A bold yellowjacket explores the rim of my coffee mug while I splice a new tippet at the picnic table in the yard. This one is a brazen devil. I keep an eye on him. There’s something vaguely apocalyptic about the yellowjackets this year. It’s been hotter than usual and they’ve turned downright nasty in the overheated afternoons, and hardly a day goes by lately one of them doesn’t nail me. A few of the neighbor’s cows were stung blind at the water troughs trying to drink through the inch-thick layer of bodies accumulated on the water. I’ve never seen so many damn yellowjackets. Milder winters and drier summers lately, so I figure not as many are killed off by the weather.
Dusty, dead-dog hot this summer. The woods are as dry as gunpowder. The government is selling the trees to eliminate the fire hazard. But the policy creates a dangerous, combustible wasteland of neck-deep logging slash drying tinder, and the stripped forest duff baking in the sun. So there are even more fires. They may as well just run through the place with torches in their hands. Seems like every summer brings more fires than the last. The ridges beyond the river bluffs are strange with the loss of their soft, sleeping-mammal profiles, the tree lines abruptly broken with obtuse mechanical angles of the clear-cut logging jobs and fire trails.
The Boundary Fire started a week before the full moon and burned out of control sending up a mad elephant head of smoke that almost choked us out, while the waxing moon sucked the wind from the east bringing the fire within two miles of us. Didn’t fish for five days – Ariel and I running like maniacs keeping the sprinklers going and scraping a puny fire line around the cabin with a shovel and hoe.
Yesterday afternoon the moon spun the wind around and brought back the prevailing westerly and the crews were finally able to get a handle on the fire. The wind-shift cleared away most of the smoke by nightfall.
The Milky Way juxtaposed over the river valley, Ursa Major positioned at True North. The sepia full moon rose from behind Mt. Hooknose and shined through the bedroom windows filling the room with light too lovely to pull the curtains against. I went to sleep looking forward to getting back to the fishing routine. And a rare thing passing that night – there was to be a total eclipse of the full moon at 3:30AM. The breeze had been anticipatory.
We were sleeping when it started. What’s strange, we were asleep. But when the earth’s shadow began to pass over the face of the moon, altering the ambient light, we awoke. But not all the way... we remained immersed and streaming in the serene loss and eventual returning of light, drifting in and out of consciousness while we watched the radius of shadow overcome the bright dream moon. Then slowly release it.
The radio pulls in a BBC jazz program out of Canada and Coltrane blows A Love Supreme from the cabin door. Ariel gathers some things and puts them into her daypack. She’s going to walk down to the river with me this evening. So I’m waiting, sipping the coffee while I wait, checking inside the cup for yellowjackets between each sip. I’m ready to go and I’m getting fidgety. Ah, love...
Fist the mist
and mock the clock,
reckless rhythms of runoff.
We cross the hot road, the tall weeds, the railroad tracks, pass through the shadows under the pines and come into the light on the stones lining the river. We surprise an osprey ripping the guts out of a nice sized trout at the edge of a gravel bar. It lifts its wings and hurls itself into the sky, the trout intestine dangling like an exclamation point.
The sun’s still heavy on the water, so we’re a little too early to fish. Ariel, strayed down the shore, bends to pick up an odd bone laying amidst the stones. She holds it up for me to see – “Pelvis?”
“Yup. Looks like a pelvis,” I say, “Maybe a beaver, or an otter.”
She absently performs a single provocative gyration of her hips while musing over the interesting construct, then places the bone back as she found it and meanders off looking for other secrets.
I amble back to the trees, find a spot in the shade and plunk myself down on the pine needles. The end of day red sun squats on the bristled ridge across the river at the edge of the sky. I smell the lingering smoke of recently burned trees, but also the regular incense of pine pitch, hot stones, cold water and trout. Water passes through the eddy; a trinity of jet contrails furrow the oblivion tan sky. Across the river there’s a couple new prow-fronted dreamhomes risen like log forts with overhanging decks inserted into the pines along the river bluffs. I worry about the arrival of these. People in the old days built back a respectful distance from the river bank.
Nothing lasts. Water passes.
My eyes water from the smoke. The plundered hills look like crumpled horse blankets in the haze. Summer’s breaking swell accelerates with the inertia of climaxing events, human and not; nevertheless, the trout remain an ambiguous constant, feeding with nearly perfect fidelity for a short spell in the evening.
