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It's Not Your Fault
After making the turn onto Route 12, the main road to Lake of the Woods, I rolled down the window and took a deep breath of air. The smell would never change. It hadn’t in the last 25-year span that I had been privileged to enjoy it. Neither would the dusty pothole checkered road. I felt that I had changed, though, and was ready for this.
I looked over at my son, deeply involved in the Lunker Bass Fishing game I had gotten for him. “This is it, Tyler, the best fishing lake in all of the state.” He continued reeling and looked quickly out the window, then back to the small screen on the game. “I don’t see a lake, dad.”
“Well, it’s further down the road a ways, but this is the last road we have to take. We’ll stop at the store and then go set up the camp right on the lake.”
“Are we going to catch some fish today dad?”
“I doubt it. It’ll be dark soon, but don’t worry, we’ll catch all those fish I told you about tomorrow and then some more the next day. Maybe we’ll even eat some.” I made an ugly face and gnashed my teeth at him.
“Don’t do that dad.”
In the mirror I could see Shifty, his ears flapping in the wind, his mouth agape, adjusting his weight perfectly to remain in balance as the road curved around the ridge. I wondered if he would remember this place after so many years, if the smell would remind him of times past. His nose pointed high in the air taking in the scents of the forest and the lake in the distance. I remembered him smaller, in the same position, Maria beside me, staring out the window watching for deer. That was the last time I had driven inbound on old Route 12.
The rocky creek below the road began to widen and a shiver ran down my spine. I hadn’t seen the lake in four years, so hard to imagine that passage of time, I’d been there hundreds of times as a boy and as a man, hardly ever staying away longer than those three really cold months of winter.
I peered through the trees in the distance, a view I had been trying to avoid as long as necessary. The surface of the lake appeared glasslike under the evening sun. It would always be a beautiful place despite the things that happened in it. I knew that. I hated it for something it was not responsible for and loved it for it had always been a part of my life, the better part. I was in many ways afraid of it now.
The sky shown red just over the mountains, fading into orange, then yellow and eventually into the deep blues of the coming night. I pointed to the sky and tapped Tyler on the arm, “Look at the sky. Do you remember what that means?” He looked at the sky curiously.
“I can’t remember.”
“Red at night, sailor’s delight. Red in the morning, sailors take warning.” I waited for a response. “So that means tomorrow will be nice day. Right?”
We pulled up to the Lake of the Woods General Store, a trail of dust marking the path behind us through the gravel lot. The knotty pine structure had not changed much over the last four years except for the live bait vending machines on the porch where the swing used to be. The sign needed painting 25 years ago and no one had tended to it yet. It squeaked quietly in the gentle wind, faded and rusting.
I could see the swing set in the side yard that I used to play on while my father reserved a site and caught up with Mr. Basham, the storeowner. He’d been a friend with my father for years and years, and also to me. I didn’t realize how much of a friend until I stopped coming, and from time to time longed for one of his stories. I felt a little ashamed for not contacting him in such a long time. It was just too hard. His memory could not be summoned without that of the accident.
“Come on now, let’s go inside,” I placed my hand behind Tyler’s leading him up to the door. The bells hanging above the door jingled softly as it swept beneath them. The water pump aerating the minnow bin was the only audible sound inside the cabin-like structure. Tyler looked in amazement at the mounted fish on the walls, eyes wide, moving from one to the other. I shared in his excitement, having not seen them in so long. The hickory smell soothed my chest making my breathing slower and deeper. I could hear Shifty outside. barking, probably at some ducks on the lakeshore. I picked up a rod and jiggled it, checking its stiffness. Suddenly I heard a voice.
“If I’m not mistaken, that there fish over the door was caught by your father when he was about your age.” Mr. Basham was kneeling down beside Tyler pointing to a five pound smallmouth mounted above the door to the kitchen.
“How old are you?” asked Mr. Basham.
Tyler looked to me, unsure of himself. I nodded for him to continue. “Five,” he said quietly.
“And your name isn’t Tyler Reed is it?” Tyler nodded shyly and put his index finger in his mouth.
“I thought so.” He patted Tyler on the head and shifted awkwardly, trying to stand. He looked at me and smiled. I walked over and hugged him tightly.
“I knew you would be back.” He whispered in my ear.
