Cal found Okash Vishnapanyu’s clothing, vest, and rod—a sweet little French cane rod, worth way more than Cal’s car—neatly stacked on the beach just below The Braids. Everything was arranged as it had come off: wading boots, wool socks, gravel guards, then clothing: Ex Officio shirt and shorts, a weird expensive looking pair of jockey shorts, and, perched on top, little round Gandhi glasses. In the yellow wash of the flashlight he could see a confused track shuffling off across the sand upstream.
“Shit. SHIT,” Cal said to the water.
It was full dark, and the air was flushed with caddis and sulfurs and a mist of midges, as well as a goodly crop of mosquitoes, all bumbling and banging into everything. He considered hustling back down to the lodge house and calling for help, but it would take an hour to get anybody except maybe a cop or two and they’d need Cal to meet them at the gate and they wouldn’t know anything once they got here, or anything more than he knew now. He rehearsed what he’d say: There’s this little Indian dude, OK, not Indian exactly, anyway, he’s a member of this club, but he’s out here, somewhere, naked, by his own choosing. Hmm. Cal swung the light through the dark.
If Okash was looking to get lost, the Braids was ideal. The creek spread out across a broad sand and gravel flat divided by scraggly lines of willows reinforced with chickenwire cages full of rocks to prevent scouring out in high water or ice. The DNR guy had suggested encouraging shade and cover. Cal had built the cages according to directions from a pamphlet.
The Braids was lousy fishing. Ospreys and the occasional eagle loitered nearby; any trout lingering in the shallows might as well be sitting on a picnic table. A lot of bugs lived there, and the members fished it because it felt wild and was easy wading.
No cops, just him. Cal slapped a bug and splashed off into the throbbing darkness.
* * *
That evening, Okash had shown up and caught Cal grilling one of the trout he’d been hired to protect. Dinner had started the day as a big brownie holding under a fallen tree in the shady bend below Big Ledge. Dinner had then barreled out and whacked a woolly bugger and run him silly down to Cliff Pool. All the way Cal bitched at himself for fishing a big-fish fly on his soft 3-weight, but his streamer rod was in Colorado for repair after a violent misadventure that spring. Truth was, he wasn’t troubled enough just to crank down and break her off; he was sorry but not stupid. The beefy fish overmatched the little rod and by the time Cal caught up the warm water and the protracted fight had doomed her. Cal cradled and swooshed but she’d had it and he clubbed her out and quit fishing as penance. Salt and pepper, a couple of Heineckens, and all would be well, part of the Great Wheel. Until a member popped in unannounced on a Monday night and found him eating the livestock.
Okash was one of the members who enthusiastically supported Cal’s residence and quasi-employment at Trout Club, and never failed to appreciate Cal’s progress on the projects around the grounds. Okash had helped push through the extra assessment for improvements and much-delayed maintenance, and had found pay enough to keep Cal in salt and pepper and Heinecken. Members grumbled, but Cal ignored them. His sojourn as club handyman and hermit served other purposes, and the vigorous work and easy lonely fishing was beginning to repair his frayed soul.
Cal assumed he’d been busted, but Okash had just given a curt nod and strode toward the creek and disappeared. Cal cleaned his plate, unconcerned, and it was hard dark before he began to wonder where the man had gone.
In fact, Okash wasn’t much of an angler. He was a barely competent caster, and immune to any understanding of trout, bugs, rivers, any of it. He had good gear but he didn’t cherish it or participate in the erotic conversations about reels and grips and soft-hackles that were standard clubhouse gabble. He came out to the club alone, and spent more time walking and watching than fishing. Cal had often found him reading on a shady bank while trout rose sluttishly at his feet.
Yet Cal liked him more than most of the members. They postured about fishing, but cared for it less than work, so they had to feel guilty when they drove through the gate and up the lovely wooded valley. They carried that tangle of feelings to the creek, and to the meetings and parties, and it made them ring false and shallow. They quarreled and sniped and griped. Only a few, mostly older guys, showed love, and did whatever the hell they wanted when they were here. Okash was one of the two or three who really seemed to like the place.
