The river is bordered by oak. In truth, there are other trees on the surrounding hillsides — maple, birch, the occasional willow — but the oaks give the river it's character, it's flavor. As the vintner's barrel shapes the wine, so a hardwood defines this narrow New England valley and the river that shares its name.
There's a pull-off on the west end road, a narrow strip of dirt and gravel just big enough to hold two cars. It's bounded by asphalt on one side and an old, vine-laced stone wall on the other, and it's the last place to park before the country lane that follows the river turns and climbs the ridge towards the small town of Kent. Between the wall and the river are oaks, and the trail (six hundred and twenty three paces, give or take a few) down to the Solitude Pool.
Each and every night after work, John Morrison parked in that last small pull-off. He parked his pickup dead center, so that not even a Volkswagen (or the Reverend Cunningham's Mini Cooper) had room to squeeze in beside him, and then he walked down to the river in his waders and vest.
On occasion, he felt guilty about monopolizing his parking spot. Only on occasion, though. Most of the time it didn't enter his mind.
The fishing was that good.
On a warm Tuesday evening, with his windows rolled down so he could enjoy the scent of the newly budded leaves, John arrived at the pull-off — which, over the last few years, he had come to think of as his pull-off; almost as if he were the President and CEO of the Solitude Pool and, as such, deserved his own named and numbered parking slot — only to find that a Subaru occupied his space. Or, to be accurate, one half of his space; there was, curiously, just enough room for him to slip in alongside.
John grumbled a bit over the inconvenience of someone else usurping his spot (and over the possibility of having to share his favorite stretch of river with a stranger) but it was, at most, a brief grumble. After all, he no more owned the river and the parking spot than he owned the air he breathed, and chances were that the Subaru belonged to either another fly fisherman or, perhaps, a couple walking their dog. How could he complain?
So, in a tradition that stretched back into the dim recesses of angling history, he dressed and assembled his gear and then started down the trail. To the Solitude Pool.
It's an apt name, the Solitude Pool. The river's bend is gentle, like the flowing curve of a woman's calf, and the oaks that line both banks shield the view from above and below. The water, colder than you might think, spreads from shore to shore with hardly a ripple, and one lone boulder, the remnant of an earlier age, an age when fire and ice fought to shape the earth's surface, sits midstream. It is a place for dreamers, and for fishermen.
There was indeed a man there. He stood on the bank, looking out over the river, and though his back was to John, it was obvious he was older, perhaps twenty five or thirty years older than John's own forty two. He wore a sweater despite the evening's warmth, and a nondescript pair of oft-pressed pants, and his hair, what was left of it, was past gray yet not altogether white; salt and pewter instead of salt and pepper.
He turned as he heard John approach, surprised at the sound of another human being, and John was struck by the old man's eyes. They were clear and blue.
John nodded, the tip of his cap rising and then falling, and kept walking. The old man said nothing, but nodded back, the gesture of a man who understood where he was and what type of response was appropriate. In rural New England, there's an art to speaking without words.
John moved past, thirty yards or so, and then waded out into the river, taking his time as he made his way. On most nights he sat on the bank for half an hour, even forty five minutes, before slipping into the water, all the while watching the surface and getting a feel for what the evening might bring. Tonight, though, he wanted to be waist deep, immersed in the rhythm of the current and the complimentary rhythm of his casting; separated by distance and water and the keen edge of concentration from the world of people and distraction.
Later, when the sun had slipped down behind the western ridge, he looked over and noticed that the old man had gone, and that he was alone.
The next night, and the next, and also the night after were very much the same. John parked alongside the Subaru and walked down to the river, where the old man waited, blue eyes tinged with ... with something John couldn't quite read. Perhaps, he thought, perhaps it was understanding.
Always they nodded, and always John walked by, and the old man watched him fish for a time before leaving. Briefly on the fourth night, before the passion took him, John wondered what it would be like to look through the old man's eyes.
Those blue eyes.
John never fished on the weekends — there were too many people doing too many things; kayakers and canoeists and hikers and birders and a gaggle of other fishermen, all tripping over each other until the river took on the summer buzz of a beehive. Monday came soon enough, though, as Mondays are wont to do, and once again John parked next to the Subaru.
As he'd anticipated, the old man was waiting at the Solitude Pool. John nodded and kept walking, but the old man cleared his throat, a prelude to speech, and John stopped.
It was cool in the shade of the oaks.
"Young fellow," the old man started, his voice soft, yet deep and resonant. "I have a favor to ask. I've noticed that you're an angler, and quite a good one. Like you, I used to fish with a fly rod. In fact I fished here for years ..."
He paused, and his right hand motioned toward the river, sweeping around to take in the expanse of the Solitude Pool.