“It good to see you Mr. Basham. I’m sorry that I…” He cut me off immediately. “Don’t be silly, Lance. And certainly don’t be sorry. It’s just good to see you again. I’m glad to see that you brought Tyler along. And I take it that was Shifty chasing my ducks down by the lake?”
“He was nothing but a pup the last time I saw him.” Mrs. Basham walked out from behind the counter. He placed his arm around her and she smiled. I bent down to Tyler’s side, “This is Mr. And Mrs. Basham, the people I told you about. Do you remember?” He nodded. “These are daddy’s friends and they are going to give us some things to help us camp.” I stood back up.
“Do you have any minnies Mr. Basham? We sure could use some. Right Tyler?” He eyes opened wide and he smiled.
“Honey why don’t you and Tyler go over and fill up a bucket with some shiners.”
“Go ahead,” I motioned with my hand, “I’ll be right here.”
Mr. Basham turned and walked to the counter. I followed behind him. He pulled a site slip from underneath the counter and began filling it out. “I take it this is the first time you have been back since.”
“Yea, it is. I finally decided to put everything to rest and get back out on these waters, more for Tyler than me, but I think it’ll do me some good as well.”
He nodded and kept writing.
“He still doesn’t know, though, and I haven’t decided how much to tell him yet. I mean, he certainly understands that she is not with us anymore but he doesn’t know about this place. He was just too young when it happened to realize what he’s supposed to have.”
“So you been doing it all by yourself for the last four years, huh.” He looked up from the slip and across the room at Tyler. “He sure as hell took after his mother.”
“Well I have a lot of help from my friends and family but for the most part it’s just us.” I looked down and kicked a small piece of gravel that had fallen from my boot. It skidded across the wood floor.
“Well, we’re certainly glad to have you back Lance. If there is anything we can do for the two of ya, why you just holler.”
“I appreciate it, Mr. Basham. I plan on being out on the water quite a bit. Although he may want to come up and fool around on the old swing set.” I walked to the window and looked outside. “Looks like you got a few swings missing.”
“I’m getting old Lance. I’m getting old.” He smiled and handed the site slip to me. We walked over to the minnow bin. Tyler was standing on a stool dipping the net down into the water catching an occasional minnow, displaying them like rabbits pulled from a hat.We grabbed the buckets and headed back to the truck. As he climbed inside I dropped the tailgate so that Shifty could jump in, then closed it and checked to see that everything was secure and still there. I turned on the CD player, which I had loaded earlier with the music my father had played for me when I was young and sitting in his seat, and we pulled out of the gravel lot as John Denver began to sing.
I pulled the truck into the site and was glad to see that the boat was already at the dock and that we were close to a shower house. There was a nice picnic table, and a perfectly round fire pit surrounded by rocks. I began to throw gear from the truck. Tyler and Shifty poked around exploring the site for anything and everything. The sun was coming down, so I decided to get the minnows in the water before dark. It made me uncomfortable to think of Tyler near the water in the dark.
“Tyler, get your life jacket. We’re going to put the minnows in the water. I want you to help.” He ran over picked up the minnow bucket and jumped up and down spilling water over the sides. He ignored my request and began walking towards the dock.
“Hey,” I yelled, “life jacket I said.”
He walked back up kicking his feet deliberately into the dirt, his head hanging low. I knelt down and grabbed him firmly by the shoulders and spoke directly into his face. “We had this talk already and I don’t want to do it every five minutes. Whenever you are around the water, and I mean whenever, you will wear a life jacket. Do you understand?” He nodded slowly, focusing on his feet.
“Now can you tell my why?”
“Because if you fall in it will keep you from going under water.”
“That’s right. Now go get it.”
He returned, dragging the orange jacket on the ground behind him. He wrestled with it momentarily and finally managed to slip it on. I fastened the straps checking twice to see that they were secure. We walked down to the end of the dock and found a short length of rope near the ladder. I showed him how to tie it to the bucket and then to the dock. He watched and listened as though it was the most important thing in the world, and to him, at that time, it probably was. Everything was important when on a fishing trip. He’d been told about that even before he could understand.
We walked back over to the site. I told him to start carrying some of the logs over to the fire pit. He worked like crazy, hauling one log at a time, grunting all the way, and smacking the dirt from his hands and clothes each time he placed a log. I began setting up the tent. Shifty was down sniffing around the shore. I yelled for him, not wanting him to wander off too far.
