In the cold January air, I smell wood fire. I’m wading a small river… [by Gary Metras]
In the cold January air, I smell wood fire.
I’m wading a small river in a state forest.
Sky of scattered clouds, dark trees, dark water,
but no smoke, no flame. Except the bright
streaks of rainbow trout I catch then release
to appease some angry deity. I cast the weighted
nymph of hope, glance up both riverbanks,
and still no blaze, but the smell grows. I know
how flames will melt the snow without ever
smacking ground, how flames devour oxygen,
even from water, and how every breathing
thing could die a double death, drowning
then burning. I know how flames can leap
a river from treetop to treetop, scorching
everything below. I light a match for a cigarette
but icy wind blows it out, my own flare
insignificant. Then two matches at a time, twice,
before I inhale tobacco, but burnt wood tastes
stronger. Then a red flash of trout like iron
striking flint as the fish turns in shallow water
to take the nymph. A few wary minutes later,
I lift its head barely above waterline, kneel
to retrieve my fly, and wonder if it knows
the smell of forest on fire. I see infernos
engulfing me and sins condemning me.
What prayers could now mollify? The trout
swims its fiery flank to the deep pool down-
stream, its innocence no protection, its water
no haven, and I think, That’s where I’ll stand
if flames begin to lash this flow. There,
with the fish, I’ll drown in fire and water.
Some splashes upstream. Are deer rushing
from fire, eyes wide, their white rims reflecting
blood? But it’s another fisherman, rounding
the bend upwind, with a cigar smoking and
glowing and stinking. So in the January air,
imagination and trout the only conflagrations.
Gary Metras’s latest book of poems is Two Bloods: Fly Fishing Poems (Split Oak Press 2010).