2009 Traver Award Winner: The Land Beyond Maps

2009 Traver Award Winner: The Land Beyond Maps

2009 Robert Traver Fly-Fishing Writing Award Winning Story

  • By: Pete Fromm
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Bent points at this mountain jutting up out of nowhere, a perfect triangle, like a kid would draw, and says, “Here we go.”

“Why here?” I say, already pulling off the highway.

“Because it’s a volcano,” she says. “Maybe it’ll blow sky high.”

I look up at the cinder cone or whatever, all dusted with snow. It looks like a postcard. Not very lethal.

“I mean, getting our asses Pompeiied, that’d settle everything, no?” “Sure,” I say, wandering the new roads, navigating like water, taking every turn headed downhill until we’re on dirt, sidehilling some deep ravine in the gloom of giant trees, leaves big as plates covering the tracks. “They’ll dig us up out of the ash in a thousand years,” Bent says. “Put us in a museum. Young lovers will weep like faucets over us, the way we’re all spooned together, four arms wrapped around my belly. The marble steps leading to us will be worn to ruts. We’ll have bulletproof glass all around us. They’ll swipe it from the Pieta, because who goes to see that anymore? They’ll—”

“That’s hot,” I say. She thumps me on the shoulder.

“Listen, Delp, if you’re going Crabby Appleton on me, you can let me off here.”

“I just mean, you know, torched by scorching ash, searing our lungs on superheated air, dying of strangulation. Give me some of that.”

“God, you can squash the romance out of anything.”

“You mean violent pyrotechnic death? I suppose. It’s a talent, for sure.”

She gives me a stare, then poofs out her cheeks huge, and blows, lips flapping, waving her arms like billows of smoke, falls all over me, ripping out explosions that’d steal the heart of any grubby little boy. I can barely drive, and when she starts to laugh, I do too. I have to pull over. This is us fighting. We’re at the end of the road anyway. Some new water there before us through the trees and the brush and the rock. Waiting. She starts to straighten up off of me, but I hold on a second longer.

“You’re sure you know?” I say.

“Absotively,” she says.

“And you’re sure I’ll know?” She nods her head against my chest. “You already do. You just don’t know it yet.” She wriggles up, starts for the door. “We’ve been over this, Delp.”

“Okay. So, you’re so smart, what river is this?”

She cracks her door, says, “Does it make a difference?”

“The map’s in the back,” I say, but she’s gone. I used to live for maps, all those crazy lines, the tangles of brown elevations. Veeing together, giving away the thread of blue before it even made its appearance. But, with Bent, it really doesn’t matter. We’re in California someplace by now, I think. Maybe still Oregon. We’ve been on the road since she peed on her fateful stick. Her words. And she says I’m tough on romance. I follow her out. She’s picked up one of those leaves first thing, some sort of maple on steroids, and holds it not where Eve did, but over her belly. She says, “Look, I’m a Canadian tree nymph.” I say, “I’m liking the nymph thing.” She lifts an eyebrow. The night she came out of the bathroom her smile was huge.

“I just took the best pee of my life,” she said, pulling the pregnancy-test stick out from behind her back like a magic trick. I stared. Or gaped might be the better word. I said, “No way.” It was less than she hoped for. Way less. Hell, it was less than I hoped for. I mean, we talked about it, but as part of a future that was still kind of, I don’t know, light years out ahead of us. I hadn’t even figured out yet how to tell my folks we were living together. I said, “We’re only twenty, Bent.” She lowered her hand, her stick, to her side. “Thanks for the update.” “You think we’re ready for this? “Think? You don’t think, you know. And I know. So do you.” “I just got laid off,” I said. She smiled, said, “I know. How perfect is that?” I glanced down at her stick. “Perfect? How?” “You can finally teach me to fish. I’ll teach you how to swim. We can get used to this, let embryo girl get a clue what kind of sweetness she’s in for.” “Girl?” I said, and I’ve been along for the ride ever since. We hit water every day, some of the famous rivers, but mostly places I’ve never heard of, places we’re alone, Bent slowly working me away from the maps, letting the land chart our course.

“Like life,” she said. “You think they got maps for that?”

I said, “Beyond here be monsters?”

She grinned. “That a boy. Here ships fall off the edge. Every one but ours.”

About the second week out, she screamed for me to pull over. Scared the shit out of me. Her head against the window, I thought she’d been dozing. We were on some crumbling old two lane, no trace of water anywhere, and I didn’t know what the deal was. Tell the truth, I thought it was some pregnancy thing, that she was going to have to ralph or something.

As soon as I got to the shoulder, she bailed out and bolted back down the highway, veering off into the ditch and coming up out of it with this length of PVC, full four inch sewer pipe. I got out and did as I was told, strapping it to the empty canoe racks, and she showed me how we could put my rod in the tube without breaking it down, duct tape the ends.

“You won’t have to be fumbling around all the time,” she said. “Pull over, wham, fish on!” So, now, almost only because I’m supposed to, I grab my fly box off the dash, and peel back the duct tape, pull my fly rod out of the tube to follow after her. I catch up just as she parts the brush and stops. I bump into her back.

