At night-time, the river sounds like a dozen lanes of blackest highway bitumen. The speeding and constant flow of heavy-vehicle traffic drafting so closely not a single tail-light shows through the trees lining its edges. Only the occasional glint of the rolling silvery undertow: a log being swallowed, a kid being knocked down and pulled to his death, a fish taking a Christmas beetle from the surface and swiping away again.
The drowned kid is a kind of fiction invented by the boy’s father to keep him close by when they go to check on the setlines and rebait any spoiled hooks. They have a system of walking one after the other too, carefully stepping on all the exact stones to avoid stirring the ghost of that dead river kid. His father always goes in the lead and takes small half-sized steps and often turns to point out the precise steps using his torchlight. If it is a complicated move from one stone to the next, then he pauses before taking it and says, Watch how I do this now, Michael, and Michael watches and tries his best to replicate the pivot or leap with the same precision and carefulness. His father is precise and careful and Michael is still only a boy but recognises that it is the kind of care which says something about a father and about his level of resolve – if nothing for the sanctity of fiction and all its tragically deceased.
When they have checked the lines a final time each evening and returned to the campsite, Michael’s father settles with his back towards the pines and his face to the fire and recites all the familiar stories while drinking beer from short-necked brown bottles. Many of the stories are about rivers and about handling fish, and some are about marriage and about handling oneself in life, and almost all of them are in some way about men who drink and converse drunkenly with themselves or with other people. Michael likes best the ones where the men are soliloquist drunks and the rivers are indifferent and full of easy-to-catch fish. There are lessons in these stories, and the lessons seem to Michael as familiar as the stories, which are familiar to the point of being visibly worn through.
After a dozen or so stories, Michael’s father takes to cursing and spitting mouthfuls of his beer onto the campfire, making the coals hiss and fall down from the stack like broken kiln bricks. Michael thinks he is protective and cautious always, except for late at night when he is utterly defeated and drunk and narrating loudly for himself and anyone else to hear. When he is like this, he is pitiful and loquacious and as marvellous to listen to as all the other downtrodden soliloquists scattered throughout the stories, be it the absconded soldier waiting to be picked up by the military police or the bankrupted criminal lying on his bed waiting to die. Michael has befriended and made heroes of them all, and thinks they would often be better off without the women who accompany them through the scenes and who speak perfect sympathetic English though who choose to remain loyal to their own despondency.
In real life, the women are the visibly worn-through ones who have not left the house or slept in the same bedroom as their husband in more than a year. They rise and dress in the afternoon, unlocking the door to the spare bedroom and coming out into the living area resembling wearied Greta Garbos. They do not speak a great deal more than their fictional counterparts, except to make occasional announcements like ‘It is raining outside’ or to ask silly questions like ‘What day was it the day after tomorrow please, Michael?’ They pronounce their son’s name with disdain. They resent their son now like they resent the morning and all first-born things.
When the women are in good moods they stand in front of the vanity mirror playing with their loose hair, messing the strands forward over their eyes, then flicking them back again and asking: ‘What do you see now, Michael?’ When it is a good mood and vicious mood mixed together, they forget about the hair and about their son and follow their husband around the house, calling him Saint Bartholomew as they go. Bartholomew is their husband’s sarcastic confirmation name. Michael thinks these women look very pale and very crazy, dressed in their black chemises and pearls, tiptoeing about the houses and calling people by their confirmation name. While he thinks the husband looks very tired and overly tanned from working out in the sun all day, chipping burrs and erecting barbed-wire fences and checking his hands for splinters out of simple habit and periodic frustration. Michael’s father is the kind of man who has never only been able to work indoors, but only out in the open where it feels natural to him to be uncomfortable and hot. If you can work through the heat, telling yourself it is all coming at you from some far away place like the sun, then you can work through anything, he tells his son.
