Steelhead!

 

"Ladies and gentlemen, please. You can continue this discussion later if you see fit, but don't you think it would help us to know the whole story first?"

Murmurs of protest.

"No, no, we all know the facts; I submit that they are hardly relevant. What matters is not so much what happened as what we have recorded. Remember, for the audience tat will be reality. Let's get on with the screening now and make our decision later."

The dozen or so people in the projection room milled and muttered briefly, then began to move toward their seats.

"The Director is right," said an ambitious Assistant Producer. "We have to base our choice on audience impact, not on our own privileged information." He sat down, chin jutting in response to the ironic glances of his colleagues, as the lights dimmed and the hologram flickered into life.

The Director surveyed their faces cautiously in the reflected light, then turned to watch the opening scene.

 

The Fisherman shifted his pack higher on his back, sucked in his gut, and tightened the belt strap. He had made this adjustment half a dozen times since breakfast, and was not sure if the belt was slipping or stretching as it soaked up his sweat. Sometimes he cultivated the illusion that he was actually getting thinner. Anyway, the ritual always made his pack seem lighter. Competitive backpacking was not the same, he thought; there was always the clock to beat, the pace to keep up, the other packers. It was easy to get into. On his own, with all the time in the world, he was continuously distracted by the minor irritations in his shoulders, back, legs and feet. This was a hardship, for he wanted to focus all his attention on the wilderness around him, on the experience of being in it, personally enmeshed in the natural reality of the primeval Earth, participating in the process of life in balance with life. All around him was the wonder of a world full of green and brown, leaf and root and scale and feather and fur, which had thrived for so long before humans had meddled most of it away, and he owed it to the billions who would never experience this reality in person to notice every detail, to become totally attuned to the spirit of this carefully preserved place.

Hell, he owed it to himself too. More years of preparation, training, competition and sacrifice than he could fit into his consciousness at once had gone toward this reward, and the memory of it would have to last the rest of his life. He wanted to tattoo each detail indelibly into his grey matter. And God, were there details!

He stopped for a moment to inspect a tiny glade hidden behind an outcropping of mossy granite. In the shadiest spot were a dozen withered stalks of Corallorhiza maculata, the tiny chlorophyll-less orchid, and a large specimen of Lepiota naucina, whose annulus he inspected carefully to positively distinguish it from the deadly Amanita virosa before collecting it into his side pouch for dinner. Living off the land is easy, he thought, but this would be a lousy time to misidentify a mushroom. Straightening his tired legs under the weight of the pack, he chuckled at the memory of disqualified competitors' embarrassment in edible species identification courses.

Trudging forward again, he stripped a handful of huckleberries from a handy bush and, as he chewed, recalled the first day of his hike, when he had stopped every few feet to identify a new species, most of which he had never seen alive before. Now his senses were saturated with discomfort and familiarity; and besides, he was becoming increasingly restless as the hike neared its goal: the river.

Awareness of these feelings was nibbling its way into his consciousness when he crested the last hill and saw it. He sat down heavily on a deadfall and felt his heart respond to adrenalin, staring at the glittering ribbon of silver curled about the base of the mountains. In that wild river flowed the essence of vitality, the concentration of all the pure rain and snow that fell on this protected watershed, nourished these trees and plants, trickled through that gravel, dripped down those rocks and gurgled under some unknown watercress. It carried the scouring grains of the mountains, patiently etching out the designs of gravity's secret will; it carried seaward the unimaginably expressive flavors of this land. And thus it was also the messenger of freedom to the imaginations of the millions who shared the Fisherman's dream: for somewhere in the ocean a great trout tasted those flavors, following the scent of the ground he now stood on, swimming toward the mouth of the river, hesitating, then darting into the saltless water. Leaping, resting, and leaping again, it would follow and lead others of its kind toward the place where they would regenerate themselves. And somewhere in that journey, the trout Oncorhynchus mykiss, soul of wildness, would meet the Fisherman, representative of humanity, who would translate the dream to reality and reality to the dream.

He decided then to camp at that spot for the night, watching the river through the afternoon and alpenglow, absorbing the magic of it at a distance while meditating and preparing himself for the next day, when he would introduce himself to the river on more personal terms.

As he turned to unload his pack, he caught a glimpse of a silvery sphere out of the corner of his eye, and felt suddenly remote and uncomfortable. His imagination was playing tricks on him; some hangover from city life no doubt, but there was something particularly distracting about the image that had caught him off guard. He busied himself disemboweling the pack and tried to put it out of his mind.