Okash had explained his work to Cal one rainy windy September afternoon when everybody else had stayed home to watch the Vikings lose. A large healthcare concern paid Okash a ton of money to do something with leukocytes and bacteriophages and other stuff Cal didn’t remember long enough to look up. He’d described his origins, a bizarre story of mixed illegitimate parentage in Sri Lanka, hunger and bombs, a schoolteacher angel, calculus at age 9, MIT, the whole amazing American story. His mother tied trout flies for forty years in a factory under a corrugated roof in Trincomalee. She had kept Okash and his sisters alive at 6¢ each less materials. She now lived in an elder-care in Rochester and still tied flies all day, pissing off the staff with sharp tools and aromatic glues and trimmings in the carpet. Her eyes were going so she stuck to fours and sixes. Okash loyally fished her Silver Doctors and Zulus and March Browns, and the ignorant pampered trout of Yellow Creek ate them freely.
* * *
It was curling past 10 pm, with only a breath of dusk still bluing the southwest. No further sign of Okash. August had been dry but prolonged nighttime nudity in Minnesota meant real disregard for one’s well-being. Cal began to fear there was something ugly crouching in the creekside brush.
He crossed to the east bank, which was clear and flat, and slogged and called all the way up to the big maple that had fallen in the stream during a storm in July. He found no sign.
“God damn it, Okash,” he shouted.
Something tickled his peripheral vision and pulled him left, slashing at the cottonwoods with the Maglite beam. He saw nothing but then his mind replayed the movement and looked up. The cosmos obediently zipped another, and then another, silent little strokes of light. Despite the weirdness and heat and the fear and the fluttering of his jean cuffs in the current, Cal was charmed.
In the few moments he stood there he saw three meteorites and remembered: Leonids, as in lion, not Brezhnev. An annual event. Maybe Perseids; one came in November, and one in August. Up on the roof in blankets with his dad.
Cal shook his head at the weirdness of convergence, the lucky tragedy that gave him the meteor shower instead of a third beer he didn’t need and a chapter in a book he wouldn’t remember.
He clicked the switch again and waded back downstream, sweeping his light across the little narrow islands and the west bank and calling every few steps. The creekbottom was solid, table flat, and with the current behind him it was agreeable to march knee deep, probing with the light, catching the little swirls and flickers of his movement and the small flashing passage of insects through the flashlight beam.
He found Okash sitting in the grassy shingle at the tail of the largest of the islands in the Braids, maybe fifty feet from his clothing. At first he looked like a stump, legs across, motionless, head on his chest. He wasn’t asleep. Cal caught the flicker of his open eye, a slight movement of teeth white in the light against the darkness of skin and night.
“Okash? You all right?” Cal said, too loud.
Okash looked up, a slow movement, paused a three-beat, lowered his head.
The man wouldn’t be called skinny so much as narrow, and in the flashlight beam he really did look like a stump, extra-dark Sri Lankan skin, curly mop of black hair, heavy eyebrows. He looked especially naked without his glasses, and his curved spine and small, flat buttocks seemed cruelly connected to the undergrowth and stones.
Cal slogged up next to him, dread backing up in his throat. It is a peculiarity of our understanding of others that we can comprehend broken bones and bloody cuts and dazed concussions, but when confronted with invisible injury we panic and fold.
“Hey, man—you OK?” Cal asked again, without any real expectation of an answer. The river murmured back, and the broad low backhum of a summer night continued, but Okash didn’t speak, didn’t move at all.
Cal stood awkwardly. The flashlight suddenly seemed obtrusive and impolite so he clicked it off and the sound and light reorganized itself around the two men. Cal could hear himself breathing.
He moved closer to Okash, who was now just a dark black shape in the boat-like space, bordered by the undefined half-glitter of the stream around them.
“Hey, man, you got to get some clothes on,” Cal said lamely. Okash didn’t stir.
Moving carefully and a little numbly, Cal sat down then hitched a few inches closer. They both faced west and north a bit, across the wider branch of the stream. The higher main bank was a black stripe, and beyond that a lighter sense of openness across thirty yards of grassy buffer to the edge of a soybean field. As his eyes adjusted, Cal could make out the dim fringe of the bluff across the valley, defined by black absence of stars. The stream chuckled and slurred.
“My mother died,” Okash said suddenly. His voice was calm, uninflected, unembarrassed.
“Oh,” Cal said.
