The life of the River
The ten-year old little boy cradled the fishing pole over his shoulder, as would a soldier marching off to war. His Levis jeans were a size too large and were rolled up at the bottoms as they hung over his tired tennis shoes. He was able to play hooky and stay on his grandparent’s farm today because his mother had to go to work. In his other hand, he carried the can of worms that he had collected from the garden. His fingers were caked with the sweet smelling brown red clay and dirt mixture. He adjusted the bill of the worn out ball cap that sat at an angle over his blond curls that fell around his eyes.
He stepped over the branches and the wooden fence post that had been knocked down from neglect. The worn path was laid out in front of him and lead deep into the woods, beaten from years and years of children’s shoes. There was a special spot that his older brother had showed him after the spring thaw had melted the snow caked on the surrounding rocks and the river had leveled out and calmed down.
The morning sun glinted off the rusted metal that was exposed just above the river’s flow, two feet from the shore. He could still see the red and blue paint of the car’s roof, worn through from years of decay. This was it. This was the spot that his brother and him chose to sit down cross-legged and fish for hours in the stillness of the wood.
The birds would flit around them and land edge closer to their precious bait can, trying bravely to steal a morsel or two. Sometimes, they would use grasshoppers and the birds would enjoy their triumphs if they snatched one away. The little boy was always distracted by the bird’s flight and fearlessness to keep a close eye out for a nibble of the fish in the deep water.
Today, it was just him and the wilderness as he let his mind wander, imagining that he was in an apocalyptic world where he was fending for himself, but a splash of a large bass jumping for a water skimming insect brought his mind back to the present. He smiled, laughing playfully as he saw the glimmer of green and silver-blue dance just underneath the surface.
He nimbly grabbed a small worm from the Folgers’ can and prodded the wriggling brown insect around the hook just as his grandfather had faithfully taught him. He apologized to the innocent worm as he did so, but it was necessary to catch a fish. He then deftly twisted his wrist and swung the pole out over the water to land as close to where he had seen the fish splash that he could. The weight made a plop as it hit the water, with the hook and worm sinking below.
He held the pole as steady as possible watching intently for the slightest movement of the clear fishing line. He rested his cheek on his palm and let his mind wander. His eyes roamed over the surface and he could see the shadow of small minnows playing among the rocks and below the submerged metal. It was then that he noticed his shadow on the water below.
He looked up to the left, checking to see that his can was still there. He turned his head around and was suddenly startled by a young boy just standing at the river’s edge watching him with curiosity.
“You scared the crud out of me!” He said but instantly wished that he hadn’t been so rude. “My name is James. You can come over and fish with me if you want.”
The young boy came over and he realized that the boy was older than him. He was dressed in a plaid long sleeve shirt and tan corduroy pants. He wore a blue McNeilus’ Steel trucker cap with a golden St. Christopher pin on his head.
James moved over to give him room, spotting the hat and pointing he said, “My dad used to work there, does yours?”
“What’s his name? Sorry, I didn’t even introduce myself, or right, I did. What’s your name?” James asked politely. He tried to sound as grownup whenever that he had the chance. His grandfather always told him when being polite, you never know who may be listening in, so be good at all times.
“Tim’s my name. My dad is Kenneth.” He said almost whispering shyly.
“Hello Tim. I think that Ken is my grandpa’s name, but I just call him grandpa. Calling him by his real name just sounds too…well funny. I don’t know.”
Just then, a splash broke the surface and startled him. His eyes narrowed as he fought the fish as it tried to get away for its life. James worked the pole holding it with all his might, as his right hand turned the reel to bring the line in. The tip of the pole bent slightly under the weight of the fish. Just as he saw the mouth of the trout come above the surface, he turned to where Tim had sat excitedly but immediately frowned; for his new friend was nowhere around.
He swung his head around quickly but he was gone. The disappointment creased his forehead and he dejectedly reeled in his catch the rest of the way. It was as if a cold wind blew down the back of his shirt and his head hung low as he dipped his hand in the cool water to retrieve the flopping fish. At least, he thought to himself, his grandpa would be proud. They would clean the fish together for lunch and grandma would fry it up for them. He had caught his first one all by himself.
Maybe they would be interested in hearing about the kid that he met. What was his name, oh yeah, Tim! Maybe they knew where he lived at too.
He laid the fish down on the rock and let the life pass slowly out of it. His brother had showed him how to hit it with a rock but he hated doing that. His hand slowly slid across the beautiful surface and he silently said a prayer for the fish. The scales of the green and pink trout sparkled in the sunlight. It was just a little bit shorter than his for-arm. It was the biggest fish he had ever seen, boy would grandpa be really proud.
After the gills stopped moving as the trout ceased flopping it’s tale, James, reeled in the hook and attached it on the third of five rings along the pole’s length. He dumped the rest of the worms into the water to feed the other fish. When his brother was done fishing, he always did that as a thank you to the river for giving up a fish. He didn’t want to break that type of tradition.
He stood up, grabbing the fish and placed it into his ball cap to carry it up the gravel road to the farmhouse that sat low on the hill, surrounded by lush green corn fields. He could see the line of smoke rising from the chimney and knew that his grandpa was in stoking the furnace. The sun warmed his exposed cheeks as he tried to run up the driveway, but the pole bounced around too much.
