They are fly fishing in the Applegate River together, standing in waist-deep water, facing downstream, their lines parallel in the fast-moving flow.
Fred has fished for steelhead in this river for thirty years—the ripples on the water’s surface giving him a detailed picture of the submerged topography, each ripple a syllable in the talk of the torrent.
Tom is visiting from a city far to the south in California. He fishes with some bitterness, mourning the shortness of his stay in Oregon. Maybe I’ll have another big success one day and buy some land up here. Build a little house. Write poetry. Stand in the river whenever I want.
Now a massive steelhead takes Tom’s fly, her voracious hunger overriding her sense of what is real and what is fake.
“Yes!” shouts Fred, grinning at his old friend. “I knew you’d get the first one.”
“Wow! He’s big,” say Tom, playing the fish a bit too zealously.
“She,” says Fred, knowing this to be the female’s dance, a frantic darting mixed with desperate leaps—anything to save her eggs. “You can let her run. No snags all the way to the bend.”
Tom begins to weep.
“You okay?” asks Fred, surprised by his friend’s tears.
“Take my pole,” says Tom, wading through the torrent to Fred. “I can’t do this.”
“No,” says Fred, recoiling. “You hooked her, you play her.”
“But I don’t want to kill her,” he sobs seven years old, playing on a creek, hopping from stone to stone, lost in a fantasy of being an Indian, going around a bend and coming upon a man drowning kittens.
“You don’t have to kill her,” says Fred, touching his friend’s hand. “Just play her and then let her go.”
“Just play her,” says Tom, excited by the ferocity of the steelhead’s will to live. “And then let her go.”
“Yep,” says Fred, nodding. “And while you’re doing that, I’ll make coffee.” He studies Tom’s line for a moment. “I give you a good fifteen minutes to get her close.”
“A good fifteen minutes,” says Tom, watching his friend clamber up the bank. To play a big fish on a lovely river on a lovely planet. Not a bad incarnation.
So he plays her and the scent of coffee fills the air and the river sings her song.
At last the beautiful silver fish rises to the surface and allows Tom to draw her near.
“Oh my friend,” he whispers, unhooking the barb from the fish’s mouth. “Please don’t die.”
She hesitates to leave, not understanding she is free until he touches her and says, “Go on now. Go.”