Panamanian Devils

By O. Victor Miller

                              “She loved me for the dangers I had passed, and I loved her that she did pity them.”—Othello

 Today is for being alive. Sprawled naked in a bright hammock strung between mast and mainstay, I’m rocked by northerly swells beneath Caribbean breezes that cool the sting and natural shocks the flesh inherits when dragged over coral and keelhauled by a man’s own dinghy.

I consider coaxing sore joints towards Marina’s thatch hut in the village, but my phobic aversion to the maverick inflatable and the 9.9 outboard remains traumatic. Reined to the fantail by its painter, it lies deceptively docile, chuckling in the light chop when only yesterday it whacked unmanned killer orbits through hissing surf in a premeditated attempt to run me down. Besides, I’m liable to find Marina’s hut latched and her off to the rain forest planting yucca or off somewhere else that’s none of my business.

 Marina, the 24-year-old Peace Corps volunteer I fell in love with 35 years too late, is younger than my children, but no child. She’s a botanist, born in Greece and educated in England.  She is a full blown woman dedicated to improving farming practices of Kuna Indians in the jungle and rain forests of Kuna Yala, Panama.

 Maybe all Greek women emerge full blown and voluptuous from scallop half shells, conceived in bloody concoctions that drip from Olympian castrations into briny foam. The scientific Marina doesn’t savor classical allusion from retired English professors turned outdoor writer. She parries courtship attempts with formality under the guise of respect for station and age, but with Marina I forget geriatrics and feel younger than my years. With Marina I forget a lot of things Marina doesn’t forget.

I was thunderstruck the first moment my CSY 44 entered Snug Harbor at Playon Chico. I spied her through my cockpit binoculars, head and lashing ponytail taller than the gaggle of Kuna she briefed for an expedition into the emerald mountains. She stood like Victory in classical contraposto with upraised machete, one golden thigh forward, shapely torso hanging on one Hellenistic hip, a statuesque Amazon guerrilla in cut-off jungle fatigues. That first magnified vision of Marina nearly scuttled Kestyll on the coral, but I wasn’t grounded and broken boneless until the German introduced us and Marina fixed me writhing on the pin of those bright eyes–eyes blanched blue by Caribbean suns and darkened by jungle green. Since that magic moment, my thoughts drift like lotos blossoms toward her island hut, timeless under sun, moon and star. I try to fish. I try to write. I plan expeditions I imagine will intrigue her. With love-fogged brains I stalk and chronicle fish. Like any thunder- struck kid a quarter my age, I lose perspective and purpose. To impress her, I risk my life and bust my ass.                                                                            

                                           

            I know for a fact that there are no trout in Panama. My courtship of Marina itself illustrates a quixotic affinity for impossible dreams, but the challenge of stalking fish in an area where there aren’t any hardly deters a real aficionado. It’s a short Kierkegaardian hop across the chasm of fishing sparsely populated trout streams to casting into a jungle pool where there are no trout at all. Indeed, the very absence itself of Salmonidae verifies the Darwinian deduction that some other wonderful fish inhabits that special environmental niche trout grace elsewhere. It stands to reason, I tell Marina, some undiscovered species, having evolved in the swirls and eddies of these magnificent mountains, lurks in the colorful jungle shadows innocent of artificial insects contrived of hair and feather– pristine and primal creatures never caught and released, never spooked upstream by hombres armed with fly rods.

            “Good luck, professor,” she smiles.

                                                              *

Stephen, German yachtsman in his 50’s, and his Swiss girlfriend Erica inhabit the only other sailboat in my lagoon. Erika is 31. I’ve invited them over for rum punch in hopes that the evening will ease Marina’s prejudice against maturity. When invited, the object of my ill-fated romance lifts an unplucked eyebrow and politely declines. If Marina had come, the Kestyll would contain 100% of the non-indigenous population of Ukupseni, not counting two 18-year-old Mormon elders in white shirts and Disney ties, who are hacking an expanding ring in tropical foliage, nobody knows what for. The jungle triumphs, filling in with quick green. If Marina wanted a clearing, the Kuna would fall in behind her and I would too, but the Mormons lack Marina’s amazonian charisma. Marina could decree a nine-hole golf course and get it, but the lonely Mormons manage only a thin border of stubble that lets in just enough light to quadruple the fecundity at their heels.

I don’t invite the Mormons for rum punch. Nothing short of a spiritual rebirth could bring commonality. Although any fool could tell me that for a shot at winning Marina’s hardened heart, I’ll have to be born again physically around 1972. I’ve got a better chance with the Mormons.

 “Vell, vell, vell. Vot haff vee here?” Stephen inquires of my latest creation, a may fly left in the vise to inspire conversation. His hands clasped behind him, he conducts a Germanic examination “Vector iss making whit zee baiters again.” His chin lifts as he sights down a thin nose through wire spectacles, scrutinizing suspect craftsmanship. By his standards, my attempt at entomological mimicry resembles something Marina might sweep from the floor under her bed. If Marina had a bed. Marina sleeps in a hammock over dirt floors swept spotless by a broom of lashed branches when she’s not in the monte.

To the Kuna, the hammock represents the heart of their traditional anthropomorphic hut, the nega. Hung from longbones of bamboo in the sweet jungle breath that enters the eaves and passes under purling ribs of thatch, Marina’s damn hammock holds in its crotch the whole of my heart’s longing.

Erika stirs punch with a thin finger, which she licks. “Ven vill you finish it, do you tink?”

“I’m deciding what patterns to take upriver.” I pass off my work as experimental. They know I have plans to enter the narrow cut to the Playon Chico River from the cove, to motor up river in my inflatable, wading shoals and shallows into the jungle to stalk wild trout, or to their Central American equivalent since everybody knows there are no trout in Panama.

