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He Sets Me in the Stream

A short story

by David James Duncan

Published in the September/October 2007 issue of Orion magazine



Photo: Thomas Ives

THE OLD STORYTELLERS OF INDIA, according to my brother Peter, said that when you reached the end of even the longest story you should still be able to remember all the way back to the beginning. I have to work to remember what I had for lunch yesterday. The only thing I remember from the paper this morning is the baseball box scores. But the one and only time my father took no one but me fishing I can still remember the smell of the hot gray cloth that lined my door of the Forty Ford, the motes of dust that burst from that cloth when I slammed the door shut, the stifling heat though all the windows were down; I remember Papa at the wheel, a warming beer between his legs, tuning in the radio (some announcer I’d never heard before, sounded like an Adventist preacher, I wished Dizzy Dean and Pee Wee did the play-by-play for radio and TV both); I remember Whitey Ford still pitching, the score still knotted at 3, Moose Skowron headed for the hospital to have his head examined, the Indians up again, top of the tenth. But for me the game had turned boring. All I wanted was to get to The Wind.

To reach it we headed straight up what everyone calls The Gorge, which on a fish is its throat but on a river is its canyon—and the Columbia’s is a huge one, cutting clean through the Cascades with thousand-foot cliffs and four-thousand-foot mountains on both sides. Papa followed the game, sipped his warm beer, didn’t say much. Not far out of Camas I asked what smelled so strange. Papa sniffed the air a bit then laughed and said it wasn’t what smelled but what didn’t. He said I was so used to the stink of the paper mill round our house that I’d forgotten what real air smells like. I guess I turned red or something then, because he quit laughing and said, “Shoot. We ought to get out more.”

I don’t think we should get out more. I think we should move out. Just look at it up here! Trees instead of phone poles, waterfalls instead of billboards, whole empty mountains where our log or stone cabin could be. The place we’re coming to now, Papa says and a sign agrees, is called The Bridge of the Gods. It’s just a gray steel bridge for cars now. But once upon a time, cross his heart Papa says, a mile-long basalt arch rainbowed clear across the Columbia here, and real Indian gods—or so say the Indians—really did use it for a bridge.

Of course Mama maintains there’s no such things as Indian gods, there’s just Jesus, God, and the Holy Ghost, and even out of these three Jesus is the only one who really lived. When Mama’s not around, though, Peter says balderdash. Pete says there were gods coming out of the woodwork in America, Ireland, Greece, Tibet, India, you name it. And for his money, he adds (as if he had any), he bets there still are.

The thing with me is, Pete and Mama both sound so sure about these things that I believe whichever one of them happens to be talking, even when they contradict each other. Then, the minute they leave, I don’t believe either one. “If they were gods,” I ask Papa, watching a pretty godlike log truck creep a load of trees across the bridge, “why didn’t they just jump across?”

Papa scowls, thinks a minute, then says, “Why jump when walking’ll do?”

“So where are they now?” I ask, still skeptical.

“I’ve heard Indians say they went into hiding when all the white people came,” he says.

“The Indians’ gods were scared of white people?” I ask.

“That’s one rumor,” he says, scowling again.

“Some gods,” I say.

“Ol’ Kade,” Papa mutters, nicking my name in the way I like.

THE RADIO’S GETTING FUZZY but I don’t care. The announcer sounds like he might be even worse than Pee Wee at describing the action too late and wrong, and with a radio instead of a TV you’re blind, making it like a sermon at church: no choice but to believe.

This doesn’t bother Papa. Following ballgames to the bitter end is his religion, and it’s damn near as hard on people as the other kind. “Waitin’ for the last ’Dog to get hung” is what we called it when he’d make us watch his old Battle Ground Bulldog games to the end—though in the time it took to wait out some extra-inning ’Dog games you could have hung every real dog in the state twice. Mama once said it’s moribund the way Papa watches games to the last out. Peter told her, “You mean morbid.” Mama said, “Don’t correct me, young man. Whatever I mean, you know darned well what I mean.” And she was right. We did.

Mama enjoys a ballgame till the score gets hopelessly lopsided; my third-oldest brother Irwin hangs in there till we run out of food; Peter has fun till he finishes the book he’s reading; I last till my butt aches to the bone; the twins, who are two, tend to fuss all game till they’re ready to go to sleep. Besides Papa, the only one of us who never complains to the end is Everett, the oldest. But Everett complains about everything outside a ballpark so much that it’s hardly to his credit. He’s probably just exhausted and taking a little break.

As we near a town called Stevenson, Papa slows the car from near seventy down to twenty-five, and a few seconds later points out a Skamania County Sheriff’s car hiding behind a hedge. He mumbles something about every podunk town having its frakkleshratting cop. He’s been inventing frakkleshrat-type words a lot lately, in an effort to show Everett ways to use foul language without using foul language. This is because, thanks to the new family Cuss-Can, poor Everett’s always broke.

