish looked different, less sure of his aquatic reign. His color was dark; he had been in the river for weeks, probably longer than Mark had been back from Alaska. Was this run up the river Moby’s last? At least Mark had that on him; he had offspring. Even if they were assholes. Even if he never made back to Alaska.
One section of stream was more open than others and it was there that Mark knew he would have a chance. He knelt down to hide his silhouette and carefully tossed his line above Moby’s position. Expectations were low and he was ready for hours of this game; cast, mend, wait, cast, mend, wait. Just another hundred phone calls to vendors, blind-calling companies and rejoicing in rejection. Every drift was a pitch, a sale that wouldn’t close.
Cast, mend, set. His indicator sank and Mark yanked his rod to bury the hook in the side of Moby’s jaw. The king was not happy with such an invasion of his kingdom. Water churned and Mark rose to get a better angle on the fish, make absolutely clear it was hooked fairly, in the mouth. Confident after Moby’s second run beneath the shelf ice, Mark flipped his rod to the other side and moved onto a shallow sand bar. Moby felt the disturbance and bolted. It was a desperation run, no strategy to wrap Mark around a log, or catch him on a rock. Moby was afraid.
Mark took one step forward and readied his net. He reeled again until he felt the click of his leader in the top guide of his rod and pulled it back so the angle of line approached his outstretched hand. Mark didn’t feel his elbow, couldn’t tell what time it was, he was too busy usurping a piscivorous throne. Moby would not go quietly: only two thirds of him fit into the small trout net and Mark had to kneel down again to handle the swimming shank of muscle. He pulled the hook out from the hooked kype of the beast and admired the patterns along its back and belly.
Moby pulsed under his hand and struggled against the bank. Mark looked to the tail and saw a chalk white color that crept up along the fins and into the body of the fish; some weird decay of death. Mark looked at the white, an indicator not so much of age but of time remaining until death. He scratched his beard. The two matched, both moving forward toward an inevitable end somewhere in the headwaters.
Mark’s adrenaline still pulsed and he felt young, fresh, and painless. He held the decaying tail of the fish in his hand as he maneuvered it upstream, gills filtering oxygen and feeding recovery. They both flexed, felt lively. Mark was in Alaska again, had found it somewhere in the geologic folds of Ohio. When he finally let go of Moby, released something he had been after for three days, the flash and the flick of the tail took him to the banks of the river with Dennis and Harrison. Moby was no whale, but neither was he a steelhead. Moby was a king salmon, in a place as foreign and strange to his own life as Alaska was to Mark’s. Moby wasn’t supposed to be there, couldn’t be there; it was statistically impossible to catch a salmon in Ohio, thousands of miles from Alaska.
Mark pulled out a cigar, lit the tip and forgot about the time, the fatigue, the inevitable end over his shoulder. There were no guides, no one telling him how to fish, how to seal a deal. There was only Moby. Mark was young again. He’d have to call Dennis.