Finally I understood it was a messenger. This is what it told me: ĎThere is common ground. There is common ground.í ó Elias Wonder as recalled by Harry Middleton
Late in the day, three hours left of daylight, but I was determined to go. For weeks I had been readying the old boat, the one my father built of cypress and plywood before I was born. It now had a new plywood deck and, I hoped, a repaired leak at the sheerline. I had also constructed from mahogany a mount for my electric trolling motor, with a clever concoction of long bolts and wing nuts to avoid drilling holes in the spray rail to mount it.
But after I dropped into Bayou Teche and climbed about, I saw at once I had failed.
There it was, a trickle of water, running down the sides, just under the aft decking, in a spot I couldnít ever get my head into to see the source. I imagine I cussed pretty loudly. Thereís nothing more sinister to a wooden boat than a leak, and I thought I had conquered the first and only leak that boat had ever had. I was disappointed, and unsure how I would find it with the deck back on.
Undeterred, though, I cranked the little engine and after it warmed up, I dropped it into gear and throttled up. The boat reminded me then that maybe it had a little rheumatism in the form of a trickle leak aft, but it was still a vessel that barely existed in the same physical plane as myself. As the prop whirled, the boat shrugged off the surface tension of the water, slid down into a shallow gully below its hull and, nose lifting, sped up as if ready to take flight, but then her bow dropped and she planed out, soft and subtle, gliding with some bending of physics between her bottom and the water.
When I finished this one, I could hear my father again, all those years ago, I said to myself, "Thatís it. It doesnít get any better than this, so I kept it for myself."
We followed the same course I had made hundreds, thousands of times before: As surely as fathers follow a course to the ball field, to the gym, mothers to dance class or piano lessons. As for my father and I, we followed Bayou Teche to the channel between the locks near Charenton Beach, turned there to follow the levee to Lake Fausse Pointe, which our grandfathers called Sheti.
I turned into a shallow cove, and the boat leaned to the direction I asked of it, and when I let the throttle handle twist back, she came to rest, lowering herself back into the lake. Forward inertia carried a bit more, and as I killed the engine, she came to a quiet, expectant rest.
Those of us who are not born of water, who do not understand the need be near it, who are not drawn and attached to it as if by umbilical, wonít comprehend the resonance through me. Cares fell away, the flattened, beaten lump of my spirit renewed just a little. I was home.
I found my little fly rod, a winter project. For the first time I had built my own rod from the components to completion. It was an ambitious but satisfying project, and it turned out satisfactory. I tied a Jitterbee, a fly of Louisiana origins, to the tippet of the leader and the little rod didnít let me down. A little line stripped off the reel, a couple of airborne false-casts, and the fly landed precisely where I wanted it.
Nearly an hour later, I had begun to think it was still too early. The water was chilly to the touch, and perhaps the fish had not begun to move from the depths into the shallows to begin their spring rituals. Of course, I was disappointed, but Thoreau was right: I go fishing, but it isnít really fish Iím searching for. Itís the budding green cypress trees; the copper-black water, and the high-stepping white heron on the shore among the reeds, eyeing me with cautious curiosity. While I was anxious after a futile fishing season last year to feel the weight of a respectable fish on the new rod, still what was most important to me was the deadfall in the back of Susanís Bayou, remnants of the hurricanes two years ago; the peeking white shell of an Indian mound on the bank, and the slow reinflating lump of my soul.
But then, there he was.
A jerk, firm, tactile, it nearly took the line out of my hand. I lifted the rod abruptly but not hard, not a snap, just a lift, and something out on the other end of the leader reacted with surprise at that. It fled, and the game was on.
So we danced, that submerged denizen of the lake and I, in swirling circles, in strafing runs down the little canal, a waltz of spring really, a ballet of rejuvenation.
At last he surfaced and, dancing on his tail in a head-shaking attempt to throw the fly, dropped back again into the water, but he was tired. I urged him a little more but he came easily to hand then, and I lifted him into the boat. About three pounds, though perhaps Iím being overly generous. Heck, itís spring, and I feel triumphant, feel like saying three pounds, so three it is. I snap a quick photo, and return him to the water. He twists off without drama, as if nothing has happened.
Here I am, I thought. And here I go. A fish caught on a fly I tied myself, on a rod I built from scratch, in a boat my father built more than four decades ago. If thereís no common ground in the world, then how can I be here? How can I exist?
I caught one other fish, a Choupique who led me on a merry chase, and I released it at last. It tore my Jitterbee to bits, so I replaced it and fished a little longer until at last the sun was slung so low on the horizon I feared Iíd be making my way home in the dark. I put away my gear, donned by life vest and cranked up the motor, pointed the bow toward home. I felt like I had hungered for long days, and just had a good meal. Like I had toiled long, and slept hard, awakening to a bright orange dawn.
The wake of the boat was an arrow-shaped swell of forgiveness for any days of anger, any flashes of temper, any tears of despair I might have known over the months behind. A pointer toward the future. For all Iíve seen, and all Iíve done, the little boat always knows the way there and back again.
It doesnít get any better than this, he said in the voice in my memory again. There is common ground.