During the summer Everett worked as a Bulldog batboy he really fell in love with cussing. As a result, Mama used up several bars of soap washing his mouth out. He kept cussing anyway, saying the soap kept him regular, till Mama got so miffed she took to slapping his face. The first time Papa saw her slap Everett he got so mad he took a brand-new three-pound can of Folger’s, dumped it all out in a three-gallon stockpot, stabbed a coin-sized slit in the can’s top with a carving knife, fastened the can to the kitchen wall with woodscrews and an old leather belt, wrote “5¢ per foul word” on it, and said, “This is how we’ll handle it from now on, Laura.” That’s how the Cuss-Can came to be.

Over the next few years Everett paid the can so often that one day it tore out of the wall and smashed a smile in the kitchen floor. Or frown, if you’re sitting on the counter. But it didn’t solve the problem. Now Everett and Mama fight over what a cuss is or isn’t. Last week, for instance, when he saw ex-vice-president Nixon’s face running for governor or something on TV, Everett said, “He makes my butt water.” Mama, who voted for Nixon, said Everett owed the can five nickels, since every word of the whole idea of a butt watering was disgusting. Everett argued back that he didn’t owe a cent, since neither “he,” “makes,” “my,” “butt,” or “water” is a cuss word, and it’s Nixon’s face that caused the problem in the first place. Whoever turned on the TV, he said (knowing it was Mama), was the culprit who ought to pay the can. By the time they sorted this one out they both had to stuff in a couple of dollars. The good thing, Papa says, is that the money will be used to send one of us, or at this rate maybe all of us, to college.


STEVENSON’S GOT ITS OWN LITTLE HARBOR on the Columbia, a mill that looks like a toy compared to the Crown Z mill in Camas, and the mountains above town are pretty where they aren’t yet logged off. Stevenson’s also got three churches and four taverns, which means there should be one more church somewhere, since Irwin discovered on our vacation last summer that the number of churches and taverns in American small towns cancel each other out. I never spot the fourth Stevenson church. But in the next town upriver, Carson, it turns out there’s two taverns but three churches. Put Carson and Stevenson together and Irwin’s theory holds.

For no reason I can figure out, Papa suddenly says, “Klickitat. Washougal. Memaloose. Yakima. Cayuse. Wishram. Wallowa.

“What’re ya doin’?” I ask.

He says, “Port-land. Rich-land. Lewis-ton. Belling-ham. Car-son. Steven-son. Washing-ton.”

“So?”

“Ever notice how Indian place names sound as if they name something that’s been here forever, while white people place names sound more like something that fell through the bottom of a wet grocery bag and landed on your foot?”

I nod. But I’ve also noticed how every time Papa drives out into anywhere wild, everything white people do is stupid and everything Indians used to do is wonderful. Even if it’s true, this kind of bugs me, since Papa himself is white people. Not to mention it wasn’t Indians who invented his religion of baseball.

“Washington’s named after General George, right?” I say.

Papa nods.

“Well then I like that name just fine. And Stevenson’s named after Robert Louis, right?”

Papa smiles a little, then answers, “Must be.”

“So I like that name, too. And do you know who Carson’s named after?”

Squinting real serious at the road up ahead, Papa says, “Johnny.” Then he slows the car down and all of a sudden we’re on a high bridge. Sticking my head out the window, I see nothing but air below, and it smells different, better, wetter. I lean farther.

“Hey!” Papa yells, grabbing my belt and hauling me back in. But in the half second before I’m in I glimpse, way down below, green and silver water curling through elephant-colored boulders.

“The Wind!” I shout. “Stop!” But it’s already gone.

Don’t lean out car windows!” Papa growls.

“But I want to see it. Can we go back?”

He speeds up, leans over, rolls up my window. The car’s stifling now. The baseball never stops except for even-more-boring commercials. “Families need protection,” some radio guy is droning. And protection means planning. And planning for protection means John Hancock.”

“Know why he said that?” Papa asks. “Know who John Hancock was?”

I cross my arms over my chest and shake my head.

“A boy who got his head smashed off leaning out a car window.”

“I just wanted to see the river,” I grouse.

“So did John Hancock,” says Papa.


BASEBALL ENDS AFTER ALL! We’re standing in a grove of huge fir trees, 4 to 3 Yankees (another Maris solo homer, God bless his slimy crewcut!), wildflowers everywhere, both of us sharing a warm Pepsi, two outs, bottom of the thirteenth, the Indians about gone now just like their bridge and their gods. And listen . . . a Piersall pop fly to shallow center, Mantle racing for it, the home crowd quiet—good sign, good sign . . .

“He’s got it!” the announcer yells.

“It’s over!” I shout, snapping off the radio before something terrible, like another ballgame, can happen.