 “Make scorpions,” Stefan suggests. “Dare are plenty of tose arount here.” I picture myself blundering around an oxbow into a deadly hatch of scorpions, a vision that threatens to abort the expedition, but scorpions don’t have wings. I pass this observation on to Stefan, the world traveler, who shrugs. “Vell den, das iss von goot sing vee can say for zee scorpion.

“You can not enter the mouse of the river anyvay this time of year,” he adds. “Norse vends makes high vaves ofer der sharp coral dare.”

“Der mouse haas teeth,” Erika puns brightly.

 Stefan bares his own incisors, a menacing rictus of Prussian emphasis. “Do not go dare,” he warns. “Dare are no trouts in Panama anyvey.”

“The Kuna go,” I protest. Dugout canoes, shallow as spoons, enter the river from the sea.

“Das iss der Kuna.”

I modestly refrain from pointing out that my ten-foot inflatable is a product of modern technological design, no dugout. It climbs high breakers and slides sure-footed down the other side. Even swamped, it won’t sink or capsize. Also, I know that only a bold heart can win Marina’s reluctant one. I’ve screwed my courage to the sticking place. Still, not to seem pigheaded, I postpone my trip until the wind is easterly. There’s no future arguing with Stefan.

                                                        *

 “There are no trout in Panama,” Marina informs me when I stop by to invite her upriver. She doesn’t know much about trout fishing. “The actual trout is not the end of trouting,” I explain patiently, “any more than the production of precious metals from baser ones was the aim of the medieval alchemist. The ideas of trout and gold are the essentials. The alchemist transmuting lead into gold discovered a universal wealth of other important stuff. It’s the procedure, the refinement of potential towards perfection. The pursuit purifies; what ends up in the creel is incidental. The notion of trout is what we’re after.”

“I suspect that’s exactly what will end up in your creel, Professor Miller,” she teases. Her perfect blue eyes mist in memory. “But I love real trout. In Spain they are stuffed with a slice of cured ham and are delicious.”

Trucha de Navarra!” I strut my cosmopolitan palate.

“Yes, I’d give anything for a plate of Trucha Navarra right now.”

 Humm “Well?”

 “Thanks for the invitation, Professor, but I’m staying in today to tidy up my nega, keep hut, you know. I’ve got to get up at 04:00 to plant seedlings at the monte. Uh, didn’t anyone tell you you can’t enter the river mouth when there’s a north wind?”

I lick my finger and point toward the thatch. “East wind,” I joke. Enough breeze passes through Marina’s reed walls to snuff a candle. I can take you away from all this, I think.

 “Winds are changeable,” Marina says.

“Yes.” And so too are the mechanics of a young girl’s fanciful heart.  Between tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, human meat is subject to venereal caprice and lunar whimsy far beyond your charming juvenile comprehension. In the tropics, love bugs swarm with mosquitoes. Anything is possible, even vernal/autumnal love between wood nymphs and centaurs.

For me, rushing headlong into a frankly erotic relationship with Marina simply requires a moderate suspension of decorum. A plunge through a narrowing window of opportunity in a temporal world defined by mutability, where Beauty and new love can not keep their luster anyway, but Marina says, predictably, that I’m way too old. She’s amused by my bold declarations of affection without being tempted to swap out her thatch hut for a yacht built the year she was born. Even if I pre-nup the Kestyll and promise to die before next spring, she declines the offer to team up and save third world’s indigenous populations from a comfortable yacht and the vantage of snug harbors. I remind her that my meager pension and modest royalties, by Peace Corps standards, ain’t all that bad. Kestyll also comes with hot showers that shampoo hair. Luxury is beside the point, Marina insists. Thirty-five is the absolute limit she’ll stretch for amorous applicants, the incidental age of a handsome Kuna coconut grower who comes around, but I’m not ready to give up on Marina yet. There’s magnetism in polarity. What’s a few decades? We are two sides of the same doubloon.

                                          

Past the lacy breakers at the mouth of the river, two Indians struggle with a swamped canoe. Their situation can’t be serious; they’re laughing. They probably dumped it on purpose, just cutting up.

Busy with my own boat, I ignore what I’ve observed of basic Kuna nature, that life is a game to be enjoyed nonchalantly. Death’s inevitability, eminent or eventual, should never dampen fun. The Kuna laugh at everything. Some drown laughing.

 There’s a sandbar where the breakers meet the cut, hardly wider than the inflatable. The wind is still easterly and the waves breaking over the coral perimeter seem manageable if I can thread the needle through the cut through brain coral, fire coral and staghorn. I tilt the motor to minimize drought.

The Kuna quit wrestling the canoe long enough to watch and grin. I idle in, cutting my engine when I pass the coral collar. The dinghy pauses in a trough, draws back for a penultimate moment, then surges forward as the cresting wave lifts me high upon its back. It breaks, flinging me—yippy-ki-yi-yeah–all the way to the sandbar. I plop down upon the grate of retreating water on pebbles and sand, hopping out to drag the dinghy through the cut. The Kuna cheer, pumping their fists. I take a bow, wishing Marina were watching.

Upriver my wake laps narrowing banks. Plantain and coconuts grow in soil made rich as fudge by alluvial floods. Exotic birds hop from limb to limb of gigantic mango trees. Hard green mangos—BLOOP– fall or are thrown by monkeys into the crystalline river. Jesus lizards are startled from midstream flotsam, their blurred feet and winding tails barely skimming the water as they scamper from to hideouts among the mangrove roots. Their appellation carries no sacrilegious connotation even to the most devout Indian converted by Mormon missionaries. It merely designates the reptile’s remarkable ability to propel itself like a buzz-bait across water without getting wet.

Soon wide banana leaves give way to high banks and impenetrable foliage with thick stands of bamboo and tangles of overhanging vine. I wade, dragging the dinghy across shoals of river rock. I trudge through still waters, where my footprints sink through rotten jungle mulch that farts bubbles of fetid gas. Up ahead the channel slices into a sharp bend below a riffle. Under low waxy boughs, a hatch of white insects swarms, way too small for scorpions. If there’s one trout in Panama, it’s under that bank. The sting of crotch-deep water assures me this mountain stream is cold enough for trout, or something comparably game.

