Peace in the waters

Story by Johnny Sain

Photo by Johnny Carrol Sain

“I got to thinkin’ how there was the moon an’ the stars an’ the hills an’ there was me lookin’ at em, an’ we wasn’t separate no more. We was one thing. An’ that thing was holy.”
— Preacher Casy in The Grapes of Wrath

I’m just out of the shower after wet-wade fishing for the sixth “last time” this autumn. The woods are still mostly green and we haven’t had a frost yet. The blooms on my tomato plants still burn with June’s yellow promise. There’s one whitetail doe in my freezer, but the urge to hunt hasn’t pulsed with ferocity. Looking toward the extended forecast, and time permitting, I might be able to squeeze in another wade this week. In autumns past, the mid-80 degree afternoons would have put me in a funk. This year, though, I crave those afternoons.

Really, I crave the creek.

Earlier today, as I splashed through shallows toward the briar-covered bank and my truck, the longing for even more time in the water welled upward into some awkward emotions for a middle-aged man. I didn’t want to let go of summer.

Amber rays filtered through sycamores as I turned toward the channel for a parting glance at the stream. A brace of spotted bass cruised through dappled shadows amid the tangled roots of a partially submerged honey locust tree as the creek beckoned me back with a saccharine scent of nostalgia, the sound of gentle waters, and the swirling of fallen leaves in riffles. And then, of course, the bass themselves were persuasion aplenty.

Defining that persuasion, that need to connect with these aquatic souls while half immersed in their world, is a puzzling thing. It’s not possession or domination, no utilitarian needs, though, this was precisely the draw for my prehistoric angling ancestors. It is a hunger, but for what? I’ve pondered on that question off and on for most of my life. This year, for many reasons, has brought a renewed and more fervent seeking of answers.

It could be the thin separation between life and death. There is a strong analogy here as my yesterdays have grown to outnumber my tomorrows. In fishing, I’m tethered to a blurring primal force by only a strand. Youth was a blurred primal force as well, and it slipped through my tenuous hold with a mere flick of its tail as the currents of time swept it downstream. I know that’s pretty dark, but there is something lighter here, too, that I seek in the waters. It traces back beyond early adulthood and the teen years, back to a time of simplicity.

One of the quickest ways to start an argument and possibly end a friendship (or even family relationship) is to bring up the topic of religion. Heck, everybody has an opinion on religion and many are all too happy to shove those opinions down your throat — in the name of love, of course — while you gasp and choke on the bitter cutting edges. Some speak of a paradise beyond this world, something to die for. But let me, instead, offer something to live for, a humble vision of Nirvana attainable now.

My heaven is me at 10 years of age, big and strong enough to venture on my own yet naive and innocent enough to accept the magic and wonder that every wiggle of life elicits in my still malleable mind. And while I’m in the creek, as it winds through acres of gentle slope, the years wind back as well. I am that 10-year-old boy again. There’s still the tickle of tiny bubbles as water tumbles over rock onto bare feet and the embrace of mud as it sucks at my toes seeking singularity. My brothers and sisters of the creek, the bass and the crayfish, the green heron and the muskrat, are here as they’ve always been. There is no heaven without kindred souls.

In the moving water, time transforms from a linear model to a circle of sunrises and seasons in predictable and perfect rhythm for an unpredictable yet perfect world. Within the circle, edges begin to blur. Within the circle, who I was and who I am become one.

That hum of continuity softens roaring winds of uncertainty raging in my brain. The whispered lullaby of perpetual flow hushes me to sleep on nights of anxious worry about my children’s and grandchildren’s future. The murmur of something larger than me, yet, that is me, brings me back to the water and its promise of heaven.