First Place Winner — The 2022 Sheridan Anderson Memorial Short Story Contest - by Noah Davis

Way Back 

Sarah knows no one fishes for brook trout anymore.

Her pap did before the cancer took him. She’s seen grainy photos of him and her dad holding a stringer of twenty hand-length fish between the two of them. The laurel thick and green behind.

Her dad, Martin, took her up Bear Run twice when she was young. He likes the big river better. His knees grind from standing at the paper mill and he can’t walk over the shifting rocks like he used to. Sarah only caught a couple trout each trip. Martin cussed over the tight casts, crawling on all fours to the next pool, his joints aching even more as spider webs clung like hair to his lips.

But he loved the woods, and on these trips, he showed Sarah painted trillium, pink lady slipper, and ginseng.

He fingered the ginseng’s flat plate of blossoms, five-pronged leaves off the stalk, told her it was illegal to harvest on public land. Too many years of lumbering and mining had ruined the soil. 

But no one walked the hollow far enough to know the plants were there. 

“You dig up the roots in the fall when the berry’s red. Same as when the brookie bellies are red.”

Sarah sells the ginseng for thirty dollars an ounce.

Old men and women buy most of her supply. She makes the rounds on Sundays like she’s calling on family. 

Between keeping her apartment, car, and paying college loans, the ginseng keeps her nose above water.

Sarah studies accounting at Laurel Highlands Community College. 

In class last fall, two young men in the row to Sarah’s left kept making eye contact with her. The one was cute with soft cheeks and good hair. She’d seen him watch videos of trout in Montana. Sarah knew she could ask him about fishing. She fiddled with her backpack after class, waiting for them to approach and start some conversation they could carry into the parking lot. The other man, pear-shaped with a strong chin, told her the holes in her shirt showed most of her bra strap. She said thanks then jogged to her car, rust-covered and missing the front bumper. 

With the eight-hundred dollars she makes every October, Sarah’s started shopping at Ross Dress for Less. Only going to the Goodwill when she needed a coat or jeans. 

Sarah’s mom died giving birth to Sarah. Martin doesn’t know how to ask about a young man. He usually asks about money, if she’s eating enough, or if she’s been up Bear Run.

Sarah only goes up Bear Run in October. She doesn’t think the fish are worth it, and the walking gets so thick by June that she’d need a machete to get through the laurel. 

The last three years, Sarah’s carried her pap’s old fly rod up the cobble of Bear Run. At the pool where a fallen hemlock dams the stream, she drops a pheasant tail nymph into the current’s crescent that banks near the log. In a stream this shallow, the trout congregate in the deep. Sarah catches one after another, until she holds a male with a red belly. A signal, like the light on an oven, that the ginseng is ready.

From the pool, she walks two miles of deer trails to the narrow crease where the ginseng berries blink like a hundred red eyes. Sarah digs the roots with a trowel, cutting wide around each plant to avoid slicing the white roots like fingers, then lays the seed from the middle of the red fruit back into the talus soil. She wraps the roots in cloth and places them at the bottom of her backpack in a First-Aid kit. 

The only other person Sarah has seen in the hollow was a bow hunter walking the trail for an evening sit.

“I didn’t even know there were trout in here,” he said, adjusting the climbing tree stand on his back.

“More trout than deer,” Sarah smiled and continued down the mountain to her truck.

Sarah stops when she sees the woman stooped over the plants.

The woman wears jeans, boots, a cutoff t-shirt, a bandana wrapped around her grey-brown hair, and ivory earrings that dangle like two eggs from her lobes.

This is Sarah’s first trip of the year. The ginseng is still a mile up the hollow.

Sarah’s car was the only vehicle in the pull-off. Bear hunters used to park on the ridge and hike down the stream, but most of the bears left for the next valley in the 80s when the farmers started growing corn. After the lumber and coal, the bears were the last thing anyone cared about to leave the mountain.

The woman stands and turns. Crow’s feet and a grey canine mark her face. She smiles, blocking the stalks.

“Ya fishin’?” She asks taking off her gloves, hands veined and nicked.

“A little. Kinda just walkin’ and fishin’.” 

The woman steps closer and extends a hand, which Sarah shakes.

