Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Strange Case of Arthur Gribbs

The Strange Case of Arthur Gribbs
An original short story Copyright 2009 Erik Helm
Dedicated to William Olson who never stops inspiring me.

It was in the spring of 1965 as I wandered among the tables and booths of the Charterforth flea market near my home in Connecticut that it caught my eye. At a table filled with dusty items lorded over by a similarly dusty proprietor, I noticed a long fishing rod. As I approached, I held my breath as the object began to take clearer shape. Sure enough, An antique greenheart two-handed fly rod, and in excellent condition, despite the dust.

Nodding to the old man behind the table who was wearing an old jacket that was more patches than coat, I placed a hand on the rod and began to examine it. ‘That there’s a Gypsy crappie pole” said the old man. “Catch ya a load of crappies that pole will young lad.” I smiled at both the mistake in identifying the rod and the reference to me as a ‘young man’. Only a disheveled old coot like this would find me 50 years young. “May I lift it?” I asked while already moving it from its place leaning up against a wooden post. As the old man nodded, I took the rod in my hands in full for the first time. It was a smaller rod as they come, measuring around fourteen feet. It was colored a dark blue with some yellow decoration around the reel seat. I sighted along its length and wonders of wonders it was straight as the proverbial arrow. Then I gave it a tentative shake. As the rod flexed back and forth and the old man rambled on about some nonsense or another, a strange subtle tingling sensation seemed to envelop the rod and travel into my hands and forearms. The sensation was subtle, but puzzled me. Was this the ‘vibration’ action I have often read of that was used by Major Grant and others in their manufacture of greenheart rods? Certainly, the seller of the ‘Gypsy crappie pole’ could be of no assistance here. I turned the rod over again and again and began a detailed examination. The tip had been repaired rather expertly, and some small dark burnt coloring marked the junction. The only other mark was a simple inscription near the butt that read “Arthur Gribbs”.

Looking around to see if my wife was near or was still adding to her thimble collection, I hesitatingly inquired of the proprietor the price of the ‘crappie pole’ adding that “I already had one, but this one is in decent shape and would make a backup for those days when I needed to catch even more crappies.” The price was $20.00. A heck of a lot of money for 1965, and an obvious attempt at gouging me by the old man that ran the booth, but well worth the price for a rod like this. We agreed after haggling that $15 dollars would do, and I carried the rod carefully back to the station wagon, already cringing at the expected words from my wife, “Another fishing pole?” “Have you gone mad?”

As it turned out, she had found and purchased a set of pink and green salt and pepper shakers shaped like eagles which were made by someone who obviously had never seen an eagle, thus she could not reprimand me as she was equally guilty. As I drove home, I started thinking of the rod and of my yearly business and fishing trip to the Don River in Scotland. This trip, which I have taken for the past three years, was my vacation from the responsibilities of the breadwinner. I got away by myself for a week, checked up on some overseas operations of my firm, and got to enjoy myself without having to tow the family around to see the world largest ball of string or the fairy tale village in the middle of nowhere, America. The rod would be balanced by my old pre-war hardy salmon reel, a gift from the president of our Scottish branch and holder of fishing rights in perpetuity on the River Don.

That next weekend, As I took the family on a camping trip, I broke away for an hour to try the rod out on the lake. As I began to cast and get into the rhythm of the rod, the strange tingling sensation came back into my arms. The rod was rather heavy and cumbersome, but if I took it slow and easy and let the rod do the work, it became a delight to cast. That tingling sensation was quite strange though. Vibration indeed.

On July 23rd, I awoke in a quaint but comfortable Scottish hotel after a long but relaxing plane flight. After I visited the business and found everything in order, I called upon Allen, my partner, and the host of the fishing.

Salmon Fishing had been rather good he reported, as we drove his landrover through the beautiful Scottish countryside and down to the Don. “Small drab flies have been the order of the day, but the ratio of grilse to adult salmon has been better than average.”

We met the other anglers that would be fishing that day, and as I assembled my tackle, I renewed my acquaintance with Calum, the ageless old ghillie. Nobody knew how old Calum was, but he seemed to be a ghillie on the river as long as anyone could remember, as his father was before him. His white hair and youthful smile, as well as his wry wit and ready net was a welcome presence on the river.

The beat I was assigned to consisted of a series of rapids slowing into a deep pool. As I got into place at the head of the run, Calum grabbed my rod and reel and began to tie on a small gray and brown feather wing fly with what looked to be a throat hackle of blue jay. As he began to wind in the line, he hefted the rod, looked at it, and whistled. “That’s a devil of a nice wee rod you have there…I haven’t seen one like this in years.” “Sure is a pretty lass.” As he flexed the rod, his face took on a puzzled look, and when he handed the rod back to me I asked him what was the matter. He was looking at his left hand as he said “Years ago, when I was young and careless and after much proper malt was drunk, I did a somersault into the river on a dare and broke my hand.” “Since then, I have never had much feeling in it, but I swear that I just felt it tingle… Strange…”

Indeed, as I cast the rod and swung my fly, the almost electric sensation became stronger, as if the rod was singing. Half way down the run and forty minutes later all hell broke loose as a huge chrome snout appeared beside my fly, inhaled it, and began tail walking down the river making my old Hardy reel scream for mercy. The fish was approaching the tail-out of the pool. If she ‘went over’ I would be screwed, so I eased off on the pressure to try to steer her back upstream. Back she came to hold deep in the pocket. The rapids at the end of the pool were making an awful thundering noise, but as I concentrated on the fish, the thunder seemed to be coming from somewhere above. Calum arrived beside me out of breath and obviously excited. He pointed up to the now rather ominous storm clouds growing and darkening above us. “Looks like its gonna’ rain sheep and biscuits on us soon, we better land this lass and get back to the bothie.”

