We tiptoe through the green, woody portal that leads to the little pond, the other world. Low-growing brush kiss my bare legs and I bow beneath a canopy of green. Even the air is different here; the light, dense, refracts off of still water, fern, and pine. It is surreal, this jewel of a clearing with its knowing trees and black water. I dismiss the road sounds of the street just behind us; we do not look back through the trees to see the neat rows of matching houses.
This is Narnia. If I were a fish I would surely live here.
We tiptoe so as not to perturb the fish and the urge to genuflect surprises me. It has been a long time. I resist the impulse to kneel, sitting, instead, deep into the folding canvas chair that accompanies me on these little journeys.
“Sam— ” I am not ready for him to leave me.
“What, honey?” He whispers, looking at the water like a lover, even as he speaks to me.
He walks gingerly to that shifting line where the earth and the water meet and studies the dark, pregnant pool. It is a mystery to which only he knows the answer—a secret he shares with the water. I marvel at the silent calculations that must race through the undercurrent of his mind, just past consciousness, as he determines where and how he will aim his first cast. The world is suddenly good and right and just for him, full of promise and potential. There are fish in this pond.
He sets down two rods—one for himself and an extra I think he brings in hopes that I will join him. But I am not one of the converted; I am too content in watching, breathing. He bows, scoops water from the pond, and tastes, less in thirst than in ritual. Remembrance. He opens the tin box, warpy and scarred black on one side from a fire no one talks about, and chooses a lure.
He stands, rod in hand, faces the water, tenses, and quiets. He pulls back and whips the lure into a shadowy spot made cool and dark by fallen oaks. The lure arches though the air then hits its mark with a noiseless splash, and wavelet rings swell and sail in the water. He casts, again and again, and we fall into the rhythm of water and line. I am mesmerized. The world, for a moment, is just man and women, water and mind.
There is God in these woods, in this water, I think. Not since the sounds of whispered Aves made me weep child’s tears at the horror of a dead God have I been moved by anything but ocean currents and the Carolina gale force. But here in this pocket of earth and shadow I feel something watery, shimmery, pregnant, and green that can be nothing less than His forgotten daughter.
I know this water, love her like a more beautiful sister. He pursues her, his mistress, and she indulges his little penetrations, heals him, nourishes him, gifts him with her children.
He gives her back every fish he catches.
I wonder, were I not sitting here, how many times he would baptize that hook.
I wonder if we are on the same globe. This happens every time. He has been left too much alone in this world.
“Abby, c’mere.” His eyes fix on the water still as he whispers my name. Again I will play child to his father. “Watch.”
He switches to the fly rod I once bought him in a moment of poetic fervor. “I’ll take the Shakespeare,” I’d said, as if I knew the difference, to the man at the sporting goods counter.
He attaches some little black tangle to his line, a knot he was born to tie, with all the fierce concentration of prayer. He pulls at it, testing its resiliency, three times, then whips it once, twice and again, piercing the water so gently you know he doesn’t want to hurt her.
He has never caught one fish on that fly rod. Not in all the times he’s been out here furling and unfurling its line like a banner, endeavoring to rally the fishes to some common cause. He caught plenty, he reminds me, on the rod owned by Walt Harnett, father almighty. But Chief Harnett died in a three-alarm purgatory in his house off of Ten-Ten many years ago, and went down with his best weapon.
I didn’t know Sam when his father died, yet my heart revolts against me when I think about it, even now. What God in heaven lets a fireman burn to death in his own home? What God makes a child an orphan? What kind of god hurt the man who would be my husband?
Something whizzes sparklingly past my ear. He has nearly caught me. I am resurrected, made alive again in this world by mischief in blue eyes. “Sorry!” He grins.
“You wanna know what the trick is, Abby? You’ve got to hold your mouth just right. It’s all in how you hold your mouth.”
I indulge him; I rise from my seat, purse my lips solemnly, and wait for the fish to fly from the water. We are both standing there at the horizon of water and earth, puckering up for fish that will not bite. I can only stand it for so long before I begin to laugh. I make my best fishy face and kiss him right on the mouth.
He tolerates my irreverence for only a moment. “You’ve got to be quiet, Abby. You’ll scare the fish.”
I wish that I were slick-skinned, shiny, and gilled. Maybe then I could hold the man’s attention for longer than a second.
Sam offers flies to the fish again and again, but this will not be their last supper. Our little found world, our America, will soon fade into shades of gray and darkness.
“One last cast, honey, I promise.”
I’ve heard this before, and again, as before, I believe him. I’m not sure where my faith comes from; I stopped believing in God after only one betrayal. I envy Sam’s faith, really. He believes. In possibility, in second chances. He hopes.
He drags his line, eyes focused and fixed on the breach he has made in the water. At last, he withdraws. He is mine again. “You ready?”
He kneels and places the lures and flies inside the old tin tackle box , molded and scuffed from years of wear by a man and his boy, lustering in the encroaching moonlight. The light remaining gives me a glimpse, a reflection of his face in that altar, that box of lure and lore and memory.
His eyes divulge a stunted childhood, forsaken, pulled out of the water before its time and left to learn, alone, how to breathe.
And my heart cannot hold all our sadness. So I offer it, my unbidden gift, to the water.
The water is cool, amniotic, forgiving.