In The Arms of a River

Story and Photography by Mark Hume

The pavement turned to gravel at around six miles and Sylvia slowed the car to avoid a jolt. It came anyway. The small rented Japanese compact had less clearance than she’d thought and there was a scrape as its tires crossed the dividing line between city and country.

“Oh damn,” she said and cast a quick glance over at her father. He was waking up, his head nodding forward and coming up just before his chin hit his chest. She felt like apologizing, but didn’t. She was saying sorry less now, and feeling better for it. But her father could have used another 40 minutes sleep. Since she’d seen him in the small downtown eastside hotel room he now called home, his paleness had haunted her. It had been nearly two years since the last time they’d been together; he’d never looked so tired, so old. Driving east from Vancouver she’d thought: “He’s 68. He’s dying.”

Waking up in the small car Arthur blinked a few times and gripped the arm rest. He seemed uncertain of where he was for a moment, then leaned forward to look under the sun visor and get a better view of the mountains.

“We’re across the bridge already,” he said. “They’ve pushed the pavement in some since I was last here.”

She was always surprised at this, the way he could look at the land and in an instant know where he was. Was he ever uncertain of anything in his life, she wondered, a little impatiently.

“You haven’t been up here in 10 years,” she said. “How can you be so sure where we are?”

“Well, the mountains haven’t changed any,” he said.

They rode in silence for a time after that. She turned on the headlights, although it was 10 on a clear September morning. Logging trucks used to use the valley road a lot and she supposed they still did. She watched the road carefully as it tunneled through the forest of pine and birch. The deciduous trees were losing their leaves, bare branches emerging like arms cast up in grief.

“They’re clearcutting up the side valley there,” said her father. She leaned down over the steering wheel, slowing the car at the same time, and stole a glance out his window. The flank of the mountain was stripped and brown.

“Used to make me madder’n hell to see that,” he said. “Now it just makes me heart sick.” He sighed and for some reason this gave her a feeling of guilt.

They drove on in silence again and she began searching the road for a sign or something to tell her where she was. It had been easier when he was sleeping. Now she felt tense. She didn’t want to talk, but felt she had to. Was he having a good time? Had she done the right thing to bring him? Would he be able to climb down the steep bank to the river? Could he wade in that strong current? Would the rocks be too slippery? Was he too frail to be out at all? Maybe he should be in bed, with a nurse tending him, watching his pulse. She glanced over again. The big solid man who’d been her father had passed through the fall of his life. His bones were showing through the tight skin on his hands. His face was gaunt and the two-day growth of whiskers looked unhealthy.

As if sensing what she was thinking he tapped her gently on the knee. “I’m so glad you came to see me,” he said. “It’s wonderful to be with you up in the valley again. It seems a lifetime since I fished the Skagit.”

She took a slow breath and felt the tension relax. One notch.

“Tell me about the conference,” he went on. “I hope you won’t get in trouble by playing hooky with your dad for a day.”

She smiled. “No,” she said. “No trouble. It’s a journalism conference. A professional development weekend. But nobody is keeping attendance records. I looked at the program in New York and thought it was all rather silly, but pompous enough that I could convince the news producer to let me go. All I wanted was to see you again, and to see Vancouver. You’re happy there?”

“Oh. It’s home now I guess. I’m not sure why. Never lived there that long actually. But they were good years. They were good years for you and mom too, I think. I hope they were anyway. So when all the traveling was done and the career was done, I just found myself back.”

“They were good years,” said Sylvia, smiling for the first time. “I remember them so clearly. And how old was I then?” She was lost in wonder thinking about that little girl, all that time ago.

“Well, let’s see. Oh…” he shook his head. “I’m sorry it all blurs, you know, after awhile. But I do remember the first time I brought you fishing up the Skagit. You were ten.”

“I remember that too,” she said. “It’s one of the clearest, strongest memories. I remember the pools we fished and I even remember some of the fish. Isn’t that amazing? Twenty-five years later and I still remember the fish.”

“Some you don’t forget ever,” said Arthur. “I’ve been thinking about that. In my room. I spend a lot of time sitting by the window there, just thinking. I enjoy that as much as reading books now. Some people think I’m a doddering old man sitting there with a blank mind, I suppose. Oh, if they only knew the life and times running through my head! The fish and the rivers and the women.”

She looked at him quickly. He was laughing silently. She felt a warmth towards him despite what he’d said. He was honest and unashamed.

“Tell me,” she said frankly. “Were the women ever worth it?”

After a moment he said: “Oh my, yes. Your mother though. . .” He shook his head and didn’t go on for a moment. Then he asked how she was, which is what he’d asked when Sylvia had first come to his shabby hotel room. But this time there was a real tenderness in his voice, a concern. She was thinking that he loved her still, despite all this time and all that had happened. Before she could say anything he said sharply: “Logging truck.” She geared down and swung sharply to the shoulder, judging the closing gap between her small Toyota and the Peterbilt diesel, fully loaded, blowing dust out the side like it was steam, the logs swaying as the truck fought to take the far side of the road. It went by with a roar.

