The Garden Of Piety, Of Pleasure

The Garden Of Piety, Of Pleasure

A yellowjacket hovers in low orbit around the rim of my coffee mug. I’ve already waved it away a few times, but this one is brazen, so I keep an eye on it while knotting the new tippet. I glance around the picnic table for something to whack it with. There’s something apocalyptic about the yellowjackets this year, it’s hotter and they seem more aggressive than usual in the heat. Hardly a day goes by lately a yellowjacket doesn’t nail me. They don’t really want to sting you, they want to eat you. They start out biting – a painful bite, they have wicked incisors that mine out an impressive chunk of meat – and when you swat them for it they retaliate with a nasty sting on top of the bleeding bite. I’ve never seen so many of them, especially near water. A few of the neighbor’s cows were stung blind at their water troughs trying to drink through the inch-thick layer of yellowjacket bodies accumulated on the water. Heaven help you when you accidently drink one that’s crawled into the opening of your soda or beer can. Milder winters and drier summers lately and not as many of the little bastards get killed off by the cold.

Dusty, dead-dog hot this summer; the woods as dry as gunpowder. The government is selling the trees to eliminate the fire hazard. But the policy creates a dangerous combustible wasteland of neck-deep logging slash, tinder dry, and the stripped forest duff baking in the sun. So there are even more fires. They may as well just run through the place with torches in their hands. The ridges beyond the river bluffs are odd with the loss of their soft, sleeping mammal profiles, the tree lines abruptly broken with the obtuse mechanical angles of clear-cut logging jobs and fire trails.

We just had a big one that came awful close to burning us out – went down in the book as the Boundary Fire. It started a week before the full moon and burned out of control sending up a mad elephant head of smoke that almost choked us out while the waxing moon sucked the wind from the east, bringing the fire to within a mile of us – Ariel and I running like maniacs keeping the sprinklers going and scraping a puny fire line around the cabin with a shovel and hoe. Finally, yesterday afternoon, the moon spun the wind around and brought back the prevailing westerly and the crews were finally able to get a handle on the fire. The wind shift cleared away most of the smoke by nightfall.

And a rare thing came to pass with the total eclipse of the moon at 3:30 this morning. The breeze had been anticipatory. Ursa Major positioned at True North down the parallax of sky. The full moon rose from behind Storm King. Sepia red in the smoke pall, it shined through the bedroom windows filling the room with light too lovely to pull the curtains against. I went to sleep looking forward to getting back to the fishing routine.

We were sleeping when it started. What’s strange, we were asleep. Yet when the earth’s shadow began to pass over the face of the moon, altering the ambient light, we awoke, but not quite… we remained immersed and streaming in the serene loss and eventual returning of light, drifting in and out of waking while the radius of shadow overcame the bright dream moon then slowly released it.

The radio pulls in a BBC jazz program out of Canada and Coltrane blows A Love
Supreme from the cabin door. Ariel gathers some things and puts them into her daypack.
She’s going to walk down to the river with me this evening, so I’m waiting, sipping the
coffee while I wait and checking inside the cup for yellowjackets between each sip. I’m
ready to go and I’m getting fidgety. Ah, love –

Fist the mist and
Mock the clock
Reckless rhythms of runoff

We cross the hot road, the tall weeds, the railroad tracks, pass through the shadows under the pines and emerge into the light on the stones lining the river. We surprise an osprey ripping the guts out of a nice sized trout at the edge of a gravel bar. It lifts its wings and hurls itself into the sky, the trout intestine dangling like a crazy exclamation point.

The sun’s still heavy on the water, so we’re a little too early to fish. Ariel strays off, poking along the shore. She bends to pick up an odd bone laying among the stones and
holds it up for me to see – “Pelvis?”

“Yup. Looks like a pelvis,” I say, “Maybe a beaver or an otter."

She absently performs a single provocative gyration of her hips while musing over the interesting construct, then places the bone back as she found it and meanders off down the stones looking for other secrets.

I amble back to the trees, find a spot in the shade and plunk myself down on the pine needles. The end of day red sun squats on the bristled ridge across the river. I smell the lingering smoke of recently burned trees, but also the regular incense of pine pitch, hot stones, cold water and trout. Water passes through the eddy. A trinity of jet contrails furrow the oblivion tan sky. Across the river there’s a couple new prow-fronted dreamhomes squatting like log forts with overhanging decks inserted into the pines along the river bluffs. I worry about the arrival of these. People in the old days built back a respectful distance from the river bank. Fatasses, now. They love the view. They love it so much they figure they’ll improve it by inserting their beautiful selves into the middle of it.

Water passes. Nothing lasts.