“Oh, man, Delp,” she says. “This is our place.” She says that almost every time, but she’s right. Again. A half-moon of stony beach, every one of them a skipper, edging a swimming hole tailing into a narrowing riffle.

Upstream it’s all black rock canyon choking things in, a drop/pool/sluice kind of trout dream world. The late sun filters through the trees, and something big is starting off the edges, wings all backlit, size of grasshoppers, small birds, pterodactyls.

Bent already has a stone curled in her finger. “Can I?” she says. She pitched softball in high school. Like shutouts. No-hitters. If you meant her when you said you throw like a girl it’d be some goal to shoot for. I wave my rod toward the bugs, but, for all she can tell it’s the whole world.

“Do you know what I think those are?” She looks upstream. “Volcanic rock? God, yes, bury us here. I don’t ever want to leave.”

“No,” I say. “The bugs. Those big-ass bugs.”

“Bugs?”

I step past her, all the way to the water’s edge, then move up to some brush, one of the giant bugs just clearing the branches it’d bumped into on its way up. I snatch at it, close it up in my fist like I do that kind of thing every day. She makes me lucky.

I walk back to Bent, slowly unwrap my fingers till I’ve got it pinched by just a wing. It’s pushing two inches long. Inch and a half anyway. “It’s like a salmonfly,” I say. “But that’s impossible, they hatch in the spring.” “You don’t think this place is controlled by natural laws, do you?”

I let go of the wing and the bug starts crawling up my arm. It might be the world’s biggest stonefly. I don’t know what it is.

But I grab it again when I see a swirl behind one of the drowned rocks at the head of the pool, and I say, “Watch this.”

I shake up the fly in my fist and then whip it out toward the rock, the upstream side. I miss by a good foot—I should have had Bent throw it—but it doesn’t drift an inch before it disappears in another swirl. Just poof, gone.

“Holy shit,” Bent whispers. “Yeah, I know. They’ll be all over these things till dark.” She runs a hand along my shoulder. “Do I get to skip my stone first?”

I’m digging in my pocket for my fly box, wondering if a salmonfly might work, maybe a Stimulator, and I nod, say sure, whatever, see another swirl and then a bigger one on the far side, by a little patch of grass clinging between the rocks. This could be huge.

I hear Bent step into her throw, the clack of those flat stones under her foot, and turn in time to see her curled around her stone, like wrapped up with it, part of it or something, then she launches, unwinding, driving off one leg, landing on the other, her arm like a whip, this blur, something you’d expect to be cracking out sonic booms.

Though the stone seems hardly to touch the water, right where the plunge calms into the pool, and the pool is all golden from the gigantic leaves reflecting, rings start spreading out, the stone rippling all that gold, four, five, six times, until finally it’s skittering across the riffle at the far end, something impossible—one wrong flair of water and its all over, the stone careening off, or catching an edge, knifing in—but hers stands on its tail and skims, hooking right, settling into the opposite bank like it saw some place there where it knew it wanted to settle down forever. Bent turns to me, this smile on her face like she’s found exactly the same thing.

“Okay, bug boy,” she says, “your turn.” My hands, and I don’t know why, are shaking. I look away from her face, that smile, like it might burn out my retinas. I flub the cinch knot. She comes up right behind me, watching over my shoulder. She kind of laughs, and I can feel her breath. “What is your problem?” she says.

“Piss off,” I say, getting the end of the tippet through the loop. She puts her hands on my hips. The knot unravels. “Should I just keep throwing till you get your shit together?” “Why don’t you just show me what you’ve learned, hot shot?” “I learned I like watching you fish more than fishing myself.” “Chicken.” She steps around to look at me, lowers her face, peers up at me from under her eyebrows, the patented Amy Benton look that made all those softball batters pray for rain. She holds out her hand for the rod. I give it to her.

She’s got my fly tied on in nothing flat. I start to tell about the one across the river, but she flips out just enough line to put it down where I’d thrown the real bug. She watches it drift, not mending, and when the swirl takes the fly she hits back, too much slack, and misses. She says something I’m guessing we will not be teaching this baby to say.

I say, “Mend the slack,” and she says, “If you ever want to see or touch me again, you will zip it now, Bub.” “Fine.” “Zip!” she says, pointing the rod straight at my heart, sighting down it. I turn the key. She casts again, the backcast too low, almost onto the rocks, but there’s only beach back there. This time she strips too fast, the fly skittering across the water, which is all the trout needs to bust after it like some hog bass. Totally hooks itself. Might as well have committed suicide.

“That doesn’t count,” I say, but she is crowing too loud to hear. At the end she just walks backwards, guiding a rainbow, not quite a foot and a half’s worth, onto its side up on the rocks, an inch of water maybe, where for some reason it just holds still, like it knows she’d never hurt it. She steps up, pushes the hook back and out, and turns the fish 180 degrees, where it seems to reenter its own world and flops and shimmies until its gained enough water for purchase and shoots back into the pool. She’s squatted down, butt over her heels, and she watches the water a bit before turning to me, holding up the fly rod. “Now, really, your turn. That big one over there.” She points right to where I was going to tell her to cast, the one across the river. How she ever spotted it while throwing I’ll never know. But the hatch is really on now, the big impossible flies having crawled out and gained their wings, now touching back down to lay their eggs, and the trout are sweeping them up all across the river.