When fishing for trout, it is necessary to awaken before sunup and be positioned by the water before full light and to put everything from the previous night behind you. Setlines left baited and unattended are one thing, often returning small adolescent trout or carp more likely; to take a decent-sized rainbow or brown though requires skill and participation and a willingness to forget completely and wholeheartedly and begin anew.
Chasing along in the dark of morning with his rod held out in front and his left hand keeping the satchel about his waist from rattling and rousing the spirit of that mythical drowned kid, Michael thinks that the river belongs to him and his father alone and that the two of them are exclusive title holders to all of its stocks. If between them they landed four decent-sized trout only yesterday, and all four were gutted and scaled at the edge of the river and then threaded through the gills with the one length of tie wire so as to be carried back and cooked in aluminium foil over the grill plate and eaten with fingers not forks on laps not tables, then there is a great deal to forget and put behind today.
Using his rod for balance, Michael’s father squats forward at the edge of the river and looks across. There is a pre-dawn light playing on the surface and the water has lost its oily sheen from the previous night. It seems less dangerous. Michael squats beside his father. He can smell the heat rising out of the damp soil along the bank. It smells as metallic and premature as his mother’s blood rising out of the upholstery on a humid day.
‘I think we will be able to cross by this time tomorrow,’ his father says to him. ‘Maybe even late this evening. Provided they do not open the dam wall some time throughout today of course.’
His father has talked over their chances of crossing the river and fishing the hidden spot since arriving, and has made the feat of lowering the water sound like a delicate religious trick. To Michael, it is a benevolent and sporting god who permits a river to be turned on and off like a tap for the sake of improved fishing conditions. He has been dreaming of such conditions and such a judicial god since hearing the story for the first time.
‘What will happen if they open the dam wall while we are on the other side still?’ he asks his father.
‘We will need to keep an eye out for that too. We will put a stick at the edge of the water, and if the water creeps up over the stick we will know it is time to leave. It does not come on so fast that we will get caught out.’
‘Did the water creep up over the stick last time we were here?’
‘I don’t remember,’ his father says.
The last time they were here, Michael’s father still called Michael’s mother Glory. This was before she moved her pillow into the spare bedroom and returned to the earliest, most extended version of herself she could remember: Gloria Louise Carter– her maiden self, that is. It frightens Michael to have to speak to her now and he only does so when she is sitting down and he is sure she will not be bothered to stand up and come towards him. She is pale and thin and her eyes are like dull coins, and the times she is bothered to respond she comes right up and stands over him and tells him to put his hand on the spot where there is still a raised scar. If he shakes his head and refuses, she puts her thumb in her mouth and goes, Mum-mum-mum-mum-mum-mum-mum, sucking and teasing until she has succeeded in making him cry. She laughs then and forces him to touch the scar anyway. The consecutive mums is a joke only to her, and the scar feels hard and raised beneath the black silk chemise that she wears with pearls and without variation.
‘Can you remember when I was still little and you had to put me in the landing net to carry me back across?’
Michael and his father are moving downstream now, with the river on their left and the campsite behind them and to the right, Michael remembering all the fondest bits and his father keeping a close eye for signs of rising, feeding trout.
‘I remember. I was trying to catch a giant trout and thought I needed a giant worm,’ his father says without taking his eyes away from the water.
‘No, it was because the water had crept up and I was only little and didn’t know how to swim yet.’
‘Oh, is that why it was?’
‘And also because the drowned boy was trying to pull me under, to make friends with me.’
This is a new detail.
‘I don’t think I knew about the drowned boy the last time we were here,’ his father responds. ‘Maybe I knew. How old are you again?’
Michael ignores the question to which his father already knows the answer. They are here, after all, as a promise to his turning seven nine and a half months earlier. The faux coonskin cap, cut and sewn from a second-hand fur coat, is the part of the promise which was given to him on the actual day in late April. As is the new fishing rod. The fishing rod had his mother’s name attached to its card, though Michael knows it was his father who went out and bought it and who wrote both given names on the card, and who sewed the cap also. The cap has rudimentary stitches, and the G a stubby masculine tail.
