Elliot made slow progress along the tier of black ballast rocks jutting into the harbor, pausing at the wider gaps between the tumbled boulders to search for footholds. A stiff northwesterly breeze whipped brine over his wading shoes and up around his bare shins, occasionally splashing his shorts and the mesh-bottomed stripping basket belted around his waist. It was the last day of his annual September break—the last fly fishing of the season for him—and although the ocean was warm, the air had gone cold, as if to emphasize the end of summer. The light too had gained a new clarity, swept in by the wind to suffuse the rocks and water with the cold glint of Atlantic winter. But there were other fishermen out, or at least one, a burly local in brown neoprene waders standing on a high rock several hundred yards from the beach.
“Any sign of life?” Elliot shouted into the wind.
“Nah.” The islander spoke without looking up.
“I got a keeper a few days ago,” Elliot offered. “A little further out from shore.” The Nantucketer nodded and reeled in his line, his bearded face reflecting the green tint of the ocean. He lifted his rod tip and plucked the fly out of the wind—a chartreuse Clouser minnow, Elliot noticed—and hitched it to the fly-clip above the reel. Only then did he look up, his eyes flickering over Elliot’s canvas wading shoes and bare legs before settling on his face. “Better be careful out here. Rocks’ll be underwater with the high tide.”
“Don’t worry. This isn’t my first time out here.”
What the man had said was true. The exposed tips of the ballast rocks were already wet from the douse and suck of the swells, and the tide was coming in fast. But Elliot knew that the jetty was negotiable even when fully submerged. You just had to look under the surface for the bone-colored patches of barnacle, which were abrasive enough to give your felt-soled wading shoes a reliable grip. So he continued, his free hand outstretched for balance, stepping carefully so as not to lose his footing on the rust-colored fronds of kelp at the waterline. He could sense the islander’s eyes on his back, a slight prickling among the fine hairs at the base of his neck.
His progress was delayed along the middle section of the jetty, because he had to wait for the swells to go down before he could see the barnacles. Then it was a question of summoning the faith that the bone-colored patches were indeed stationary beneath the surface, which shifted back and forth to create the illusion that the underlying rocks were also shifting. He stopped on an exposed rock to tie on his own chartreuse Clouser, poking the tippet through the eye of the hook and looping the line back over itself, twisting five times and threading the loop before spitting on the line to wet it and pulling the knot tight into a compact monofilament noose. The Clouser looked terrified, with its bugged-out barbell eyes and flume of chartreuse hair sweeping back over the hook.
He began to cast, bending the graphite rod to form the line into long, quickly unrolling loops, then letting it straighten and drop to the water. He counted to ten slowly, allowing the line to sink beneath the wind-tossed surface and into the stripers’ feeding zone. In clear water you could sometimes see them, schools of three or more fish patrolling the submerged edges of the rocks, fin-tips glowing green against the eel grass, or profiled against the sandy bottom like the shadows of fast-moving clouds. For Elliot, these fly-fishing excursions were like pilgrimages into a sacred realm of wind and tide and current. Out here good instincts were the only important quality. Freedom was absolute, and the bewildering complexities of life receded before the absorbed mindlessness of a hunter stalking prey.
He stripped the line slowly—pause, strip, pause, strip—the fly imitating a wounded baitfish.
This morning he’d awakened with a breeze coming in through the screen window like cool breath on his face. Sarah had lain on her stomach beside him, snoring lightly. He’d slid carefully out from under the sheet so as not to wake her, and tiptoed over the creaking pinewood floor to the small bathroom. It was the worst feature of the old rental cottage, a cramped space with awkward angles and a slanted ceiling, so that standing over the toilet, you either had to crouch or lean back, limbo-style.
On his way downstairs to go over his fishing gear, he’d heard Zoe stirring in her room. Unable to resist tip-toeing up to peer in through her cracked door, he’d found her wide awake, lying on her side with her arms around her pillow and her eyes open, a characteristically solemn expression on her face as though she were pondering some deep philosophical question. All parents are love-blind, and Elliot knew it, but he couldn’t help but wonder at the miracle of this small creature he and Sarah had created. She was an exceptional two-year-old: wise, sweet-tempered, and patient.
