Monday, July 20, 2009

The Anachronism

The Anachronism
An original short story
Copyright 2009 Erik Helm

I discovered it again by accident while rooting around in the cellar through a pile of old fishing tackle and memories. Wrapped in its old oil cloth, the little wood rod and line had lay on a corner shelf for a good half of my lifetime. As I unwrapped it, the memories of youth came flooding back with startling vividness.

I was somewhere in my mid-twenties, the indestructible years, and was exploring a backwoods section of the Little Cherry River in central Pennsylvania. Backpacking my lunch and tackle, I had made my way through the thick dark deciduous forest lit by moving rays of sunlight cascading through the leafy canopy. I hoped to find the seclusion I needed and a few trout to round out the day. I was feeling organic as hell. I crossed the Cherry several times until I came to a series of plunge pools. The river here sang like a choral work as it tricked and poured. The trees leaned over high ahead and met over the river, creating a tunnel not unlike the nave of a medieval church. An ideal place to worship nature by fooling a bespeckled trout with an artificial fly. I rigged up my little seven-foot cane rod given to me by my grandfather, tied on a fly, and started to make my way up the series of pools. By the time I had arrived at the uppermost pool I had caught and released five tiny brook trout. They were so full of color they seemed more like blossoms in the stream. Purples, reds, and blues exploded like fireworks against background rich enough to make King Midas jealous. The river above the pools was a long riffle, and as I quietly read the water, I realized I was not alone.

Along the bank of the river near the head of the riffle sat a strange figure. He was old yet lithe. His long gray hair hung down from beneath a grass hat so crude it almost seemed that it was a part of the forest itself. His shirt was either gray or dirty white, and his pants looked like black pajamas. He had not noticed me, but simply sat staring at the water with nary a movement. I crouched down to watch, unaware at the time exactly why I was watching, or what I expected to see.

After a few minutes, the air over the riffle suddenly came to life with the delicate flights of a few small rusty mayflies. Immediately a splashy rise shown at the surface of the water as a trout dined on nature’s morsel. This seemed to be the signal for the man to slowly move into action. He disappeared into the brush and emerged carrying a sheath knife and a newly cut thin branch of some slender tree. Sitting cross-legged on the forest floor, he used the knife to strip the bark from the branch. With the bark removed, he waved and bent the switch backwards and forwards, nodded to himself, and set it beside the stream.

He now went to the base of a small pine tree, and began digging with his knife until he had uncovered a small root branch of the conifer. This he cut and with subtle effort pulled all its ten feet out of the black loam. Seated again, he separated the root into multiple strands with the knife, and holding the fibers between his toes, began to braid them together. In no time at all a twenty-foot long pile of supple line lay at his feet.

The lone figure now stood up slowly and fastened the line to the tip of his slender little branch rod. I was paralyzed with fascination as he walked up to the river like he was a tree swaying, and cupped a hand in the air to capture a mayfly. Out from his pocket he took a single small hook. He set the mayfly on the top of his shoulder where it obediently stayed. Removing his hat, he plucked several strands of his long gray hair and placed them between his lips. Delicately, he tied one strand of hair to the end of his root line, while the other served to attach the little mayfly carefully to the hook.

He crouched on the bank with extreme patience and deliberate movements, slowly bringing the little wand up to hover over his head while the hook and its mayfly cargo were held in his left hand. He reminded me of a heron the way he stood still or moved with such deliberation that one was not absolutely certain if he was moving at all.

A short charged silence followed before, in the middle of the riffle, a trout made a little ring as it sipped in a mayfly. ‘Swish-shush’ went the rod, sending the line arcing beautifully over the water to place the mayfly with utmost accuracy and delicacy directly upon the now still spot where the ring was still expanding. Suddenly the water exploded in tiny droplets, and the slender wand began to dip and dance in the man’s ropy arms.

He smiled then; a slowly spreading smile that began at the corners of his mouth and grew to encompass first his entire face, and then spread through the whole forest. Crouched in my little perch behind a red dogwood bush, I felt his smile as if I could touch it.

I watched while in the next ten minutes he took five more brook trout, lay them reverently on the bank, fashioned a crude creel or basket from birch bark lined with fresh grass, and placed the trout in a row in the basket. Stooping to drink from the river his lips muttered unheard words I could only take as a thankful offering. Then he did something odd. He kissed his little rod and tossed it into the riffle, turned, and walked into the forest, vanishing into the dark foliage as if he had never existed at all. The rod and line came slowly bouncing down the stream to rest at my feet.

So… this is how I came to have this switch rod wrapped in an old cloth among the chattel of the past in my cellar. I had saved it because without its physical presence I never would have trusted my memories of that day. Who or what he was I never will know, but to me he will always be a being out of place in time. He was both native to the forest and yet not native to the time and day. It seems to me he slipped between time. One thing is certain though, He was the finest angler I have ever seen.

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