They sat there a moment more. Cal felt relief wash over him.
“Now I must die too,” Okash said in the same tone.
Cal’s anxiety bolted back. He paused tensely.
“What, is that some kind of, you know, religious ritual or something?” he asked.
Okash didn’t reply to that, didn’t move. Cal could hear mosquitoes, and feel them lunching on his neck and arms.
“Come on, let’s go back to the lodge house. I’ve got beers, we can talk about it,” Cal said.
Okash didn’t move or reply. They sat.
Two nearly simultaneous meteorites cut the sky, followed a moment later by a third, this one a long luminous lingering slash that split into two before winking out. Cal gasped and said involuntarily, “whoa.”
“Did you see that?” he asked. Okash didn’t answer but stirred, shifted slightly. Cal thought of the narrow buttocks grinding into river stones and thistles.
“It’s a meteor shower,” Cal said. He considered some sort of sappy equation of a soul, death, heaven, then rejected it on the grounds that he knew too little about Sri Lankan religious beliefs to take a chance. Besides it was stupid.
“Perseids,” Okash said.
“Not Leonids?” Cal asked.
“No. That’s November.”
They sat in silence. Another one cut the sky.
“You know they are tiny, maybe the size of a grain of sand,” Okash said.
“Whoa,” Cal said again, carefully.
“I wanted...I thought I might be an astronomer once,” Okash said, almost sheepishly. “But the computer science, well, it was very sensible.”
“I thought you were a doctor,” Cal said.
“I am, well, that too. I’m a doctor who uses computers.”
They sat. Cal’s butt was becoming numb. He was rising toward mosquito panic-point.
“I’m sorry about your mother,” Cal said.
“Thanks,” Okash said.
“Are you going to stay out here? Because I’m getting freaking slaughtered by the mosquitoes.”
“The meteorites are very beautiful,” Okash said.
“Yeah, but this is Minnesota,” Cal said.
“Good point,” Okash said.
They sat a moment more, and the sky thrummed with meteors, four or five in a twenty-second span. Okash suddenly rose, and Cal heard a light clatter of stones falling from his skin.
Cal struggled up and stood with him a moment. “I think you shouldn’t, you know, die. You should stay alive.” Even as he spoke, he decided it was the single stupidest thing he’d said in his life.
“Thank you,” Okash said tonelessly.
Cal stepped into the stream, uncertain of how deep it would be, trusted his memory and stepped fully and blindly into the blacksilver swirl, worried that if he hesitated Okash would sit down again, or some other uncontrolled and unpredictable thing might happen. But Okash followed and they waded across to the gravel. Okash felt carefully with his bare feet. Cal took that as a good sign.
The flashlight seemed shockingly bright, so he immediately turned it off again. Then he turned it on again because Okash would need the light to see his clothing. Then he remembered Okash was naked, and hesitated, but Okash walked gingerly up the stones into the light and began dressing. Cal stood, holding the light, trying not to dwell on the multiple layers of weirdness. He was sure his exposed skin was crowded with bulging mosquitoes. For some reason he thought of gutting the big brown trout that afternoon.
Okash sat in the rubble to put his shoes on, big wading boots that looked outsized on his slim ankles. He didn’t tie them, just stood and scooped up the rod and vest and began to walk up the lodge path. Cal followed.
In the harsh light of the main room of the lodge, Okash looked worn and small. It was the shock of grief, Cal thought. It made him smaller.
“Do you want a beer?” Cal asked.
“Yes, please,” Okash said. “But I will not get drunk.”
“Oh, well, sure,” Cal said.
“I do not drink very well,” Okash said.
“Maybe tonight you can learn,” Cal said. They sat in the old chairs by the big window and looked out into the dim pale underleaves of the maples. Okash drank his beer.
Cal had about three hundred mosquito bites. In some places on his arms and legs they overlapped. Okash saw him notice.
“Oh, Cal, I’m sorry. You got those on my account.”
“Yeah, well, they aren’t my first. You’ll pay too,”
“No, not so much. They leave me alone,” Okash said.
“You’re kidding me!” Cal said.
“No. My subtropical genes, I guess.”
“Well, hell. Next time I’m going to leave you out there.”
Okash laughed lightly. “No, don’t do that,” he said softly to his lap.
