This story takes place almost 20 years ago and miles away from the nearest people at the end of a long shellrock road that meanders down into a thick overhead covering of trees and comes to a stop beside a mangrove bordered little bay. My tale recalls a wondrously drunken evening spent there and the surreal morning that followed:
I was, at the time, lucky enough to have a friend who was almost my twin. Certainly Eric and I were closer than most brothers. We drank hard together and we fished together even harder. We were amazed by almost exactly the same books and music. It was a great friendship, the best I have ever had, and this trip occurred at the height of it.
This trip found us fishing north of Ft. Pierce, FL, in the estuaries of the Indian River Lagoon system. We liked to road trip there the day before in order to set up camp, get settled in and enjoy a night's sleep before we rose to fish the sunrise the following morning. Eric had one of those hippie-looking, green and white, 1970's era VW camper vans. It bunked the two of us, and it had a little stovetop, which we used to make coffee and breakfast.
On the way up on this trip we had bought some very good tequila, some limes, and some salt so we could do shots. We had eaten a good supper in town before we made the trip, so as soon as we parked, Eric lit all the gas lanterns and made a small fire outside. I laid out our gear for the trip the next morning and put some good German beer on ice to drink while pacing the shots. When all was ready, we started in on the tequila.
I don't remember any of the conversation from that night. I know we were both talking fast, laughing, and were almost able to finish each other’s sentences all night. Stupendously drunken camaraderie of the highest order. Eventually though, we quieted down and reached that stage of intoxication where everything is so profound and significant.
We each began to notice the perfection of the evening. The weather had an autumn feeling that was rare in South Florida. It was cool outside, without mosquitoes or no-see-ums. Overhead, the skies were brilliantly star-lit and clear. The moment was begging for the perfect piece of music. With little debate, we settled on Aaron Copland's "Appalachian Spring." Although we played the recording through a standard little boombox, it could not have sounded more majestic. The music floated out through the trees and over the bay. Eric and I separately and silently began to wander around the campsite. Each of us were deeply moved by the rhapsodic intensity of each swell and crescendo. As we swooned to the music, the stars overhead seemed to have exploded into billions. Our campsite began to seem the center of the universe.
At some point, I stepped back from the van and walked a short distance into the night. Followed by haunting strains of the melody, I turned around and gazed back at our little scene. The van glowed from within, its lamplight gently pouring outside. The campsite's firelight had died down considerably, but it also gave off a warm, safe emanation of its own. From this distance, I could hear the wavelets in the nearby bay, and the slapping splashes of leaping mullet, play a perfect counterpoint to Copland's orchestration. I don't possess a gift of language which will crystallize all that became perfect and harmonious for me there alone under the stars. Stoned perfection it was. Like some Thomas Kinkade painting that had been warped into relevance by a Salvador Dali approved tequila with a classical soundtrack that packed a Pink Floydian mind-wallop. I will never, ever forget those moments.
By the time I walked back into camp, we were both ready to pass out and fish on the morrow. I was bunked up top and Eric down below. The few hours before sunrise were dreamlessly slept though, and I surprised myself by waking just before first light.
I have no idea what it was that woke me. I had been so poisoned by the evening's festivities that I should have slept for a week. It was still night's darkest hour, but a fisherman can just feel the approach of a sunrise. The very first graying of morning's first light was less than half an hour away. Certainly, rolling back over and succumbing to the hangover was an option, but fortunately, back then I was young enough that my compulsions still worked in my favor at times. If I was still breathing, I was going to fish. That's all there was to it.
I eased down out of the bunk without falling and opened the door to the van. Eric either would not or could not move, but that didn't really phase me. This time I would just have to go without him. In the pre-dawn darkness, it was shocking to realize that the fog outside was so thick that even when daylight arrived it would be impossible to see beyond a stone's throw. I was grateful that all my gear was already laid out. Surprisingly, in spite of my condition, I was soon ready to go. There really was little else to do. With waders on and fishing rod in hand, I was set.
