by Paul Kennebeck

He remembered his father telling him this was an act of grace: The man lowered himself cautiously, almost kneeling, to place the brookie in the cold water—a silver flash as it shot upstream—then the man rose in increments, as his knees allowed.

“Six,” he said.

“Maybe,” William said. William could be that way.

The old man glanced at the boy. The furrowed skin around the man’s eyes was the consequence of many seasons scanning rippling streams and their pools. He turned from William, squinting now against the brightness, against the rushing clear water reflecting shards of sunlight, peering into the watery radiance, seeing nothing but the reflected sun. The trout were hidden from the eye in such light. Their shadows were not. His father had told him he had a knack for reading shadows. A jest, probably.

The man took a step closer to the fast water, raising the fly rod above the juniper and gooseberry bushes, and paused at a point on the edge of the grass next to a deep pool, holding his breath as he always had, waiting for the darts of the quick shadows. He could smell the juniper.

“Same brookie,” William added.

William had been that way for as long as the man had known him. Why was he even listening to the boy? Whatever he owed the boy he had long ago made good on.

“Over and over.”

What the man figured to do was not release the next catch. He’d keep it. And the one after. And after. Proof and more proof. No. There would be no proof. He could not keep the catch. Not on this water.

“All brookies are alike,” the man said to William in defense. And each non-brookie is non-brookie in its own way. The man ran his left hand over his broad face, closing his eyes. The outer edges of madness here. He opened his eyes and peered deeply into the pool. The shadows of the fish gave them away, oblivious. He figured he had about twenty, thirty more casts in him this day. Not too long ago he would have laughed at the notion that holding a bamboo rod could tire the arm.

He turned then and approached young William, carrying the rod horizontal in front of him, stopping short of the boy. He lowered the tip of the rod until the tippet dangled at the level of William’s chest. “Caddis?” William asked, holding the body of the brown elk-hair fly pinched between his thumb and forefinger.

“Better than prayer.”

In the days when he threaded the tippet through the eye of the hook himself, the tippet had always been near invisible. Now it was invisible. Maybe not completely. It had been over a year since he last slipped line through a hook eye.

William reached out and pushed down the tip of the rod so that the line was more accessible. He held the tippet and tied the caddis to it and released the line. William expected the man to thank him. The man knew that. The man thanked the boy.

“Catch that puppy one more time,” the boy said.

Oh, to thread one’s own line. He possessed Orvis magnifiers and, wearing them, viewed enlarged tippet, fly, and eyelet in his hand. But even Orvis knew the magnifiers couldn’t aid in holding the line steady through the eyelet. William possessed youth’s firm hand.

“William. I have fished a hundred rivers, cast a hundred thousand times, caught a couple of fish.”

“And released ’em?”

The man chose to remain silent.

William’s boots made a squishing sound as he stepped onto the stream’s edge. “Who’s that fool? Rolled the stone up the mountain? Rolled back down? The fool pushing it back up over and over?”

The man laughed out loud. He was the one who had told William that story.

“William. I will fish other waters. I will forever abandon the Squall.”

“And panfry a mess of brookies?”


William said nothing. No need.

The man turned his back on William and focused on the fast-flowing channel in the center of the stream. Maybe he was too familiar with the Lower Squall. The stream was old, the watery equivalent of an old growth forest. Water had run here when the Nazarene strode the earth. The man had previously fished the Upper Squall, but the Upper Squall was now too high and difficult for him.

He maneuvered around the wet stones. Yesterday he had slipped. Not yesterday. Yesterday William was not available. The day before.

He found purchase on the rocks at stream’s edge and flicked the line toward the channel maybe a dozen times before he sensed a quick halt in the line’s movement. With a swift snap of the wrist, he tipped the rod up. The fish rose from the water. A rainbow. Glorious. First one today.

Reeled in, the rainbow thrashed in the air. The man grabbed the fish and held it aloft for William to see, a catch almost of a size he’d mount if he did such things.

“Seven,” he shouted.

“Two,” William replied.

He removed the hook from the mouth’s wet glassy flesh and he spotted then deeper in the mouth a mark, a crease, a bruise from a previous hook. Damn. He lowered the fish to the stream and released it, and the fish floated in the water unmoving for a length of time that troubled the man, and then the fish shot off.

“A lifetime wasted,” William said.

It was a notion less than serious, a concept unworthy of thought. But here it was.

“But you knew that going in,” William added.

That statement was incorrect. The man had never considered the implications of catching a fish and releasing it because it had never occurred to him there were implications.

I am going to go insane on my own terms and at a time of my own choosing, the man whispered to himself.

In the evening the man secluded himself on the pinewood porch, lowering his body into an ancient couch with the same caution he exhibited on the river, and here—alone, relaxed—he re-fished the stream, re-fishing it slowly, meditatively, recalling each cast, or at least most of the casts, the leaden pathetic ones included. He fished the river this time with straight bourbon in his hand, seeing again the sunlight and the shade and the moving water.

The bourbon was wonderful. Joy is in the throw of the line, the placement of the fly on the surface of the water, the feel of the nibble and of the bite, the quick hook of the fish, the sense of its weight, the sound of the reel as the line is tightened—a sweet realm of pines, grasses, junipers, dazzling light and shadows.

Damn that William. The man finished the bourbon and took the deep breath he needed to stand up. He stood for a moment, draining a last drop from the glass. Another breath. A look to determine if the glass was empty. He lifted the glass to his lips. He did not think clearly. He knew that. He had been told that.

Damn that William. The same fish? Surely not possible. When he reached the inside of the cabin he placed the empty glass on the kitchen’s linoleum counter and retrieved the Wild Turkey from the cabinet. He pulled the cork with a soft pop. Damn that child.

Paul Kennebeck lives in Denver, Colorado, with his wife, Phyllis. He is a writer who has published numerous short stories, was a recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts award, and recently published a novel, A Spy in Quarantine.