As though conjured by mere thought, a fish the size of a 20-milimeter anti-aircraft round floats up to sip a floating insect. I cast to it with my saltwater Orvis. Fishing for trout with a No. 8 is like cutting weeds with an ax, but the big Orvis, stiff as a broomstick, is Kestyll’s only rod to survive previous misadventure.

The bullet-headed fish takes my mayfly, shaking its head like a bulldog. Feeling the hook, it makes an astonishing run downstream, bowing the sturdy rod. Hot damn! Here we go! With singing line I work the plucky fish to the middle of the stream; it’s not alone. Others follow and swarm belligerently. The supercharged runt finally plays out and I grab it. It’s unlike any trout I’ve ever seen. Of course, it’s not a trout.

 But it acts more like a trout than a trout does.  Its blunt head has an undercut mouth bristling with sharp teeth that have shredded my fly. And those eyes! Set above a baleful, toothy grin, they are surreal in their artificiality like dolls’ blue eyes, icy blue like Marina’s but absolutely unlovable. I slide my catch headfirst into the deep net-lined pocket of my bathing trunks. At the sound of clicking teeth, I remove it, break its spine, and string it on the lanyard of my cap, stuffing bill and crown into my waistband. Piranhas are flat fish, aren’t they? My mayfly looks now like something Marina swept up then shuffled into the dirt with her tire tread sandals. I reach for another mayfly, discovering that the plastic Baggie containing my fresh water assortment has floated out of my pocket and disappeared downstream.

 I cast the shredded survivor, and the water boils before it lights. I land another blue-eyed fish that clacks razor-sharp incisors like castanets. Now at the end of my tippet the no.16 hook has been totally dipileated except for two hackle hairs and a single tail of whipping thread. I cast. The sparse fly sinks a few inches before snagging another Panamanian devil, which I judiciously kill before stringing.

For the hell of it, I cast the bare hook. A circle of jaws contracts around the bare hook as the Panamanian varmints rush in and pause; one nips the clench knot securing tippet to leader, shaking its head to cut the monofiliment as the others investigate the sinking hook with otherworldly blue eyes before melting back into shadow.

Time to go. No fun getting caught in a jungle after dark. Confirming my conviction, a husky roar, like a Nemian lion with lung cancer, erupts from the far edge of a plantain field reverberating through the trees. I step up my pace as the roar is answered by an asthmatic hoot from the other side of the river. Howler monkeys, I hope. But that first–and now that third—bellow issued from a rib cage the size of an oil barrel.

A quick mile downstream I come upon three Kuna shoving a dugout overloaded with bananas down shallow shoals. “Nuede!” I salute them. “How!”

They look at my dinghy and grin. “Nuede.” I help them push their uku off the rocks. Nuede, the elder nods as the boy mounts up. There isn’t freeboard for the third, so I offer him a ride. Nuede, he hops in grinning, and we idle down the widening river to the sea.

These Indians speak a language a terse as Tarzan’s or Buffalo Bob’s. Nuede, like Um-ghawa or Kowa-bonga, says it all.

 “Nuede,” I answer.

Nuede.”

                                                 *

At the mouth of the river the wind has switched northerly. High swells break over the coral necklace between the open inlet and the cut. Nuede, says the Kuna, throwing a thin leg off the inflated gunwale.

“Hey, I thought you wanted to go all the way to Playon Chico.”

 “I wait here for amigos,” he says in broken Spanish, his second language. The toothy smile doesn’t reappear until he has both bare feet firmly planted on the hissing sandbar. Nuede.

Well, I was counting on the kid’s weight to hold down the bow. I’ll persuade him to push me out deep enough to crank up and throttle out fast enough to climb the waves. It’ll be rough crossing the breakers, but possible. I’ll lean forward and to hit them hard head on. Past the point where they crest, I’ll be home free, early enough to stop by Marina’s hut and gloat. She’ll be stirring a pot of gray soup of fish heads and bananas in coconut milk, maybe invite me to stay for tulumasi and relate the rich adventure she missed by staying home.                                           

Here goes! The Indian shoves the inflatable into the surf. I rev the 9.9 and take off like a Jesus lizard, skimming the surface and leaping the first wave. The engine screams as the prop clears the surface. The hull smacks violently into the trough, driving stubbornly into the crest of the next wave. White spray explodes into my face, stinging my eyes. I regain top speed descending the backside of the wave, beholding in horror a monstrous breaker three times higher than its predecessors. I clench my jaws as wave and dinghy collide in a whitewater explosion. The bow heaves skyward, catapulting me into a back-somersault over the transom.

         I sputter to the surface to watch my dinghy, throttle jammed wide open, sprinting merrily out to sea. How will I return to the safety of Kestyll before darkness falls on this jungle river full of Panamanian devilfish, lisa, according to the Kuna hitchhiker? My dinghy lost, what chance can I have of ever visiting Marina, even if I manage to hitch a dugout ride back to my yacht?

           But wait! The inflatable is turning, making a wide circle. Maybe it will chance back this way. If it does? What then? It’ll shred like Cole slaw on the coral reef. Or running aground, the outboard will redline and burn, blowing its pistons before I can swim in to rescue it.

      The runaway makes a full circle, still beyond the breakers. It circles again, closer still. The swells are pushing it steadily toward shore as the tiller works its way outward, guiding the boat in smaller and smaller orbits, like a high-speed reversed video of the Mormon’s attack on the jungle.

How lucky can you get! My dinghy is circling back, a falcon winding back to the falconer. Maybe it will pass close enough for me to grab the painter, stall it and scramble aboard.