“Dad, can I go throw rocks into the lake for awhile? I’ll take Shifty.” Tyler asked innocently.
“OK, but I tell ya what, let’s put that jacket back on because I’ll be up here working and I won’t be able to watch.”
“Hey, no buts. You do as I say. You can throw rocks all you want. Just wear the jacket. Understood?”
“Aw, OK dad,” he shrugged, “If I have too.”
“That’s my boy,” I said and helped him put it back on. He ran down to the shore. Shifty led the way, being overly protective as usual. We both were, in many ways.
Several moments later I heard the weak plop of a rock just off shore and then another. Shifty barked like crazy each time a rock hit the water. He used to be one hell of a water dog. I wondered if he still had it in him after all this time, and if there would be a lasting memory of his last tromp in the water, four years ago.
After I finished erecting the tent, I walked to the edge of the site and watched as Tyler launched rock after rock into the lake. He showed each rock to Shifty just before throwing, trying to entice him into chasing after it into the water. His mahogany hair bounced high from his head with each throw. His dark skin looked darker than usual in the evening light. I ran my fingers through my blonde hair and looked at the pale skin on my arm and could not help but think of his mother, her dark maroon hair, almost purple, her mocha-colored skin. I thought about how I used to tease her that his eyes would be blue and that he would hate Spanish food. I thought about the last time that I saw her and began to feel sad.
“Hey kid, let’s build a fire.” I yelled down to the shore. Tyler looked back and waved. He bent right back down, grabbed another tock and tossed it out into the water. I could tell he had no intention of quitting just yet. I watched as he continued to play along the water and tried to absorb some of the innocent fearlessness that he was experiencing.
Shifty came running up the shore towards me. I remembered the last time I saw him run up the shore, four years ago, soaking wet and muddy, barking as forcefully as he could. I remembered trying to brush him away, looking frantically for Maria in an early stage of panic. He bit my arm solidly and pulled me towards the shore. I remembered running after him, pissed off at him for biting me and then… and then he licked my ear, bringing me from the memory like waking from a bad dream. I threw him down in the grass and scratched at his belly wildly, then knelt down and placed my head next to his while rubbing behind his ears. I let him up and he ran to the truck.
“Let’s go, Tyler. Time to light this fire, it’s getting dark.” He looked up at me and I waved my arms. He threw the rock that was already in his hand. I turned, ran my finger under my eyes. No tears, I told myself, not in front of the kid.
The fire cracked and popped, providing a soothing background complimentary to the dark and starry evening. Orange ashes shot into the air and quickly faded to invisibility. Tyler sat on a rock at the edge of the pit, heating sticks to the point of ignition then blowing them out. He prodded at the hot coals curiously, deeply focused on the mysterious caverns under the teepee of logs. I watched him and tried to keep my mind from wandering. With each passing moment the task became increasingly difficult. Before I knew it Tyler was curled up on the lawn chair, his head tilted sharply to his shoulder, sleeping peacefully, a pile of half-burnt sticks scattered about the base of the chair. I had nothing left to focus on. The night was quiet, in a place I used to find peace within myself and within the world around me. Now it seemed to harbor memories I had been trying to run from. There was nothing there in the night but the truth. It was exhausting to run, there was nowhere to hide, particularly on the shores of the Lake of the Woods. For the first time I allowed the memory to stream in, my last night with Maria.
Shifty was just a pup, only about a year or so old. He ran circles around the campsite, barking at everything, even a crispy leaf turning in the wind. Maria had a special bond with him and found entertainment in everything he did, even the annoying stuff. He must have knocked over six full beers that evening, most of them Maria’s, and she was the least upset. We sat around the fire with Dave and Christen, telling stories, and sharing intimate thoughts. Dave and Christen were a very volatile couple constantly picking at each other, very contrary to the way Maria and I were accustomed to acting. Maria took frequent trips to the bathroom and found trite reasons to leave the conversation as often as possible. It was very difficult for her to remain in the vicinity of negativity.