 

As the lasers dimmed and the room lights slowly brightened, the Director turned and spoke into the blinking eyes of his colleagues.

"I've cut a lot of the extraneous detail," he said. "We can put some of it back in for filler in the final version, but it isn't crucial to the theme, and a few parts actually detract."

Especially, he thought, the scene where he recognizes the camera. He yawned and stretched, trying to cultivate an air of relaxed objectivity. Waiting for the next segment, he commented, "As you can see, our Fisherman is authentic. It's been years since I've seen a winner with such conviction and charisma." How true that was. He remembered the look he had exchanged with the Fisherman at their last meeting: a moment of mutual understanding, of unspoken common purpose, before the Briefing and the forgetting.

"Every neonaturalist on Earth will fall in love with him," he said. "Keep that in mind."

No one spoke. The Director knew his business.

"Okay, let's take a look at him in action."

 

The river was quieter here, but not still. It fanned out in a sweeping curve of riffle to ease into a run about seventy-five meters long which was such perfect holding water it brought tears to his eyes. Beneath the cut bank where the Fisherman lay on his belly, the slightly green-tinged, clear water swirled at half the speed of a slow walk over an even gravel bed six to eight feet deep. He peered through polarized filters at the shadows just out of sight, and wondered if they were steelhead or just small logs. Did that one move just then? Pointless; he couldn't fish effectively from this bank anyway. Toward the other shore the water grew steadily more shallow, merging the riffle with the gravel bar on the other bank. In between there were occasional telltale bulges which he "read" as submerged rocks, tidy lies for weary fish resting up for their next move upstream. It was the best water he had seen, but he would have to cross the river to get in position to fish it. This would be the place, he felt in his bones.

As he eased cautiously back into the brush, careful not to arouse the slightest suspicion in the hypothetical steelhead resting a few feet away, he experienced a sense of anticipatory fulfillment: just the prospect of touching a fly to water such as this warmed his heart; to actually raise a steelhead was almost inconceivable. But then, one adjusts. A day earlier, he had cast into the river for the first time; his hands had been shaking with excitement, but it had been a poor run, churning white water, and after a hundred skillful but fruitless presentations of the fly to the little pockets of holding water behind boulders, he had grown calm and objective enough to break down his rod and move on without regret. This time it would be different.

He forded the river a hundred meters below the tail of the run, above a wide pool which probably held fish but was too slow to fish gracefully. Perhaps early in the morning, with a dry fly.... As e slipped into the icy water, pack held high, he recalled again is first meeting with the river, an uncautious and sensual meeting: he had stripped and run naked into the water, splashed it over his shoulders, plunged his head in it, tasted it, swallowed it, dived out into its current, swum, drifted, eld onto rocks, and reveled in it all until he could imagine that he was a trout himself, intimately in touch with the moving water the way a human is ordinarily in touch with the machinery of civilization. Then he had grown too cold and had to return to shore, and it was then that he had noticed the silver sphere again.

This time there ad been no chance to turn his mind from it before recognition took hold.

"Damn," he had thought. "The camera! I'm not supposed to be able to see it -- post-hypnotic suggestion or something." He had glared straight into its lens, and in a surge of resentment had made an obscene gesture toward it. Then he had felt absurd and remorseful, and as depression swept over him he had stopped noticing the camera. Until now, he had forgotten the episode entirely. Now he again cursed the incompetent psychologist who had failed to adequately protect him against conscious awareness of the ubiquitous orb that followed him everywhere, hovering about his intimacy with the wilderness, recording every action. Not for this had he worked and dreamed for half his life, competed in twenty-seven events with such ferocious determination, to become Fisherman -- the hero and envy of every human who had read the classics of Zane Grey, Roderick Haigh-Brown, Ernest Hemingway... of all who frequented the special collections of libraries to leaf through ancient copies of Field and Stream or Sierra Club pictorials. He alone, this year, he alone would experience Earth's only remaining wilderness in the flesh, in the traditional ritual to which he was so deeply committed: he was Fisherman, he would capture the great steelhead, the ultimate symbol of freedom, and his actions would provide spiritual fulfillment for a million minds.

And he didn't need to be distracted by the god damned camera dutifully recording his adventure. It was like making love in front of a picture window. He grated his teeth as he thought of it, wading the icy river.

