He went to the river to fish. But not really.
He brought his pole and gear and net and all, and a good sun hat with a big brim to keep his scalp burn-free, but it was all just for show.
He went, really, for the company.
As he walked the dirt path from the car through the woods to the water, he could hear it first, the water rushing over the rocks as it tumbled down from the mountains, that gurgle-splash of busy-ness that was not the same busy-ness as managing clients at the office or keeping up with the unending chores of the house or his family. The river was also the busy-ness of life, but in a circular, inevitable, critical kind of way. As in, if the water stopped, the world would stop, too.
If the clients stopped, he might stop, but the world wouldn’t.
He smiled. Sighing deeply, he stretched and readjusted his pole and tackle box as he continued along the path. A mating pair of finches twittered from a nearby branch, tails flicking. All right.
He emerged from the trees to find the sun shining on the dappled rocks. Sparks of light winked from the rippling water.
He stepped into the water and waded to it, the flow pushing against his legs. His feet, however, were sure and strong and confident from all the times before.
He set his gear down and sat, breathing, watching the water, murmuring in his mind to the fish, the rocks, the water, the breeze in the trees. Acclimating.
He flipped open the latches of his tackle box, selected a lure, prepped his line. Then stretched again, feeling his muscles elongate, loosen, and relax. He casted, the line sailing gracefully through the breeze to land distantly in the water with a gentle plip. He reeled a bit, then settled in to wait.
The air smelled of high summer: fresh warm pine, drying grasses going to seed, the tang of spray from the clear mountain water. Insects buzzed from the tall grass, a background bass hum behind the gurgling of the water.
Sometimes he would see deer emerge from the dimness of the woods, the heat drawing them for a drink, their delicate hooves picking their way down to the shoreline. But not today.
No matter. The water, cool against the neoprene of his boots, the river itself, the clean air, the insects, his gossamer line—all of it was enough.
He watched the water rushing over his boots, over the stones on the river bottom. A small tug bent the tip of his rod, startling him. He gave a slight pull in return and was greeted with a stronger, firmer tug. Set.
He began to reel in the line, the fish tugging and thrashing as he pulled it upstream by the jaw, against its will. As the water got shallower, he caught flashes of the fish as it jumped and flipped: a river trout. He’d caught many before, and over time had become skilled at scaling, fileting, and grilling them.
It flapped and slapped against the water and the river rocks, struggling to escape the pain and return to deep water. It was futile. He reeled relentlessly, bending the fish to his will. The mosquitoes whined undisturbed, the birds chirped from the trees.
At last the fish was close enough to net. He scooped it up, its fat body writhing and glistening. He pried the hook from its gasping jaw. It broke free with a ripping sound.
The fish was magnificent. The sun shone off its iridescent scales, colors shifting and glowing with each heaving breath. The eye was large and calm and solid. It fixed him in its eternal stare, drawing him into the fish-world he’d only ever glimpsed from the outside. In it, he saw blue sky reflected through the water’s surface tension, clouds gliding across the sky in an unending progression. He saw weeds bending and waving with the water flow, praising the sky with tendril fingers. He saw schools flitting through the water, churning up silt from the bottom stones as they playfully chased each other through the watery sunshine.
He marveled at its shimmering iris and the darkness and depth of the pupil. It reflected his own eye back.
The breeze rifled the brim of his hat. The water swirled around his boots. The mosquitoes buzzed, the finches chirped. He blinked, then lowered the fish to the water to rinse out its mouth and allow it some final air.
The fish, which had stilled, reawoke, its tail testing the water.
He looked once more into the eye.
Then he lowered the fish again into the water and this time, gently released his grip.