John looked to the water, following the old man's gesture, and then his eyes sought the other's weathered face.
Understanding. Yes, he was sure it had been understanding. "But I can't fish anymore."
To John's ears, that sentence, with its five simple words delivered in a level, even voice, was incomprehensible. He took a step back.
To stop fishing. To give up the river and its mysteries. To lose the soothing, hypnotic rhythm of those graceful metronome movements. What, he wondered, thinking of the darkness straining inside, what would quiet the furies in your soul?
The old man paused for a moment, giving John a chance to digest what he'd just said, and then went on.
"So, I was hoping that if you caught a few small trout tonight, you might keep one or two. For my wife."
Flustered, John looked down at the rod in his hand and then off towards the river.
"She loves trout. Brookies most of all, but a rainbow, even a brown trout, would be fine." They both stood there in silence, John eyeing the water while the old man waited.
After a minute had stretched to two with no sound but the breeze, John finally answered.
"I'm sorry...," he said, his words coming slowly to start, then gathering speed as if they were birds in flight, "but I don't keep the fish I catch. I let them all go. It's called 'catch and release,' and it's the reason the river's come back so well. In fact, it's ..." His voice trailed off as he noticed the slump of the old man's shoulders, and the way he'd dropped his eyes.
"I understand." the old man said. "I understand about 'catch and release.' It's all right. Thank you, anyway."
As John walked past, strangely grateful that their brief conversation was over, he heard the old man speak again.
"They were ..." the old man paused, pride warring with the obvious need to make John understand. "They were for my wife."
Half an hour later, as he cradled a small brook trout with its glowing halo spots and fins all edged in white, John thought about the old man's request, and then about Mary, his own dear, sweet Mary, and the accident. If she had asked, if she had been there to ask, how could he have denied her? How could he ever deny her anything?
He slipped the trout back into the water, gentle as a father with a newborn babe, and turned his face from the watcher on the shore.
The next night John was on the water early, even before the shadows, and he fished hard, and with a vengeance. Vengeance is no way to fish, however, and the still waters of the Solitude Pool rebuked him. By dark he'd caught no trout, and if the old man waited on the shore, John hadn't noticed. Finally, he walked out alone with the moon shining down through the trees.
The following day, a Wednesday, John arrived early once again. He fished differently, though, with a pace more befitting the long rod he plied, and when the old man trudged down the path a full hour later, slow and careful because of the exposed rocks and protruding roots, John was already waiting on the bank.
The old man nodded, and John, realizing that the time had come, nodded back. He thought for a moment about what he'd done, examining the implications in his mind, rolling them around and around as if each thought was a smooth, gray pebble from the bottom of the river, and then he reached down into the water.
He felt the cold and wet on his hand, the pool's icy cool embrace, and his fingers closed around a stick he'd cut with his pocket knife twenty minutes earlier. A forked stick. When he pulled it out of river, two brook trout dangled from the forked end, one a nine incher and one an eight.
For a time the old man said nothing as he studied John and the trout. Then, in a voice that matched the gratitude in his eyes, he told John, "Thank you. Thank you very much."
The old man took John's offering, took the stick with the two dangling fish — their spots glowing fierce in the setting sun, luminous with the incandescence of distant stars, or an evening meadow alight with fireflies — and started up the trail.
After a few steps, though, he stopped and turned back to where John was standing. He smiled, then, for a moment, and said, "They're better fresh."
Then he watched the old man walk away.
A few hours later, as the last vestiges of twilight gave way to full blown darkness, John himself headed up the trail from the Solitude Pool. Bats flitted through the trees around him, and crickets sang their nightly chorus. In his left hand he carried his rod, an old bamboo that had belonged to his father, and in his right he carried a forked stick of his own, with a lone brook trout hanging. As he walked, he rubbed his thumb over the point of the stick, and thought back to all the things his father had taught him.
Afterwards, in his kitchen, he cleaned the fish, and cut off its head, and fried it in a cast iron skillet with butter and lemon. He boiled potatoes, and made a small salad with spinach, arugula, lemon and garlic, and then he sat down to eat. Before he did, though, he opened a beer and looked across the table at Mary's place, and he remembered her smile, and felt the ache that never really went away.
Later, when he was done and there was nothing left but thin white bones, he sat in his chair and thought about the first trout he'd kept in a dozen years, and the love of an old man for his wife, and about what it really meant to be alone. After a while he sighed, a low, soft sound like summer slipping into autumn.
On the next night, a Thursday night in the middle of the month of May, no one came to the Solitude Pool. It was quiet and peaceful, and the only sounds were from the river passing by and the evening breeze sliding through the oaks.