Wednesday, May 26, 2004

The Perfection of Man: I was sitting on the dock of Farmer’s Island in the Damariscotta River in Maine, looking into the water at those little slim silver fish and a starfish the color of a slice of lime that had soaked overnight in a half-finished gin-and-tonic. The minnows were practicing maneuvers for dodging mackerel and the starfish was doing nothing at all unless he was watching with whatever sense a starfish uses to watch. My father walked down the gangplank to the floating dock and said, “Look at the birds.”

A pair of Osprey who nested in the tall pines on the other side of the river had taken flight. They circled in a tightening gyre above the river, slightly downstream from us. “Get the gear ready,” my father said, and I could see he looked happier than ever, his blue eyes shining from beneath his dark and heavy brow. “The fish are coming up river,” he said. The birds were heralds or prophets, and when we fished where they told us to fish, our lines were seldom slack.

Our tackle box was a rusted tin arc. Within the silvery steel lures shined with the reflected orange light of setting sun. I attached a two-and-a-half inch dimpled silver lure to my father’s rod, and a one-inch trapezoidal blue-and-silver lure to my own. When I looked back at my father in the dusk of that Maine summer I felt absolutely sad, watching him pour scalding coffee onto his tongue. The cup steamed and he grimaced, and although I wasn’t more than ten-years old I knew he did this before we went fishing so he could forget about the effects of that day’s alcohol for a few hours.

We walked together back up the gangplank, and onto the pine-needle covered ground of the island. We went a few feet up the path, my father letting me take the lead, and then stepped through the trees and down onto the rocky shore. When we were parallel with the gyre of the Osprey, we stopped and stepped into the river. Even in August, the brackish water was bracingly cool, numbing first your toes and then your ankles. We stood about calf-deep in the river, our eyes moving between the birds and the river-bed, trying to watch the heralds and out footing.

We didn’t speak much when we fished. My father liked silence, and although I was usually very talkative, I kept quiet while we fished, in part because I was pretty sure this following of birds and fishing was part of our religion. In my Catholic school I’d seen a reproduction of a painting in which the Holy Spirit took the form of a bird during the accomplishment of the virginal conception of Christ, and the nuns had told a story in which Christ instructs the Apostles to fish in a certain place. And, of course, John the Baptist baptized Christ while they stood in a river, although I suspected the rivers of Israel were not as cold as the rivers of Maine.

My father was the best fisherman I knew, which is to say that at that time he was superior to all other men in my eyes. His cast looped and arched and floated on the wind, and seemed to be as much a part of nature as the circle of the Osprey or the synchronized movement of a school of minnow. Later, years later, when I had read enough of the great books to fairly count myself as part of western civilization, I realized that I had looked upon my father’s fishing like Homer’s Greeks looked upon the fleet-footed fighting of Achilles. Before the invention of charisma, men saw greatness as something that you could behold with your eyes, character manifested in physicality. This is how it was with me when I was very young—I knew nothing of the virtues or of the soul apart from excellence revealed in the flesh.

I caught the first fish that day. It began with a slight tug on the line, and then when the fish realized it had been hooked it made a dash for deeper water. The line spun out from the reel, and the drag clicked away. I let the fish run, and then yanked my rod up to secure the hook. As I let it down, I reeled in the slack. This is how we brought in the fish: yanking the rod up, letting it down slow while reeling in the slack on the line. I had caught a beautiful green-striped and silver-bellied Atlantic mackerel, about eleven inches in length. The birds had led us to the right place.

Between us we caught a dozen mackerel that evening, fishing together until it got dark. My father helped me climb back onto the shore, and then walked up the path towards the cabins with our catch. I was left to return to the dock to retrieve the tackle box and his coffee cup and to unset the hooks from the rods. The sky where the Osprey had flown was starting to come alive with a meteor storm, bright darts that moved only when you didn’t look for them. The wind on the river and the river on the rocks were the only sounds in the darkness. I finished my work quickly, eager to get back to the kitchen cabin, where my mother would be frying mackerel in butter, garlic and lemon.