 The Indian is bent double in laughter, slapping his thighs. I face the beach, shaking a fist, damn Indian. But now he is waving both arms and pointing, behind me, it seems. I look back to see and my snarling dinghy,  roaring louder than the surf, headed straight for me–Holy shit!  It reaches me simultaneously with a towering wave that covers me and lifts inflatable and buzz-saw propeller barely over my head. I emerge sputtering into the path of the next orbit, only to dive beneath the angry boat again. This time the V hull strikes my back as it runs over me, the prop miraculously missing me again. Again, shark-like, the dinghy circles and attacks, the gray rubber bow plowing and leaping through the surf after me as I leap frantic slow motion strides to escape. It’s upon me again gnashing its teeth, the painter lashing like a stingray tail. The blunt gray nose tilts as if to bite with undercut maw, ramming me, glancing off, fishtailing a spray of bitter brine. The bullet shaped stern kicks me aside as it skids over me. Somehow the thrashing bowline ends up in my fist. I brace myself as the fleeing dinghy takes up slack.

 I’ll rein it into smaller circles until I can tame the momentum into a close, harmless pivot, a matador working a bull off balance. What am I thinking? The painter snaps taut. I’m hanging on to the reins of a runaway ten-horse team. One side of my brain screams, hold on to that painter at all costs. A wiser lobe rasps like an Alpha-ape howler, “Turn that sumbitch aloose!”

The screaming maverick pauses briefly as the nylon painter stretches before snatching me brutally me into its churning, effervescent wake. Yanking shoulder balls from arthritic sockets, it plows my face through seawater, brutally irrigating the ports and sinuses of my nose, bulging my eyes.

The line falls slack–I’m turning her! The howling engine’s pitch heightens to a screech. I take up painter and get my head above the water just in time to see the dinghy, reversed by the combined force of a breaker and my drag, turn and run over me. This time the fiberglass keel cracks down on my skull, but the screaming prop miraculously misses me again.

      Now, clinching the shortened painter, I’m under the speeding boat, holding my breath as the hull body-slams me brutally once, twice, three times. The zigzagging foot hits me each time the boat saws against the painter, but the foot rides over my back, but the propeller narrowly misses, snatching off my shirt.

Through the rushing water I climb hand over fist toward the bow. My closed eyes view Marina’s perfect cerulean gaze. I imagine the equally blue eyes of swarming Panamanian Devils—lisa! My biceps burn and my lungs cry out for air. My mouth is stretched wide by the rushing water, cheeks flapping. I fade, dimly aware that letting go of the painter means I’m lost, run over, chewed up, knocked out, drowned, and laughed at.

 Marina, a mermaid now, glides beside me, fixing to sing a siren song. If I hear it, I’ll drown. She takes a deep breath that says listen up, infusing me with the instant wisdom that my anachronistic love is projected upon her through a thirty-year taboo against falling for the pretty coeds bestowed to my care. Hush, Marina. She licks her lips, warming up. Hush now, don’t sing, not yet. I flash back further, to the Western movies of my childhood. More than once I’ve seen protagonist cowpokes dragged on their backs as they held the axles of runaway stagecoaches. Somehow, with heroic agility he’d make his way up tongue, trace and singletree to scramble up and halt the horses. How’d he do that?

The wash of the prop spews silver bubbles like great schools of lisa. Their gnashing teeth emit the high neurotic whine of a redlined 9.9.  I climb upstream like the cowboys, finally gaining the bow ring in one hand. I push my face to the surface, cheek to cheek with the prow, the back of my head spewing rooster tails. Remora-like my belly hugs the side of the bouncing dinghy. I take slam after slam to the groin as I throw one leg over the sausage-tight gunwale, my free hand spanking the water—yippie-ki-yi-yeah. The wake helps me, boosting me over the pontoon into the swamped dinghy. Coughing, gasping, and sloshing to the stern, I kill the engine, which backs down with a backfire and a puff of black smoke. The Indian has fallen upon the white sand, rolling in an epileptic fit of hilarity, icing his brown torso like a glazed donut.

As the waves nudge me back to the mouth of the river, the Kuna, still grinning widely, has managed to retrieve my oars. My Orvis is shattered, my shoes and my hard won lisa are gone. “Kowa-bonga, you bastard, Kawasaki,” I wheeze, “Um-gahwa, you son-of-a-bitch!” which the nodding Indian, grinning like a Buick, takes to mean, Sir, will you pretty please help me bail my boat and push me out past the breakers?

“Nuede.”  

At dusk the sea settles down enough for the Kuna and me to swim the dinghy out past the coral. I scramble in and row out to navigable waters as the Indian companion waves happily.

 I stop off at the island village and drag by Marina’s hut, still coughing seawater droplets from deep in my lungs, bowing my head as dollops break loose from impacted sinuses to drip from my nose. If I am looking for sympathy, I’ve come to the wrong place. Marina is bent over a cauldron of fish and banana gruel, Tulumasi, like a pretty witch brewing a healthy potion of bad luck. “Perhaps this will teach you to start acting your age and to listen to others who know,” she says. “You can’t enter the river when the wind is northerly.”

                                                        (End)

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Icthus

O.Victor Miller 

     Too drunk to sit in church, I kayak up a spring fed stream near Tallahassee to seek some solitude, sojourning with the spawning schools of mullet.

Ichthus, is Greek for them, this holiest of fishes. Before there was a church, lion-wary Christians scratched mullet pictographs on Roman aqueducts and inside caves among the existing graffiti. To them the mullet symbolized redemption from original naughtiness and lots of other stuff. For me the mullet is a sort of sub-aquatic dove, a transcendental spirit. She jumps for the joy of mediating sky and sea and mud, the prototypal-meat of everybody. The mullet makes her leap of faith into the toxic air ignoring gravity, trailing microcosmic beads of quicksilver.

The sacred spark that embers in us all and every living thing inspires the humble mullet’s flight, the way I see it. She leaps toward Heaven to know her destination relative to earth– to see which way she’s headed.

I think she jumps because she can’t quite fly, though she has seen it done by cormorants and ospreys splashing through the quasi-limits of her mirrored world to fly away with goat-eyed kin and kind in beak or talon.