I tightened up on the line and began to gain on the fish. Each slow lift and reel was accompanied in rhythm by deep thunder from above. The rod began to get painful to hold onto. It seemed to shimmer with energy. Soon the salmon was ready for the net, and as Calum slipped it over the fish I almost imagined I could see sparks of electricity springing from the end of my rod. It began to rain steadily as Calum led me back to the bothie hut.

“Around 30 pounds I think” Calum smiled as I wiped the wet out of my hair with a towel and took off my Barbour jacket. “The best fish I have seen in a grand while.” “Ya best be recording it in the book” Calum said as he pointed to a large leather bound book placed in the center of the bothie table. I duly recorded my catch; the day, time, weight, sex, beat and fly that took the fish. As Calum waited for the other anglers to show up, he slowly and deliberately began to pour out two glasses of a single malt scotch whisky.

Fascinated by the book, I flipped back to near the beginning where the catches were recorded in flowing script with ink and quill pens and were now aged and stained. I was reading the section for 1902, and had come across an entry for a thirty-pound salmon on the same day and at roughly the same time I had just caught mine. What a coincidence! It was when I saw the name that my mouth literally dropped open. Arthur Gribbs, July 23rd 1902. RIP.

“Hey” I exclaimed as Calum approached with two drams of amber nectar, “Arthur Gribbs, that is the name on my rod, the one I got at the flea market…the one I just used to land my biggest salmon ever!”

Calum’s facial expression changed instantly, and he took on a dark and cautious look. He set down the whisky on the table and took up the butt of the rod, read the inscription, stood upright, turned, and stared me in the eyes for what seemed like eternity. It was if he were examining my soul.

“It’s a long story from long ago when I was a wee lad” he said as he returned with the bottle and topped up the glasses generously. “To the river, and the spirits of the unknown” he proclaimed as a toast as we sipped. The whisky was the finest I have ever tasted with the hint of peat and caramel blended with a whisper of heather, honey, and as I imagined it, the spray of salt and the wee hint of fish.

Rain thundered against the roof and sides of the hut. As Calum drained his glass and refilled it, his face lit from the side by the flickering of lightning.

“I was an apprentice ghillie that summer; my first year helping my father.” “I was green as a newborn but eager as ‘ell” he chuckled. “I was in charge of carrying the fish and the gentleman’s rods” he said, “not allowed yet to touch anything else.” “One evening we were fishing the very run you took your fish in.” “It used to be called the ‘auld medden’ pool back then but ever since has been known as the ‘dead pool.’”
“Mr. Gribbs was a ‘ell of a fisherman.” “He never tired of casting and was fun to be around.” “He actually made my job enjoyable.” “He was from England, but lived in the states.” “After two days with only catching a single grilse, he hooked a beauty in the heart of the run.” “The fish was one of the leapingist salmon I ever saw.” “It was so strong that he could not seem to gain any line, and the fish had done a better job with him than he got of the fish.” “After along about an hour it began to rain, but old Arthur, he just laughed as the water poured off his hat and into his eyes.” “He wanted this salmon.” “Well, as I said Mr. Gribbs was a fine fisherman, and he fought the fish well.” After some give and take he got the salmon to within a few feet of the river’s edge and went to tail her.” “He would not let us gaff her, nor net her, he wanted to do it alone.” “He did it too.” “In that wind and rain and thunder he tailed the fish, staggered ashore, and held it out in front of him while giving a primal roar of delight.” Calum took a long draught of the single malt and paused. “It was the last thing old Arthur Gribbs ever did, holding that salmon in triumph before him with that huge smile of his.” The next second, with a crack and a blinding flash, a bolt of lightning struck the tip of his upturned rod, and he was struck dead.”

I felt as if I was listening in slow motion as he went over to the book. “That is my father’s writing.” “Arthur could not have recorded his salmon on account of his lying dead on the grass.” “RIP, Rest In Peace…” Your salmon is the spitting image of his, all these years later.”

I took the rod in my hand, looking all the time at the repaired tip with its little burn mark.

“Here, Calum” I said, handing him the rod. “It remembered.” “The damn rod remembered all the time with its electric tingling.” “It is home now.’ “Let it stay here where it belongs.”

Calum smiled.
We raised a parting glass to the strange story of Mr. Arthur Gribbs.


  1. Nicely done lad.

    when we meet we shall drink together.


  2. I'd have paid, and gladly, for that one. Very nice.

    Thanks for the effort

  3. Outstanding story! Enjoy the heck out of your blog too.


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