What Holds Us by Noah Davis

My right foot slips on the eroded bank and I think I can catch myself, as I’ve done dozens of times in the past, but the exposed root system of the cedar creates a gap between its thick veins. Before my bodyweight completely shifts, its grip reaches mid-calf and my tibia splinters. The tree releases me as my body collapses, and I slide into the shallow riffle below.

I always thought that if you caught your wife with someone else, it would be because you came home early. This past Tuesday I came home late. I heard them in the shower and recognized his voice from a work party we’d gone to over Christmas.

It took me six minutes to pack. My rod and flies are always in the truck, and the army surplus bag can swallow t-shirts and shorts in a hurry. I hoped she wouldn’t throw out my tying vice and mallard feathers in the basement, but then again, she never liked the time I spent beneath the stairs.

Despite the shock, I make it to shore, pulling myself along the rocks that line the stream.  Fish begin to lecture me as I lie on a spit of sand. A whitefish swims out of a cumulous cloud and kisses my nose.  She tells me the way I toss her into the current after catching her is disrespectful; she wants to be cradled like I cradle a trout. A cutthroat comes leaping out of the waist-high grass bordering the water.

“If you loved me,” he says, “why come to the stream so close to dark?”  

A brown trout chimes in with a hearty “Amen,” while rising full out of the water-sky to snatch a passing stonefly.

At college I would tie flies in my dorm room after writing papers on Chaucer and memorizing the lines of Chinese poets. I tied prince nymphs and royal wulffs for my girlfriend to admire; they were easy patterns. It was easy to date her. It was easy to marry her. It was easy to talk at dinner then slip away into the bedroom. Then it was easy not to talk, and easy not to kiss. Easy to stay in the basement until she went to sleep so we wouldn’t have to fake affection. Easy like not mending a drift, the line’s tension growing as it swings down-river.

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I crawl twenty yards to a sun-dried length of pole timber that washed ashore with spring runoff. I have to set the break, so I fracture the wood across my left leg and make a splint, tearing my extra shirt to lash the sticks to my calf. The lower half is an inch or so to the right. I grip my rod’s cork handle between my teeth and force bone against bone. What is most upsetting, is the deepest bend in this stretch is only a quarter mile farther.

We only fished once together.

It was in our first year, and the sulfurs had been good for about a week. While I was getting ready in the kitchen, she looked over from Law & Order and asked if she could come. I remember hesitating, wondering if I could have my usual thirty-fish night if she tagged along. I gave her an old pair of waders I found in the garage and we headed out.

The river was high due to consistent rain the past week, and the trout hid along the banks under honeysuckle to ease the current’s passing. She’d played soccer in college, but I was still surprised by how well she moved across the rocks. We worked the edges, catching brown after brown as they sipped our emergers. Her casting wasn’t pretty but after a few drifts it caught fish.

She became giddy as an eighteen-incher missed my fly by a good half-foot, its mouth agape, only swallowing water. She said she knew what the fish needed. I said that the trout was too slow for my float. Moving out of the way to give her the run, I noticed how her ponytail stuck out from the back of her ball cap, the same way corn tassels hang out of the bed of a truck. On the fourth pass the brown ate and dragged her downstream below a willow where I netted its white belly and we both laughed.

We stayed on the water until ten, catching rising trout by sound alone. We fell in twice crossing the black current, she from lack of sight and I for camaraderie. Once in the truck we made love, the river water changing to sweat. I found mayflies in her hair the next day.

The moose looks at me with an attitude of mild distrust. The underside of my right arm is raw from the makeshift-cottonwood crutch, and I’m thankful for this welcome excuse to rest.

I lean back against a boulder and ask the cow, “You ever sprain an ankle? Stub your hoof? Anything?” She thinks for a minute then submerges her head. “You know I’m still here even if you can’t see me?” I grimace as I bump the break against my support.

The cow wades across the stream over the next hour, pausing for five minutes to watch a mink cross the riffle closest to me. By the time I start to move again the sun is beginning to descend. Not enough to worry, but just enough to think about worrying.

“Babe, we’re going to be late, please come in and shower.” She was already in her dress, putting in her right earring. I liked the way she tilted her head when she hooked her earlobe. I was in the backyard where three fifty-cent pieces were placed 15, 20, and 25 yards away from me. My 6’6’’ 2wt had a size 18 royal wulff tied to the tippet. The goal was to place the fly on these small targets with gear that was not usually required to perform such tasks.

“Honey, please just record this real quick, then I’ll get ready.”

“No, we need to leave now. The Worthings said to get there by seven, and it’s a quarter till.”

“This will take three minutes max, just real quick. I don’t even have to shower. I wet-waded all day.”

“That’s why you need to shower! You were in the river!”

“Okay, I’ll rinse off real quick, but please just stand over by the serviceberry for two minutes so you can really focus on the fly.”

I heard the screen door slam behind me, and when I turned, she wasn’t there.

The sun disappears and a million stars replace it.

I’m still an hour from the truck. My good leg is bruised and swollen. The splints that harbor my right leg are beginning to cut into my skin, painting my sock red.

I sit down on the shore below a riffle and gaze at the moon, which has fallen into a seam close to the bank.

A great blue heron in the cedar across from me hasn’t moved for thirty minutes. Silhouetted by the moon, he’s something Tao Chien would have written about.

Flies hover in the moon’s patch of water. Duns who decided that their wings would glow better once the dull light of evening passed. A trout begins to sip the bugs one after the other, sending waves across the reflection of craters.

I notice the bodies are lighter than what they should’ve been.  I consider what’s in my fly box and think I might get away with a small cahill with the right float. I grin to myself because of course I’d cast in a way that the fly would forget what held it.

- Written by Noah Davis


Author Bio: Noah Davis hunts and fishes along the Allegheny Front near his home in Tipton, Pennsylvania. His essays have appeared and are forthcoming in American Angler, The Fly Fish Journal, Angler’s Journal, and The Drake.

Editor: FTJ is honored to publish the Third Place winner from the 2018 First Annual Sheridan Anderson Short Story. Noah has contributed several articles to our Tailout essay section of the magazine (“In a Time of Drought” (Summer ’18) and “Brook Trout Love” (Spring ’18)). Contest Judge John Larison says about Noah’s short story: “This dense and profound and at times hallucinogenic story packs a punch. An angler pushed to the edge of sanity by physical and emotional hardship struggles to make sense of reality.  By casting for rising trout, he uncovers a potent truth about angling, and life.”

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