At night the mullet rockets through a floating moon, into a milky smudge of stars against the outer dark. She doesn’t shake or turn in air like tarpon do, but gives herself to air, riding out the ecstasy of self-propelled momentum. She sails about one eighth of a furlong and two cubits, flashing silver plated mail right back to heaven then splats back through a reflected images of her perfect self, the soul of mullet, shucking off an incidental parasite or two.

She’s fruitful too and quick to multiply. She spawns in daylight with the other fishes. At night her lunar image on the fractures kaleidoscopically, cloning every silver shard and sliver.  She is a dewy water lily spirit, who doesn’t toil beyond a mild meander through the swaying grass. Neither does she spin, except the gold and silver threads her leaps of faith unravel from the floating balls of sun and moon, and these her darting shuttle weaves into the sacred tapestry of life or to lasso silver linings round the smutty clouds.

Most edible of fishes, the mullet, unlike mudcats and eels, has scales and swims in sweet accord to Kosher dietary laws in Deuteronomy. No unclean detritus passes through her osculating lips and grainy gizzard- no ort of tainted meat (nor any meat a-tall) except by accident. Thus it’s proved that seven of her kith were of the kind that sacrificed their unpolluted flesh to feed the multitudes that gathered on the pristine shores of Galilee.

 A feast of mullet can be stretched out pretty thin with barley loaves or grits. There’s also mullet soup and stew, or you can butterfly a mullet flat and nail her to a board to dry in smoke or sunshine. I like to incise thin filets with a cookie cutter and fry them up as brittle as a host of Eucharist that melts atop my tongue.

But whoa! Two shotgun blasts, one fast behind the other, shatter all my drowsy culinary musings. I jackknife up in situ--a startled Ishmael sitting in a Queequeg’s coffin, my hidden kayak squirting from the rushes. And lo, I see a fleecy haired old fart, some twice my age of 67. He’s cruising up the channel herding fishes before his wooden prow. When a mullet jumps, he snatches up an antique scattergun and cocks both hammers shouldering it. Discharging double barrels to broadcast stippled pewter shoals across reflected sky and overhanging boughs thick with whiskered moss and crusts of resurrection fern.

“What! Hunting mullet?” I bring myself to stutter.

He breaks his gun reloading, flashing eyes wild as brimstones dead on me. Oh God, I’m next, I think, although I am no mullet.  My tachycardial heart fibrillates in its ribbed thoracic hull. The kayak palsies, radiating chop.

“Been at it forty years,” the geezer bleats like someone deaf from shooting. Then he aims those goddamn eyes upstream again to focus out about a thousand cubits.  “I ketch the fuckers when they level off,” he hisses, “just like a partridge on the covey rise. At the zenith of ascent they neither rise or fall, but float on insubstantial air, froze in an infinity of NOW, and then the bastard is a sitting duck.”

“I’d never get a shot off quick enough,” I answer in my most non-confronting manner. “You ever kill any?” 

Not yet,” he snarls. He sets his stubble chin upriver, cracks his throttle with apocalyptic vengeance. As if the time for bagging fish were near at hand, he leaves me wobbling in his smoking wake confounded.

Ideals

 By O.Victor Miller

Scouting the aisles of K-Mart between blue light specials, I sniffed out a clearance sale on hand tied flies and offered the clerk $200 for the whole enchilada. The manager sent her back with a counter of a nickel apiece. “Tell him take or leave it, honey. I don’t want you counting all those flies.” It’s a common infirmity of old farts in leisure suits to realize outhouse dreams they incubated before the womenfolk used up the fishing sections of the catalogue. We buy up useless shit in bulk because it’s there and cheap enough we think we can afford it. The girl, puzzled anyone would pay money for artificial pests, made another round trip through the swinging doors. “Aw right then,” she said, loading my shopping cart with armloads of clear plastic cubes labeled by size and pattern, each promising in bold font HAND TIED IN CHINA–enough flies to last the rest of my life if I fish them, which I wouldn’t since I can’t see well enough to tie most of them on.

“They got a sweet deal on a 55-gallon drum of paper clips at Sams,” whispered a fellow codger as I stooped for a fallen cube, rising to a dizzy swarm of floaters as if a fistful of Chinese flies had animated.

I told Dr. Hopps about it, blaming my new blood pressure pills. “I see spots when I lace my boots, and they dampen my libido, I think.“  The specs, he said, are muscae volitantes (flitting flies) — spots, not clots, drifting around in the vitreous humor of old eyes. “Forget about it and go catch some trout,” he says. “Yeah, stay on the pills or blow a vascular gasket.” Hopps and I used to fish together until his office manager quit letting him take off, which is what happens when you marry your office manager. Now we’re basically just trying to outlive each other. I’m older, so his prescriptions assume a canary-in-coal-mine ambiguity, but I’ll go fishing and if he’s worth a damn outlive him and inherit his stuff.

“You got a prostate like an Idaho potato,” he added. “Be glad you can still piss standing up.”

Back at the Airstream I discovered my father’s only son held firm to twice the nickel offer for the flies. “Buy high, sell low,” Daddy advised from the hereafter. “Make it up on volume.” And we who have been wived can justify gut purchases. Surplus breeds generosity, I concluded. If I fumble on a pattern that will raise a fish, I’ll bestow samples to fellows of the stream. I need new friends, my old ones being mostly dead.

On-line investigation additionally identified Musca (fly) as the Southern constellation that used to be called Apis (bee), that Musca Nova is a binary object consisting of a star and a black hole. Pharmaceutical solutions to erectile dysfunction popped up unsolicited, but Hopps, disinclined to treat erections lasting more than four hours, won’t prescribe them anyway. Following the trail of unsolicited information, I also discover my flies were tied by a female adolescent, Min Yon, confined to a crude table in underground Beijing, where she flings her childish soul against unspeakable tedium, tying exotic flies in partial darkness.  Some creations, should they buzz, would be quarantined as intrusive. I doubt she’s ever seen a hatch Occidentals wouldn’t call an infestation.  She’s good at only what she knows, which isn’t much. Her caddices and mayflies are prosaic and uninspired. Her dry flies, wets, spinners and nymphs are imperfect imitations lacking soul, as distantly removed from ideal prototype as my plastic Jesus–manufactured two doors down the hutong–is from the Transfiguration. There’s no better hope these flies will tempt a trout than my dashboard Savior will shunt a collision with a logging truck.

