The Loon

Laura Rodgers 

The Loon 

          The old man rubbed away the steam from the mirror, revealing his wrinkled face. The glass was cold underneath his sun-spotted palm. He peered at himself closely. His eyes were the color of dirty ice, like muddy snow that is too stubborn to thaw in the spring. They were the only thing he recognized about himself anymore. His cheekbones were thin and his eyelids sagged. His head was shaved but white pricks were beginning to hug his ears. Hell, it felt like his hair decided to stop growing out of his head and switched to his nose.

          The mirror was cracked in the corners and hung above a pink porcelain sink. The bathroom had barely enough room to turn around. If he wanted to, he could have gone to the bathroom and brushed his teeth at the same time.

          It was almost 4am and sleep was like a siren’s call to his heavy eyes. He quickly dried himself and pulled on his one-of-two pairs of jeans with a plain, white collar shirt. He had almost forgotten a belt again, but his wife had made sure he packed it. He slipped it on, the well-loved grooves making it easy for his shaking hands. Parkinson’s be damned, he would always be a fisherman.

          The man entered his two-room cabin and pulled on his waterproof fishing boots. The twin bed had a multi-color quilt laid on top with two lumpy pillows. The lamp on his bedside table had cobwebs along the bulb and the two windows had holes in the screens. There was a wood stove in the corner next to a pile of rotting wood. The pungent smell of mothballs overrode any potential scent of pine from the trees outside.

          He wouldn’t trade it for anything else.

          The trees outside the window looked like dark ghosts as he pulled his antique bamboo rod from its metal casing. The sole red cotton armchair coughed dust as he sat down. The rod was divided into three parts and had to be gently pieced together. He unwrapped the end of an old wax candle and gently rubbed a protective coating over the wood. The wax prevented too much friction which could cause it to snap. He pushed and gently twisted the pieces together to create a nine-foot rod. He attached an antique reel on the handle and threaded the line through the guides up the pole as softly as a lover buttoning their partner’s shirt.

          He could do the process in his sleep. Once the rod had the reel weaved through the guides all he had to do was attach the fly. He took out his plastic case of organized fake flies; all were various sizes, shapes, and colors to appease different kinds of fish. He chuckled as he remembered how his granddaughters only chose pink flies when they were children. Now they were in college in a city far away, their fishing roots dormant but not forgotten. One only needed to smell the sweet water again to be reeled back into the serenity of the lake.

          He plucked out a bright yellow Wulff. His eyes weren’t what they used to be and he had to use a tiny lens to make the end of the plastic line visible. Once he had a knot the size of a gnat tied securely around the fly he clipped the excess off. Finally finished, he hooked the fly on the bottom of the pole so it wouldn’t swing as he walked.

          He swatted a mosquito, grabbed his other fishing gear and left the cabin. He meandered down the main road, the gravel crunching under his feet and rod bobbing against his shoulder.

          He had been coming to this fly-fishing camp for over fifty years. Sometimes he brought his family and dogs, sometimes it was just him. Over the past ten years, once he reached eighty years old, the camp had begun to degrade. The wooden boats leaked and were cheaply repaired until they broke again, the food quality had plummeted, and the old timers that had been regulars for generations were being pushed out for a more appeasable ‘family-friendly’ audience. Jungle gyms had replaced fish cleaning stations and rabbit pens were scattered down the dirt road while the ten cabins along the waterfront crumbled.

          There was no cell service for almost five miles and the nearest town was a forty-five minute drive away. There was nothing out here but forests, the lake, and the loons. Many couldn’t appreciate the silence of the docks or the aggressive three course meal they served at the dining hall. The camp owner was trying to sell a small fishing camp in Maine to young parents and children who had the whole world at their fingertips through tiny black screens.

          It made an old man’s heart ache.

          The stars weren’t visible anymore but his eyes slowly adjusted as he reached the docks. The dock boys were nowhere in sight. Typical. Their only job was to help load older men into their boats and pass them their gear. No other fishermen were near either, meaning they were young fathers sleeping in until breakfast, or even more of the older generation stopped coming this year. The slapping water sounded weak and lonely, like the lake missed having groups of fishermen explore her before the sun came up. He thought about getting email addresses from his niche community to stay in touch, but he didn’t want to hear about the funerals.

          Dawn would be approaching in an hour. A faint loon call echoed off the water. There were no sounds of people and the nearby cabins were dark. He could almost hear his son, almost fifty years old now, saying that he should wait for someone to help him into the rocking boat.

          Well, he was never one to wait.

          He loaded his depth finder first, an expensive machine that showed him how big the fish were underneath his boat. The other geezers stuck their noses up at such technology, saying he wasn’t a real fly fisherman, but he didn’t care. He knew all the best spots on this lake to catch salmon and trout. The others be damned.

