In the late afternoon sun, little reflective flashes of trout and salmon fry make it look as though someone is striking a piece of flint on the river bottom, and small but growing clouds of insects orbit just above the surface of the water. It feels familiar; Ben has been here before at this time of day, though not for years. If he remembers correctly and nothing has changed, with the onset of the dusk hours these small swarms will become thick as snow flurries. That prospect would have excited his father because the trout would then rise to the surface to feed. But Ben never understood the point of fishing. He never understood the point of a lot of things his father found important.
Laughter scratches the silence, erupting from somewhere out in the forest. Ben flinches, mid-cast, and scans the bank as his white fly-line drops to the water and drifts tangled downstream. Adrenaline fans from his shoulder, bathing his hands then out his fingertips. He absently touches two fingers to his neck to feel his galloping pulse. He can’t remember ever meeting another person out here. This was his father’s secret spot.
He paws his vest, making sure his wallet and keys aren’t back in the glove compartment of his sedan, a mile away on the gravel turnoff along Forest Road 679. There have been stories: meth addicts mixing in abandoned cabins on the outskirts of state parks, gangs breaking windows and jacking cars from wilderness area lots. But those stories always seemed somewhere else.
He takes out his phone. No bars, and the sand dial on the screen spins.
Then it’s quiet again. He waits. He waits. He waits. Nothing. Only water over and around rocks and trees and brush.
Maybe they’ve left, he thinks. Hopefully they’ve left. Hopefully there is no they. Just someone who thought something was funny. Someone who’s now gone.
And it would be just like me, he thinks – no, laughs – to believe that anyone would care. To assume that, even if they did, there would be danger. It was just his lifelong habit of making himself the center of everyone else’s world. As his father used to say, Most of the time, people don’t give two shits what you do, as long as it doesn’t prevent them from doing what they want to do. Ben looks up the sandbar, where the setting sun throws a sharp yellow glare from the enamel of the blue urn he’d carried here, the reason for his return to his father’s beloved fishing spot.
He looks away, takes a deep breath, feels his pulse again, and pulls an orange plastic prescription bottle from his vest. He shakes it and listens to how the pills that calm him rattle. They sound ridiculous out here, for some reason. A kid’s marbles amid the mad, gross throng of insect life surrounding him. Mayflies. Birth-beauty-sex-death in twenty-four hours then double helix-filled egg sacs left to leisure on the river bottom silt for months, like winter mothers in rocking chairs, knitting together strands of will and information so another generation can binge and purge when their time comes.
His father would have disagreed with that line of thought. Look at their wings, he would have said. Look close. See the fine lines. See the detail. See the perfection.
Ben could only ever see bugs. He twists off the child-safe top and swallows down two pills dry and again looks at the urn. People told him he was lucky, having his father go so quick. Said the old man didn’t suffer at all. Told him how fortunate that was.
But judging fortune is a quagmire. Don’t wade too deep into that logjam. Everything will turn fuzzy around the edges, like the week when the old man died and Ben stayed in his house all week while the days shed. Molted. Larva to fly. Worm to wing. Then a quick flicker and smoke. There in his house nothing seemed sure. It terrified him – he’d wake up at night and listen to his own breath for hours, worrying the next heartbeat wouldn’t come. Worrying the winter mothers had missed a stitch.
Ben’s shoulder blades grow cool and calm and an aura around his head sparks into a shine. He imagines the pills crumbling and mashing until they are slime coating his stomach. The setting sun colors the clouds pink, their reflection off the river surface sharing a pleasant glow with the bark and leaves of the dense overhanging maple branches.
And walks toward the top end of the sand bar, picking up the urn on the way. A vase, really. The urns were all ridiculously overpriced. A scam. His father would have understood. His ashes would have resisted anything gaudy and bronze-plated, maybe climbed the polished walls of a real urn and found some wood to wrap themselves in before hitching their way back to the George and Dragon pub, reincarnated as pencils for the palms of his writing buddies so they could use his spent carbon to make new flesh out of words.
Ben sees, along the riverbank, a mammoth overturned tree stump blocking the current. The water speeds up as it sweeps around it, while the water behind circles back upstream, creating a large whirlpool. He knows from his father that the fish behind such a structure actually face downstream. In a light December dusting snow when he was fourteen, he’d watched as his father tug from behind a similar stump a fifteen-pound chrome winter-run steelhead, its tail still pocked with sea lice and body just beginning to show signs of reverting to its freshwater colors.
Were his father here now, he might whoop at the sight of such a fine hole, and his delicate hands might shake in anticipation of that first cast into the spinning water.
