When he finally came back, he came back with a woman and—clinging to each other, leaning into the warm, slow current—they crossed the river from the opposite shore.
“Hey!” she called after they’d scrambled onto a low island and crawled thirty or forty yards through thumb-thick willows that shut out much of the twilight, clamped in most of the heat.
Cody glanced back over his shoulder. A disassembled fishing pole thrust from the bulky yellow pack that occulted much of his grimy face. “Just a little farther,” he said. “Just another sixty or seventy yards.”
Donna could barely hear him for the crackle of what must have been eons of drifted leaves, while those that still hung from the willows rattled like tiny bones in the fusty air.
“Damn it!” She shouted when he began crawling again. “Stop!”
Cody fell back on his haunches, turned and fixed her in eyes shining with desperation.
“I know I’ve been asking a lot,” he said. “But I’m not insane. Bear with me, Donna. I can’t afford distractions until we get this over.”
“Help me,” Donna said without pleading. “I know I promised not to ask questions, but I followed you across half the freaking state with you shut up in yourself like a stone. Bear with you until we get what over?”
When she went on looking at him expectantly, Cody crawled back down the tunnel he’d forced in the willows and took her hand
“It begins,” he said, “or close enough, when I was thirteen and we lived in a trailer park a couple of miles upstream from where we are now. My mom gave me her old Discman and a box of CD’s and—especially when they’d scream at each other—I’d lie in the dark listening to the tunes.
“Anyway,” he said, “This one summer evening after a screaming match with Mom, the old man came bursting into my room, wanting me to take off with him the next day fishing. When I didn’t move fast enough, didn’t answer him quick enough, he tore the Discman out of my hands and hauled me off the bed by the front of my shirt.
“‘Hey! That’s mine!’ I hollered at this whiskey-smelling jerk with ‘Hotel California’ boiling out of his mitts. And just for that, the bastard smashed my Walkman against the wall.
“For about a second-and-a-half we stood there glaring at each other in the light that fell in from the hallway, and then I lost it big time and gave him this mighty shove. He bounced off the bed, slammed into the wall, and when he went sliding and cursing down between the wall and the bed, I had the good sense to run. I tore through the mudroom, snatched up a pack that I knew held a water bottle and a box of chocolate-covered raisins, and blasted out into the dusk.
“I headed downstream, splashing across an irrigation ditch and loping along the lower end of a misty hayfield until I heard my old man yelling and threw myself into the brush. After thrashing for maybe forty yards, I broke out on the river and ran hard along the bank I couldn’t hear my old man yelling, and then I ran some more. Eventually, I kind of collapsed, still clutching my pack, and when I finally caught my breath, it was so dark I could barely make out an island covered in stunted willows and way-off the silhouettes of ancient trees.
“I waded across from the opposite shore that we just did, and after a long, dark, claustrophobic crawl through the willows, I came to a clearing with these monstrous old trees. The clearing was mostly bright sand with a few tufts of coarse grass, and way over on the far side where the cottonwoods were clumped together, a pool of black water shimmered in the light of a three-quarter moon and first stars.
“I was just sitting there next to the funky-smelling pool, wondering what-in-the-hell to do next, when something humped up out there, glistening for a moment like the back of a huge lunker fish.
“I right away checked the pack and sure enough, besides the water bottle and box of raisins, there was my cheapo, telescoping fishing pole
“What-the-heck, I thought as I hooked on three or four chocolate covered raisins and plopped them in. Even if it was just my imagination, the casting and reeling will warm me up.
“Right away something big started bumping at the bait, and I got all excited and gave a yank and zzzizzzz here comes hook, line and sinker but half the chocolate covered raisins whipping out of that black star reflecting pool.
“Whatever it was—and I say whatever it was because no trout could live in conditions like that—it must have been spooked, because when I got the hook rebaited and cast back in, it took a while before it began to bite. When it finally did, I waited until it swallowed the hook and then I gave the rod a good stiff jerk. That motherhunper reared back and went plunging all over hell with me reeling and the drag shrieking until all of a sudden it charged up to the surface and stopped. It gave me the willies the way it seemed to peer at me from just beneath the black water. And then it dove. It went straight down, I swear it. With me reeling again and the drag shrieking again, until finally the line broke with a .22-loud Thwack.
“I got pretty bummed then. I wanted to run home and tell my dad about the humongous fish, but I couldn’t very well do that. What with me being out there in the cold and the creepiness hiding from him.
“After a while I trudged on back to the willows and scooped a nest in the mass of leaves. I didn’t sleep very well, though, what with these upsetting dreams of hiding and fighting, and in the morning, I felt wrung out. I got up before sunligh reached the clearing, tramped on home and there was my old man sitting on the steps.
