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Book Excerpt: “Yellow Stonefly”

For most of his life, Stink’s primary mission had apparently been to kill every skunk in his part of the Ripshin River Valley. Thus the name Calvin Linkous had given him. It seemed too appropriate not to keep. His gait was too shaky now for him to be much of a hunter, but every once in a while an unsuspecting skunk would wander too close to the dog for its own good. No matter the various mixtures of soda water, peroxide, and unscented douche that Sandy applied to neutralize the stench, a certain whiff of the acrid smell would linger. Not even time and the sloughing off of old skin and hair ever made the dog fully free of the aroma. Stink’s most recent slaughter had been only about a month ago. A young skunk, newly emerged into the world from its den, had made the deadly mistake of carelessly waddling by the old tractor tire behind Sandy’s house where Stink often curled up.

“A little ripe today, you old killer.”

They appeared suddenly, leaping up the bank from the stream below and pausing, startled for a moment, in the middle of the road. Sandy, however, had been driving slowly up the rough fire road and was easily able to stop a good thirty feet from the doe and her fawn standing in front of the truck. The fawn’s white spots stood out clear and distinct on its sorrel flanks. The doe’s ears were erect and alert, her deep brown eyes locked on the threatening vehicle. Sandy could see the muscles in the doe’s tensed thigh twitching. Stink turned to look for the reason for stopping and spotted the two deer. His bent tail thumped slightly against the seat back, and his mouth cracked open, exposing his pink and purple tongue. Sandy looked at her dog, then back to the deer, cupping her hand over the dog’s neck.

“On a good day, you couldn’t catch them. You’ll have to stick to skunks.”

The doe whistled a snort, and she and her fawn fled up the slope. They disappeared through the dense growth of rhododendron lining the fire road as easily as if they were taking flight across open prairie. Sandy lifted her foot from the brake and continued up the road to Keefe’s bungalow.

She pulled her pickup in beside Keefe’s on the fan of gravel at the end of the cottage and let Stink out. He toddled to the wooden steps leading up to the plank porch of the bungalow, sniffed around for a moment, lifted his leg on the bottom step, then walked up to the front door and waited for Sandy.

Set at the back edge of the clearing that opened down to the stream, Keefe’s bungalow fit the space it occupied. Rather than an attempt to force some preconceived structure into the space, it had been built in keeping with the small clearing, the modest Appalachian trout stream pitching down the slope before it, and the forest surrounding it. The bungalow was a decidedly humble affair, a small rectangular structure of well-weathered cedar planks with a mossy cedar-shake roof extending over the wooden porch that ran the short length of the front of the cottage. The porch, where Stink now waited, was enclosed by a railing and the posts that supported the roof canopy. It could not have been more architecturally ordinary, yet each time Sandy looked at it, she couldn’t imagine it actually being constructed. For her, it inhabited the clearing like a creature that had emanated from the soil beneath it, the forest around it.

Stink’s bent tail wagged as Sandy carried her gear up the steps and tried the doorknob. Locked. Keefe wasn’t there. She dug into her little canvas purse, extracted her keys, and unlocked Keefe’s door with her own key. Inside, the bungalow was a two-room affair, the interior space given over to the living area Sandy and her dog entered, with a kitchenette at one end of the open room and a river-stone fireplace at the other. The fireplace was open through to a small, sparsely furnished bedroom on the other side of the chimney stone. A nondescript bathroom opened off of the tiny hallway passage between the main living area and the sleeping quarters.

Sandy dropped her gear on the floor and went to the kitchenette to fill a bowl of water for her dog. Stink amused himself sniffing amongst the more interesting clutter on the heavy pine coffee table sitting in front of the fireplace. The table contained its usual sort of mess—several books, an open fly box containing a variety of different flies, an ashtray, and assorted shreds of material Keefe sometimes used for tying flies. Today there were two crow feathers, one striped belly feather from a wild turkey, and three desiccated squirrel tails. Stink was most intrigued by the squirrel tails. Sandy set the water bowl on the kitchenette floor and walked back into the main living area to get her gear out.

“And stay off the sofa,” she said. Stink looked up at her, wagged his tail a few strokes, took one of the squirrel tails on the coffee table into his teeth, and promptly tugged himself up onto the sofa, where he lay down with a huff and began to lick the dried fur, holding the tail between his front paws. “Such a good, obedient boy. You make me so proud.”

Sandy stepped into her waders and slipped on her fishing vest. The room wrapped around her as she got her gear ready. While the other areas of the bungalow were slight and spare, this room was cluttered and densely packed. At its center sat the coffee table, along with the sofa where Stink now lay and an armchair, both of dark brown leather, both equally cracked and well worn. On the shelves that covered the walls from floor to ceiling all round, books were stuffed with little concern for organization: some set askew, some upright and spine out, others in careless stacks, and all well coated with a layer of dust. What space remained in the room was filled with fishing gear—old waders and fishing vests; an assortment of fly rods, some old, some newer; an old wicker creel hung from a small set of discarded deer antlers mounted on the wall near the front door. In the back corner of the room sat Keefe’s fly-tying bench with a straightbacked chair in front of it. The workbench was in fact an old desk, with a magnifying lamp attached to the left side and a brace of small drawers rising up from its back side. On the desktop and spilling from the drawers, the tools of the craft Keefe plied here—hooks of many sizes, a vise, scissors and pliers, bobbins, spools of various colors of thread, and shocks of feathers and fur in an array of textures, types, and colors, both drab and vibrant. Keefe was a skillful artisan, deftly producing all the standard fly patterns effective on the fish in the waters of the Ripshin River, patterns intended to imitate specific insects at various stages of development as well as those designed simply to attract and excite the eye of a hungry trout. But to Sandy he was also an artist, occasionally creating fly patterns defined more by their fanciful beauty than by any practical application in the catching of fish. He’d made the earrings that now dangled from Sandy’s ears—a fairly conventional woolly bugger pattern, with the hooks clipped off but with strands of aquamarine peacock herl woven through the black fluff. Each time she stood in the midst of the bungalow’s clutter, she felt what she could only explain as an embrace, one infused with a warmth she still craved after these past five years.

Excerpted with permission from Yellow Stonefly: A Novel by Tim Poland (Swallow Press, 2018)