by Mike Chalmers

I was still in C Block—before they put me on death row—when I got into fly fishing. Saw that movie one night in the common area. I know, cliché. Story was good. Most of the guys saw themselves as Brad Pitt, of course. A drinker. A fighter. Defiant. I guess I did, too. But I never saw anyone fly fishing before. I barely understood what they were doing, and that’s why I liked it. It was like watching someone snap their fingers and float above the ground. Couldn’t understand it. That night, back in my bunk, I had my first fly-fishing dream. Not a dream about fly fishing—I couldn’t really—but where I was in total control of everything, of my body, of my movements, of my life. I understood what I was doing and why. Me, the water, the trees, the birds, the fish, we were all moving, breathing, flowing together. When I woke up that morning, I felt calm and happy. First time in my life.

Now, I’d been fishing before, so I knew the basic idea. My grandparents had a small dairy farm. That was before I was born, but they still had the barn and the fields, and way down at the bottom of their hill, through the woods, was a muddy stream. Me and my cousin would sneak a few cigars and a couple of Iron City beers and camp down there. We were fourteen, fifteen, thought we were tough shit. The stream had catfish, and they’d eat any damn thing you could stick on a big hook and drift under a red and white bobber. Worms, bread balls, corn, chunks of hot dog, whatever. Best bait was when my grandma would give us some raw chicken livers, and we’d leave them in a jar out in the sun for a couple of days. Smelled god-awful, but the catfish loved them. And a catfish pulls like a freight train to the bottom. All you can do is muscle them up and onto the bank. You had to be stronger than the fish. Dominate the fish. And then you killed it and ate it. That, to me, was fishing.

Found a fly-fishing book in the prison library. I didn’t understand any of it. The hooks and the flies and the line are so small, so delicate, there’s no way they could land a big fish. But the pictures and drawings gave me the same sense of peace I felt in my dream. I read the book several times, picking up a little more each time. Eventually, my fly-fishing dreams involved actual fishing. Feeling in control, in tune with the world . . . and then that feeling of a fish on the line, the tug, almost losing my grip on the rod, we’re physically connected—me and the fish—I feel him pulling the hair-thin line, he feels me drawing him closer. We’re alive, together, in this place and time. No need to subdue him. I just want to look at him.

There were instructions in the book on tying flies. Another mystery, because I’d never imagined an actual person making something so beautiful. Of course, I didn’t have any tying tools or materials or anything. No way to get them either. Best I could do was jam a toothpick into a crack in the concrete wall of my cell so it stuck out straight. I worked in the prison laundry, so I’d collect loose threads from clothing and sheets. Got lint from the dryer. Little feathers from our lumpy old pillows. It took me a whole day to tie my first fly, but it was a passable Adams. Later, I got a couple of paper clips that I turned into hooks. Sharpened the points. The hooks didn’t have eyes . . . but I didn’t have leader, line, reel, rod, or a damn stream to fish in. Got pretty good at my paper-clip flies, though, and had a nice collection of dries and nymphs.

One day, the COs decided to toss everyone’s bunk. I stood outside my cell while they threw everything on the floor—mattress, books, everything. They found my flies. The little things couldn’t hurt anyone, but they were contraband, and the CO threw them all in the trash. Threw me in solitary for two weeks, too.

It’s a 7-by-10 cell. No bars. Just cinder block walls, a cot, a toilet, a sink and a door with a slot they put food through. The overhead light comes on at 6 a.m. and goes off at 9 p.m. You have no control, no say in what’s happening in your world. At the same time, everything around you is focused on you. People think prisoners feel forgotten. Not me. Every second of every day, especially in solitary, I was forced to remember that someone else was controlling my life. My fly-fishing dreams ended, and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t bring them back.

It was only a few days after I got out of solitary that I went on death row. I wore my orange jumpsuit to court for sentencing, since there was no need for a jacket and tie to impress a jury anymore. Crowds were there to see me. My trial was a big deal, and they wanted a satisfying ending. They shouted horrible things, hatred burning in their eyes, their faces consumed with anger. I didn’t know them, but they despised me. Wanted me not just dead but tortured, too. Considering what I was convicted of, I couldn’t blame them.

When I got back to prison, I went to a new building. I had always imagined death row as an actual row of cells, with the execution chamber at one end and the prisoners lined up according to how close they are to being executed. It’s nothing like that. It’s a circular block, two levels, guard station in the middle and all the cells facing the center. You stay in your cell twenty-three hours a day, with one hour to exercise in a double-chain-link cage outside. There’s no roof on the cage, so it could be raining, snowing, blazing sun, tornado coming through, whatever—if that’s your hour, you go outside. Meals are delivered in your cell. They’re literally just keeping you alive so they can kill you at the legally appointed time.

I gave up on fly fishing. Couldn’t stand to look at the books. Couldn’t get any more thread or lint or feathers or paper clips, even if I wanted to. Still no dreams.

Then, about three weeks in, while pacing my outdoor cage, I looked beyond the chain link and saw it. Through the razor wire on top of the prison walls, across an open field, there was a forest. And from the way the trees dipped to follow the contour of the land—just like my grandparents’ land—I could tell there was a stream. And there was a man walking along the forest edge, carrying a long pole. He turned and disappeared into the trees toward the stream.

Did I really see him? I stood at that corner of my cage for the rest of my hour, hoping to see him come out, hoping for some confirmation that he wasn’t an apparition. He didn’t. But a week later, I saw him again. And another time, I saw two people come out of the woods. There was a damn fishing spot, right there! In my mind, I could hear the water tumbling over the rocks, feel how cold it was flowing between my fingers. And fish! There were fish in the water, and insects to nourish them, and people who caught them so just so they could look at them and then let them go.

The stream—though it was a half-mile away and entirely beyond my reach—sustained me. It was real, and that was enough to keep me on this side of sanity. My fly-fishing dreams returned.

Fourteen years. That’s how long I stayed on death row. Fourteen years, seven months, and twelve days, to be exact. I spent a lot of that time reading anything I could get my hands on. Fishing books, as often as I could get them. God, people write a lot about fishing. Lots of good stuff, but a lot of crap, too.
I was reading one of the crappy books when the CO came to my cell, told me I had a couple of visitors.

No idea.
Why are they here?
How would I know?

Handcuffed to a chain around my waist, I walked to a little room usually used by the lawyers. A middle-aged woman. A guy in a suit who looked about sixteen, probably a fresh law-school grad. Who are you?

We’re your lawyers. Your cousin wrote to us about a year ago. Told us you were innocent.
That’s what I’ve been saying all along.
Right. We work on cases like yours. No physical evidence. Unreliable witnesses. And never a DNA test.

Things moved pretty fast after that. Well, six months might seem slow to you, but not to me. Blood, saliva, hair samples. Lab results: no match to the crime scene. Legal motions. A court hearing: sentence overturned, conviction erased. Not “insufficient evidence.” No plea deal. A full exoneration. I was innocent, period.

As soon as I got out, this was the first place I wanted to visit. From here, looking across the field, the prison is so small. I can see the walls and the razor wire on top, but I can’t see my cage.

Hear the stream? The sound is more beautiful than I imagined. And the water, so clear. The rod is lighter than I expected, and the line is so thin. Know what I did last night? Tied a paper-clip Adams. Don’t know if the fish will like it. Not sure I really care. The stream flows, the fish swim on, and I am free.

Mike Chalmers is an avid but middling fly fisher and writer in New London, Pennsylvania, a refugee from daily newspaper journalism who now works in communications and marketing for the University of Delaware. This is his first work of fiction (well, the first one he has actually shown to anyone).