Winter Green Gorge
by Nora Shychuk
My father's hands were a hundred times the size of mine. They were rough, calloused, and tanned. I noticed them most of all when he took me fishing. He'd grab worms out of an old coffee can and stick them carefully onto our hooks, his huge fingers expertly stabbing the poor bastards to ensure that they would not fall off even if the current was strong.
We would rise early in the morning. I'd put on old jeans and a sweatshirt, then grab my gloves and the blue fishing hat that was too big for me. It used to be his. It hung down slightly over my eyes so I'd lift my head and look up high so I could see. My dad had started to pin tackle pieces to my hat after every trip. He gave me blue and pink feathers, striped and silvery minnows, white and red fishing bobbers. They all represented my skill as a fisherman. Or fisherwoman. My hat of honour, he'd say. Each time I caught a fish, he'd stick another piece of tackle into the fabric. It became a trophy.
My older sister had no interest in fishing. My little brother was still a baby. My mom liked to sleep in. But I was eight. His nature girl. The perfect partner. I possessed just the right amount of wide-eyed wonder and trust to wade out into the river every weekend.
We walked out to the car one cool August morning with our rods in hand. The sun wouldn't be up for another hour, so we yawned together in the dark. My dad carried his thermos of coffee. I always asked to have some and he always said no. He said it would stunt my growth and make my teeth yellow. I asked why he liked it and he said he was already grown and took better care of his teeth. I couldn't argue.
It took about an hour to reach Winter Green Gorge from our house. Really, the gorge was just a wide river sandwiched between tall, dark pine trees. It wasn't much, but to me it was beautiful. Rolling green hills stretched out in the distance. A few waterfalls dotted the river. If you looked long and hard, you could pick up the brown and grey rock and find fossils pressed into the stone. Old leaves, old imprints of bugs. And the moss. Moss hung everywhere. Off the trees, off the bigger rocks. I had to be careful. Moss on wet rocks was slippery. My dad always told me to keep my wits about me, to listen to the woods, to pay attention. Every now and then, a deer would emerge from the trees and watch us as we fished.
“What's more beautiful than that?” my dad would ask.
I didn't know how to answer that question. I still don't. We watched the deer until it wandered off. I remember looking at my dad and seeing tears in his eyes.
We turned onto the small, winding road that led into the gorge and I rolled down my window. The rush of water greeted us. So did the smell of the trees. The birds flew above and squirrels jumped from branch to branch. It was life in motion.
My dad parked the car and grabbed the equipment from the trunk. I got out and went for my favourite item: my olive green boots that, no matter how many times I wore and washed them off, smelled of rubber. They reached up past my knees so I could wade out far into the water.
That day, I did. I went out to cast my line into a collection of high rocks that stuck out from the river. Fish always liked dark and deep waters, usually at the foot of rocks or collapsed trees. Dad taught me that. I took another step and slipped on that slimy moss. The current carried me. My blue trophy hat fell off and floated down the river.
My dad threw his pole to the side and followed me on the trail. To me, this was certainly a life or death affair. The adventure of a lifetime. In actuality, the water did not move very quickly. My dad, running on the rocky path just to my right, easily went ahead to wait for me.
I approached one of the waterfalls that, at the time, I swore reached five-hundred feet high. Really, it was no more than ten feet. I fell down the miniscule falls and landed in calm water. I wept uncontrollably. Dad laughed, jumped in, pulled me out, and took me back to the car. He wrapped me in a big fleece blanket. I would not stop crying. He would not stop laughing. He called me Indiana Jones as he picked me up, plopped me into the car, and drove off.
We ended up at Wippy Dip. He bought me a Blue Moon ice cream cone, which was just blue coloured ice cream with two candy eyeballs. I ate it quickly, the tears finally subsiding. He asked me not to tell mom that I fell down a waterfall. I laughed then. So did he. He ordered me a second Blue Moon. Then we went home.
My dad was my fishing buddy. Then he was my hero. My cheerleader. He came to my softball games, soccer games, band concerts. He brought signs and candy and yelled and clapped louder than anyone. Bought me more Blue Moons. Brought me on more fishing trips. Got me more fishing gear—another pair of boots, thick wool socks, a fishing vest, a new pole. He let me stay up late. We watched movies that mom would never approve of and he let me sip from his beer. We'd take our dog Copper for long, late night walks in winter.