I work out enough line to get it across and I don’t know if it’s the same fish, or another of the three or four working around that tiny patch of grass, but I don’t even have time to mend before it’s on and tight and Bent is right there beside me, saying, “See, all you have to do is relax. All this comes natural.” I’d actually been thinking, before the trout hit so fast, of making myself miss, of maybe snapping off the hook while I was bending down the barb, make myself unable to catch a single thing, just to make her the king of this place. Queen, whatever. You know, like something you’d do for a kid someday. She’d have killed me if she ever caught on, of course, and she would have caught on, no doubt, but even then it would have been fun, her chasing after me, cursing me, threatening me with every horrible thing she’d do to me as soon as she lay hands on me.

I pull mine into the shallows same way she did, but she steps in before I do and works her same magic, barely touching it, same way her stone barely touched the river, and the fish is gone and she says, “Lets go up,” and we start into the canyon, though you could fish the last half hour here, I think, without moving your feet, and still have more fish than you could catch before dark. But the same is true upstream, only the backcasts harder, the rocks and trees both tight to the plunge and drop of the river. The water goes black instead of gold, but the fish hit what we drop in and, though we takes turns on the rod, Bent releases every one. Like some sort of Trout Whisperer.

Finally it’s too dark to really make out the fly, and Bent says, “We ought to head back,” and I say, “Before we break our necks,” and she says, “That is so less hot than being buried in ash,” and we pick our way down the trail, holding hands, for crying out loud. Neither of us were ever the holding-hands type. Ever.

Bent stops just above the big pool we started out at, stepping right to the edge of the water, then, in that move only a girl’s got, reaches down and across with both hands and lifts back up, peeling off her shirt. She’s quick, but, for just a moment, as she stands straight, her shirt coming over her head, the pewtery gleam of the river holds her tight, and I see, below the unbelievable lift of her chest, the tiny hump new to her belly, and I miss the fall of her hair back across her shoulders as she tosses her shirt onto the rocks behind her. Her shorts follow, even her sandals, but all I can see is her belly.

She’s naked as the day she was born when she turns and says, “What, are you going to fish?” She slides into the water in that other move of hers, one that’d leave any otter gasping for breath, but then holds on, clinging to the rough, riddled volcanic rock, ready to slip down this last chute into the pool, but waiting to take me with her. I’m a water buffalo to her otter, but I scramble out of my clothes, too, splash in beside her. She’s taught me everything I know about swimming, but the lessons haven’t gone far. Mostly all I’ve picked up is trust.

The water is not what anyone but an Eskimo would call warm, but I bite my lips, wrap my arms around her, and she says, “Ready?” Without waiting for any answer, any hesitation, she lets go, my backside taking the lumps for both of us, the rock river-smoothed but not softened. Then we’re in the pool, going under, but rising back up, like corks, just like she’s told me it goes. I do my best not to splutter, not to reach up and wipe the water out of my eyes like it’s acid, the way I did the day of our first lesson. She comes out of the water only like she’s been oiled, twice as sleek and perfect as when she went under. I hold on, don’t clutch, and my toes bump rock, then find a foothold, and the pool eddies around us, her back to my front, her bum against my hips, her thighs on mine, like she’s made me her chair, the river’s fall rocking us as sweet as any cradle.

She drops her head back onto my shoulder, her hair cold and wet on the side of my face, her skin anything but.I let my arms slide down till they’re around her tummy, and her arms fall along my forearms, her fingers lacing through mine.

I picture us as the trout must see us, my long, white ungainly limbs coming out of the heavens, jutting down into their world, bumping bottom, stirring up silt, but cradling one they might almost claim as their own. What a strange sight it must be for them.

Then I see us in Bent’s museum, dug up out of the ash, a lesson for lovers for millennia, though what, exactly, we’d be teaching I couldn’t say. My parents would use us a warning, I’m sure, the kind of fix young people can get themselves into.

I hold Bent tighter, say, “You really think ash could stop us?” and, against the side of my face I can feel her smile. “No way,” she whispers, “no way in this world.”

And it’s the this that does it. That makes me know we are indeed ash proof, golden as this water was before dusk. Not any world. This world. Our driving days have reached their end. I picture us bringing our daughter here—since Bent will not quit insisting it’s a girl—and telling her that this is the actual place, the one she’s known for years from her bedtime story about the Land Beyond Maps, about how we found this place on the water where the trout rose to bugs that can’t even really exist, how her mother talked them out of the river then set them free, and, best of all, how I actually saw her here for the very first time ever, snug as a bug herself, floating in her mother’s tummy, and that’s how she came to grow up here, beside this river beside a volcano in the middle of nowhere, because, circling that pool, surrounded by curious trout, waiting for the ash, we knew.

Pete Fromm won the first Traver Fly-Fishing Writing Award, in 1994; he lives in Montana.