The weather front moving through with the onset of the full moon left scattered mare’s-tail clouds. The sun passes behind the mountains; shadows reach to bridge the river; the sky turns injured pink. The undersides of the clouds glow red. Now the river turns red – fiery red for awhile – a river of fire. Then blood. A river of blood.
Red moon, what passes?
At last, shadow. Hunting spiders spring quick as synapse from their hiding places among the stones, coyly assessing me as I pass from the trees to the river – they dash back to their crevasses when I let my gaze fall on them.
“Go ahead and hide,” I tell the spiders, “the sky is burning, and the game is ON.”
A banner of water trails from the tip of a rocky toe thrust from the shore. The seam formed at the confluence of the faster mainstream and the slower water under the point runs for about 60 feet before tailing over shallower water. I work down the length of the run quartering empty casts. A couple of sedges paddle through the air like tiny jugs – my reliable friends – usually raging prolific this month and causing many trout to feed openly, but hardly any this evening. You feel it when it’s off. Crazy full moon stuff.
Everything seems dead.
Until: hey... luck... a trout rises out in the seam.
The old bamboo delivers –
The trout, right there and in the mood, pounces the fly and whangs the line like a wrathful dog abruptly hitting the end of its rope, and busts off taking the fly with it.
...The line hangs limp and weightless in the coursing vacuity. My ears ring and my bones dissolve – I can feel my skull creak while I moonwalk back from the water’s edge with the broken tippet flapping from the rod tip.
“’At one was better than five pounds,” I tell myself, “had to be.”
A strange brown gull lifts on the curly breeze, head tilting, alert for scraps, while I obsess over the lost trout sporting a fresh piercing in its lip. It looks like a gull I’ve seen down in Baja. I wonder what it’s doing this far north. I glance over my shoulder at Ariel sitting cross-legged on a flat rock, a thin blonde Buddha with the lotus sketchbook open across her lap, the pencil poised above her knee like a single truth. (She doesn’t fish, not like us.) She watches the gull. Ariel doesn’t miss much, which scares me sometimes, but comforts me too. She returns to her drawing and her hair falls from behind her ear the way I like. I tie on another fly.
The fly floats for nothing down the wandering string of eddies. There’re a few rises, mostly beyond my range, but not many. The water is black, hard. I make a bunch of casts to the stingy water all the while losing light.
See. The moon. Things come to a head during the full moon, and things get funny. The famous human lunacy?... and all the rest of it. Relentless moon, the transition moon. Trout fishing is generally crappy during the full moon. But then, there’s always the odd fish, and a lot of world records are caught during the full moon, and a high percentage of those the single fish taken on an otherwise slow day. Go figure.
Ariel finds me, her stuff put away in the pack. And I’m winding in the line when a trout rises below us, close to the bank. Ariel sees it too and without a word takes a resigned step aside.
I pull enough line for the cast, bend low and sneak to within casting range, the static line coils loaded in my hand –
The trout sucks down the fly on the second drift –
We raise a short, lonesome ruckus along the bank –
And the trout blows itself out with the effort.
I press the yellow and black striped Yellowjacket from the corner of its jaw while we admire the 18-inch cutthroat laid out like a newborn in the rubber net bag. It’s a boy. Big head on him. And deep bronze down the flanks. A strange, beautiful fish, with odd fingerprint-sized black spots, the deepest black, the blackness of black dwarfs, extinguished cores of exhausted stars on the rear half only. The orange slits under the lower jaw glow like firebrands. I revive the trout until a surge of firm energy passes into its body and it kicks away. The dark water absorbs its light and it is gone.
A cool breeze gusts from the river, surges against us, clean, bending the rods of tall grass, yellow tops fat with seed.
“It’s good. The fishing is good isn’t it?” Amused, matter of fact, Ariel means it more as an affirmation than a question. She is connected intuitively and biologically to the moons and tides of this world. Her observations can usually be trusted.
The night is exquisite and the stars are very close. A saffron glow exudes from behind Hooknose where the waning moon will rise in a while. I contemplate the flowing dark water where I see no desolation and all appears secretly well. What escapes the flow?...
Not a thing.
“...Yes... it is good,” I allow. The river whispers, clucks, sighs. I laugh to myself in the dark, hoping she is right. Hoping it is so.