That night the fireflies were everywhere, they could be seen for what seemed like miles, across the lake and in every direction deep into the woods. There must have been millions. I had never seen anything like it, despite all the time I had spent at the lake. Maria found extreme fascination in catching them. She would return every so often, having torn the back end from a particularly large catch and placing it on her finger, making a perfect little fire fly ring. She made rings for Dave and Christen in an attempt to lighten the tension between them. Much more than a ring of fire was needed. Eventually she whispered to me that she was going to walk out on the dock and watch the natural light show around the lake. She wanted me to join her. She loved to sit at the end of the dock and dangled her feet in the cool water. I looked for any opportunity to break away from the campfire conversation but found myself mediating conflicts, assuring both of them that nothing was totally either one of their faults. I didn’t even know what they were getting at. I’m not a heavy sleeper and rarely nod off unless in bed but that night I feel asleep in the chair next to the fire. It was easier than dealing with the conversation. I never made it the dock that night.
I awoke early in the morning next to a pile of smoldering ashes and empty beer cans. My body was cramped and I was immediately irritated that no one had bothered to waken me and tell me to go to the tent. I guessed Maria was paying me back for not having met her on the dock. Damp moisture saturated my clothes, giving me a chill that ran bone deep. I shed my wet clothes in the cool morning air and unzipped the tent, prepared to sacrifice the morning fish for the touch of Maria’s warm skin. My mouth dropped open in confusion as I stared at the empty air mattress and undisturbed blankets. I ran to the shower house in my boxers, tripping repeatedly on the shoelaces hanging from my untied boots. The cold blue walls and loneliness of the campground shower house was creepier than ever before. I could hear Shifty barking from afar. I followed his bark, which led me to the shore about 100 yards from the campsite. He ran up to me, soaking wet and muddy, barking as forcefully as he could. I remembered trying to brush him away looking frantically for Maria in an early stage of panic. He bit my arm solidly and pulled me towards the shore. I remembered running after him, pissed off at him for biting me and then I saw her.
A log burst loudly on the fire, sending an orange spray in my direction. The sound scared me and the ashes flashed behind my eyelids. I sat up in the chair and immediately looked to make sure Tyler was still there. Shadows from the flames danced across his cheeks. His forehead was growing red from exposure to the fire. I cradled him in my arms and took him to the tent, kissing the top of his head, a tear rolling down my face. I placed him down on the mattress and crawled next to him, pulling him tightly to my chest. I had made it through the first night, the rest I wasn’t sure about.
Early the next morning a small finger prodded at my eyelids, trying to lift them, as though they were the only barrier between sleep and wakefulness. Warm morning breath hit my nose in small, dry bursts. I resisted as long as possible but that’s never possible for too long. I knew that he would not forget the promise of the fishing and I knew that I could do nothing to the contrary. I pictured us out on the lake in the morning sun, casting at the shore, trolling peacefully along the lake perimeter. My stomach twisted in knots each time I imagined looking down into the water. I considered faking an emergency and applying the “sometimes dads just have to do certain things and we don’t always like them but crying won’t change anything” rule.
We pissed together on a tree just at the perimeter of the campsite. I lasted longer than him as usual and he laughed, vowing to someday pee longer than me. His joy seemed discomfortingly and distantly separate from the unmotivated state I woke in. I tried my best to mask the disinclination I had to going fishing. I could stand to taint the experience of the lake, but not fishing in general. In fact, tainting the lake didn’t sound so bad.
Tyler ran to the truck and began grabbing haphazardly at the fishing gear. The poles were tangled and he was scrapping them on the ground. I felt my head get warm. I gritted my teeth. “Just get your life jacket on. I’ll get the rods.”
“Can I carry one?”
“No.” I turned my back and opened the door to the truck, looked through the glove box for nothing, then closed the door and turned back to help him get the jacket secure. As I pulled the straps I could feel him looking at my face.
“Can I carry the tackle box then?”
“No. It’s too big.” I locked the truck door, overloaded myself with gear making it difficult to walk, and started toward the dock. Tyler walked a few feet behind me in silence. I concentrated on my feet as I walked, knowing the only thing ahead was the broad expanse of Lake of the Woods.
I set all of the tackle down next to the boat on the dock, picked up Tyler under the arms and lifted him on to the front deck of the boat. I told him to stand still while I put the gear in and untied the boat. Bending over to grab the poles I could see him moving toward the middle seating area. “Hey,” I snapped, pointed at the deck. He stopped to look at me, then continued to the drivers seat. I went ahead and loaded the rest of the stuff on to the boat.