“I didn’t think anyone fished for brookies anymore. My husband and I used to come up here all the time and eat ‘em. You ever eat ‘em?” The woman tucks her gloves in her back pocket and squints up at Sarah.

“I throw ‘em back.” Sarah glances over the woman’s shoulder at the jagged leaves of the four plants.

“I could go for some pan-fried trout now. Long hike in and I only packed an apple.”

“Whatcha workin’ on back here?”

“You surprised to see a seventy-five-year-old on the mountain all by herself?” she laughs. “I’m growin’ marijuana.” 

Sarah blinks, waiting for the woman to say she’s kidding, but the woman only smiles and motions her forward. 

“Devil of a time clearin’ and cartin’ in the right dirt, but once the plot was set, everythin’ else was fine. This curve in the hollow gets the right sun. Good wind. Harold and I always had lunch here. Warm up after wadin’ in the creek all day.”

The smell of the plants is faint and nutty, and the flowers remind Sarah of a flattened thistle. People smoke in the parking lot of the Burger King beside the community college. She thought the joints smelled like cat piss.

“You’re not scared of cops?” Sarah shifts and looks up the ridges, half-expecting German Shepherds and men in bullet-proof vests to break through the laurel. 

“I haven’t seen another human print all year. Cops got enough meth to deal with in Altoona. No time to walk in the woods.”

Sarah thinks the woman looks like the people who go to the farmer’s market in State College. The ones who use essential oils.

“You from the valley, honey? What’s your name?” The woman turns her head and furrows her brow as if Sarah is lost in a grocery store.

Sarah pauses and thinks of what her name could be used for. A buyer, a dealer, another grower? But the leaping dolphins splashed across the woman’s headband make Sarah decide that a season of cash is too valuable to quit on just because some old hippy thought the mountain was a good place for bud. 

She doesn’t see a gun. 

Sarah could push her into the creek and run if things got dicey.

“Sarah Huffman. I live in the valley.” 

“Well my name’s Margie. You fish the river this year? I heard it was a good one. Harold used to guide out in Washington. All his buddies said Pennsylvania was a good place for a fly guide to retire. Smaller rivers,” Margie winks.

“I guess that would make sense.” Sarah takes two steps toward the deer trail. “I think I better get a move on if I want to get more fishin’ done.”

“Yes, you do. There’s a pool where a feeder stream comes in off the south face up a little ways. I had a ten-incher hooked there years ago. Harold muffed the net job and I lost her.” Margie’s eyes are wide as she shakes her head.

“I think I know the one you’re talkin’ about,” Sarah says.

While Sarah drives up the mountain to class, she thinks about what to do about Margie.

Sarah could try and find a new patch in another stream. She’d been meaning to find some fresh plants. The searching might take too much time though. Only a couple weeks left until the berries fall.

She could call the cops. But if they came from both ends of the hollow, they’d find her patch and start asking questions about all the ginseng dug up the hillside.

Sarah turns into the parking lot of the strip mall. The community college sits at the end next to a Little Caesar’s pizza. She could wake up early or go late. Sarah didn’t want to hike in the dark. She wasn’t scared of coyotes or bears, but twisting an ankle on the talus trail might make for a cold night next to the stream.

When she gets out of the car, Sarah checks the back of her shirt and pants in the side-view mirror, then walks toward the door.

“Sarah, don’t throw any back alright? I brought a skillet and butter!” Margie winks.

Sarah woke up at seven and was parked at the pull off by seven-thirty. She didn’t expect Margie to be up that early. The entire walk she thought about Mrs. Engstrom giving her two more addresses to visit on Sunday. Mrs. Engstrom said they’d pay eighteen dollars an ounce. Sarah’s car is up for inspection in November.

 “Go on, catch us a few.”

Sarah strips line off her reel. Margie wipes sweat from her brow and watches Sarah pinch the tippet between her fingers to draw the fly back past her ear. 

She kneels to aim the bent rod below the rhododendron toward the pocket pool where water pours over two stones. The fly passes with a sound just faint enough for the tiny bones in her inner ear to vibrate. After a moment of drifting, Sarah’s line goes taunt at the tail of the pool and she flips the six-incher onto the moss where the dark green male thrashes in the leaf duff.