“‘How’d you sleep?’ he says with this shit-eating grin on his big pitted face.
“‘Not worth a damn.’
“‘Well,’ he says, ‘let’s run on into town and get you a new music machine. That piece of crap your mom gave you was practically an antique.’
“And that was that, not another word said. Except that he liked to brag to his cronies about the night his skinny kid knocked him on his ass.
Cody sucked a breath and wiped his eyes with the back of a gritty hand.
“Probably out of spite, I never did tell him about the huge lunker fish.”
“Well, thank you” Donna said, more heartsick than appeased, “at least I know why you’re toting enough tackle to land Moby Dick. But I still don’t understand why you decided to come back after all this time.”
“You know how I’ve been jumpy and short-tempered these last few weeks? With you all the time bugging me with, “Talk to me, Cody. Cody, what’s wrong?’ Well, every night I’ve been having those very same dreams of hiding from and fighting with something I can’t make out.
“I guess,” he said through a tortured laugh, “I’ve gone and caught myself an obsession.”
Somehow during his tale they’d got themselves switched around so that Donna was holding him as he stared off into the cankered scrub. And that was how they remained, blank-faced with no birds singing, until Donna roused herself, planted a sloppy silly kiss on his neck and said, “C’mon, Cody. If we’ve caught ourselves an obsession, we’d best see it through.”
Despite their common purpose and much dusty crawling, an orange froth lathered the west when they broke at last into the clearing. They threw off their packs in the dense, Silurian dusk, and Cody stepped back into the leaves to dig for bait while Donna looked around. It was pretty much as he’d described, monstrous trees and mat-black water, except that one of the cottonwoods had toppled across the pool, its leafless crown shattered like a line drawing of a tree on the trackless sand.
When Cody had his pole rigged and baited, they bellied up to the pool to avoid spooking their quarry and halted just back from the torpid water. Right away Donna noticed that the pool seemed to suck as much light as it reflected, and when something stirred out there, she shuddered at the thought of a boy confronting this place alone. It was then— just as she sensed its rank sterility and vain fecundity and was wanting to drag him away whispering the urgent conviction that this pool had nothing to do with them—that he turned on her his desperate eyes. All she could do was smile and nod and give him up to relentless casting and muttered cursing while the moon rose and the cold seeped in.
When, after an hour, there was nothing, not a single bite, Donna stood up, shivering, and said, “I’m going to start a fire.”
“What fricking ever” he snapped.
Frustrated as he was, Cody flung down armloads of splintered cottonwood while Donna used her pocketknife to shave kindling before erecting a shock. Flames were licking against the stars and half a dozen white grubs squirmed on the hook as clambered out onto the fallen tree and—balanced two feet above the fire-reflecting pool—flipped the bait out into the water.
Almost immediately there came a tentative bump and he glanced over his shoulder, eager to whisper, “Hey, Donna, watch this,” but she was already up and stalking out from behind the wall of fire.
Bump Bump Bump the thing persisted. Cody set the hook with a vicious tug and the thing struck back like a barracuda. It plunged and writhed and slammed and jerked, but this time he was man-strong, with a man’s hard-earned skill and reckless determination, and the creature soon ceased its frenzied plunging, rose to a spot not fifteen feet from the log where, once again, it held and seemed to watch.
“Go on, you sucker,” he muttered. “Dive away, you big ugly brute.”
Instead, it rushed straight at him, rising and swimming faster and faster so that a great surging bow wave passed beneath the log where Cody never stopped reeling until the pole was jerked down, curled under and pitched him off with a tremendous splash of the blood warm water.
By the scarlet light of the prancing fire, through the wincing facets of shattered water, it banked and came storming back, long as a man but fisted into a head. He clubbed it with the butt of the rod and kneed it with slow-motion knees while the slack line wrapped them sinking together with the slimy gray eyeless head mashed against his face.
Cody’s mouth burst open and the brackish water filled his throat as a backlit Donna came stroking down, gripped him under the chin and scissor-kicked them to the bank, where she was on them like a Valkyrie, knife glinting, slashing away the stinging line, while “Kill it,” he gagged. “Kill it,” he gasped. “Kill it before it gets away.”
Very calmly, very firmly, Donna said, “Let it go, Cody. Please let it go”
When he flung himself up, enraged, on one elbow, Donna dropped to her knees and wrapped him in a sinewy embrace. The harder he struggled the tighter she held him, whispering, “Leave it, Cody, leave it alone,” until he ran out of steam, fell back and unknotted his fisted hands.
At the sound of a grinding slither, they turned and watched the creature—long as a man and toothless with a brow like a sperm whale—flop out into the black and scarlet pool and sink slowly away.
photo by Harry Rajchgot