 

The Director broke into the sound track: "It should be clear to all of you by now that this Fisherman is special. Look at his style, the depth of his involvement. Let yourselves slip into the action, see if you don't start feeling the hunter instincts yourself."

None of his colleagues disagreed; they even made an effort to identify with the hero in the hologram, and found themselves truly absorbed. But in each of them lingered a deeper hostility, born of knowing what the Fisherman had done. The Director sensed that his point would not be made easily.

"The next scene gets into the guts of the story," he said, but for the first time there was uncertainty in his voice.

 

The Fisherman waded very slowly along the leading edge of the gravel bar, holding his antique split-cane fly rod poised, and gauged carefully the best position for his first cast. Finally he stopped, positioned his feet firmly, and began to strip line from his reel. In four false casts he had twenty meters of double-tapered line whipping delicately over the surface of the river, never quite making contact with the water. It was a pleasure to exercise such control, but he made no more false casts than necessary before the snap of his wrist that sent the #4 black leech out quivering on the end of his leader to drop gently into the water five meters upstream of a submerged rock. He mended his cast judiciously and focused absolute attention on the drifting line as the submerged fly moved past the rock and into the vision of the steelhead he imagined waiting there.

Nothing.

It was usually a disappointment, that first cast; no fisherman seriously expects to connect on the first try, but none ever fails to hope. He sighed softly and retrieved his fly, laid out line over the same spot several more times, and then tried another lie. Soon he was methodically covering the water, deriving a more sedate satisfaction from the knowledge that he was guaranteeing whatever fish might be there at least a look at his fly.

After repeating the process several times with other fly patterns whose effectiveness was legendary, he eased back out of the water and sat down on a log to rest and evaluate the situation. He wondered if the choice of pattern really made as much difference as the conviction with which it was presented; after all, steelhead did not feed actively in fresh water, and no one knew for sure what spurred them to attach certain arrangements of feather and fur. Perhaps he would try a dry fly next; to take a steelhead on a dry fly was a spectacular rarity, but nothing else had worked.

As he sat thinking, his eyes played over the water, noticing the reflection of the trees on the opposite bank at the same time as they remained alert for any signs of a fish. He felt a vague uneasiness, a sense of disengagement which he could neither escape nor integrate; it all seemed inappropriate, imposed. There was something he could not quite place, something forgotten.... He was unprepared when he saw the rise, a bathtub swirl in the shaded depths near the far bank. After a brief delay, adrenaline surged through his veins. Fish!

He tried not to rush as he waded into position to cast. Patience, he reminded himself, was the most valuable tool at his disposal. At the last moment he stared at the wet fly on the end of his leader. Why not try for the ultimate? He clipped it off and selected a #6 Steelhead Bee from his dry fly box, which he tied on with special care, thinking of the potential miracle of a steelhead on a dry fly.

The cast was faultless. Despite his better judgement, expectation grew into conviction: this time it would happen -- a strike on the first cast! Eyes piercing, hand shaking, he held his breath as the fly drifted over the spot were the fish lay. He was beginning to feel the stab of disappointment when, at the bottom of the lie, a dark shape rose into view. Executing a perfect roll, just creasing the surface, it engulfed the fly just as it started to drag across the surface. Then both were gone, and te line began to move toward the place where they ad disappeared.

His hands acted on their own. The rod arced back, the line snapped tight, and he felt the deep throbbing of a big fish shaking its head in surprised alarm. Then his mind caught up with the action as the fish made its decision and left the water in one wild leap of abandoned flight. It hung suspended, glistening, for what seemed an eternity, before dropping back into its element to begin the fight in earnest. By the time e had changed hands and begun to apply pressure with his fingers to the drum of the screaming reel, the fish was fifty meters downstream.

He splashed to shore, all caution now irrelevant, hanging on to the wildly whipping rod and praying that the fish would turn before all the backing disappeared from his reel. God, this was not just any fish, it was the rightful master of the river, the magnificent wild-eyed steelhead full of the spirit of freedom he had come here to meet. His heart leaped with the fish.

And then, out of the corner of his eye, the camera again. He felt a sense of something ripping inside his mind, like a curtain torn away from a hidden door, but he didn't want to look, he didn't want to open the door. Why couldn't he not know, damn it, why did the conditioning have to break down at the worst possible moment? He saw the camera ever more clearly, but he viciously ejected it from his thoughts. "Nothing will spoil this for me now," he muttered out loud to himself.