“It’s not big enough,” Sarah says reaching for the hook.

“Sweetheart,” Margie says. “I don’t think the officer will care too much about the illegal fish if he finds us up here.” Sarah nods, then breaks the fish’s neck. “And I never threw a man back because of an inch, have you?” Margie slaps Sarah on the shoulder. “Let’s see if we can get four more.”

For an hour they work their way up the stream. Margie asks to throw a dry fly. “More fun watchin’ ‘em come up.” Two more males and two females are added to the moosewood stringer. Margie snags most of her casts. “Rusty,” she says every time the hook digs into the laurel leaves.

After her wariness of Margie thaws like the frost on the south-facing slope, Sarah finds the rhythm of fishing with another person. Something she hasn’t done in years and something she didn’t know she missed. One casting, the other leaning on a witch hazel or maple watching and hoping that a fish will come to hand. The fish on the moosewood stringer glisten like jeweled commas.

After the fire burns down back at Margie’s crop, Sarah brings the halved trout to the flat stone behind her. Butter melts in the skillet and the white flanks sprinkled with salt and pepper curl with the heat.

“Glad you kept the skin on. That’s the best part.”

Fat pops and even though the sun is warm, Sarah moves her shins closer to the fire.

They eat the trout with their fingers. Peeling the meat from the spine and ribs then throwing the bones into the embers.

Neither woman speaks. They suck butter off their fingers and bits of flesh caught under their nails.

“You’re sellin’ that ‘sang I walk by, aren’t ya?” Margie wipes her hands on her pants.

Sarah’s skin flushes a moment, then she finishes chewing a tail and swallows.

“You better leave that alone. You’re makin’ your own money on this,” Sarah says motioning to the marijuana.

Margie smiles and slaps her knee. “You’re slick. The fly rod and everythin’. Damn that’s slick.”

“Thought I had to be, but it doesn’t look like you’re too worried with yours.”

“Sweetheart, the only thing that would bring anyone up is the brookies, and we’re the only people who seem to know ‘bout ‘em.” 

Sarah bites her cheek. “They can spot those plants from helicopters, ya know?”

“What they goin’ do with a seventy-five-year-old? I ain’t sellin’ like you. I smoke it myself and give it to friends. You’re the one dealin’.”

“No cops know ‘sang anymore.”

“They’ll figure it out.” 

Sarah stands up and brushes leaves off her butt. “The companies took everything off the mountain before anyone cared, and now that it’s all gone the people they left behind can’t take a plant?”

“Not fair in my book.” 

“They won’t miss what they don’t know. What made you wanna grow bud anyway?”

“Harold always had some in his boat for clients. And some for him if the clients were a pain in the ass. Towards the end, it was the only thing that could get him to sleep. Better than gin. I lost a brother to gin.” Margie rubs her knees while she sits.

“Sorry ‘bout that.”

“I like the high and I sleep well with it. I ain’t doin’ much else so why not grow it. Your Gram got a garden, right?”

“She did.”

“It’ll be legal in a couple years anyway,” Margie says wiping her hands on her jeans. 

“I don’t smoke. Just so ya know. I don’t wanna offend ya if ya offer.”

“Thank ya, sweetheart,” Margie says while Sarah pours the water over the fire. “Damn. Same hollow. Two women riskin’ it for plants.” 

Sarah takes the ginseng out of her backpack and rolls the cloth on Mrs. Worthing’s coffee table.

“Now I think Mary Ellen said you were going to The Highlands for school, but she didn’t say what for,” Mrs. Worthing says taking a drink from her hot cider.

“Accounting,” Sarah mutters arranging the roots in a neat row.

“Well that’s a fancy soundin’ job.”

“Lot fancier that diggin’ in the dirt, ma’am.”

Mrs. Worthing laughs. “Well, when Mary Ellen said you had ‘sang, I knew I just had to get me some. Thirty an ounce, right?”

“Yes ma’am, it is. But if you want to pick three of these here, I’ll make it an even sixty for your first time.”

“Well thank you. I’ll take that.” Mrs. Worthing’s hands move like a raccoon’s as it sifts for crawfish under a bank. “You have a boy up at the college?”

