I stand thigh deep in the cold embrace of the Brule seeking forgiveness. God does not answer my prayer. The only sound I hear is the rushing of black water against hip waders. You’d think I’d know better. Talk to God? I’ve ignored Him for the better part of my adult life though, in times like these, times when I’m troubled and sinking in a trough of despair, I’ve been known to look to Heaven for answers. But despite serious petitions to the Almighty, no whispers of salvation reach my ears. The gurgling of water across neoprene, stones, and deadfall; the river’s subtle voice accompanied by the distant cawing of crows—irritated at my intrusion into their woody sanctuary—is all I hear inside the gabbroic canyon surrounding me.
It isn’t her fault, I think, drawing the tip of a Fenwick bamboo rod—an artifact from my father—towards me in anticipation of sending a wet fly towards a deep hole where I suspect a brook trout, a legendary fish, a big female—its sides bursting with the colors of the rainbow—is lurking. The fly sheds dollops of water as it passes my right ear. I take up slack in the floating line and cast the artificial bait across the pool. The fly lands where the river’s pulse bleeds into calm water. This presentation will allow the lure to waltz downstream at the river’s cadence such that a hungry brookie will be unable to resist it. She never asked me to do it, I think, unable to ignore the trouble that has brought me to seek respite in wilderness.
I’m an officer in a bank, the Consolidated Bank of Two Harbors. I got my job, vice-president and supervisor of the bank’s trust and investment department, after earning a bachelor’s degree in business from the University of Wisconsin-Superior. Not many decent jobs were open to a guy with a BA when I graduated. Until I married right. Cynthia Leppela, the girl I married, the woman I’m married to, was the right one. Cindy isn’t only attractive; she’s also athletic, having been a pitcher on the Agates’ softball team and the goalie on the girls’ soccer team. She’s kept her figure through three pregnancies and still, at thirty-eight—our attempts at procreating having ended prematurely due to a weak cervix, two miscarriages, and tied fallopian tubes—she remains a looker. Short. Compact. High cheekbones. Ample lips. Slight of bust. Wide hipped. Raven hair and platinum blue eyes: a stunning combination of her Italian mother and her Finnish father.
As I wait for a fish to strike, I envision my wife standing in her nightgown looking lovingly into Claire’s crib. Moonlight filtering through a window allows a suggestion of my wife’s breasts, her tummy, her hips, and her legs beneath the gauze of her gown as she watches our only child. Claire is snoring away. A smile creeps across my weary face as I watch the tip of the Fenwick rod twitch.
I’ve tried to be the best husband, lover, and provider I can be, I muse as the fly ends its drift. I retrieve fluorescent green line with my right hand, the excess coiling and floating on the water’s surface around my waders. When all the line is in, the leader and fly hang from the rod tip. I re-cast, confident that the fly will drift past a half-submerged log. I’m certain that’s where my hypothetical trophy is lurking. The fish is likely suspended inches above the river’s gravel bottom, resting in shadow, waiting in ambush. I knew better. I knew that Cindy wouldn’t ask me to cross that line to make her happy. And yet, somehow, I want to blame her.
It was wrong from the start. I knew it then. I know it now. You can’t sugarcoat the truth so I won’t. But my intentions, if one goes back and revisits what I was thinking two years ago, weren’t as dishonorable as they now appear. I’m not trying to excuse my actions. I’m just trying to explain why I did what I did.
I truly believed I was only borrowing money. At least, that’s how I sold the deed to myself when I found we were short of cash and unable to keep up with the bills that owning two quarter horses—pure blooded and papered and outfitted with the best tack money can buy—entails.
I could live without the horses. We own animals on account of my wife. It’s not that I don’t ride. I’ve had some good times astride Buster—the big red roan gelding Cindy says is “my” horse. Buster, like Cinnamon—the buckskin mare Cindy usually rides—is really my wife’s horse, not mine. But the problem isn’t the animals; they’re both easy going, fine looking, good-natured stock. It’s the cost of owning them. With no barn or hayfield or corral on our property, boarding two horses, especially horses meant for competition, isn’t cheap. And despite Cindy’s pronouncement that she needed five grand to buy Buster for me, she’s the only one who’s ridden Buster in her quest for ribbons and prize money. Just last summer, she won the Lake County Fair barrel race riding Buster. Add to Buster’s price tag the seven grand we forked over for Cinnamon, the horse Cindy has ridden to victory in other events, and you can see how things add up. What with boarding fees, hay, feed, veterinarian bills, and the like, not to mention the expense of a reliable pickup truck and the cost of a durable horse trailer, I’m sure you get the picture. Such expenses are impossible to afford on a banker’s salary; even a salary negotiated with a father-in-law who understands his daughter’s needs.
Lester Kinnunen is an old Finnish bachelor who once owned and ran the local hardware store. When his nephew proposed buying the business, Lester hammered out a pretty sweet deal for the kid. The money Lester received as a down payment for the building and inventory wasn’t earth shattering—just a hundred grand. But that amount, coupled with the monthly payments the kid pays Lester, add up. So the old Finn came to me to make sound, conservative investments for him. Which is what I did. Until our bills caused me to embezzle from Lester’s account.
A bald eagle glides through the canyon. Sunlight strikes the white head and tail of the great bird with dazzling clarity. The eagle cries. I feel a tug. The floating line becomes taut but I’m not ready to set the hook. Take it. My father, an ex-Marine and dead for years, taught me the patience of waiting on trout. I follow his example as current swirls around the glistening line connecting the bamboo rod to what I hope is a legendary fish, a fish I can mount on my bank office wall.