“Can I drive, dad?” he asked.
I lifted him from the chair and placed him forcefully into the passenger seat, trying to demonstrate sternness. “No.”
“Because you just can’t.” I cheated him from a real answer.
“Maybe some later if I’m good?” He persisted.
The gurgling of the idling outboard made me anxious, as normal, but it was different this time, different than the normal excitement that comes from hurrying to get to the fish. I pressed the throttle forward just a hair and the boat moved from the dock. For the first time I was forced to look ahead at the lake. My knees felt weak and I began to feel terribly separate from the land behind us. We idled out about twenty feet and I pressed the throttle down. The nose of the boat rose slowly as we accelerated forward. I looked over at Tyler, holding the edge of the seat, his eyes squinted, his hair blown wildly in the wind. The sound of the water splitting on the hull and the splash of the wake consumed my senses. I found it hard to think and feel real when I couldn’t hear. I always had.
I navigated us to a remote backwater at the end of the lake not far from the dam. It was plentiful with downed timber and underwater structure. The backwaters were typically habitated by a variety of fish, some bass, some perch, and normally a good deal of sunfish. I eased up on the throttle and let the boat drift into the hollow. While drifting I rigged Tyler’s pole with a minnow and a bobber and helped him cast out over the side. He sat, gripping the pole with two hands, intensely focused on the bobber. I opened the tackle box and sat motionless, looking at the lures, unable to think of what I felt comfortable with. Finally I tied a rubber worm onto a bait-casting rod. My hands trembled as I tied the lure to the line. I walked to the front of the boat, sat down in the chair, positioned my foot on the trolling motor pedal and found myself unable to cast. We glided near the inlet and the creek and structure became visible through the blue-green water. I became overwhelmed, feeling that anything that went into this water would never come out.
Finally I pressed the release on the reel, placed my thumb on the spool, and held my breath as I whipped the worm around sidearm and let it sail out over the water. As it splashed down and sank into the water I began a slow retrieve, gently bobbing the tip of the rod from waist to shoulder level. The lure bumped something on the bottom and stopped. I jerked the rod spastically and was relieved to feel nothing attached. Hastily I retrieved the remainder of the line and set the pole down.
I sat and watched the bobber on Tyler’s line rise and fall gently with small disturbances in the water. Under the surface I could see the smooth water eroded tree limbs that had fallen into the water long ago. There was a creepiness to the way visibility disappeared into the depths of the water. I became sick thinking about the things that lie on the bottom in the cold and undisturbed mud. My mind started transposing images of human arms and legs on the sunken tree limbs. I pictured bodies stuck in the mud, frozen, reaching up, trying to grab some air. Suddenly the bobber disappeared into the water and Tyler shrieked. I was immobile as I watched him struggle with the fish. He cranked the reel one time then turned and looked to me to save him.
“Reel it in,” I said. “You can’t wait all day.”
The rod tip bounced back and forth. I walked to the edge of the boat and knelt down to land the fish. He reeled it straight out of the water, a white papermouth crappie. I lipped the small fish, unhooked it, and held it out for him to marvel at. He looked at me for approval. I curled my lips under and nodded, unable to express what I should have. I tossed the fish back into the water and hooked another minnow onto the line.
His cast jerked short and dropped just a few feet from the boat. He didn’t seem to mind. I watched him sit and wait faithfully for another fish to take the bait. He was silent and keenly focused on the singular possibility of catching another. I felt strangely fragmented, and faith was not something I had known for a long time. I was jealous of his mind, young and not yet subject to the misgivings of self-imposed torture.
Sitting in the sun I began to fade into a world of daydreams. They were haunting and uncomfortable, not like what they used to be floating out on the water, not what they should have been there, finally with my son. Memories from all parts of my life came alive and blended with each other, leaving a messy trail of confusion for me to painfully follow. As I stared into the water beside the boat, she appeared to me, floating face down in the water, puffy and grayish. The bite marks ripping through the tattoo on her arm where Shifty had tried to drag her to shore, her dark maroon hair floating in a large plume around her submerged head. Tyler screamed again.
Another fish had taken his bait. He looked to me and I nodded. He continued to reel it in. I reached over the side to grab the fish and he kept on reeling through my grip. As I reached into the mouth he jerked the rod sending the barbed hook deep into my thumb. “God dammit,” I yelled, “You have got to be more careful.”