And as fast as silence falls, everything changes. I feel how we’re out in deep woods. I hear river now, way down in a canyon, and the wind it’s named for in the tops of the firs. Some eerie bird back in the shadows starts hitting two metallic notes at once, like when slow-moving freight-car wheels sing on a curve, only softly. “Spanish robin,” Papa whispers.

He’s wearing a pair of old sneakers and jeans for wading. He’s toting a wicker creel full of fishing gear and a canvas satchel with our dinner, dry clothes, warm beer, and warm pop in it. His Bulldog ballcap is on backwards. He’s got two fishing poles balanced on the roof of the car, each still in two pieces. The longer, thinner one is made of wood. Or bamboo I guess. The other one’s blue, with lots of electrical tape on it.

He takes both in hand. “This is a spinning rod,” he says of the blue pieces. “And this is a flyrod,” he says of the bamboo. He watches me close, as if whatever I’m about to do is important. He says, “Pick.”

I try to be careful, though at first I don’t much care. “This one’s prettier,” I say, admiring the polished wood of the flyrod.

“Tonkin cane,” he says. “From China. And the reel’s a Hardy. English.”

“Where’d we get it?” I ask.

“The rod was my dad’s. The reel was a present to him, from Mother.”

“Which one caught the steelhead?” I ask.

Papa taps the blue spinning rod. Its reel says Mitchell 300. Papa says it’s French, which reminds me of the one and only French guy I know of, Maurice Chevalier, but it doesn’t look French. It looks complicated. I feel my mind make itself up.

I want the pole with the most family in it. “The flyrod,” I say.

Papa’s face is serious. “You sure?”

I nod, trying to look just as serious.

“Thought so,” he murmurs, handing the halves of it to me, and I can see I’ve made him happy though I’ve no idea why.

“Okay,” he says once I’m holding the bamboo halves. “Remember what I said about concentration and fishing? You’ve got to concentrate to even walk when you go fishing. Point the rod parts straight down the trail ahead of you, exactly where you yourself want to go. Keep the tip up. Don’t stub it on the ground. Rods are more fragile than we are. One stub and you could be done. We’ll string ’em when we reach the river.”

I nod, feeling half sick with the responsibility.

IT’S A LONG WAY IN AND DOWN, IT TURNS OUT, and not so easy not to fall. The trail gets steep, hot, brushy. The canyon side is square to the sun, and boiling. A huge fly bit my cheek a ways back. Papa said to watch out for nettles, after some already stung me. He said to watch out for poison oak, showing me a bush that looked like every bush I’d walked through since we left the car. He said “Keep that tip up!” over and over till I watched it so hard I started tripping on roots and walking into trees. So now he’s carrying everything but the little box in my hand with the fishing flies in it, which makes me feel like a stupid little kid. But if Papa wasn’t here that’s just what I’d be. So I concentrate on not losing my little box, and try to ignore the places where I burn and itch, try to forget feeling scared and stupid. And in the moist sections of trail indented by deer hooves I see, now and then, a fisherman’s big boot print. So I know we’re maybe going to get there. I know it can be done.

And then we’re there! The Wind is right below us! And it looks so different here than from the John Hancock bridge I never would have known it was the same river. Every stone on the bottom’s a different color. Indian paintbrush is everywhere. Overhanging vine-leafs turn half the sky greenish yellow. The moss and ferns and sorrel are every green there is. But the green is gone from the river. The water’s clear as air here, or bright silver in the fast parts, slurping and fizzing like it’s eating and drinking the light above it, sending shooting stars streaking where it bounces off the boulders.

Papa tells me the part of river in front of us is “the glide,” and down below there is “the eddy,” and the white part upstream is “the rapids,” and the wavy part just this side of the rapids is “the tongue.” Then he gasps suddenly, as if in pain, points with the passion of a hunting dog, and in a voice more wild and hopeful than any I’ve heard him use, whispers, “There’s three beautiful big steelhead in the tail of the glide! See ‘em?”

When I peer, then shake my head, he hunches down beside me. “No wonder,” he says. “Glare. Your angle’s too low. Here. Try this,” and he sweeps me so high up onto his shoulders it feels like a ride at the Clark County Fair.

Again I stare at the river. But it’s in a million moving pieces holding shapes, shadows, colors, and writhings like nothing I’ve ever seen.

“See that vine-leaf maple twig that points like a finger?” Papa whispers. “It’s pointing right at the lead steelhead. See the orange rock and beaver-stripped willow twig just below? The other two are right on that rock. Buck and a hen. See the red on the buck? Brighter gray, the hens. He’s the size of your thigh, boy! See him? Just hoverin’ on that orange rock, waitin’ for your fly.”

I see a thousand incredible fluxing flowing things. But no steelhead. And I feel so bad about this, because Papa’s trying so hard to help me see them, that I gasp, “Ooh! Whoa! Look at ’em!”

