There were no houses or driveways, no signs of human life. There was no reason to stop along that stretch of asphalt unless one was an avid angler, like Jacob’s mother. Viola pursued wild sections of the river during her weekends; she examined maps for amenable topography, evaluated the proximity of roads. She drove hunched over the steering wheel, looking for nondescript openings, and found a hole in the forest wall.
Jacob removes boots and socks, dangles his feet in the cold water, and digs gravelly sand with his toes. A newt peeks through moss on a fallen branch and flicks its tongue. Birds chirp and butterflies flit between perches. Upstream, the river skips down a gentle waterfall, swirls around rocks, and flows by tangled ferns. Downstream, before a bend in the river, an oak limb juts over the water. A rusty nail holds a frayed rope to the bough.
In the center of an aspen stand, Jacob kneels by his backpack, fishing rod, and tackle. He caresses smooth bark, looks up at golden leaves and a grayish white trunk. After clearing branches and stones, he unties the cord holding tent poles and sleeping bag to the bottom of the pack and sets up the tent how he and Sarah had many times before. Narrow metal stakes pierce the firm ground, driven by the force of his boot heel.
Viola brought Jacob to the river. He dashed down the path through the woods while she gathered their things from the backseat. He picked flat rocks from the shallows, skipped them across the river surface, and bowed to imaginary applause. Viola slipped off her sandals and waded into the water to retrieve the tire. She held it steady while Jacob clambered aboard. He liked the swing but was relieved when the tire returned to her arms.
The cloth was worn, and its edges were torn, but the center was soft and comforting. There were grapes, wheat bread, and peanut butter and jam. There was juice for Jacob and wine for Viola. After eating, they listened and watched: water churned around boulders and fallen trees; overhead sun cut through aspen leaves and illumined midstream. Rainbow-tinted flies buzzed to and fro, like a tortuous trapeze. They landed on glistening ripples and rode the current before rising trout cleared stage.
Inside the tent, Jacob bundles a sweater under the head of his sleeping bag. He hangs the small, battery-powered lantern he bought a month ago, two days before killing the man. Outside, a dozen trips to the river and back, ringing a small pit with cobbles—he imagines a hot-burning fire. There’s a rock at the edge of the aspen stand that’s flat except for subtle concavity at its center, which will hold a fish and its juices.
Viola taught Jacob how to cook trout during a camping trip: fillets in butter with salt and pepper. He was unsteady moving a blade through the meaty bodies, so she guided his hand.
Jacob leans against a boulder, for its broad shadow. The tackle includes spoons and spinners, an assortment of hooks, leaders, swivels, and sinkers. He selects a metallic blue and silver lure purposefully bent to a slight wave form. He casts downstream and reels against the current, a run that funnels between a submerged log and the shallows. After failed attempts, and a deep breath, Jacob looks above the aspens at the sun and cloudless sky.
A fish strikes in the middle of the run, breaks the surface and shows a red throat-slash and spotted back. It dives, tries for the sunken log. Jacob locks hard and reels. At the shallows he takes the trout by the gill openings; it hangs the length of his forearm.
Jacob cleans his catch as the sun drops behind the hills. In the fire pit, next to the cooking rock, he builds a teepee of dried bark and branches like they’d taught their daughter. Within twenty minutes there’s a good burn, hot coals; the flesh sizzles and skin curls from the rock.
The wood cracks and pops, and the glowing coals thicken. Jacob leans back, his stomach full, and closes his eyes.
Early September, 2009
Sarah’s head rested on Jacob’s thigh while he sat against a ponderosa pine. Blue-orange flames danced along the wood. Their daughter lay on a blanket, reading by the firelight. It was a cool, dry night. His wife breathed, and the stars came to life.
There’s moisture inside from Jacob’s breathing during the night. He unzips the tent; morning sneaks in and gives him goosebumps. He ties on his boots and emerges into a dreary mist.
Deep in the alpine woodlands, there’s a meadow at the foot of a rocky incline. Clouds break and the sun spills across the sky. The clearing provides a panoramic view of towering pines, cliffs, and bald granite domes. Jacob is surrounded by flowering plants and grasses. He picks yampah, its tuberous roots crunchy and sweet.
