A Father’s Day Tale
As we left the dock, we felt the air coming up from the water. Fishing air feels and smells like no other air. It cools your face and gets in under your shirt, and everything is left behind—all work, all worries, the static of the city.
“Remember last time?” asked Jason as he let his line out behind the boat. I did. At the end of the lake, we had approached a valley that seemed to recede from view as we approached. “The closer we get, the farther away it seems,” I had said to him. His eyes had grown wide. The light had turned red and begun to fade. We had turned back.
“This time, I’d like to go find the mystery valley,” said Jason.
So just after dawn, we headed straight for the endless arm and the valley at the end. It took a long time.
The valley came closer to us. Above it, the foothills were like pink sheets lifted by invisible fingers. A stream from another century meandered slow as Sunday morning between willows and cottonwoods, oozing through a marsh and into the lake. “Look!” said Jason. “It’s like Africa.” We saw fields of mustard grass and cattle and two white egrets standing tall, lifting their feet in slow motion, watching the surface of the water.
We left the lake and entered the stream. Running the outboard slowly, I slid the boat between drowning bushes. Minnows shot ahead and to each side. The air closed in.
Jason’s job was to watch the water for stumps and hidden obstructions. He knelt on the front seat and leaned over.
“Dad, a log. . . . Dad, an . . . alligator!”
He straightened up, eyes wide. “I thought it was a log, but then the log ate a minnow.” He said the thing was almost as long as the boat. Probably a catfish or a carp, I told him. “Water magnifies. But then again it could be . . .”
Pause. “. . . the monster of mystery valley.”
Jason rolled his eyes. Nine-year-olds do a lot of eye-rolling. But I could tell part of him believed in the possibility. He was pleased.
I recalled a similar morning on the Lake of the Ozarks, one of my earliest memories. I was looking up, as my father and mother loaded rods and tackle boxes into the boat, at a sun so swollen that it seemed to fill half the sky. An optical illusion, I’m sure. But to this day, part of my mind still believes that on certain days the sun approaches us like an eye at the other end of a microscope.
Jason and I moved forward, got stuck a couple times, and poled out with an oar. Far up the stream, we banked the boat and got out. I wanted to see what was in the line of tree. Perhaps a deeper channel. We headed across a mushy field of high weeds through drifting clouds of green, newly hatched flies. Our feet sank six inches below the surface, then more.
At the edge of the trees, in a shallow pool of muddy water something moved beneath the surface. A phalanx of life charged away from us. We waded deeper into the trees, where the light come down through the branches. A sunfall. Beneath it was a field covered by glowing, green snow. We waded out into it, and scooped up fistfuls of the duckweed, each plant a delicate miniature clover. Then we stood for a long time looking out across that scene, and finally we let out our breath.
After a while, we headed back to the brown pool. I knelt in the water. “Feel around,” I said, moving my hands in the muck below the surface.
“Really, do it.” I felt something moving and came up with it in my hand—a squirming, fat bullfrog tadpole. Jason, excited and proud, caught one, too.
We made our way back to the boat, and Jason climbed in. I took my rod from the boat and waded along the bank of the stream, pulling the boat behind me. I saw a sudden flash of color. A bass hit my fly just below the surface. I hooted and hollered and fell sideways into the stream. We both laughed. Then Jason pointed. He could see a long dark shadow following the bass on my line.
A few minutes later, I held the bass in the water and stroked its belly, and we watched it slowly swim away. Watching it leave, I made a wish, that when Jason reaches my age, he still believes in the mystery valley. Sometimes the closer you are to a place, the farther away it can become.
We turned the boat and moved back down the stream. Jason again scouted the shadows in the water, watching for danger until he could no longer see the bottom. Behind us, the valley disappeared.