Then mom got sick and died. Dad tried to date. He stopped coming to games, the yells I heard from the sidelines shifting to yells in our house over nothing. He aged. I grew. We stopped going fishing. I came home once and he was choking my sister on the couch. Another time I found my brother on the floor with a broken nose. Blood everywhere. I went into dad's room and he was sitting on the bed with his head in his hands.
After that I left and went to college far away. Time passed and I did not speak to my father. Whenever I thought of fishing, I thought of something else. I covered it up. I put a blanket over the flames. I buried the coffin. When new friends asked about my family, I usually lied. I stopped going home for the holidays. My brother called and told me dad was losing it again. I told him to leave. He was old enough then. But he stayed. He didn't leave for a long time.
I am forty years old now. One morning, early, the phone rings. It's him. Dad. It hits me now that he is in his late seventies. His voice sounds so quiet and shaky that I imagine it falling through his floor.
“I've started going again,” he says.
I know what he means.
“How are they biting?”
We fall back into fishing like it never left us. We pretend we've been going all these years. All these weekends. We never stopped talking. I never moved. I never came back and avoided him. He never pushed me away.
“They bite alright. They seem to like the worms. Minnows haven't turned up anything. The fake bugs are shit.”
“Catch a lot of bass?” I ask.
“Mostly. My fingers hurt now. I have trouble baiting.”
“You need to go to the doctor. It could be something.”
Then it's quiet. He coughs and clears his throat.
“Rachel,” he says.
“Want to go?”
His breathing is loud on the other line; he starts to wheeze. With eyes closed, I try to imagine how he might look or what he is wearing but all I see is black. I remember my tall, strong dad. The one with monstrous hands and a black beard and a flannel jacket. It's blurry. Like a dream.
“The gorge, yeah,” he says.
“See you then.”
“Do you have all you need?” he asks suddenly. “I can go out and grab you some stuff if you need it.”
A lump forms in my throat but I force it down. The image in my head of dad becomes less blurry. I see his smile and hear his laugh.
“No. I'm okay. I can run out and get anything I need.”
I hang up and consider calling my sister or my brother, but they're busy. They have shut him out, too. I can't blame them. They wouldn't understand. What would my defence even be? He is my father? No. Maybe I would say that good people make bad choices when they are in pain. Things change. Life gets fucking messy sometimes.
The truest thing I could say is that fishing binds us. We are held together by memories; we are haunted by trees and mountains and rivers. I remember now that one summer we had matching blisters on our big toes where our fishing boots rubbed our skin raw.
He is waiting for me when I pull up next to him. He has a new, white Chevy truck. It is a warm morning, even at seven o'clock. This is a bad sign for the fish. If it is too hot, they won't bite. Dad holds two poles and a tackle box and hat. His boots are on. He stands up straight as if to try and fool me, but I notice. I notice he has shrunk. I notice that holding the equipment is hard for him because he keeps switching the load from one hand to the other. His thick black hair is gone and all that is left are a few patches of white.
We reach the river quickly. I wade out into the water, but he stays behind and casts his line from the rocky edge.
“A little hot today,” he says.
- We listen to the water and the leaves rustle in the summer breeze.
“I brought beer,” he says.
“It's too early.”
“Just let me know if you want one.”
We do not talk much after that. We cast our lines and I am pleased to see that I can still do so effortlessly. I catch one fish. Then another. Dad isn't having much luck. He has stopped casting. I look back and see why. He holds a different pole. His stance has changed.
He pulls foot after foot of line off the reel and slowly draws the pole up and back, up and back. His movements are fluid. Careful. Even. Then, with just enough force, when the rod is vertical and at its straightest, he stops suddenly. Intentionally. The extra slack he pulled from the line rises in the air behind him and floats. He waits, then casts his line in one quick stroke. It flies across the river and lands gracefully on the other side.
In the fishing world, what he is doing is not just a style—it is an art. It is mastery. He is fly fishing.
I come back from the river and stand next to him. For some reason, I feel like crying.
“You learned to fly fish?”
“I practiced in the yard.”
“I had some time to learn.”
“I don't know anyone who can fly fish.”
I nudge him and realize then that I am taller than he is. He looks up at me and grins. His cheeks redden.
“I'm impressed,” I say.
“Well alright,” is all he says.
I feel my eyes prick with tears, so I look down at my boots.
“Do you want to come back to the house for coffee?” he asks after a moment.