My eyes water from the smoke. The plundered hills look like crumpled horse blankets in the haze. Summer’s breaking swell accelerates with the inertia of climaxing events human and not, yet the trout remain a fair constant, feeding with nearly perfect fidelity, at least for a short spell in the evening.

The weather front moving through with the onset of the full moon left scattered mare’s-tail clouds. The sun passes behind the mountains and shadows reach to bridge the river and the sky turns injured pink. The undersides of the clouds glow red. Now the river turns red – fiery red for awhile – a river of fire. Then blood. A river of blood.

Red moon. What passes?

At last, shadow. Hunting spiders spring quick from their hiding places among the stones, coyly assessing me as I pass from the trees to the river – they dash back to their crevices when I let my gaze fall on them.

Go ahead and hide, I tell the spiders, The sky is burning and the game is ON.

A banner of water trails from the tip of a rocky toe thrust from the shore. The seam formed at the confluence of the faster mainstream and the slower water under the point runs for about 60 feet before tailing over shallower water. I work down the length of the run quartering empty casts. A couple of sedges paddle through the air like tiny jugs, usually raging prolific this month and causing trout to feed openly, but hardly any this evening. You feel it when it’s off. Crazy full moon stuff. Everything seems dead.

Until: hey… luck… a trout rises out in the seam.

The old bamboo delivers.

The trout, right there and in the mood, pounces the fly and whangs the line like a wrathful dog abruptly hitting the end of its rope and busts off taking the fly with it.

…The line hangs limp and weightless in the coursing vacuity. My ears ring and my bones dissolve – I can feel my skull creak while I moonwalk back from the water’s edge
with the broken tippet flapping from the rod tip.

“At one was better than five pounds. Hadda be.” I tell myself.

A strange brown gull lifts on the curly breeze, head tilted, alert for scraps, while I obsess over the lost trout sporting a fresh piercing in its lip. It looks like a gull I’ve seen down in Baja and I wonder what it’s doing this far north. I glance over my shoulder at Ariel sitting cross-legged on a flat rock, a thin blonde Buddha with the lotus sketchbook open across her lap, the pencil poised above her knee like a single truth. She doesn’t fish, not like us. She watches the gull. Ariel doesn’t miss much, which scares me sometimes but comforts me too. She returns to her drawing and her hair falls from behind her ear the way I like.

I tie on a new fly.

The fly floats for nothing down the string of eddies. There’re a few rises, mostly beyond my range, but not many. The water is black, hard. I make a bunch of casts
to the stingy water all the while losing light.

See. The moon. Things come to a head during the full moon and things get funny. The famous human lunacy? And all the rest of it. Relentless moon, the transition moon. Trout fishing is generally crappy during the full moon. But then, there’s always the odd fish, and a lot of world records are caught during the full moon, and a high percentage of those the single fish taken on an otherwise slow day. Go figure.

Ariel finds me, her stuff put away in the pack. And I’m winding in the line when a trout rises below us an easy cast from the bank. Ariel sees it too and without a word takes a resigned step aside.

I pull enough line for the cast, bend low and sneak to within casting range, the
static line coils loaded in my hand.

The trout sucks down the fly on the second drift.

We raise a short, lonesome ruckus along the bank.

And the trout blows itself out with the effort.

I press the yellow and black striped Yellowjacket imitation from the corner of its jaw while we admire the 18-inch cutthroat laid out like a newborn in the rubber net bag. It’s a boy. Big head on him. And deep bronze down the flanks. A strange, beautiful fish, with odd fingerprint-sized black spots, the deepest black, the blackness of black dwarfs,
extinguished cores of exhausted stars on the rear half only. The orange slits under the
lower jaw glow like firebrands. I revive the trout until a surge of firm energy passes into
its body and I let it go and it kicks away and the dark water absorbs its light and it is

A cool breeze gusts from the river and enfolds us, clean, bending the stems of tall grass, yellow tops fat with seed. I stop casting, no longer able to see the fly. We sit together on the river stones and watch the stars appear.

“It s good. The fishing is good isn’t it?” Amused, matter of fact, Ariel means it more as an affirmation than a question. She is linked in congress with the moons and tides of this world. Her observations can usually be trusted.

The night is exquisite and the stars are very close. There is a saffron glow in the sky behind Storm King where the full moon will rise in a while. I contemplate the spate of dark water where I see no desolation and all appears secretly well. Water passes.

Nothing lasts.

“…Yes… it is good,” I allow, at last. Stars entrain down the arc of sky, the river whispers, clucks and sighs. I shake my head, thinking in the dark, hoping she is right, hoping it is so.

~Steven Bird