At the first setline, Michael’s father leans his own rod against a bough and sits his torch on top of the bough and begins ravelling in the line. He can tie half-blood knots in the dark when he has to, but with a torch he can tie them so that they do not need even a millimetre trimmed off their tabs. Michael can tell by the smooth spooling that there is no fish attached to the other end this morning, not even a poor-sighted carp allowing itself to be dragged sideways through the mud. His father casts out again and they keep moving along.
‘I think all of the stupid ones have been caught already,’ his father announces after he has stripped the worm from the fifth unsuccessful hook in a row and thrown it back into the river.
‘The stupid ones don’t know about the hidden spot, do they?’
His father says nothing for a moment, busy replacing the waterlogged worm with a fresh tiger taken from the beetroot tin filled with damp soil. Then he says, ‘I don’t think so. Maybe that is what makes them so stupid in the first place. I don’t know. I know they are no good for eating. Maybe we are the stupid ones, waiting days on end for the river to drop like this.’
‘I forget what the hidden spot looks like.’
‘You were very young.’
‘What does it look like?’
‘It looks like this spot, only more hidden.’
‘But in the stories it looks different.’
‘That is just because of the way the stories make it look. Besides, the stories are just stories.’
‘How many fish did we catch last time?’
‘You were still very young. You only remember because I have told you too many damned times.’
‘Hundreds, I think.’
‘How many really?’
‘Seventeen in one afternoon. Your mother caught eleven of them. She was the one who discovered the spot. We carried you across and she was happy, and then the water level started coming up. It comes up much quicker than it goes down. I had to carry you back in a net with your mother holding onto my back. We will have to keep an eye on it if we get across. We can put a stick at the edge of the water. Do you remember it all now?’
Michael thinks it over, crosschecking the details against prior recollections.
‘Was it always like that?’
‘Sometimes,’ his father answers.
‘I wish it was like that now.’
His father says nothing.
‘How old was the boy when he drowned?’
Michael does not specify. He wants his father to think there is only one time and for him to answer truthfully.
‘Much, much younger than you,’ his father eventually answers. ‘Really not even a boy yet.’
‘I am nearly eight.’
‘That is pretty old.’
‘The boy didn’t really drown, did he? Not in real life, I mean.’
‘I guess not.’
‘I can swim by myself now.’
‘Eight is not that old. It is dangerous. Even when it is low it is still dangerous.’
‘I learned when I was six.’
‘Six is a good age for learning.’
‘You taught me.’
‘I showed you and you taught yourself. But that was in the backwaters where the water is calm and there isn’t any current and where the water level doesn’t come up so unexpectedly.’
‘Was he younger than six when he drowned?’
‘Was it his father’s fault really?’
‘Couldn’t it be nobody’s fault?’
When the setlines have been resubmitted with their hooks fattened and knots checked for durability, Michael and his father find a shaded spot on top of a rock and cast their lines out into the middle. It is almost 6 am now. The sun is showing through the trees quite well and the water is blue with definite streaks of light brown. Already it is very hot.
‘How many days did we have to wait for the river to go down last time?’ Michael asks.
‘Last time we were lucky. It was down when we arrived. We fished on this side for two days and made camp, and then when we had not caught anything substantial we went and found the hidden spot. Your mother found it.’
‘And was she still wearing a feather behind her ear, like the little native boy in the story?’
‘I don’t think I remember all the details quite as well as you remember them, Michael. You have a superb memory.’
Michael smiles. His father smiles too. On the other side of the river a dragon lizard drops off his branch and disappears beneath the current. It is the elongated shadows of birds on the water that make the lizards hide away like this at a given second. Michael picks up a handful of pine needles coloured like pencil shavings and throws them out in front. A trick his father has taught him for gauging the wind. The birds and lizards and heat are tricks for other things. The needles float away on the surface of the water and Michael quickly forgets which direction the wind influenced them and what difference it makes anyway.