          A chill off the water went right through his fishing vest, shaking him to the core. The blood-thinners he’s been taking after his second stroke always made him feel like he was in Antarctica. He lowered his rod next to the motor like he was laying down a newborn babe into a cradle. His knees protested and he felt stabs of pain shoot up his lower back.

          What would his younger self say if he saw his state now? His hands were doughy from years of office work and his greatest enemy was falling into a body of water. With a small smile he remembered how he used to steal corn from nearby farms in Massachusetts then spark a fire with his friends in some secluded area, cook and eat the corn and be back home before dinner. Now there was a list of foods he couldn’t even sniff or his doctor would throw a fit.

          He stood and stared at the chipped green and white paint on the boat. How many more years could he do this? He shook the morbid thought from his head. He only had to get into the boat. He gripped the corner post with his right hand and placed his left foot on the boat’s bottom floorboards. The boat rocked from his weight, but he balanced himself. With experienced agility he simultaneously pulled the boat toward the dock, let go of the post, and swung himself onto the main seat.

          His breath came in wheezing gasps, but he was safe. A flash of fear came over him when he realized that no one would have been around to help him if he had fallen and hit his head. But thinking about fears never got him anywhere. He untied the rope from the post and tossed it next to his feet. There was already three inches of water along the bottom. He sighed. He started up the motor and jumped from the noise. It sounded like an intrusion on the silence of nature, a man-made growling that smelled like gasoline. He could feel the pollution leaking into the air. God, did he fear for the future. The water looked like onyx-colored glass as he made his way across the lake. He was careful to drive the boat at an angle with the waves so the boat wouldn’t flip. There weren’t any white caps to worry about, yet. He made his way to a small cove away from the wind. The water settled and he turned his machine on. It beeped for a few seconds and various dots appeared. He grinned.

          Take that, shitheads.

          He unhooked his fly and pulled a few feet of line from the reel. He stood still, but relaxed, so that the boat didn’t rock. He could smell the algae on the water and the clean scent you can only get on the edge of a lake. He scanned the water to see any fish rises. A gray blanket had taken over the sky, tucking itself in at the horizon.

          He cast. The process of drawing his right arm back, whipping it forward without too much force, and letting his arm follow through on the swing was almost like a dance. He could see the small yellow spot on the silver water about thirty feet away. Every seven seconds he gently tugged the line so that the fly appeared like it was jumping on the water. It almost fooled him too, sometimes.

          A mist slowly spread to him, which looked beautiful but made his yellow fly hard to follow. Re-casting was the only thing that separated time on the water. It lulled his mind with each swing of the arm. Crickets chirped on the shore and occasionally the water splashed when he got a bite. After each fish he caught, he had to dry his fly by putting it in a container of salt and shaking it. The water would be absorbed and then he would recast.

          The air was warming and his shivering almost stopped. He was about to find a different spot when the fly was sucked underwater. He straightened his arm up immediately. The rod snapped to attention and the battle began. The repetition was a dance of respect; if you pulled too hard your rod could snap, if you were too lenient the fish would cut the line. Let it go, reel it in, let it go, reel it in. It took a few minutes of fighting but the fish began to tire.

          He was in the last stretch and got his large net ready. The fish bobbed on the surface and he scooped it out of the water. It was a bright silver salmon, reaching about fifteen inches long. He took his forceps and removed the hook and fly from the fish’s mouth. The fins were flailing and it struggled against his firm grip. At least it wasn’t a foul hook and the fish wouldn’t be in too much pain.

          The belly had yellow spots that trailed along to the gills. He cursed. It felt like no fisherman could pull up a fish these days without some parasite on them. He felt water coming up his shoes and had to empty the leaked water for the fifth time. This tiny corner of the world was being lost to time and sickness. Acknowledging it, unfortunately, didn’t make him feel any better.

          A splash on the water made his head turn. A loon was coasting on the waves less than five feet from his boat. They loved to wait until fishermen caught something, then dive under the water while they were fighting to snatch it up.

          “Why didn’t you fight me for it?” he grumbled. “You have as much a right to it as I do. Well, here.” He returned the fish to the water and it dove to the safety of the dark depths. He never killed the fish anyway, loon or not. It wouldn’t be fair for him to take so much from the Earth while giving so little back.

          The loon stared at him, it’s beautiful green neck twitching. The white dots on the animal looked like jewelry. It flared its wings. The man began to feel the first rays of sun on the back of his neck. His stomach growled, and he knew he should head back to the camp soon. He stole another glance at the majestic bird.

          “It’s past my time,” he said. “You’ll have better luck stealing food when everyone else is out here.”

          It was a survivor, just like him.

          It cooed back to him. He wondered what it was saying. For some reason, the heaviness in his heart was lessened. With the sun on his back he turned on his motor and headed back for the docks, a white river of bubbles sputtering behind him.

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