Min Yon has seen mosquito nymphs in pools of basement water and insect husks in dusty webs. Her cockroach is convincing, and she has seen through the tiny window of her cell locusts and grasshoppers decimating rice.  She knows crickets in cages, and skippers in food.

Chinese fish, if there are any left, must eat terrestrials. Hers are good enough and cheap, a nickel apiece if I hadn’t bargained upward. I‘m obliged to use them since I paid too much. But there’s one pearl worth the whole tribe: a black ant larger than life but not by much–like Greek heroes and duck decoys—mimicry of models bloated on sour rice or mutated in deep mounds in the nuclear proving grounds at Xinjiang.  

Curiously, there’s only one individual in the designated cube. Into it, half sick of shadows, she has woven adolescent dreams into this singular creation –the perfect alchemy of innocence and longing distilled by the magic of art into an ideal pissant!

There were, of course, the usual textual difficulties of computerized English translations from dialectal Mandarin to Hanzi, as well as the inherent ambiguities in vernacular of the type used by the international matchmaking services linked to ED pharmaceutical pop-ups. Still, a background in college teaching has honed skills of intuitive scholarship, except in business, which enabled me, with patience, to discern the hawks from the handsaws.

What Min Yon knows of fish was derived from gaudy koi and essences of carp slurped from soups. For carp a rice ball imitation, white as maggots, is included in the menagerie.

*

Following Hopp’s orders, I gather bare essentials, including a new motorcycle and Min Yon’s flies, tugging my Airstream to Blue Ridge, Georgia, where a warming globe, a lingering drought and tepid streams caused the DNR to dump most of the State’s trout hatchery into the Toccoa River at the tailwater beneath Blue Ridge Dam, where it’s cold enough for Arctic chub.

The stocking point is popular among fly rod aficionados and locals with Zebcos slinging corn, both castes discernable by attitude and attire. Weekend visitors sport latest catalog garb, heads crowned with Havelock caps that shade pallid necks and Western style fedoras, as though they arrive on camels and quarter horse instead of the Land Rovers and Cadillac SUV’s among Datsuns and Harleys in the TVA parking lot.

You’d think there’d be territorial fistfights, but the climate here is symbiotic because fly fishermen never keep a fish and locals never toss one back, hauling home stringers like banana stalks of stocked trout and returning for more. Until the visitors bring stringers, they’ll be tolerated as a source of amusement and revenue and the townies won’t run their dapper asses back to Atlanta and Birmingham.

By their general exodus, commuters alert locals when the gates of the hydroelectric dam will be opened remotely without warning lights, bells, whistles or sirens at irregular times learned by telephone calls to TVA’s 800 number. Locals monitor weekend transients, who with cell phones pinched ear to jaw, mind the daily charge times and synchronize social commitments with suburban wives, while local mates stay in their kitchens heating grease. The dandies, never wet above the knees, withdraw to the high ground in plenty of time for locals to rush abandoned holes for a few quick casts before grabbing up their stringers and climbing the berm. They don’t waste time with schedules, making their exodus penultimate moments before a wall of white water crashes through turbines to douche them like Egyptians down to Mineral Springs or Horseshoe Bend or even Copperhill, Tennessee, where the river’s called Ocoee. I have the TVA number in my vest, but don’t own a phone. I mind the locals.

*

Arriving late afternoon, an anomaly to both factions in my high-end threadbare gear inherited from a heart surgeon felled by thrombosis, I elbow into the skirmish line, as welcome as a hog at a steeple chase. Having spent my disposable income on flies, I can’t replace the gear and wouldn’t anyway since my dead friend’s stuff is next to having him along. I almost feel his hand on the butt of his old Sage, floaters warning me we might be fishing his turf soon. Moments before the multitudes flee the riverbed, I sling my ant upon the waters, hooking a native brook that glitters unique among the pale stock as a pearl lagged into a ring of snot agates when I’d expected only stock rainbows hurling corn. A brookie made by a master jeweler of gold and rubies set in turquoise rings over firm flesh stained down to the tiny spools of spine a wild-azalea pink.  A native born into this stream or at least a venerable holdover with enough time in grade to know an ant.

I’d like to say I released this trout and came to know her inner beauty through meditation, but I can’t. The fish inhaled the ant with such wild hunger, I couldn’t retrieve it without mortal consequences, and I am loath to lose a fly that catches fish. I confess it was in preparation for the pan I delved her singular beauty, by gross dissection, examining twin lobes of pomegranate roe as orange as butterfly bush, intruding a thin digestive tract peppered with pissants, before I ate her. But who could shun communion of that consecrated flesh, the host of that wildest spirit, her environmental future doomed to browns and overfishing?

At the picnic table after supper, I sort my flies for Sunday fishing—the special ant with sundry terrestrials large enough to insinuate with a 6X tippet—when suddenly a living bumble bee dives upon my ant, curling a hairy paunch around it. In a flatulent lift-off of maximum RPMs for minimal purchase the bumbling son of a bitch bee ascends with my Goddamned ant, disappearing vertically above a high leaf of a poplar. Before this moment I lived unaware that bees eat ants or that any bug would sucker to imitation, but this ant duped a brookie, now a bee. It would fool a bird and, perched on a scoop of potato salad, me.

Astonished, I resist my hand’s impetuous urge to swat. I ponder how so little can become so much? Well, everything is all, woven into the fabric of creation in a way to accumulate the seminal energy of the Big Bang, but beyond ethereal, my ant is also gone, having crossed the threshold and fabric of perfect illusion to be naturally selected by predator as prey, depriving me of my first mystical connection with the Far East since I was over there in the 60’s up to no good.