He dropped the pole. Tears welled up in his eyes. His chin dropped slowly until it touched his chest. His shoulders bobbled up and down and he gasped for breath and tried to hold back the tears that I had caused. I reeled in the rest of the line and placed the hook through the lowest eye on the pole. I knelt in front of him and pulled him in tight. I whispered in his ear, “It was a beautiful fish, Tyler. I’m the one that should be more careful.”
I wiped a tear from his eye and caught another one half way down his cheek. “Do you want to catch another?”
He moved his head slowly from one side to the other. A fresh tear dropped to the deck of the boat. “Let’s go get some lunch.” I picked him up, hugged him, and sat him on the seat. The noise of the craft, pushing through the water as we left the backwaters, creating a much-needed barrier between myself and everything else.
After spending much of the day in silence, a trap I created for myself, and then perpetuated, the sights and sounds of the evening fire comforted me, knowing that sleep was soon to come and I was one step closer to getting through the weekend. Tyler was undoubtedly disappointed but I was sure he would rebound. Silence was no stranger to us from time to time.
I began to liken something in myself to the fading ashes, breaking off the fire and dying in the air. Something in myself would have to fade out. Everything works towards a resolution and I began to accept the turbulent feelings and painful memories as a part of that process, something that had to be done sooner or later, there was just no sense denying it. Maybe the denial was the problem. Just let it go now, Lance, I told myself, be the man your son needs you to be.
Tyler crawled into the tent and fell asleep quickly, probably wanting for the day to end as much as me. I let him go. I remained by the fire waiting for it to burn down. Shifty had wandered off down by the lake. I went to the tent and looked in at Tyler sleeping soundly, using my jacket for a pillow, his face buried in the red flannel liner. I sat back down and pulled my hat over my face. I watched the orange glow move unpredictably and pictured him crying out on the lake over and over an over. I was sure that his mother was watching from above, disappointed with me for having lost my temper. I swore that I was sorry and replayed the scene until I nodded off to sleep.
I was awakened by Shifty barking and rustling about in a patch of trees on the lakeshore just down from the dock. I yelled his name as quietly and muffled as possible, trying not to wake Tyler. He continued barking. I whistled and clapped my hands. He was silent for a moment and started again. I heard a splashing in the water and Shifty began his nervous moaning. I walked to the other side of the fire and looked down to the trees. I could not see him. I yelled again and he began barking. I felt a shortness of breath as I began walking to the lakeshore.
I walked carefully through the trees, my hands extended out in front of me, protecting my face from branches. The moon was bright and reflected off the yellow hair on Shifty’s back. I stopped a few feet from him and called his name. He grew silent, but kept looking out over the water. I stooped under the last few branches beside Shifty and looked out matching his line of vision.
“What is it, boy?” I patted him forcefully on the back. He sat down but continued looking out over the water.
“You see a duck, Shifty?” He remained motionless. I sat and waited for him to do something. Several moments later he broke the stare and walked over to me. He pressed his nose against my cheek, sniffing repeatedly. He whined quietly and licked at my face. I sat down and leaned against a large tree that extended way out over the water. Shifty eased down to his belly and placed his head on my lap. I massaged his head with one hand and scratched his back deeply with the other. There was a path to the moon reflecting undisturbed on the glassy surface of the lake. I tossed a rock into the water, destroying the path to the moon. As the ripples dissipated and as the water calmed I closed my eyes and leaned my head back against the tree. A feeling of loneliness settled over me. My hand fell limp resting open on Shifty’s neck.
A disturbance in the water grabbed my attention. Small bursts of yellow light increased in intensity through my closed eyes. I reached out for Shifty but he was gone. I opened my eyes to see where he went. Through the path to the moon came a figure swimming gracefully. The bright light of the moon reflected in glistening rays from the breasts of a woman. I was frozen. She swam the middle of the path as though it were set in place to guide her to me. I sat up, straining to see more closely. She disappeared under the water. I shifted to my knees and thrust my neck forward, scanning the surface for any sign of her. Ten feet from the shore she slowly ascended from the water, revealing more of her with each step. Time was slow. The water dripping from her fell slowly creating perfect circles all around her. Three feet of deep red hair hung straight down, masking her face. She swept her arms under the hair and pushed it back, raising her head simultaneously. The tattoo on her right arm and thigh were unmistakable.