And the look on Papa’s face when he sets me on the ground!

Too bad lies are so worth it.

“We’re going to have to cross here, even though it’s fast, to keep from spookin’ ’em,” he says. “We’ll cross at a downstream angle and come out below ‘em. It’s damned slick on the bottom, and faster than it looks. But I’ll help you.”

I gulp.

“If you lose your footing, Kade, with those big steelhead there, do a deadman’s float. Don’t kick or swim. They’ll attack.”

I gape at him, then at the river.

“They guard their spawning areas like a she-bear guards her cubs.”

I keep gaping.

“You saw the fangs on that big male? And the forehead spikes on the females?”

I gape.

“Kade!” He laughs. “I’m funnin’ ya! Really, they’re terrified of people an’ don’t have spikes an’ won’t be spawnin’ for months. Honest! An’ if you ever fall in, swim like hell! But I’ll have hold of you, you won’t fall. Okay?”

I just keep blinking and gaping at the water till Papa drops to his knees right in front of me. “Shit I’m sorry. Don’t be scared. You’re safe, I swear. I don’t know what came over me.”

I guess maybe my eyes were welling. Maybe even leaking a little. But I know what came over him. He knew I lied about seeing the steelhead so he lied right back. He was like Everett for a minute. And it was fair. But now his eyes are so sincere and sorry and I’m so glad he’s my father not my brother that I throw my arms round his neck and try to crush him.

“Okay,” he says while I’m still crushing. And he stands, lifting me with him. “I’ll slide you down this rock. You’ll wait in the water while I climb back for the rods. Then I’ll join you.”

The rock he refers to is twice as tall as he is, four times as tall as me. But I nod.

“Since this is a first,” he says, “let me hold onto those.”

I hand him my pitiful little fly box.

Papa takes my wrists in his hands, leans me slowly out over the rock face, slowly lowers me down. My feet do nothing but slip against the rock, but he holds a big vine maple branch like Tarzan, comes halfway down the near-vertical face with me, stands steady on two feet though he’s sideways to the world. “Slow and easy,” he says. “Watch where you’re headed, not where you’ve been. You’re doin’ fine.”

My feet enter the river, my knees, my pants pockets. I gasp once when the cold hits my privates but only once. I touch bottom. He says, “Ready for me to let go?”

“Now?” I squeak. His hands are huge round my wrists. I love the feel of them. I move my feet around a little. The bottom is slippery. Papa sort of test-drives me, like a toy, from side to side. He’s still standing sideways, leaning so far down past horizontal that the veins in his face are bulging, making him look insane.

“Not like walking on land, is it?” he says, still test-driving me. “The secret to wading is, feel for the lowest place, every step. You can’t slip off things when you’re already all the way down.”

He gives me more of my weight as I feel, with each foot, for the lowest places. And find them. I brace against the current. “Ready?” he says, and before I answer he lets go of one arm.

I gasp, catch my balance. Before I have time to take pride in this, Papa releases my other arm.

And I am standing, all alone, in The Wind.

Time stops ticking and starts flowing instead. And it’s exactly the way Papa once told me it would be: my head’s too hot, my legs too cold, my rest of me just right, and everything else is so much more alive and beautiful than you could ever say that there’s no use trying, so we don’t.

When I remember to look up, Papa’s sliding deft down the rock, rods and everything else in hand, face all business, like at a ballgame. As he steps calm into the current beside me the river makes crashing sounds against his legs. “Ya good?” he asks, the waterlight making crazy white waves across his smile.

“I’m good!” I pipe, loving everything about his face waves, the way he’s standing by me, what we’re standing in, and how I’m in it with him, part of everything now, knowing it, feeling it, same as him.

“Take your rod in your left hand,” he says. “Then give me your right wrist.”

Though the rod’s nine feet long and was his father’s, it’s too late to be scared of losing it. I point the bamboo at a patch of blue sky, then offer my opposite wrist to Papa.

When he takes it he really squeezes. Things are serious now. I try to squeeze back, but his wrist is too thick for my small hand to grip.

“We’re gonna cross now,” he says matter-of-factly, “to get positioned for those steelhead. Remember, no hurry. I’ll step first, get my footing. Then you. Every single step, you plant in the lowest place your foot can find. Got it?”

The Wind boils and rushes, looking happy to love me, just as happy to kill me.

I nod.

My father’s first stride cuts the current like a ship. He plants, turns to me, beckons only with his smile. His joy and the crazylight set his gray eyes and baseball-brown skin aglow.

My first step trembles in the current like a willow twig. But I grip, I’m gripped, I’m planted.

We start, me and Papa, across the river.

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David James Duncan lives and writes in western Montana. His story in this issue is one of three alternate endings he penned for his novel The Brothers K.

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