I’d intended to borrow a smidgen from Lester’s investment account; just a small loan to see us through a rough patch. There’s no way Cindy would’ve approved my deception even though she’s accustomed to a certain standard of living. Cindy’s someone her father never said “no” to. I understand why. She was, like Claire, an only child, a spoiled child. Not by way of attitude but by way of entitlement. But while Cindy’s never gone without, I know her mettle. My wife could, if worse came to worse, tighten her belt and sell Buster if need be. Hell, she’d sell both horses and everything else that means anything to her before doing what I did.
But I did not want to disappoint the woman I love. It’s pretty clear to me—and everyone who knows us—that Cindy is way out of my league. I’m bearded, short, rotund, and balding; not at all what women like Cindy usually deem to be “a catch.” Yet something clicked between us. She said it was my brown eyes and impish grin and my ribald humor that drew her in. Maybe. Or maybe I remind Cindy of her old man. There’s a certain physical resemblance between us, and like I said, we do share a vocation.
In the beginning, I borrowed only a few grand from Lester’s account and kept things on the down low by having two sets of books; one set being the actual ledger of Lester’s investments and the other memorializing my debt to the old Finn. My first sin kept us in the black for three months. Then the Ford blew a head gasket and Cindy needed to buy a new pickup truck and I didn’t have the heart to say no. Over the course of two years, my debt to Lester grew to fifty grand.
Lester came into the bank yesterday to say he wants to cash out. He met an Estonian woman—Etta Tuka—a stunner fifteen years his junior, on the ferry between Helsinki and Tallinn. The two of them hit it off. There’s going to be a wedding in Varnja, the Estonian village Etta calls home located on the west shore of Lake Peipus. There’s talk of the two of them buying an apple orchard and living near Varnja happily-ever-after. Lester and I agreed he’ll come in to close out his account on Monday. It’s Saturday afternoon. I have two days to come up with Lester’s cash but that’s not gonna happen.
The floating line has disappeared. I set the hook. “Christ!” Immediately, I’m impressed by the weight and the power of the fish. The brookie is indeed a trophy. It’s late September. The leaves are turning. The mornings are cool and the days are growing shorter. Come the first of October, stream trout season will close and brook trout will spawn uninterrupted by fishermen. “This is the biggest brookie I’ve ever had on,” I whisper. The fish jets down river. I maintain steady pressure on the line but I don’t force the trout to go anywhere she doesn’t want to go.
To make things worse, Erik “Bud” Leppela—my father-in-law and boss—has been poking around. Normally he lets me do my thing but for some reason his interest has been piqued. There’s also an audit coming up. Last year I avoided trouble by sleight-of-hand accounting. But that trickery won’t work a second time. Maybe the new truck is what tipped Bud off. Or, the opal necklace, earrings, and bracelet I gave Cindy for Christmas were a catalyst for suspicion. That was stupid—an extravagant gesture. But God, I love that woman. She deserves to be treated like a queen, what with all she’s been through. She gave up teaching, gave up coaching, gave up everything (except the horses), and endured two failed pregnancies before becoming a mom to Claire. I know she loves me. But that’s gonna change. Once the shit hits the fan, she’ll wash her hands of me. Cindy’s tough as nails. She can tolerate a lot. We survived the one mistake I made during our marriage, the one involving Jeanie. Never slept with that girl. But it was close. That little misunderstanding took months to smooth over. Had I slept with Jeanie Franklin, a twenty-seven-year-old, newly-divorced teller at the bank, well, that would have done us in. But this is worse. Honor. The family name. Small town prominence. All these mean a lot to Cynthia. I am so screwed.
I sense the trout tiring. I try to relax, exhaling as if to expel demons. Despite my angst, the beauty of this rugged place, where ebony water rushes over ancient volcanic rock, is not lost on me. Even as I consider what will happen on Monday, I take note of the fish tugging at the end of my line, of the bluebird sky, of the forest slowly turning in season, and of the sunshine warming my face. These things remind me of what I have. What we have. I test the line. The fish is winded. I crank the open-faced reel, its mechanical “click” at odds with the subtle voice of the river. And then, she’s swimming next to me, her tail methodically waving in the current.
I tuck the butt of the fly rod under my left arm and reach into the water with bare hands. I lift the scarlet and blue and yellow speckled fish, her fins streaked with the same white that graced the head and tail of the departed eagle, free of the water’s embrace. I hoist three pounds of tired brook trout into cooling air as the sun slips behind a rocky escarpment. The brookie struggles in my wet hands, and for a moment, I fear I’ll drop her. But I don’t. I consider the trout and decide that the would-be trophy must be released. I remove the hook from the fish’s upper lip, bend over, and gingerly hold the big fish in current. Water rushes through her gills. She regains her strength and I let her go. I do this because she’s a coaster; a female brook trout heavy with eggs who’s left the big lake to spawn in the river. Her fins flash white against the inky water and, with a swipe of her broad tail, she disappears.
I catch a half-dozen other trout. None are longer than ten inches. I consider these wild, native fish and their will to survive as they too vanish upon release. Ruefully, I contemplate the Browning .45—another artifact from my father—fully loaded and stuffed into the glove compartment of the Toyota FJ Cruiser I parked a mile downstream. That’s one way of avoiding Monday, I think as I secure the fly to an eyelet of the old rod before stepping free of water.
I leave the valley on a trail slashing through green-needled pines, yellowing birch, and flaring maples. The path is rugged. Neoprene chafes my skin. Sweat drips from my forehead. The trail climbs forever. Halfway to the summit, where the narrow path skirts a granite cliff, I stop to catch my breath. Dusk is falling as I bear witness to the valley and the river and the trout one last time. As I survey endless, forested hills folding towards Canada, a fleeting vision of Cynthia standing over Claire’s crib interrupts my reflection. The image fades and I resume walking towards the parking lot full in the knowledge of what I must do.