He stops and hold the vase in both hands. The lid clacks against its rim as Ben pulls it open. Inside, the bits of bone sticking up amidst the ash surprise him. They are sharp, seem gothic, not at all like how the word cremation sounds. He finds it hard to believe this is really what his father’s body has become, both the silky ash and the stubborn calcified bits that resisted fire. He’s calm now from the pills and wishes more feelings would stoke inside him, because he suddenly feels his father watching, even though he doesn’t really believe that he can. They’re there, Ben’s feelings, they’ve erupted many times before for much less – a beautiful face, a sarcastic word, traffic. But here on the river his body is a hive and his emotions are sleep-drunk bees, nodding down below where it’s still midwinter, droning and snoring in their snug wax burrows.
The damn pills. I shouldn’t have taken them, he thinks. They minimize everything. He feels he should be feeling more. Emoting. Heck, his father deserves the manic chorus of a thousand bee wings swatting the air, even a barb or two puncturing skin and shooting poison. Even if they didn’t understand each other, he was a good man, never punished Ben for being different than him.
“I’m sorry,” he says out loud, and just goes for it, pouring out the ash in a clump. It floats on the top of the water like unbeaten flour. He forgot to drop it into the current, and the eddy seems unsure of what to do with its new covering. But slowly the ash does spread and drift and the water in front of Ben clears, revealing the bits of sunken bone on the cobbled bottom. It seems to him an offense that no one will ever know the difference between the bone and the rest of the frac and gravel.
“I’m sorry,” he says again, because this whole thing still seems rote, far less meaningful than he feels it should.
Ben sets the vase back down on the sandbar, unsure of what to do with it. Then he picks it back up again and sinks the lid below the water. He lets the current gurgle in, then lifts it up and pours out the contents. He does this many times, until he can’t see any ash or residue. But he can’t seem to stop, he keeps doing it, over and over, in and out, because he can’t get rid of the idea that perhaps there are bits of his father still molecularly attached to the inside of the vase, that the simple rush of water might not have the means to release every bit of him. And every bit of him deserves to be where he wanted to lay.
And a moment later, Ben can’t string his thoughts together. Everything seems to suck into a tight plastic bag around his head. His breath feels hot and flat against his face. He wonders if his lungs are working. He sets down the vase and feels his chest with his palms. He pushes two fingers into his neck again to feel his pulse.
“I’m sorry,” he says again, for the affront to his father’s memory. At his father’s burial, of all things, to be obsessed with his own death, when he should be able to muster something more than a drone and thrum for the man who raised him. He tries to transfer the emotion at the thought of his own death to an image of his father, but the bees shoot back inside the moment the picture arrives in his mind’s eye. Perfect, he thinks. Narcissus in the river, unable to care about anything but his own reflection. He’s dizzy. His hands feel as though they’re losing feeling. His throat tightens. He closes his eyes and kneels down and curls up into fetal position on the sand bar, feeling a few stones press into his sides.
A voice from shore. Ben sucks up a quick breath. His insides spasm. He pushes himself up with his hands and stumbles to his feet. He sways, still dizzy. Two men stand on shore. One with a beard. The other long hair. They are dressed casually. One has a backpack. The other has both hands in the front pockets of his jeans. They are his age. They laugh. The laugh from earlier.
Long hair asks, “How’s the fishing?”
Ben’s mouth has gone dry and tastes prickly. “How long have you been here?”
“Long enough,” says beard. “How about you wade back to shore. We can talk about it.”
This is it, thinks Ben. This is happening. He hears the whoosh of his heart pushing torrents of blood through the vessels near his ears. The sparkle, the aura, the droning: gone.
“Trouble speaking?” asks beard.
Ben feels the rattles threatening to take over his hands. “I think I’m okay here. Fishing.” His voice doesn’t sound near as confident as he hoped it would. He tries to stand up tall, but he feels unsubstantial, a reed in the current.
Long hair laughs. “Hear that? Our pal here thinks this is a negotiation.”
Ben tries to remember the nearest building. A gas station, miles away. He tries to remember seeing any other cars, people maybe camping. Nothing. Too many miles. “Let’s talk about this,” he says. “Maybe we can figure something out.”
“Just come on into shore. We’ll have plenty of time to talk,” say beard.
“Plenty,” says long hair. He smiles, and even from here his teeth look too long, like his gums have retreated.
Keep them talking. The memory of something Ben’s father had said to him beetles into his mind. Even better, keep them laughing. Life will be a lot easier. Misdirection.
“You guys fished here before?” Ben asks. He remembers the utility knife he carries – it isn’t much, but at least it’s something. His hand drifts towards the pockets on his chest.
“Keep your hands in front of you,” says beard, and he pulls up his gray wool sweater from the buckle of his jeans to reveal the matte black handle of a pistol.
Ben feels as if the men are already right next to him. With the speed a bullet can travel, a hundred yards is a handshake. He imagines the metal filling zipping through the air in slow motion, puncturing a hole, turning his pelvis into a spring.
“Whoa there, buddy,” says long hair.
Ben stumbles. His legs and hands are cold and foreign. Faster and faster, Ben’s thoughts careen through his brain like minnows jerking among riverbed stones. They refuse to connect. They are strangers.