“No ma’am.”

“I doubt you’d be callin’ on the elderly if you had someone to keep ya busy.”

Sarah squints at Mrs. Worthing. “I haven’t found a boy yet who’d pay for some mountain girl’s loans and let her go diggin’ ‘sang. More fun this way.”

Mrs. Worthing scrunches her brow then takes the bills out of her purse. “I didn’t mean anything by that. I’m happy for the ‘sang.”

Sarah takes the money and wraps the four remaining roots in the cloth. “Leave your mailbox open next week if you want some more.”

Sarah watches where she places her feet on the walk down the stream. She thinks there’s enough ginseng for one more trip to the patch before she calls it a year. Margie wasn’t at her plants on Sarah’s hike up, but Sarah hopes she’s there now. Sarah wants to tell Margie about her visit with Mrs. Worthing. 

The way sun breaks through the beech leaves reminds Sarah of the pictures of churches with stained glass. But she never saw a church with the kind of gold these leaves make. The maples are past their peak and soon witch hazels will blossom.  

Sarah reaches the marijuana and finds a backpack and garden shears next to the base of a plant, but no Margie.

Sarah yells and there’s no answer. No voice from the other side of the creek calling that she’s using the bathroom. Sarah starts to turn around and around. Eyes scanning the ridge and trees for any blue or green other than the water and rhododendron. Sarah finds what look like drag marks in the leaves and jogs down the trail still calling.

Margie crawls, only using her left arm and leg.

There’s blood on the side of her face from a shallow cut above her right eye.

Sarah can’t understand Margie’s words. Margie’s tongue blocking their full sound.

Sarah picks her up from behind and slings Margie’s limp arm around her neck. Every time Margie’s right ankle slams against a rock or root Sarah can see it turning purple. She prays the bone won’t crack like an egg.

The nurse tells Sarah that she can soak the tiny sponge at the end of the straw in water and lay it on Margie’s tongue if Margie says she’s thirsty. 

Sarah went home the night before while Margie was sleeping and brewed a thermos of ginseng tea. She stirred in a little honey, but not much. She didn’t know if the sugar would be bad for the stroke.

Margie’s eyes widen when Sarah gives her a sponge-full of the tea instead of the water. Her voice is weak and rough like shagbark hickory, but the doctors say she’ll be fine after a month or two. There will be some movement issues, but it was mild. Her ankle is purple as a blackberry.

“Plants?” Margie asks after Sarah is finished telling her what the doctors said.

Sarah was able to get a phone signal at the road after she’d dragged Margie the mile out. The ambulance and police came. Sarah lied that she was fishing when she found Margie. That this was her first trip up this stream this year. That she usually fishes Spring Run two hollows over.

The cops followed Sarah up to where she found Margie. They then traced the drag marks of Margie’s body back to the plants and the backpack with Margie’s initials Sharpied on the left shoulder strap. Sarah pictures the police-tape, the color of tulip poplar leaves in October, stretching between the trees as cops take pictures of the marijuana. The police hadn’t been in yet that morning to check on Margie. Sarah only planned to stay until nine.

“They’re still in the woods,” Sarah answers not wanting to lie completely, not wanting to make Margie’s heart beat like grouse wings with worry.

“Tea,” Margie croaks, nearly smiling, then closing her eyes while Sarah sponges the warm into her mouth. 

The ginseng root hovers at the bottom of the thermos like a trout at the bottom of a pool.


—Final Judge: Peter Kaminsky


On Noah Davis' "Way Back"
It’s rare to read a fishing story where the fishing is part of life rather than the other way round. To be sure there is fishing—intimate and lived—in "Way Back," but there’s so much more. The terse, elliptical conversations, the imminence of something serious about to happen, or maybe just imagined. And the ginseng—even more of a Grail quest than the brookies!  It’s quite a timeless piece; save for college loans and car insurance, it could have taken place two centuries ago. Reading it, I felt a shiver of Hemingway’s "The Killers” run through me, the author never really committing to what the story is about. And that’s the way life is.
—Final Judge, Peter Kaminsky

1 comment

  • Unlike any fishing story I have ever read. Reminds me of Raymond Carver’s finest writing.

    Dennis Dauble

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published