June 30, 2012
Sarah pulled the hood over her head and took the path to the road. Jacob sat on a mossy slope and ran his fingers through soft green tendrils. He had wanted her to stay, to build a fire and watch the flames push back the night. And he had wanted to leave with her, to see their daughter, but he let her walk away.
Distant coyote chatter woke Jacob from a shallow sleep. The fire was out. Clouds blocked the moonlight. He kicked dirt on the dying coals and staggered to his tent.
Jacob finds a mule deer at the base of a tree. The shaft of an arrow protrudes from its hindquarters. He stares at the arrow, the fur clotted with dried blood, the shattered upper leg bone. He envisions the deer struggling through the undergrowth, writhing next to the aspen before dying. Jacob looks into the deer’s remaining eye. Maggots nibble the cornea. Suddenly he stamps on the hind leg and yanks the arrow. A second try and it comes loose; his mind convulsing, he throws the arrow to the trees.
A mile from Jacob’s tent, where the path meets the road, there’s a small gravel turnout. He shields his eyes from the sun. For half an hour Jacob sits out of sight and watches the road: two rusty backwoods-type cars, a group of touring motorcycles headed by leather garbed senior citizens, a pickup truck hauling a fishing boat. He drags a leafy branch across the turnout, places it to block the path’s narrow entrance.
Fishing and foraging—the river and the woods have been good to Jacob. He washes with an old bar of soap, which is hard and grainy, good for scrubbing out dried sweat and stink. He’s hanging clothes on a cord that runs from one aspen to another when he hears his daughter’s voice.
“They’re going to find you.” Her eyes are blueish gray and wet like Sarah’s the last time.
“You can’t let them. There must be a better place.”
“I want to be here.”
They walk to the river, Jacob’s arm around her as she leans against him. She’s wearing an oversized sweatshirt, faded blue jeans, and a tired pair of sneakers. They sit near the water.
“You remembered this place,” Jacob says. “Thank you.” The river rushes more than usual. The water is dark with silt and detritus. “It rained high in the mountains last night. It’s a good time to try a worm or grub.”
“Why did you kill him?”
Jacob flinches, looks at his hands. “When I found him, he tried to run. He cried. I thought I could tie him up, beat him some and call the cops. But I couldn’t leave it at that. I couldn’t stop until it was done.”
“I’m glad he’s dead, but they want to take you away.”
Jacob reaches down, gently tugs at his daughter’s frayed pant cuff. “I wasn’t thinking of you. Not at that moment. Your mother, what he did to her …”
They push aside ferns and turn over rocks until they have a handful of bait. Jacob clips a swivel to the loop of a leader. She ties on the line and pinches a sinker above the knot. He runs the hook through the liveliest worm, ending with the barb protruding from its flesh. They fish, but nibbles leave them with only a pale white grub.
“I have roots and berries,” Jacob says, and flicks the grub into the water.
Jacob walks his daughter to the path. “Are you going to town?”
“No, I’ll stay with grandma Viola for a while.”
“Good. Tell her I’m by the river.”
This story was born out of time spent in the Sierra Nevada of northern California. There are remote regions of the mountains that the casual traveler rarely visits, yet which people inhabit wishing to have little contact with society. While hiking and camping, I often wondered, sometimes fantasized, about what would drive an individual into the mountains and keep them there indefinitely. The rivers, lakes, and forests, the granite peaks and solitude are undoubtedly magnetic, but once admiration for the rugged beauty has worn off, it must take a special circumstance for someone to bear the difficulty of isolation.
Scott Drew was born and raised in the Green Mountains of Vermont. He is a graduate of Bowdoin College and Ohio State University and has worked as a geologist and an environmental consultant in California and Texas. Scott has published a scientific research article in Lithosphere, which is a journal of The Geological Society of America. “Vignettes of a Drowning Man” is his first published piece of creative writing. Scott currently works as an educator and lives with his kind and generous wife in San Antonio, TX.