When he pushed open the door, her hazel eyes swung around to meet his—almost reluctantly, he thought—but when his presence registered, her face lit up in a broad smile. He came in and sat on the bed, and they grinned at each other for a moment in conspiratorial silence. He took her in his arms, her head reassuringly heavy on his shoulder as he carried her over the floorboards into the master bedroom. He pulled back the sheet and placed her on the bed next to her sleeping mother, gave her an exaggerated wink, and pressed his finger to his mouth. Zoe nodded to show that she understood, and Elliot tousled her downy hair, imagining Sarah’s moment of confusion as she awoke to find her husband’s bulk replaced by the tiny form of their daughter. Zoe would see the joke and giggle delightedly, and it was likely that Sarah would go straight into tickling mode. As far as family life went, he could conceive of nothing to surpass it: a whole morning spent laughing in bed with beloved, newly awakened females in their warm cotton nightshirts.
He wasn’t going to be able to stick around for that, though—not today. The sooner he cooked breakfast, the sooner they could start packing. The sooner they packed, the more family time they would have. And the more family time they had, the more predisposed Sarah would be to grant him a few hours of fishing time before the ferry. On the walk down the hill from the rental cottage the harbor had looked like hammered steel, but now that he was standing out on the jetty, it looked molten: the slate-green surface glinting and swelling and nettled with sea foam. The wind etched capricious fingerprints that moved to and fro across the swells with alarming speed, and peeled hissing plumes off the tops of the waves . Casting in these conditions was difficult. There was no sign of fish, and Elliot made up his mind to turn back. It would be nice to give Sarah—who hated cutting things close—the pleasant surprise of an early arrival at the ferry dock. One more cast, he decided, and he would head in, buy them each an ice cream cone, and take their smiles as consolation for the looming reality of his beckoning daily life: gridlock traffic, computer screens, marketing meetings.
But when he’d stripped in the final cast, something made him shoot out the line once more. And that was when the fish hit. From the way it fought—an initial series of powerful, dog-like tugs followed by the high-pitched whine of the reel as it ran for deeper water—Elliot could tell it was a big striper. He turned the dial to tighten the drag and bent his knees, wetting his free hand in the water in order to press his palm to the bottom of the reel. But it was too late. Sensing freedom, the fish thrashed hard; the rod bent double for a second, then shook out straight; and the line, which had been humming with the spirit of a wild fighting animal, went slack.
He cursed and reeled in.
He reached into his chest pack for another Clouser and tied it on, hands shaking. The wind was picking up. Glancing up, he saw that a massive wedge-shaped cloud had blown in to darken the sky to the northeast. Over the submerged rock on which he stood flowed a foot of clear, fast-moving water. Schools of agitated baitfish streamed across it, bouncing off his shins like a volley of soft machine-gun bullets. His watch said 16:04. A few more casts would mean he would have to hurry to catch the boat, but that was nothing new; Sarah would expect it. He would hold himself to a strict turnaround time of four thirty, maybe four thirty-five, four forty at the latest. The steamship wharf was a ten-minute jog from Jetties Beach. He still time to spare for the five o’clock departure.
He clipped the Clouser to the cork rod butt and squinted at the swirling currents ahead. A mottled gray storm petrel sailed overhead, following the line of the breakwater like a shadow escaping to the open sea. The spine of ballast rocks was nearly submerged, and the water rushing in from the ocean side formed increasingly defined rips, the dull roar of the flooding tide playing a strangely seductive counterpoint to the high-pitched shriek of the wind. The closest rocks were difficult to see in the dark green water, but he could make out a bone-colored barnacle patch wavering under the surface a few feet away. Further out there were some high rocks still exposed to the air, and if he could just cross the gap . . . .
He hesitated for a moment, then stepped into deeper water.
This morning, after a leisurely breakfast during which he’d done his best to suppress his impatience to get on with the day, they’d packed the bags, cleaned the cottage, taken out the garbage, and walked Zoe in the stroller down to the children’s beach. They’d built a sand sculpture in the shape of a whale and played in the water until the wind had picked up; then they’d taken shelter behind an overturned skiff for a picnic of leftover swordfish. Zoe had fallen asleep on a blanket beneath three layers of beach towel.