Cal scratched idly. They didn’t itch yet.
“My mother had a stroke, they suppose. She died suddenly,” Okash said. “She was eating lunch.”
Cal paused a moment. “My father died. He was only 60.”
Okash nodded, looked at his beer bottle.
“I don’t really like fishing,” he said. “But my mother made flies. And I’m the one that received the benefit. My sisters are all still back there. They are not unhappy, I think, but all of those flies, they were made for me.”
Okash swigged back expertly on his bottle, a movement somehow Midwestern. They sat for a moment.
“I love this place,” he said. “I’m not sure why. The trout are certainly pretty, but that isn’t it.” He pointed with his chin at the rod and vest in the racks by the door. “That equipment there, it is lovely but it doesn’t... . I...I feel a loss. I feel guilty, really. I’m sorry, Cal, but I don’t like fishing.”
“You don’t have to fish to come here,” Cal said, again freighted by the fear that he would say the wrong thing. “You can sit by the water and read a book.”
Okash looked at him clearly. “You know, I think I can do that now. Without feeling guilty.”
“Your mom...mother, your mother tied those flies because that was what she did,” Cal said. “She didn’t do it for you, exactly. I mean, I didn’t know her or anything, but isn’t that what we all do?”
Okash got up suddenly and clumped to the door in his boots. “Can I have another beer?” he asked.
“Please,” Cal said, happy to have an easy question. He settled back, looking out into the night. Okash came back with two more bottles, but tried to twist them off. “No, they’re...here,” Cal took them, topped them with the opener, handed one across.
“I’m sorry about what I said out there, about dying,” Okash said suddenly. “I don’t really want to die, I mean...I was kind of ashamed. I think I feel guilty. She was very old.” He drank again, leaned back on the legs of the old wooden chair. The wading boots unlaced, his sockless stick shins looking a lot like the chair legs.
“I get it. The naked hiding thing, that was kind of a surprise, but I know how you feel,” Cal said.
Okash laughed. “You like fishing, fly fishing, you like it a lot,” he said.
Cal thought. “I do, but not, you know, not as a big thing. It’s more a natural choice, a step, I don’t know,” he said. “This afternoon I went out, but I didn’t even exactly choose it. I finished some work, next thing I know I’m chucking a streamer. I guess if I didn’t live on the river, you know, I’d feel differently.”
“Won’t the members think poorly of me if I come here but do not fish?” Okash asked, looking down into his beer.
“Hell with ‘em,” Cal said. “Most of them fish hard, all over the place, and don’t like it half as much as you do,” he said.
“I guess I’ve noticed that. Some of them complain a lot,” he said.
Cal laughed, drank.
Okash got up again, unsteadily. He went to the rack and rummaged in his fly vest, took out keys, a wallet, an eyeglass case. He picked up the little cane rod and looked at the label. He picked up the vest and clumped back to where Cal sat.
“Thank you for coming to find me. I’m sorry I acted foolishly and you got, what did you say, freaking slaughtered by the mosquitoes,” he said. He didn’t act sorry; he seemed happy about it.
“Hey, no problem, man. I’m just glad you, you know, came back in,” Cal said.
Okash nodded. “I’m going to keep coming here,” he said. “Hell with ‘em.”
Cal nodded. “Yup. Hell with ‘em.”
Okash handed the rod over. Instinctively Cal took it, turned it to look at the label. It had that surprising density of a good cane rod, the slow responsiveness and latent energy.
“I want you to have this,” Okash said. “No,” he said as Cal began the standard objection. “I won’t use it anymore, or if I want to you will lend it to me. I may want to, some time, but I don’t want it now. It’s a lovely rod, isn’t it? Very valuable. Eighty years old. It belonged to someone famous, I can’t remember. I have it written at home. I don’t need to have it anymore, and I think you might need it.”
Cal sat. He felt expanded, embraced.
“I’ll keep the flies,” Okash said. “They aren’t very good anyway.”
They both smiled.
“Thanks, Cal,” he said again.
“Sure, man. You would have done it for me,” Cal said.
Okash walked toward the door, stopped. “I am going to watch the meteors again for a time. You don’t have to come looking for me. Then I’ll be going home. I have a lot to do,” he said.