“Nice work,” he said to her. She smiled. This was nothing compared to the newsroom she thought. Hell, this was fun. She got back on the road, going slowly until the dust cleared.

“Mother’s fine,” she said.

“Is she with anyone?”

“She has lots of friends.”

Sylvia didn’t realize until later that he’d meant was she with a man? She kicked herself days afterward back in New York. The answer was ‘No, of course she’s not.’ She thought, maybe if she’d said it then the conversation might have turned in a very different way. But it didn’t happen like that. Instead they drove on with the windows down, deep into the valley until they saw the river coming up suddenly beside the road.

“Oh, gee, it sure looks beautiful,” said Arthur when he first saw it. Then he looked in the back seat, just to check that the waders and rods were still there.

They stopped on a stretch of road that ran along a series of deep green pools. A suspension bridge hung across the middle of them now, leading to hiking trails in the forest beyond. At first the bridge had confused Arthur, but he looked up at the mountains and down at the river and said, no, this definitely was the spot. The mosquitoes were bad next to the car, so they hurried out of the shade of the trees and into the sunlight on the road. Sylvia ran back for the lunch and when she returned saw that her father was half-way down a steep bank, picking himself slowly from rock to rock, stepping over spaces that looked dark and wide from where she stood above him. She felt alarmed, but by the time she’d climbed down he was waiting on the gravel bar, looking up with a smile on his face.

“That was a bit tricky,” she said.

“The best things in life always are,” he said, and began to string together his fly rod.

She picked up the stained cloth bag he’d leaned up against his old fishing satchel and slowly pulled back the cover. The number six cane rod she’d fished with as a girl came out, clean and bright.

“It’s like new,” she said in disbelief.

“Refinished it years ago,” he said. “Always hoped you’d come back some day and want to use it. I hope you’ll take it back to New York.” Then he was off, walking stiffly upstream. He stood at the end of the bar and waited for her, looking at his watch as she came up.

“Let’s not waist time with all of this,” he said, meaning with the log jams and the deep pools that had the footbridge above them. “Let’s go straight up. There are two runs up there. Remember them? Big Fish and Silver.”

She looked at the river trying to remember where she was. She could see a small girl in big green waders, walking beside her father in his bright red shirt and floppy hat. The mountains did look the same and the pools, well imagine the bridge wasn’t there and the river angled differently around the corner. Yes, she remembered.

“The picture,” she said.

He looked at her directly, their eyes meeting finally. What a smile he had. She was smiling too as they felt time, just for that instant, fold back on itself. The hand of a young girl slipped into her father’s in a world that was simple and perfect, the way life never is, but seems to be sometimes. Yes, the picture.

The picture had been central in her life for almost as long as she could remember. It had been taken here, on a bend of the Skagit River, by a photographer with her father’s advertising agency. As they crossed a riffle at the head of a pool, they had locked arms against the current. The picture caught them like that, arm in arm, with the bright water rushing around them, both looking ahead, their faces clear with determination. The picture was on her office wall now and she looked at it every morning. It had always made her feel strong, except for a time, in those bitter years. For years the picture had been left in a chest, buried under old sweaters that had gone out of style. She’d never forgotten it, though, and when it came time to throw out the old clothes she’d dug to the bottom and found it, with a sense that she was swimming to the bottom of a deep pool.

“Yeah, the picture. That run’s just above here. We’ll have to cross it again.”

They went up together and waded in, feeling their way slowly over the slick rocks, the current growing stronger around their legs until they were waist deep. For a moment it pushed them back, but they side stepped downstream then, letting the current angle them to the far shore. It had been like before, except this time she had been upstream taking the force of the river, letting it break around him.

There wasn’t a fallen tree anymore marking the Silver Pool, but she remembered it. She’d taken her biggest trout there. It rose to a Green Drake and ran 20 yards down along the far bank before she turned it.

They stood and looked at the pool for a time. No fish rose.

“Oh, they’re here,” said Arthur. “I can feel it.”

Sylvia looked up. Swallows were feeding high above against a bright blue sky and somehow she felt connected to them and to the water below.

“Look at this sweep of land,” she said. “It’s such an incredible valley. And isn’t it amazing that in all this space there is just this small, green ribbon of water that draws us, and that holds the fish.”

“You try here,” said Arthur. “I’m going up to the Big Fish run. I wonder if those yellow stones are still there along the bottom.”

“Go see,” she said, feeling good. “I’ll be up in an hour.”

She watched him make his way up and wade alone across the fast water below the run. Then he was out of sight around the bend.

She worked her line out. The old rod flowed in her hand, the line cutting the air and rising over the smooth stones on the bar behind her. She cast quartering upstream so the fly would ride down without dragging against the current.

It felt good to be back on the river, and Sylvia knew, as the Green Drake fell to the water, that she’d forgiven him.

END NOTE: This story was originally published in Fly Rod & Reel