 

Through musca I scan the dark lace of leaves and evening sky for my goddamn ant, hoping the bee will sense fraud and drop it before making for the hive. Maybe some martial element was imparted to Min Yon’s creation whereby an opponent’s bulk is turned against it. Even now the bee, after a quixotic joist of stinger and hook, could be self-impaled to tumble in mortal missionary tandem with the ant through layers of light fingered gravity. I vector drift, looking upward through constellations of hypertensive sparks, and suddenly my ant floats down to me as easily as an actual ant might fall. I tie it on a dropper from a yellow hopper a stockie might mistake for corn.

The close call reminds me how precious my ant is. I’ll never find its equal, unrequited passion for an incubus muse made art. Min Yon could perish in an earthquake or cultural revolution or lose her art to puberty or even transfer to the Plastic Jesus mill two dungeons down. I burn to save her from the Asian Rumpelstiltskin and his prenatal options. Through Matchmakers International, I’ll mail-order her for my bride and wait for her majority. She’s maybe eight; I’m 66. When she turns 21 I’ll be 80, old for honeymoons, but her magic dubbing will be mine. Spare the goose and win the golden eggs, my father may have said.  With proper lighting, her genius could aspire to even better ants. If nothing else, her little fingers, nimble as chopsticks, can tie a tippet.

The belly boat provides a forward edge to compensate my casting. I haul it deflated on my motorcycle to the parking lot where I exhale in it air to displace 240 lbs., flushing up a swarm of floaters. As I descend the high bank into a world spinning on its axis, my float tube gets away, blooping down granite boulders, gathering momentum, T-boning a commuter with a cell phone, punching him into his honey hole. I thank him for stopping my tube, don swim fins and fudge in past the skirmish line, vintage waders trickling Freon at the crotch. I won’t last long, but now a few are catching fish. Hell, everybody is. A little girl Min Yon’s age is tearing them up on her Donald Duck combo and white rooster tail. Rocket Joe, a retired scientist who fishes daily, reports he caught and released 75 since daybreak. You can barely see the bottom for the trout– rainbows, browns– running like mullet. The lawyer who bulldogged my tube and shares my place hooks one too big for a landing net. It peeks through the melting surface like a grouper winched pop-eyed from the deep, sounding back into our hole. “You need a gaff,” I say.

He clears a space to fight. “Gang way!”  His trophy breaks the tippet. Deject and wretched, he swivels toe to heel and sloshes up the bank, late again for wine and cheese in Buckhead.  I tilt forward, lashing line and mending down. A strike! By God, another native flashing gold! Resplendent in my landing net burnished by fast water into the symphony and song of trout.

 I spin my tube to show my treasure off and find myself alone. How much better can it get? A blanket of mist descends, dimming the sun, as on the first morn in Eden.  Then, as if the upstream corners of the blanket were grasped and shaken, the static fog becomes a roiling sea of gauze with troughs of silk and peaks of gossamer. I’ve died and gone to heaven, I decide, a squirming brookie in my hand, a river to myself.

*

 In old black and white Buccaneer movies stormy seas are coupled with fog as if to illustrate mighty contentions of wind and sea. This is such a scene, though everywhere but Hollywood it’s known that mist and squall don’t flock together. But here in throes of thermal differential, icy air collides and braids into a muggy lull, tormented mist in still air. I feel myself symbolically transcendent, mediating molecules of meat and sky and river–a flightless water bird afloat in deeper water than my legs, a sitting duck.

I barely see the hoary hair of the river hag combed to curls by turbine teeth. I faintly hear the hum, the hiss, the rumble. I faintly feel the upstream suck into the reunion of parted waters rushing the river valley in a crescendo of white noise.  

Transfixed and awed, I bob and squint beyond the roiling mist into a wall of roiling water. Angry, spitting, hissing, feline water. A cauliflower ball of boiling water. A mushroom cloud of water.  Waterfalls of water falling. Cold as frozen razor blades.

I run in place.  Flailing arms and sculling feet.

 Help.

 Lifted upon the blade of a tsunami, I surf the curl until it tacos me, somersaulting cartwheels, floaters into bubbles, river into shards of fallen sky–now a Centaur. Now like Brueghel’s Icarus, nose turned keel, webbed feet kicking sky. Waders ballooning water cold enough to stop a reptile’s heart, I spit and gasp, inhaling mist and spray. My tube slack with shrunken air is swept through the channel’s curve, into the skeletal arms of a bone white sycamore. A frantic squirrel, I claw the branch that bends me to the sinking bank, snatching at eroded roots. I crawl through brambles up a steep bank on knees padded thicker than some thorns, through a nebula of systolic fireflies, dragging my Orvis by the tip. Above the threat of rising flood, I turn to watch the flotsam of my flies, my magic ant, my twitching net, dissolve into a vortex of spangled fog into adjacent dimensions where ideal forms exist in perfect worlds of fishes. Where nothing ever lives or dies but as potential.

(Published in Gray’s Sporting Journal 2010)

Our Fathers Had Fly Rods

By O.Victor Miller

Inspired by idyllic covers of outdoor sports magazines, our fathers acquired fly rods thinking incorrectly they’d know how to cast them. How hard can it be? The covers depicted happily mature men, briar pipe clenched into sublime grins, hooked up to an equally blissful rainbow with bright wet flies in the corners of theirs. The rods they ordered from a catalogue were long, stiff poles with automatic reels the size of shuffleboard pucks advertised for better line management. They doubled as counter weights for casting, like banner stones on atlatls. The mainspring, wound manually or by stripping line off the spool, was triggered by a pinkie’s touch. In time, this tackle ascended to attics (there are no basements in South Georgia) with the Christmas decorations for kids to plunder, the term our mothers called what we did on rainy days we weren’t outside wallowing in mud. The reels, we discovered, were powerful enough to bring in a respectable fish. Catch and release were consolidated and accidental. The lightest touch would zip a butterbean bream—Jouoooop—into the rod tip, hair-lipping and releasing it in an automatic second. We jumped in to recover stunned fish of all sizes orbiting their tails, the butterbeans coveted by grandmothers, who fried them up in bacon grease, gumming them down bones and all. Leaving a cud on the side of plates decorated with sweetheart roses.