It was easy enough to put it out of his mind; his thoughts were so full of the steelhead's streaking run, so involved with the attempt to turn it, so apprehensive of the disappointment of a line suddenly gone slack, that there was little room for superfluous detail. He ran down the bank in short bursts, stopping to apply pressure to the fish, straining his leader as hard as it could stand, watching the backing melt from his reel. Occasionally he tripped on the slick round rocks, but each time his legs desperately found their way back under his center of gravity and he stayed up.

Finally the fish carried him down to the slower pool he had crossed earlier, and the current stopped working against his effort to regain control. But the fish was still taking out line in brief surges, and there were only a few meters left on the reel. If it got to the end of the pool and into the rapids below, he would lose it. He strained the split bamboo until it bent almost double, threatening the leader more every second, and swore gently under his breath in the immemorial style of fishermen. "Turn, you son of a bitch, turn. God damn what a fish. Come on, wild one, ease up just a little. I won't hurt you." He knew the steelhead could not realize that he would never think of harming it seriously, that the gentle release had long since become the only conceivable finale for a fisherman's conquest, but he tried to send thought messages to it anyway, to calm the fish telepathically.

Just as he was feeling despair well up in him, the fish stopped. There were only a few turns left on the reel. He first held a constant pressure and backed up slowly, not daring to alarm his adversary by reeling in; then, when he had definitely turned the steelhead toward him, he began recovering the lost line. The fish came slowly, reluctantly, not beaten yet but willing to lose ground temporarily. It took ten minutes to get all the backing onto the reel again, and another five to bring the fish in close enough to shore to get a look at it, a tremendous silver torpedo fanning its fins slowly, waiting for its next move.

Then it saw his motion, and suddenly the rod was dipping toward the middle of the stream and line was tearing from the reel again. He saw it heading for a submerged snag, and felt dizzy. Would it wrap the line around that log and break off, after all this? He applied pressure, and again the fish stopped its run at the last possible instant, on the threshold of freedom.

"This fish is uncanny," he thought. "Almost as if it were playing with me." At the same instant the camera swooped down over the fish, filming a close-up, and the scene suddenly seemed totally unreal. He began to hate the camera with a patient violence.

The fight continued for nearly an hour, with the fish allowing itself to be pumped in close again and again, only to respond each time with renewed energy in a lightning run interspersed with aerobatics. His senses reeled, saturated; his mind clouded. He began to wonder if it would ever end. And then, without warning, the fish gave up. It milled about aimlessly and rolled its silvery side on the surface. He had won. It was too perfect, too classic to believe, and somewhere deep inside it felt all wrong. He fought the feeling.

"Be here, damn it," he said to himself. "This is what you have waited for all your life. Don't blow it now." But he felt detached, depressed, disappointed. There was something inside him that was spoiling it all for him, something that he couldn't face, didn't want to know. He raised the rod tip, got down on one knee in the shallows, and prepared to release the fish, all the time feeling an inexplicable torment.

And then, as the huge silvery shape slid under his hand, as he looked into the eyes of the steelhead, ultimate symbol of freedom, he knew. He remembered everything.

 

The Director knew he must choose his words with care. "We don't have to use the traditional ending." He swung around and fixed them all with a piercing stare as he spoke. "This is a work of art, not an empty ritual. Why shouldn't we give the public something different, something authentic and fresh? Is the era of creative film-making so far behind us? Why..."

A tense voice challenged, "Let's see the ending. I want to see for myself."

"Why get ourselves all worked up?" the Director responded, on the defensive now. "What we have to pass judgement on is this film, not the Fisherman. The case has gone to court, justice will be done; why can't we just forget about that?"

Murmurs in the crowd. A new voice: "Let us see it. We have a right to see for ourselves." A chorus of agreeing noises.

"Look, if we need a Release, we can fake it, splice one in. We can..."

A soft voice rolled out over the discord and left a very flat silence. It was the Producer's voice. "Let's see the ending, John."

As the lights went down and the lasers came up, the Director sat down heavily. He knew then that he had lost, that the film would never be released. For even in his own mind a door slammed shut forever as he watched the holographic image of the Fisherman raise a rock over his head and bring it down on the great silver steelhead, the only steelhead in existence, again and again, splitting open the flexible plastic and scattering irreplaceable wires, microcircuits and servomechanisms, the heartbreaking fragments of a dream, over the merely real rocks.

 

Originally written for Jerry Newman's short fiction course at UBC in about 1975. Revised in 2012 for submission to Narrative magazine, who rejected it. C'est la vie.

Published by Jess

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