The road to Samarra

That night was like a late afternoon tempest on a hot summer day
mayfly macro
Photo: Joe Cummings

I fished up above Tom Creek last night. Over the course of an hour I fished back down to the run where I had come in. A tree, felled in a spring flood, lay blocking half the flow. As I cast into the near seam my peripheral vision caught movement by the bank. When I got both eyes on target I saw a good-sized trout struggling in the flow. It slipped and rolled into the fast current disappearing into the riffle below. ‘That one is screwed’, I thought.

I went back to casting but couldn't get that fish out of my head. It struck me that this could have been the trout I caught twenty minutes earlier. I thought she swam off strong but instead of seeking cover she dove into fast current. I reeled up and turned downstream, wading to the bank, unhooking my net. Maybe I could get her at the tail of the next pool.

I stood in the tail-out for fifteen minutes hoping to net her. I either missed her or she got hung up. Or maybe she sorted things out. Wishful thinking, I suppose, shit like that rarely sorts itself out.

For years I drank too much. Part of that is genetic. My father's side held liquor in high esteem but I can't shirk my own part in the habit. I’ve been clean for six months. Going to meetings. While I’m not drinking I’m still filling the ashtray on the side table. I should be working on that too but keeping the lid on one vice seems enough for now.

That ashtray is a hideous thing. A purple and white undulating blob hand-crafted by a nameless, early twentieth century glassblower. The ashtray came to me from my great grandmother. Family lore says she took it out of Europe when she fled in 30s. She died when I was quite young. I vaguely recall it being the home of small chocolates when we visited.

To me, it's an ashtray. I think it's the one possession that I can trace back to my family in any certain way though now that I think about it I have some soup bowls in a box in the closet that my parents got at their wedding. Fancy shit. Platinum around the edges.

I once shot a man while he was eating soup. It was probably more of a stew, actually. My squad had point on a snatch in a village north of Samarra. I was first through a kicked in door on a tip about a bomb maker. There were two things on the table in front of the seated Hajji, a bowl of soup and a pistol. His hand was on the gun; earned him two in the chest. Broth, blood, and bowl bits scattered.

My first day in Iraq it was a hot as hell. We were chaperoning a bunch of PRT bureaucrats to a meeting with a local leader. Sharp cracks greeted our dismount. I remember thinking for an instant how the snaps sounded like hail smacking on a woodshed’s steel roof. Then it hits you, what the hell is really going on, and you're sprinting for cover wishing you were smaller, faster.

That night north of Samarra was like a late afternoon tempest on a hot summer day. It built suddenly out of nowhere and pounded. In the moments after those first two shots, nanoseconds that lasted some time, I thought 'it's done'. But I was wrong. I still don't understand what lit it all off. Sanchez and Willie came past me. Second squad piled in and took the stairs on the right. Above an AK cracked and instantly it seemed like everyone was banging away, shouting, and then a muffled thud that shook the dust from the crevices. Smoke curled around the jamb. The bomb maker’s blood pooled at the edge of my boot.

Sanchez and another guy came out of the front room each with a small, terrified child under their arm. I'm sure there was screaming and the sounds of fear and anger but I don’t recall it. Doc went in. I followed. Sprawled on a couch was a woman, maybe early twenties, bleeding bad. Artery in the leg or groin or something. She was quiet. Her eyes caught mine. She blinked and didn't look away. I think she was dead before I turned to leave.

This time of year, just at dark, you can catch a spinner fall over the riffles. There's about a week each year when it's good. I don't know my bugs well. They’re late Hendricksons or March Browns or something like that. Big and thick and up high they weave, egg sacks glowing. Once the eggs are there though, they gotta come down.

Some nights I stop by after work just to see the spinner fall. The other night I stood in that riffle for a bit and watched them swirl above me. I got a bit dizzy. I think it's normal; all that movement and the sound of the water and the dark blue backdrop of the twilight sky.

When they're low, you really gotta watch em. I usually kneel so I can see it well. They're always trying to fake you out. A quick dip close to the surface only to veer away. But then, in the literal blink of the eye, they'll drop and dip their tails into the riffle's current. Some even zip away after the deed.

That surprised me. I always thought they just drowned themselves. That's why they call it a spinner fall, right? But it turns out some get away. Some night I’ll get out there and shoot some video so I can slow it down and see it clearly. I still don’t believe some make it out; they escape what seems a certain fate. Why they live on is a mystery.

At dusk, as I walked out, I detoured by the pool. In the slow swirl of the eddy I thought I caught the flash of a dead trout's belly rolling in the current. It may have been the play of light and shadow. It could have been nothing at all.


The Road to Samara was a riveting story. A dynamic play/replay/ interplay of combat and healing on the fly.