Our fathers boats were ours too when we could steal them. Homemade flat ended cypress river boats called Tison-builts known for their prodigious osmosis. We caulked with horsehair twine and pine pitch and left them submerged to keep the boards from shrinking. Still river water the color of Bock beer noodling inboard through cracks wide as the gaps in our incisors. We crammed these boats beyond capacity with towheaded boys cutting Junior High with our fathers’ purloined fly rods. Taking turns hadn’t been invented yet, so after the first collective cast, we spent huge portions of our stolen days untangling thick flylines and the black silk lines we robbed from baitcasters and used for leaders.

Pine tar caulking wasn’t soluble in water, so our bare feet had to be scrubbed with turpentine before entering our mothers’ kitchens. The soles tough enough to strike kitchen matches and further thickened by permeating resin. One day Bobby Franck tried to light a cigarette butt to pass around, igniting his foot. He stomped the hissing sole overboard, swamping us. When misty bubbles subsided, he raised his dripping foot to his chin with both hands, studying it as if charting his fortune while we looked on astounded. The tar bubbled but his skin was too tough to raise a blister. “Do it again, Bobby,” we begged.

It was commonly axiom among our fathers that heavy flies cast farther and we kept the faith, spanking the water fore and aft. To crappie jigs we added Hildebrandt spinners and barrel swivels for heft. For longer casts, we attached bacon droppers, cut bait and pork rinds. Those of us not depilated by natural baldness still sport spots of hairless scar tissue from tear-jerking haymakers that nailed us like .22 shorts where cowlicks grew. Pap! Holy Moley! Got dog! Bobby.  

We had one paddle cut from a gray board, sometimes just a gray board, for the helmsman– always gray–the rest of us went at it with stolen brooms. If unilateral vigor overpowered the helmsman,  us backward into a flume, we reversed in our seats, passing the paddle to the bow, our blunt-ended craft perfectly engineered for our method of propulsion, and I’m here to tell you a boatload of truant boys manning  filched brooms can flat haul at it down a fast river. We sometimes towed sash weights for directional stability and to chum up hellgrammites, but drag reduced speed and distance traveled before nightfall, negatively impacting another maxim among us that the best fishing was the longest haul from any starting point. We never fished upstream, so our travels were serial. We ran rapids, banging sideways into rocks, dislodging gator fleas to stir up shoalies. We leaned against minimal freeboard and maximum draft, too busy staying upright to cast, but incidental lures dangling overboard from collective ganglia were good producers. With no pressure except from wild-ass kids cutting junior high, the fish were dumber in those days. We sorely needed stupid fish and the Lord provided. We fished willows thick with mayflies, overshooting into the branches and knocking down duns, slough and new imagoes. Magic happed when somebody tried to yank loose, chumming bluegills into feeding frenzies of landlocked piranha.

At dusk we’d tie off the boat somewhere downriver and hitch home before supper.  The Tison-built boat stayed tethered with horsehair twine until we could cut school again and resume indefinite journey until eventually we’d worry a neutral adult to retrieve it before it was missed. That or find another swamped Tison tied with horsehair twine.

My popularity was principally invested in proximity to a river bank and my father’s contrived carelessness in keeping up with his equipment.  He must’ve considered our chance of ever reaching puberty an impossible transition under close parental supervision and he rarely went looking for us or his boat. “They can’t all drown,” he’d console my mother, who as darkness fell tugged the temples of her perm. “At least one of them will come back to tell the tale.”

“I wouldn’t fret half so much,” she’d fret, “if Bobby Franck weren’t along.”

When spinning reels got invented, we replaced the automatics and slung cheroot-sized wooden plugs a country mile. Snagging comrades became grave but infrequent, the additional heft on lighter line dominating the physics of propulsion, but we plundered pliers to remove barbs, keeping mothers perpetually in darkness.

Over the years the Sears rods gathered dust, the reels dirt daubers. They ascended back into the rafters for our own sons to plunder. Then A River Ran Through It emerged as a major motion picture starring Brad Pitt. Having become moderately affluent and ashamed of our fathers, we rushed to Atlanta for expensive clothes and new tackle, duding up in pastel shirts with military epaulets, our chests decorated with surgical stainless for removing hooks from fish or fishermen. Angling became a finer art, socially acceptable to trophy wives, a few of whom even suited up with us to shop for baskets in mountain crafts shops as we elbowed our way into the khaki front lines of coldwater streams. We went nuts with the rest of the nation, and our wives went along–until we discovered the physics of our childhood hadn’t changed much. Crappie jigs and pork rinds were even harder to cast from midflex graphite rods than from the unyielding spared rods of our fathers. Our own attics got stocked with Gortex, graphite and Neoprene for new plunder.

 

But a few of us, perhaps enough to swing a national election, persisted in the notion that angling with priceless equipment is somehow more spiritual and urbane, therefore more acceptable to liberal ministers and second wives who demand sensitive and submissive husbands tying flies before a hearth. Thus sustained, we faithfully practiced our art until our names were dropped from church bulletins and our wives left us, selling our tackle on E-Bay or donating it to Junior League attic sales to be plundered by other sons from other loins while our own true progeny rifle sparse leavings of maternal grandfathers in other attics. This is, I reckon, as it should be–a winnowing sanity, an evolutionary recycling of collective dreams, and I count my losses sagely with a single longing unfulfilled: I wish to hell I could get my hands on another Tison-built boat.

(Published in Southwest Georgia Living magazine 2008)