In addition to it being foggy and dark, it was quiet. Quiet, quiet. No birds, no crickets, no breeze in the trees, no faraway traffic, no overhead planes, and no splish splashing little waves. Just dead silence that was only occasionally punctuated by droplets falling from the wet limbs into the leaf-litter below. The bay itself was only 20 feet away to my right, but the mangroves were so thick I had to walk 50 yards down the road to get to a cut through where I could wade out and get to the open water beyond. As soon as I began to walk my shoes were crunching down the shellrock, and even though I was utterly alone I sounded like a platoon marching down the road. Unconsciously, I began to almost tiptoe though I was not at all sure why I was doing so. The blanket of quiet was physically palpable. It was no longer just an absence of sound, but it began to feel like some force that insistently resisted any unnecessary intrusion of sound. I felt so compelled to participate in this spell of silence that I barely dared to breathe.
By the time I reached the little cut through the trees I was a little spooked. I tried not to be. My surroundings were actually quite familiar by day. I had fished here often, but now, alone in the foggy dark, it was different. What I could make out through the dark and the mist felt slightly skewed. Everything was almost, but not quite, the way I remembered it from before. If just walking down the road had felt loud, then wading out into that slate grey slickness, shattering the calm, and making those first few clumsy steps of the wade jangled my nerves even further. All that I was experiencing was being slow-filtered through a bruised mental sensitivity which was the precursor of the hangover that was to come. Soon, at about 25 yds out, I reached deeper water. This stabilized me, and now I was able to move with more stealth. I was still cocooned in a solid white curtain that seemed to take on even more substance as daybreak's first light began to diffuse through it. It was beginning to occur to me that to be almost chest-deep in absolutely rippleless, coffee-dark seawater, at dawn's first light, surrounded on all sides, even straight overhead, by a completely impenetrable fog is a quite rare place to find one's self in.
As I let that thought sink in the stillness began to return, and so I began to cast. Each throw with my simple jig was worked back quickly. To my left was a small knee-deep flat, over which it was just a one cast distance to the tree line I had just come through. Chest-deep water was straight ahead, and slightly deeper water was to my right. I eased down the tree line, probing a few likely looking pockets. Only the silhouetted outermost branches which reached out over the smooth bronze water were extended far enough to be visible to me. From my vantage, they were oddly disembodied the way they wetly reached through the haze. Every so often, I had to shake my head clear of the surreal wonderment that I was doing this at all. I was wading through a dreamscape more eerily beautiful than anything I had ever seen. So alone, but so alive, I knew I was living in keen, vibrant moments that would never be repeated. Because these moments were unmerited by any particular quality in myself, I was almost overcome by an intense awareness that something precious and rare was being freely given to me just because there is a Giver. The urgency that I had felt in the pre-dawn hush began to be understood. It was an interconnected reverence. All things here were reverently a part of everything else, and in my state of vulnerability I could feel it. In spite of myself, I too was becoming part of it.
As it was my good fortune to have been assigned the role of the fisherman in the morning's drama, I kept at it. Silently, I continued moving forward while casting to the flat that was beside me. Confirmation that the Giver was not yet through giving was almost immediate. The morning's first sound startled me by coming from the deep water to my right... "Ffffoouuggghww!!"...That, and a slow, smooth, wave-pushing splash as something big muscled through the surface out there in the fog, which shook me from harmonious reverie to nearly needing a diaper in a nanosecond.
Predictably, the answer to that question was more silence. Absolutely nothing......