“Just keep your hands in front of you and come back to shore,” says beard.
A breeze picks up and tears a few leaves from limbs hanging over the river. They drift down onto the water between him and the two on shore. Ben feels he must speak. He must say something. He must put them off. “Can we talk here?” says Ben. “Tell me what you want.”
“We want you to come to shore. It’s that simple.”
Both of the men look so large. He imagines another bullet boring through the skin of his chest, bursting through his ribcage, plugging deep into his heart. He imagines blood the texture of paint and the color of wine. He feels dizzy and shakes his head. He pictures his mother at her house in Seattle and wills worry into her gut.
“Any time now,” one of them says, but Ben isn’t looking at them any longer. He has glimpsed the vase still sitting on the sandbar and is now staring at it.
“That urn,” he says, “I’m spreading my father’s ashes.”
They don’t say anything.
Ben concentrates on the square patch where the sun focuses on the enamel.
A bird chirps.
Finally, one of them says, “Sorry for your loss,” and it almost sounds like he means it.
Or is he laughing. Ben can’t tell. He doesn’t want to look. “No,” he says, and almost can’t believe he’s saying it, but he keeps staring at the vase feeling begins to return to his outer limbs and the dizziness dissipates. “It really isn’t an urn. It’s a vase, you see – ”
“Just come to shore,” says beard. “Don’t worry about it. The water will rise.”
“Nah,” says long hair. “Let him. Just get on with it.”
“Thank you.” Ben walks up the sand bar, still staring at the vase. “What’s funny,” he says, “Is that I just came from the funeral home.” He didn’t, but it might mean something to them.
“Ah,” says long hair.
“Looks like I made a wrong turn,” he says, and he can’t believe he’s joking about it, but there is no way out, and it feels better this way, and he feels himself – the dimness has left and everything seems more vivid.
“You could say that,” says beard.
Long hair laughs. That laugh.
Ben picks up the vase and feels its weight. He lifts it high into the air and slams it down onto the rocks, where it shatters into dozens of pieces.
“What the fuck are you doing?” says beard.
Ben imagines beard probably now has the gun out, pointed at him, but he’s looking at the shards of blue and white clay scattered among the grey sand and stone.
“Molecules,” says Ben, and he doesn’t care at all, and he gets down on one knee and picks up the shards, one by one, and tosses them sideways into the river. They plink as they hit the water.
“Stop,” he hears beard say.
Ben feels the gun pointed at him, bullet in chamber, but he can hear a little bit of hesitation in the voice so he keeps going. “My father’s molecules,” says Ben. “Are still attached to the insides.” He continues to throw the pieces into the river, stopping only to break one of the larger pieces into a few smaller versions of itself.
“What the fuck’s he talking about,” says long hair.
“A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king / and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm.”
“Hamlet,” says Ben. It was what his father used to say every time they ate fish. “If you eat a fish you caught here, from now on you’ll be eating my dad.” He likes how he said it there, so matter-of-fact, like he was reading it from the back of a cereal box. Finally he looks up at them and can see by their postures that they are no longer comfortable. He can still feel the blood whooshing through his ears, but no more the threat of rattling hands. He is the stump in the river that the water must go around. “Now, where were we?” He stands up and wipes his hands on the hips of his waders.
“You were coming to shore,” says beard.
“Right,” says Ben. He begins to wade across the run towards them. “I caught my very first steelhead on this exact run, twenty-five years ago,” he says. A lie. But no matter.
“That’s good to know,” says beard.
A swarm of mayflies, bobbing and jerking above the surface of the water, surround his face. One lands his wrist.
“Look. Iswaeon Anoka,” he says, a random piece of etymology his father had taught him that has somehow come to mind. He isn’t sure if it’s the exact fly, but it’s something. He holds out his wrist to show the men as his boots sink into the riverbed sand. He feels emotions humming inside of his chest. They buzz and whirr. The queen has sent them flying. “Best imitation for this fly is a Pale Evening Dun. Maybe a #12. But with a hatch this saturated, it’s got to be a good one. The illusion of reality must be so compelling that the fish prefer the copy to the real thing.”
“Good to know,” says long hair. “Now hurry the fuck up.”
Halfway to the bank, in the deep water, the current is strong, and it presses against Ben’s thighs and midsection, but there is no wind and the water in front of him is glass, covered with hundreds of spent mayflies, looking like tiny grey sailboats racing in the middle of a bay, some being picked off, others not, by the sea monsters below.
Ross McMeekin lives in Seattle, where he edits the literary journal Spartan and teaches creative writing. He received a MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2011. His fiction has appeared recently in publications such as Pank, Dark Sky Magazine, and Prime Number Magazine, and his essays have appeared in The Rumpus and Hunger Mountain. He blogs at rossmcmeekin.com.