He tried to interest Sarah in sex and from the full-mouthed way she responded to his kisses, he could tell that she was considering it, but in the end she dashed his hopes by removing his hand from its casual resting-place on the curve of her bikini bottom. They lay spoon-style with his face buried in her clean-smelling hair, the close-pressed warmth of her backside an enchanting contrast to the increasingly chilly wind. Somewhere on the island a heavy surf was pounding, the distant rumble of it accented by the hollow slap of waves against the hulls of harbor sailboats nearby.
Elliot had begun to feel restless. Sensing this, Sarah rolled over and glared at him in mock disapproval. “Go. But don’t be late for the ferry.”
He got to his feet and helpfully began to stuff the leftover picnic supplies into a plastic shopping bag. “I’ll be at the wharf by four-thirty.”
“Sure you will. You’re always so punctual when you’ve been fishing.”
He grinned. “Don’t worry. I’ll be there.”
“If you miss the boat, Elliot, you may as well jump in with the fish. Because you’ll have to swim pretty hard to reach the other side before Zoe and I drive home without you.”
“Zoe would wait for me,” he said.
“Not with Mommy at the wheel, she wouldn’t.”
“You wouldn’t really leave me behind.” Elliot tried to imagine it: the Prius pulling out of the parking lot, Zoe’s mournful little face pressed against the rear window as she scanned Hyannis Harbor for a glimpse of her backstroking Dad.
“Why don’t we not find out, okay?” Sarah said.
Elliot kneeled on the blanket to kiss her lips—the lingering promise of unfinished business, perhaps tonight back at home—and he kissed sleeping Zoe on the forehead. Then he set off for the cottage to collect his gear.
“Happy hunting,” Sarah called after him, but her words were lost in the rising howl of the wind.
Before he could gain purchase on the barnacle patch, a chest-high surge knocked him over. Holding his fly rod out of the water, he searched with his feet for something to stand on, found a flat surface slick with rubbery seaweed, was buffeted by another surprising swell, and slipped, his free hand scraping painfully over a knife-edged rock toothed with barnacles. For a moment he was adrift, flailing, pulled by the undertow into the savage dance of the open water. In a fit of panicked determination, he let go of the rod and thrashed back to a rock white with cormorant guano, which he hugged tightly while his feet probed for traction. At length he was able to wedge the sole of his wading shoe firmly into a crevice between two rocks, and he finally had a moment to collect himself. The guano let off a strong ammoniac tang. His heart beat wildly. After the initial shock of immersion, the water felt surprisingly warm. “You idiot,” he said, surprised by how frightened his voice sounded. “That was a four-hundred-dollar rod.”
The wind whipped salt spray into his eyes. It had started to rain, warm drops drumming his scalp. The tide alternated between buoying him up on the swells as if to loosen his grip on the rock, and dragging him down as if to suction him into deeper water. Then he saw it: a huge green wave, the wind ripping spray off the top as it came. A glimpse of the lacy pattern of foam on the concave wall of water, and he was plunged into a deafening green silence. When the wave receded, he concentrated on trying to catch his breath. He now perceived a dull pressure in the arch of his right foot, a small ache that hadn’t been there a moment before. When he tried to work the foot out of the crevice, he realized that he could not: it was stuck. Was it possible the rock had shifted?
Another wave came in, and he swallowed brine. When the sea receded, he gasped for air, gripped by a renewed onslaught of panic, a tingling in his limbs and a quick flurry of spasms in his groin. Looking up at the horizon, he saw a squall advancing from the northeast, a wall of rain and wind that blurred the sky. In the next moment the squall hit, a sizzling haze of blown droplets. The wind was a steady scream punctuated by moments of absolute silence as Elliot held his breath beneath the latest swell. It occurred to him that his fly rod might not be the only loss that day. Perhaps he had succumbed too blithely to his primitive urge, which might have been something like the predatory instinct that drew a striper to a pinch of bucktail tied to a stainless steel hook. Only he had to admit that, in his case, the action hadn’t been quite so automatic. He’d known all along that he was making a choice, and taking a risk.