Well then,... as the fisherman in this scene, it was my job to make an answer to those unanswerable type of questions with more fishing. So, after a long, shaky pause I wound up for another cast - "FFFFOOUUGGGHWW!!!"...and a bottlenosed dolphin came sliding out from under the surface almost at my elbow, exhaling his greeting with an inscrutably smug grin. He had to have registered my fear. Just like a high voltage electric current that travels underwater, he had to have felt that moment when my whole life started flashing before my eyes. That all of my momentary shock and fear was for naught because it was merely a dolphin and not the incarnation of the Krakken that my shot-out nerves had played it for gave me zero relief from the after effects. For the next 100 heartbeats all the unspent adrenaline competed with the hangover to see which could pound my head the loudest. It was all I could do to shuffle my feet forward to keep pace with my new guide and allow the mystical peace around me to restore some badly needed calm.
When I was ready to fish again, the dolphin and I had reached a corner in the tree line on my left. The trees made a ninety degree right hand turn and came straight towards the deeper water that I was in for a distance of about thirty yards. This corner was a fisherman's paradise. It's shallow water had an abundance of submerged tree roots and fallen branches for baitfish to take shelter in, and of course, the abundant bait rarely failed to attract larger fish. The larger fish were drawn by the steady food supply and the nearby deep water where they could take their own shelter.
As the dolphin turned and swam off to perhaps his own fishing pursuits, I noticed that his parting glance and smile pointed my gaze to the very back corner of the flat. It seemed that I was not yet alone. Magisterially occupying the choicest fishing spot in miles was the largest great blue heron I had ever seen. Immediately I was struck by how his alert, quizzical expression was in harmony with the dramatic tension in the stillness of his pose. He never flinched a millimeter when my glance finally landed on him, and yet I knew he had been focussed on me for some time.
In my own way, I tried to assume his stillness for the next few moments. As those moments stretched out I began to fish the way he did, with absolute stillness and clarity of purpose. No blindcasting was necessary now. An entire lifetime spent pursuing exactly this moment had earned me enough instinct to be able to recognize it. As if on cue, the dawn's warmth was bringing the flat between us alive. Small baitfish began skipping across the surface, attempting to elude the arrival the morning's first diners. It wasn't too long before I saw what I now knew I was waiting for. Fifty yards away, a huge crimson colored wake was blitzing down the flat to my left and was headed straight toward our corner. Baitfish were spraying out of the water in front of it, frantically going airborne trying to make an escape.
I knew that I would only get one cast. I put a soft little plop cast only twenty feet in front of me, but close to forty feet in front of the path that wake was travelling. The jig sank like a stone and instantly was resting perfectly still on the bottom. In the split-second that remained, I picked up all the slack in my line. Just as the great fish arrived , right in front of his nose, I gave the little jig one quick hop. The entire flat erupted. An explosion of water detonated where my jig had been, the immense heron launched himself skyward straight over my head, and every other fish on that flat zoomed for cover as an enormous, bright copper-flashing redfish streaked back the way he came. This time though he was carrying my little jig firmly stuck in the corner of his jaw. I didn't attempt to reel. I just kept the tip up and extended my arm forward. Over half my spool vaporized as I walked up onto the shallows to follow him. When he turned for deep water, I finally gained some of that line back. A fight with a fish that large takes too long to tell every detail. It is enough to say there were plenty of moments when it could've gone either way. In the end, we had both perfectly danced the part that had been fated to us.
As I slipped my hand up under that great fish's gills I knew there was no more fishing for me on that day. This was enough. I was drained and was already looking forward to Eric's surprise when he woke and found what we now had for breakfast.
The last I remember of that day was climbing back into the bunk after a breakfast of coffee, cheese grits, fried redfish, thick beefsteak tomato slices and big rings of raw Vidalia onion. The knowledge that there was a Giver who had both given me the spirit to seek Him in such unconventional ways, and who had written this day's events long before I've typed them out here were just dimly beginning to percolate through my brain.
Those thoughts have taken another twenty years for He and I to work out. I haven't exactly been an ideal student. I hope we meet here again to talk some more about the ways He has taught me to be grateful for all that is given.
Copyright © 2010 by Charlie Thornton.
All Rights Reserved.