“Maria?” I said.
Her face held an expression I had not seen anywhere before or since. It seemed to say be quiet, there’s no need to talk. It seemed to say don’t be afraid. It seemed to say I am here to comfort you. I tried to talk, but found no words. She walked slowly through the water, skimming her hands across the surface, leaving beautiful waves that sucked up the light of the moon. In the sky a majestic formation of ducks crossed the face of the moon. She knelt in front of me, and placed her hands gently on my face. I shut my eyes and began to weep. Her hands lifted my head as she embraced me. I watched as my hand caressed her back.
I tried to speak again. She reached around and placed her finger over my mouth. I pulled away and looked into her eyes. In them I found peace, I found the beauty I had begged to see just one more time. Then I watched as they changed ever so slightly and I realized how much they were like the eyes of my son. A tear ran down my face, but not a tear of sorrow. She pushed her lips together and pressed them against my forehead. I closed my eyes as she pulled away. I sat in silence, waiting to feel her touch again. She crouched down into the water, cupped her hands, and then raised them over my head. The water ran down my face and dripped from my chin. I grabbed her hand and pressed my face into it, kissing it. I watched, unable to move, as she stepped back, holding my hand, and released it slowly. She walked backwards into the water.
A cold nose pressing against my face startled me. I found myself leaning on the tree where I had sat earlier. The night was fading into day. Shifty stood in front of me, waging his tail. I pushed him aside and looked out over the lake. There was no sign of Maria. Hundreds of fireflies hovered several feet off the lake in a magnificent circle. Shifty let out a sigh and began whining. He placed his snout on my thigh and watched the fireflies. I reached up to rub my chin. At the end of my nose, on the top of my ring finger sat the glowing back end of a carefully placed firefly. The circle broadened from the center and began to rise. A bass jumped from the water in a high sweeping arc. It seemed to remain in the air for a few seconds before splashing down. Water shot into the air as the fireflies dispersed in all directions, flying away into the early morning sky. The firefly in my finger grew dimmer and dimmer as they faded out of sight and then died out.
I jumped to my feet and ran to the truck. I grabbed my rod and hurried to the dock. I turned and faced the area out under the tree I had slept under. My thumb pressed the release and slid to the spool. The rod-tip swung back quickly following a low trajectory. It snapped back and released the lure out over the water just under the overhang of the tree. My thumb stopped the reel involuntarily as the lure splashed where my mental picture had guided it. I began to retrieve slowly. Just as the strike hit I jerked the rod back, standing on my toes and arching my back. I met resistance and the drag squealed off some line. I fought the fish then let it run. I could feel the strength and aggressiveness of the pre-spawn bass. I brought it up to the dock and bent down to grab it; its mouth open wide, it’s gills spread wide and red. I took it off the hook and held it high. The morning sun crawled over the crest of the mountains in the distance. It was beautiful. I can’t be sure if it was the one that jumped, but it really didn’t matter, it would be to me.
“Dad, you caught one, you caught one!” Tyler stood at the end of the dock and pointed at the bass in my hand.
“Come here, kid,” I said. “I have something to tell you.” I knelt down and placed the fish into the water, moving it back and forth to start the water moving through it’s gills. Tyler lay down on his belly and reached out to touch the fish on the back. I let it go. It suspended briefly then quickly dived out of sight. Tyler swirled his hand in the water.
“You know what we forgot to do yesterday,” I said, “We forgot to get familiar with the lake before trying to go out and be a part of it.” I reached down into the water, cupped my hand, and poured the handful of water over his head. He shook it off and laughed. I reached back down and threw some water over my own head. He laughed again.
“Let’s go fishing.”
He jumped to his feet. “I’ll get my life jacket.”
“I have an idea. Why don’t you drive, I think maybe it’s time.” He didn’t say a word and he didn’t have to. His expression told things words could only hint at. As he ran up the dock I reached back into the water, lifted a handful to my mouth, and drank the cool water down. I sat looking out over the lake. The moon was barely visible in the pale blue sky. I pictured his mother crouched in the water, careful not to be seen, between a thicket of weeds watching me. “I’m trying baby,” I said to her, “I’m trying.”
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