Between immersions he got a look at his diving watch: 16:32. In his mind’s eye, the ferry was already leaving the dock. The Prius was pulling out of the parking lot on the other side. He could see the determined frown on Sarah’s face as she drove home through the parade of taillights on the highway. She wouldn’t report him missing, at least not right away. She would wait for him to call her, to apologize for the worry and inconvenience he had caused. He concentrated on working his foot out of the crack, deliberately at first, then back and forth in increasingly frantic jerks.
The foghorn blast signaled the ferry’s imminent departure. Sarah sighed, lifted Zoe and the canvas day-bag, and followed the line through the light rain to the boarding ramp. She stopped to give the man her ticket and glanced over her shoulder one more time, hoping to see Elliot jogging toward her through the puddles on the steaming asphalt of the parking lot. The rain had been short-lived but heavy, blown almost horizontal by the wind coming in through the mouth of the harbor. That had worried her, especially when the downpour had turned briefly to hail: marble-sized pellets whitening the pavement and the decks of the boats at their moorings. But the squall had passed quickly, and it was true that she worried too much: among their friends and extended family Elliot was famous for making it just under the wire, and for his good luck.
She walked up the ramp as slowly as she could, glancing back several more times before she had no choice but to board. In the crowded main cabin, summer families and college kids sprawled out among the booths, their black labs and golden retrievers pulling on their leashes, and a few weathered old islanders read newspapers or dealt out hands of solitaire.
“He likes to push it,” she told Zoe, setting her down on the fake-leather seat of one of the few unoccupied booths. “It would be funny if it weren’t so maddening, sweetie, wouldn’t it?”
The little girl nodded solemnly.
“He says life’s too short not to make the most of it. Well, always trying to make the most of life isn’t a good way to reduce stress, is it, sweetie? It’s a way to increase stress.” She took a coloring book and some crayons out of the canvas bag and laid them out on the table in front of the child, who stared thoughtfully at the cover of the book for a moment before opening it up to a particular page. The air inside the main cabin reeked of damp clothing and snack-bar hot dogs, and the windows were already fogging up. Elliot could take a bus back to Hartford and call her from the station, Sarah thought with a surge of frustration. It would serve him right for not being there to help her move their heavy luggage, put gas in the car while she fed Zoe, talk to her and keep her awake on the long, dark drive home. But beneath the frustration was an increasing undertow of worry.
“What do you think, Zoe?” she said, bending to rescue a crayon that had rolled off the table. “Should we be worried about your useless, irresponsible Daddy?”
When she sat up, the little girl was gazing wide-eyed over Sarah’s shoulder. Sarah’s heart skipped a beat and she spun around, half-expecting a grim-faced Coast Guard captain or some other uniformed messenger of death. But it was only Elliot, his chest heaving with the exertion of running, his clothing soaked and dripping on the soggy industrial carpet of the enclosed deck. “It’s about time, for the love of God,” she said, putting more emphasis on the last word than she’d really intended.
He smiled weakly. His hair was plastered across his forehead as if he’d been swimming, and there was a bloody gash along his left hand and wrist.
“Jesus, honey, what happened? Are you okay?”
He glanced down at his legs, which were also leaking blood from several cuts and still puckered from the water. His smile was uncertain, as if he still couldn’t quite believe he’d made it.
“Damn it, Elliot—” But she stopped short, not wanting to alarm Zoe. He nodded, acknowledging the justice of the criticism. There was a hint of barely suppressed fear in his sun-bronzed face, and Sarah noticed that his eyes were different. Slightly wider, perhaps, the fine wrinkles around them more pronounced.
Zoe stared up at her father with her delicate little eyebrows raised. Her expression was tolerant and serene, like a miniature blond Buddha. Elliot knelt on the carpet in front of the booth and bent his head in an oddly submissive way—like a surrendering general, or an errant dog.
“Bad Daddy,” the little girl said, patting him on the head. “Bad, bad Daddy.”
Buy A Field Guide to Murder and Fly Fishing on Amazon or from your favorite local bookstore (ISBN #978-0997452877) . Excerpt published with permission of Green Writer’s Press, © Copyright 2017, all rights reserved.