The phone rang, rattling in the glove compartment, but Nick Johnson did not hear it. He was already halfway to the creek. His boots crackled among the the skeletons of leaves scattered between the upturned roots as he wandered vaguely downwards toward the sound of water. It was cold and dry, and he pinched his ears to warm them.
He reached the water, and scanned the area around him: no evidence of man in sight. The creek had a name, but he did not know it. So did the ground beneath his feet. He was probably trespassing, he knew, but the thought aroused no excitement or fear in him. Everything named is owned by someone, he thought. Am I owned by someone?
With a pocketknife he cut a four-foot branch of a willow and notched an end. Then he pulled out an old tobacco tin from his shirt pocket; it had belonged to his grandfather, and most of the color had worn off. He pulled out a hook and a coil of line, then assembled the pole. Busy hands keep a busy mind, he thought. His grandfather had told him that, or else he remembered it that way. He kicked over a few rocks until he found a worm, nice and thick and pink. It was a good day.
He pulled back the pole and paused. This was the only part that was different now, if he forgot his own age. If he forgot the SUV parked on the dirt road and the agent probably calling him with optimistic words, words he shouldn’t need to hear but did. He cast the line, trying and failing to ignore the pain in his wrist that only lasted a moment but meant everything. The hook landed on the surface and then sank gently into the shallow water.
It happened quickly, so quickly that Nick cursed his luck. This was supposed to be penitence, punishment, failure, waiting. It was too soon. He swung up on the pole and felt the familiar weight, the fight that went up through his arms, and he felt that familiar longing, only an instant but enough instants to make up a lifetime, to let it pull him into the water, to become a fish and swim forever in one direction, swim to the ocean and out and down.
The fish fought but fought weakly, and Nick wanted to let him go, but he knew it was too late, and that he had to pull. Everything is a goddamn metaphor, he thought. That was the other thing that had changed, now. His wrists ached, not in a good way or in a bad way. He wondered if his grandfather felt this way, any of it.
He tore the trout of the water with a desperate heave, and it landed on the bank behind him. It shone and thrashed in the late morning light, glittering like fool’s gold. He walked over to it, knocked the trout’s head sharply with the handle of his hunting knife. Nick hadn’t brought anything to carry the fish in; he never thought there would be a fish. Even his success was a failure. He’d have to throw it in the back, and deal with the rest of it later.
Back in the car, Nick Johnson checked his phone out of habit, but did not listen to the agent’s message. He turned the ignition roughly. The smell of the trout wafted forward and reached his eyes. I should have just swam, he thought.