The road was dusty and wound high against the Blue ridge, dropping down so that the river was occasionally in view, and then winding around and rising again. It hadn’t rained and the motorcar left a cloud lingering on the road where we passed. The trees closed in, until there were only tall White Pines, and we wound around the trees and came down into a clearing. There was a dam where the water backed up, and we put the canoe in, Nathan sitting behind steering and myself in the front. We rode out onto the flow early and there was no current, and the mountains rose up around us, reflecting still against the water as though in a mirror. We made quick time to the inlet, where the river poured across the marshy flats, before winding between the tall spruce and balsam trees. We followed the river, winding and winding through sharp oxbow turns. The water was cold and colored as ruddy brown as tea. We portaged at the Carry where there was a shelter, and we set our camp there for the night.
“This is a good spot,” I told Nathan. I had slept there before, and in the night you could hear the trout smashing against the surface of the cool, slow moving water.
“The leanto is very clean,” he said. “It is nice to see it so clean.”
“There are nicer, but this one is also nice,” I said, looking around at the clearing, grown in with golden rod and prairie grasses. It was not scenic, but it was right on the river, and it would do.
Nathan and I split up to look for firewood. The immediate area was picked pretty well clean, but there were plenty of dead trees in back of the clearing. Nathan searched the river bank for dried out drift wood, and I went up along the trail and into the woodline. Before long I had a good sized hemlock, which I dragged back to camp. We took turns sawing at it, and then I split the logs with my hatchet. We had plenty of wood to last the night by the time we were through, and we set about making dinner.
It was quiet and clear, the last cool evening of July, and the stars came out bright over the camp. We had pasta and wine for dinner, and after we sat about the fire watching the stars.
“It was a good thing, ending it,” Nathan said.
“Ending things with Marie. It was no good for you.”
I said nothing. I still did not really know how to feel. It seemed stupid and impulsive, but it also seemed like the right thing to do. Even if it was right, I still felt that I’d regret it. In any case, it was no time to think about it, being out along the river.
“I just mean you seemed miserable. You looked like hell last time you came home.” He was being careful.
“I don’t know. It was stupid. It was stupid and it was probably my fault.”
“Well, you seemed pretty bad. I never heard you say anything good about it.”
“I know, but that doesn’t mean anything… Hell, its all pretty raw still, could we not talk about it.”
“Yea, I just thought it’d help.”
“I don’t know. Just makes me think I’m being pretty stupid.”
“Well, I think it was right, even if it was hard.” Nathan was a pretty smart guy. He knew all about insects and, well, a whole lot of shit I knew nothing about. I’ve wished a long time I could be smart the way Nathan is smart. But, he knows absolutely nothing at all about women. He is a damned good person, and I admired him for all that. It was easy to reduce something like leaving a woman to being the right thing to do, but it was never that simple. When I came out to the North Woods I wanted to be able to live as simply as possible. Cut all the damn fat. Women will fatten a man right up.
I lay down across my hammock. I sat and thought about that for a while, but it just kept coming in and out slowly, and then there was the coyotes, howling gently and far off in the night. Here and there I heard the trout jumping. It was only a short feed. It was done in twenty minutes. “Trout are damned picky,” I thought.
The fire dimmed and there were only coals, glowing red against the empty dark. Nathan was asleep, but I couldn’t sleep. There was nothing but the crack of the fire, as it slowly worked at the damp wood, and the river winding and winding. I could feel my eyelids falling, but I could not keep them closed.
In the morning I woke to the sound of trout jumping. I rolled out of the hammock, jointed up my fly rod, and paddled out across the water to the sand bank on the far side. I flicked the rod back and forth and shot the line down the flow. Before long I saw my fly disappear and I set the hook with a sharp, upward jerk of the rod. The trout jumped. It was big and brown with pink spots all along the side. I pulled the line in and he dove against the tension. I let him run the line out, darting low across the pool. He went below the bank, under the rocks, and it was hell trying to make him move. I tugged on the rod, lifting it slightly, enough to add tension to the line, and finally he started to swim. He shot out across the pool and then cut back towards me and I had to take the line in quick. I lifted him and soon I had him in the boat. He was 14 inches, and I felt badly having to take him like that, but it was over quickly.
“A man and a fish are not too different,” I thought. “Only with a fish you are supposed to put them down.”
When I rowed back across the pool, Nathan was still asleep.
“Did you catch any?” He asked, waking up.
“Yes, a few.”
“One of them is very big,” I said.
“I could hear you with the oar.”
“It has to be done that way.”
Nathan yawned sleepily and I went about the work of cleaning the fish. When they were cleaned they had to be smoked and I made a small, smokey fire to put them over. The fish were still jumping, and I could hear them the whole time, but I did not try to catch any more. While I worked on the fish, Nathan made breakfast of bacon and pancakes. We sat there a while, and I asked him if he wanted to use my rod to fish a little. It was warming up quickly and I did not think he’d catch anything, so I laid out in the hammock lazily and took a nap in the sun.
When I woke, Nathan had not caught any fish. We packed the canoe and paddled back down river. It was a fine day and there were many birds and a marsh hawk circling in the sky. We did not talk anymore about women, or anything else. There was only the dipping of the paddles and the wind behind us, pushing us out onto the flow. The water was bright blue and rippled gently. In it the mountains swayed back and forth lightly. For a time I felt lonely, but that too went away.