Like the four-count rhythm of a long fly cast, life can be measured in pauses.
[by Pete Warzel]
My family speaks in shorthand. Let me clarify. The men in my family speak in shorthand, code, minimalist conversation. We also, all of us, are tough guys.
Silence fills more space than syllables. And when the stink hits the fan, action works, words do not. I learned that from my father, who I imagine learned that from his. My grandfather was an immigrant from the reaches of Central Europe—said he was Austrian, spoke Russian, had Polish relatives—a railroad worker in his new life in Upstate New York. I searched the log books at Ellis Island but could not find him entered. There were several records of the same last name, and one with the first name; but he, Josef, was much too young to sire my father in 1910. The others were German, Austrian, Polish, Russian, Catholic, Orthodox, and Jewish. Take your pick.
The personality of silence I call Stoicism. My wife calls it insensitivity.
I have three sons, and the first two, 35 and 29, have the same insensitive disease as me. The third, 14 years old now, has taken the best traits from his mother, a separate mother, who is ripe with good traits, and will tell you anything, anytime, anywhere. He is a chatterbox and amuses the rest of us who are stunned to further silence by his verbosity. We simply enjoy the commotion.
It is August, the threshold of autumn, and 90 some years from the start of the Great War that changed Western culture forever. I wonder at the impetus that charged my grandfather to leave the infection of Central Europe. Was he married then to Susan, Baba? Was the intuition of a world gone badly his reason for sailing west? Baba was a slight woman with a gray bun and long, bony fingers that stroked me kindly, speaking only in Russian, though a few English words slipped out.
I have never seen a photograph of my grandfather and only now, in the late stages of middle age, is that distressing to me. That is a true silence and, no doubt, one of his own making. Perhaps he had a tribal fear of image and soul. Perhaps he did not exist.
“Another miss, and then bang!—the pool erupts with water flying, and a small brook trout jumps in a line dance for him. He gets the rod high and pulls in the fish with his stripping hand.”
ALEX, MY MIDDLE SON, is the epitome of silence. He writes, paints, raps, and reads, and then asks questions without allowing any hint of what he is thinking. I received a message on my answering machine not long ago in a creamy baritone voice. “Hello, Peter, this is your son. Trout Stockman.”
What is this? Trout? If only I had been so clever with his given name.
Years ago he wore my hip waders turned down. We were on the river before the fires ruined it for a long silence of regeneration, and I rigged up a short rod and showed him how to cast. As my other son Zach and I ran line up through the eyes of our own rods, Alex said, “I got one.” Zach looked at me, each of us with the experience of bottom snags. “No, I got one.” I reached for the rod to shake him free, and a rainbow shot into the air, unmistakably connected to his line. Alex got it in, and I loosed the hook. “Let me touch him.” He wet his hand and stroked the fish lovingly, then handed me the rod, took off the waders, and never fished again. Why should he? Anything that easy was not worth doing multiple times. In the vernacular, he was a one-shot wonder.
Now we are hunting brook trout 19 years later, up high, in a pool he had seen on a four-wheel scouting expedition. I named the spot Alex’s Pool, and so it appears in my journals. There was no indication whether he would take a rod in hand when we got there, but something was brewing in his unknowable soul.
This pool is long and wide, fed by a channel that turns past a large boulder, the far bank shaded by the deep green of alpine topography. A log lies perpendicular to the current into the fat of the pool, and the basin is scoured deep, sanded, and silent. I have never seen anyone else here fishing and do not know how many venture up the Category 7 trail for lowly brook trout. I have become a lover of these fish and the wild beauty they preserve. They are hungry, feisty, crazy animals, and the autumn colors light them up as if they were an artist’s dream. The white trim on their fins is an elegant finishing touch of eternal design.
My hip waders fit him now. In fact, he stands tall in them, and they reach his thigh much lower up than on me. He is lean and fit and raw. I rig up and hand him the cane rod, and he waves it, watching the small fly swing over the water. The tattoo that sickened me when he first went under the needle is visible in the light on his right forearm—a Gustav Klimt painting, The Kiss. His first strike misses, and then the next. Thank God.
He misses 10, 15 fish, and begins to grumble, perhaps thinking of his first success as a child. Now the man is at work, and the work is not going well. So I tell him to ease up and let his senses take over when he sees the first motion on the water. “There is instinct in the wrist. Just let it happen.” Another miss, and then bang!—the pool erupts with water flying, and a small brook trout jumps in a line dance for him. He gets the rod high and pulls in the fish with his stripping hand.
I unhook the fish. “Can I touch it?” There is no irony in his request. He is not remembering, but being sincere. I hold it flat, and he wets his hand and strokes the flank of the bright trout. We repeat the ritual five times as he gets the rhythm of the cast and hook set, and by God, he is fishing. “Take over,” he says, and sits on a log behind us while I enter the water and cast. He smokes a cigarette and watches, silently.
Soft rain begins before the thunder. Then the sky is ripped by lightning, and we step into the trees and up the slope to the truck, quickly packing away rods. His pants are soaked, and he is freezing. “Why didn’t you say something? I didn’t know these waders had a leak.”
“I wanted to fish,” he said. Then simply, “I’m cold.”
I rub his red feet back to feeling and find a spare, dry pair of socks in the bag. He is sitting on the tailgate of the truck, smoking another cigarette, and the wet spruce above us smells green. “Alex, man, you should have told me they were leaking.”
“It’s all good,” he says.
The ride home is done in silence. We come down the thick-treed canyon and into the red-rock heat. He sleeps and twitches momentarily as I drive. We are both at home in our ancestry, where blood and water are not dissimilar, each holding memory to itself in the pools and eddies, the shadows of rock and deadfall. We are silent together, communing in the family way. I see nothing wrong with that at all. It is the break between movements in a very long piece of music.
Pete Warzel lives in Denver and Santa Fe, and in between. He has previously published work in Gray’s Sporting Journal, Cowboys and Indians, New Mexico Magazine, and various literary journals.