In these moments fish and fisherman discover, or rediscover, that they’re bound together in reciprocating violence—actual for the fish, perhaps sublimated for the fisherman, who nonetheless brings himself, what he is as a human being, into the struggle.
I reached for the oars and centered the boat in the pool to equalize the diameter of the fight, rowing just enough to hold our position.
The steelhead took to the current and raced downstream toward the deep water at the end of the pool. Walker released line through his fingers until his drag kicked in. The fish turned, tacking against the flow, bucking with the heart-stopping jolt of a good fish.
I found myself watching Walker’s face rather than the line or the rod or the water. Why, I don’t know. And I found what I hadn’t expected to find: his upper teeth biting down on his lower lip, his mouth pulled back in a frozen wince of terror. It wasn’t as though Walker was fighting the fish, meeting it on common ground where they both belonged. It seemed instead as though the fish, in its wild unpredictability, was attacking him.
Had he always borne that expression when he fought a fish? Why had I never looked? Or if I did, why hadn’t I noticed? Did I assume, as most twins do, that his face not only was my face, but that his expressions were also my expressions? Did I just look past his real expressions toward what I thought was common between us?
Seeing it now, I knew it wasn’t my face. I know mine when I fight a fish. I feel the shape of my skin, the concentration, the intensity, the puzzlement if the line goes slack, the relief and the smile when the fish comes to the net.
The thrashing steelhead pulled my gaze away from Walker. The fish burst through the surface, spasmed in the air, then crashed back.
As I watched the spectacle, I wondered whether I’d really seen terror or if it was simply excitement, contorted, perhaps, by the struggle, the fear of losing the fish.
I was afraid to look at him again. But I forced myself, and it wasn’t excitement. It was the same terror shown on his face as a tribe of children marched across the schoolyard screaming, Mr. Pee-body . . . Mr. Pee-body . . . Mr. Pee-body.
The steelhead dove deep and held at the bottom of the pool. Committed to releasing fish, I always provoke them and bring them in. For there is what Walker might call an ontology of fishing, standards for how fish are caught and released, among them an obligation not to put them at risk through exhaustive cycles of fight-and-rest. Walker knows this obligation, has lived by it, but he just stood there, rod braced against his belt, the brown graphite arched and immobile, its tip pointing toward the fish in absolute tension and absolute balance.
I watched the terror fade from his face, and waited for a side move with the rod. But he didn’t make it. It was as if his mind had strayed again, unable to attach itself to the fact of the fight and accept what that fight required him to do.
He didn’t answer.
“You need to get him up to the boat.”
Walker nodded, but his hands didn’t move.
I dug in an oar, taking over, reducing Walker from a fisherman to a rod holder. The geometry changed, the angle of the line shifted, and the steelhead answered with a rush toward the surface. It exploded into the air, the streamer still hooked to its jaw. Then it flew free, and the fish fell back and the line went slack.
I saw weariness on Walker’s face, and in his arms and his shoulders. He stared at the water for a moment, then at his reel and at his rod and at the boat beneath his feet, all shifting together against the current, and then out at the river moving by and up at the treetops swaying in the breeze.
Finally, he turned away from all this vertiginous motion and toward me, shaking his head, his lips pursed, his brows furrowed in puzzlement, in bewilderment, but I wasn’t sure whether he saw me, so closed in on himself and so lost, even as he asked, “What . . . am . . . I . . . doing . . . here?”
Steven Gore is the author of six novels, most recently Night is the Hunter (William Morrow, 2015), which begins and ends on the Smith River in Northern California.
Photo by Jeff Edvalds