At quarter past eight Michael’s father takes the first real strike of the morning. Michael sees the fish come on too. The line pulls diagonal and tight towards the centre of the river. The reel’s drag sounds like the mosquito fly being unzipped, and the dragon lizard, which has returned to its branch, sits upright, ready to leap again. Judging by the angle, it is a fish that knows the benefit of lodging in the centre, where the current is strongest and the water deepest. Michael’s father stands and begins palming and winding and fighting it back toward the surface. He keeps the rod tip high at all times, explaining the methodology of the fight to Michael as he goes.
‘You have to know when to let it run. If you let it run too early, it’ll make straight for a snag. You can’t stop it outright, though. You’ll break it off if you try to stop it outright. You have to know just when.’
‘Can you feel what it is yet?’
‘You can’t feel for sure until you have it on the surface. This one doesn’t want to come up either. I’ll bring it up. If it’s a rainbow, I’ll make it jump. Then we’ll know. You better take the rod, Michael. If it is the rainbow of all rainbows, then you better be the one who pulls it in, so that you can be the hero of the next story.’
After eight days of camping and fishing, Michael is all too familiar with his father’s ability to make an undersize troutling seem like a fifteen-pound fighter just by loading the rod right forward and over-flexing his forearms and talking in disjointed breathless rhythms. He takes the rod charily, expecting a tadpole-like pull and his father’s laughter, though immediately feels the weight of the fish for himself. He adjusts his stance. It is real weight.
‘Like I showed you,’ his father says.
Michael cocks his wrists so that the fish has something to labour against. At the same time he keeps his elbows malleable to avoid the clean break. His left foot is slightly forward. He has the line tight enough that it shakes the entire rod each time the fish surges into a deeper pocket. It shakes enough that it puts him off balance. He opens his stance, but there is no effective way to completely brace against it. The shock goes too many ways at once. It rattles down past his knees and makes him hold his breath and lose depth in his shoulders. Somewhere in his imagination he sees a dog trying to win a game of tug-of-war against its owner, two arm-wrestlers with tattoos on their biceps and no shirts. The images are from stories told to him by his father, like the one in which the man flogs his son across the backside with the thick, fibrous, plaited skipping rope for playing too loudly during the middle part of the day when his mother is trying to sleep and repair herself.
‘How is he, Michael?’
‘My back hurts,’ Michael says.
‘Don’t think about your back. Think of how he will sound cooking on the grill.’
Michael thinks of the blue Bedford van with the blue tarpaulin and mosquito fly fixed to its side, of the tie wire running through the gills and out the mouths, of the green and blue sleeping bags lined with leopard-print fabric which he and his father sleep side by side in and without taking their shoes off. He thinks of colour and water, of that drowned boy holding onto the rainbow trout at the other end, refusing to let it up for anything, and of his mother’s hair. He thinks if they could wait it out and return to the hidden spot, then he could tell his mother just how it was and she would say: ‘I remember it just that way myself,’ and then it would be just that way, and it really could be nobody’s fault.
The fish shudders the line and Michael begins to cry because of it.
‘Don’t think of it hurting,’ his father says.
It goes again, and Michael undoes his grip and watches the rod topple over the lip of the rock and disappear into the water. It goes over like crane.
‘Your goddamned back,’ his father says, dropping Michael’s birthday rod and leaping in after his own.
Michael stands atop of the rock crying. He would like to see the hidden spot before they leave, but he knows there is no chance of his father taking him across now. The river falls much more slowly than it rises, and even then it may come on again at any vicious moment.
Later in the day, when they have packed up the camp and are driving home together with the windows all the way down, he will tell his father what was really attached to the end of the line and why he had to let go, and his father will say that not everything is about that goddamned drowned boy. And because of the taste of his mother’s premature blood rising out of the seat behind them, flapping and tugging in the breeze like that drowned boy who fights against the current and against the hook and against his mother’s craziness and against everything else that is after him, Michael will know that this part of the fiction is a lie.