The screen door slammed behind him as the spring pulled it back shut. He could see his grandmother sitting in a red chair bent over, working on the newspaper’s crossword puzzle, with a black pen poised in her hand counting out the squares. He snuck up to her and slowly held the fish upright towards her face. She smiled as she saw him coming out of the corner of her eye. She waited until the right moment to turn.
“Boo!” She said.
“I was supposed to scare you grandma!” He laughed loudly.
“You need to get up earlier than that to scare this old lady.”
“See my fish! It’s huge. I caught it myself!”
“So that’s where you have been to. I was wondering as much.”
“It’s a trout.”
“It is, and what a big fish. Grandpa.” she yelled.
They could hear the steel door shut beneath him and he followed the sounds with his ear of heavy footsteps on the wooden back stairway leading from the basement up to the main floor. He waited until his grandpa had come through the living room and into the kitchen before he held up the trout with both arms. He smiled proudly as the old man eyed the trout, inspecting its length and weight.
“I saw your brother’s pole missing from the rack and figured you went down there. It’s about time we get you a pole of your own. It’s a fine looking trout. It will be good eating. Let’s go clean this up and then let Ma cook her up for us all.” He said tenderly.
The two turned and walked over to the butcher-block counter, his grandpa grabbing one of the stools for him to perch on as they cleaned as descaled the fish. He showed him how to slice it down the middle with the extremely sharp fillet knife and clean out the guts, sliding his finger inside and pulling the contents so that it fell into a mess pale.
“I met another boy down at the river, grandpa. He was real quiet.” James said.
“Hmmm, sounds like some one else was playing hooky too.” His grandpa teased him with a chuckle. “What’s the fella’s name?”
“Um, he said Tim.”
Just then a shattering sound made James jump and almost fall off of the stool. He turned towards the source and saw that his grandma had dropped a dinner plate that she had been taking out of the fridge. Grandpa grabbed his upper arm and pulled him down from the chair, taking him into the living room. He sat heavily down on the rocking chair and looked up into James face. His grandpa’s mouth was held in a tight grim look.
“You shouldn’t tell stories, son. What did I tell you before about lying? You don’t know who you might hurt if you do.”
“What did I do?” He said shaking as his eyes started to water.
“We don’t tell a lie in this house okay?”
“I didn’t lie, I swear it.”
“I will belt you across the butt. Do you believe me?” He said angrily.
“Yes, Sir. But I’m not.”
His grandfather swiftly grabbed him, bending him over his knee and swatted him twice. His butt stung with the harsh blows that he received and tears flowed freely from his eyes. His grandpa lifted him off of his knee and set him standing on the floor.
“I’m sorry!” He cried out not understanding why he had been punished because he was telling the truth. He had met a boy down there! He rubbed his back and then ran across the room, swinging the front door open, he darted outside into the sunlight. His grandma called to him, trying to stop him but he didn’t care. He hid behind the tractor parked on the lawn, next to the gravel driveway. His uncle’s red truck started coming up from the main road trailing a cloud of dust as he did so. He could hear music coming from its cab. The truck stopped before him with a skid of rock and dust.
“He kiddo, what’cha hiding for?” His uncle said, but then noticed the tears. “What’d you do now, young man?”
“I didn’t do anything I caught a fish as the river all by myself, met a kid and then told grandpa about it but he tanned my hide but good.”
“Wait, let me get this straight. You went to the river and caught a fish? Was it big?” He asked.
“Yes. I met a kid down there who said his name was Tim, too.” He said excitedly.
His uncle grew quiet suddenly.
“Come with me Jimmy.” He said tenderly.
The two walked through the overgrown grass to his uncle’s machine shed. A few old cars sat along the fence line outside and just inside the door sat a large red toolbox and a lot of tools that hung along the wall. James followed his with curiosity, letting his eyes dry in the morning air.
His uncle took out his keys and unlocked the top portion of the box, lifting the lid as he did so. Along the underside of the lid, hung a dozen old pictures and a few baseball cards stuck up with bits of gum and tape. He pulled a small one that was faded and yellowed with time. He handed it down to James who stood at his side.
James’ eyes widened with excitement. It was Tim, almost exactly as he had seen him in a plaid shirt and the McNeilus hat.
“That’s the kid! That’s him. He even wore the blue hat just like the one dad wore.”
His uncle bent over and pulled out the heavy bottom drawer grabbing a crumpled blue bit of cloth and then standing up. In his hand, he held the same blue McNeilus cap with the St. Christopher pin stuck in the front. It was the same cap that Tim was wearing. James recognized the pin.
“You saw this young boy?”
“I swear to it, I did.” He said.
His uncle squatted down and looked into his eyes, and James braved himself, and looked right back.
“I, well, I believe that you did. But this is my little brother, Timothy.”
“Your little brother? He’s about my age. How is that, uncle?”
“You see, Jimmy, well, James. He, well, he was in a car that flipped over and fell into the river a long time ago. He drowned cause he couldn’t get out. He was just fifteen when he, well. What I mean to say is that he died.” He said with a single tear forming at the edge of his eye, which he immediately wiped away.
“How can that be? I saw him!”
“I know, kiddo. I see him too sometimes in my mind. But don’t go telling everybody, they will think you’re off your rocker. Just keep it between you and me.”
“You mean, Tim is a ghost now?”
“I don’t know. I’d like to think that he is in heaven now. Enough of this, let’s go up and eat some of that fish of yours.”
He put the cap and the picture back where they had sat for more than years that he could count, then laid his arm across young boys back as they walked back up to the house.