His line gets a bite. He jerks the pole back and smiles. In an instant, he is transformed. He reels in his line carefully, then jerks the rod again. The fish has no chance. I feel that I am watching a God. I wait and witness the magic.
At the house, I sit at the old wooden table. It looks just as I remember it, my initials still scratched into the far left corner. When dad walks in with the coffee, I point it out to him.
“Mom wanted to kill you.”
I nod, remembering. He hands me my cup as he finds his seat. He sighs when he sits down, his face slightly pained.
“Just my back,” he says.
I take a sip of coffee.
“How long has it been?” he asks.
“Over twenty years,” I say.
“How does the old place look?”
“Fine,” I say.
All in all, the house is the same—same furniture, same coffee cups, same pictures on the walls. But there is no Copper. No other dog. The table is dusty. The kitchen floors are dotted with old food stains. One of the dining room windows is cracked. The carpet in the nearby living room is faded. Everything reeks of loneliness. Of subtle disrepair. Of how nice things can wear down after time. I push the thought out of my head and look back at dad.
His eyes are a pale blue. Wrinkles are set hard underneath them, as well as around his mouth and on his forehead.
“How have you been?” he asks.
“I've been okay. You?”
I take another sip of coffee and wonder why I agreed to come. Every plate, every refrigerator magnet, every old magazine, brings something back. My brain works overtime; memories fly through my mind like a flock of birds flying south. Mostly, the images are good—birthday parties, raking leaves, baking, playing catch in the backyard. The bad ones are there, though. They disrupt the bright flow of a warm past. They discolour it, dim it, drain it, chill it.
“Glad you didn't fall down any waterfalls today,” my dad says suddenly.
My laugh sounds strange in the room. The dim past falls away for a moment. My dad starts to laugh too, but it is hesitant. He keeps his lips pressed together, as if uncertain he is allowed to laugh along with me.
“I learned my lesson,” I say.
“Sometimes deer jump the fence and come into the backyard.”
“Really?” I ask.
“Yeah. I've seen them twice this month. Made me think of fishing. That's why I called. They come mostly in the mornings. Before the sun.”
“Do they stay long?” I ask.
“No. Sometimes they come closer to sunset too, but only for a little while.”
Dad looks off and drums his fingers on the table.
“I wish they'd stay longer. Sometimes I throw them fruit.”
“You shouldn't do that,” I say.
He looks back to me. His eyes fill with tears. I try to ignore it and blame it on allergies or the dust, but then he frowns and sniffles.
“You know I'm sorry, right?”
I am quiet. Frozen.
“I just want you to know that. I don't want to be the bad guy.”
All I do is nod. A tear falls down my dad's cheek. He wipes it away quickly.
“I have something for you, you know,” he says.
“Yeah. Give me a minute.”
He gets up and hobbles into the hallway. I hear a door open and what sounds like papers or boxes being shuffled and moved.
“You need help?” I call.
“No. Just wait,” he says.
In a minute he returns. I see it before he sits down. Our blue hat. Some hooks are missing. The red and white bobbers have yellowed. Some of the feathery tackle pieces don't have their beads anymore. I put a hand over my mouth. Dad chuckles and sits down. He slides the old, somewhat smelly hat across the table. I grab it greedily and press it to my heart.
“Where did you find this?”
“It drifted down the river that day. I waited for you on the other side of the falls. The hat came first. I reached out, grabbed it, and shoved it in my pocket. You came right after and were such a mess. I forgot to give it back. It got tossed in the garage with all the other fishing stuff.”
“Mom got sick after that,” I say.
“Yeah. We stopped going fishing then. It just got mixed up and hid away for a while. But I found it a few months ago behind the lawnmower.”
I smell the musty hat over and over, convinced I can still smell the water. The earthy moss.
“Thanks,” I say.
He smiles and nods.
I place the hat on my head and it is still too big for me. We laugh again. He asks if I want more coffee and I say yes.
It is late when I finally leave that night. I throw the hat in the passenger seat next to me and start to drive home, but I don't make it. I decide to stop at the gorge first. The entry gate is closed and locked when I get there, so I park the car on the side of the road and walk in. On the trail I hear the owls and the river flow beside me. The moon is out and casts enough silvery light that I reach my destination without much struggle. I sit on a large rock that juts out into the water and watch the starlight dance on the river. It glitters. Everything shines. For a long time I stay that way, watching, until the sun comes up. Then I jump down off the rock and head home.