Benjamin Brady and the Brook Trout Bodhisattva
What you are about to read is a true story or at least as true as any fish story can be.
Scheduled to leave the following Monday for Ireland where he was to fish for salmon while staying at Ashford Castle (the one-time home of the Guinness family) Benjamin Brady decided to spend a weekend at his family’s cabin. Built of rough-hewn logs by Benjamin’s ancestor after he returned from the War to Preserve the Union, it was a short drive over a logging road to a small brook that ran down the side of western Maine’s Boundary Mountains. It was a stream he knew well, having fished it often as a boy, and later as a young man. But he hadn’t been back to it in many years.
The trail winding down from the dirt-and-gravel road had not changed much, perhaps a little more overgrown, maybe less traveled, but otherwise the same as he remembered. There were tall conifers with spindly branches encroaching the trail, moss-covered boulders (some as high as a moose shoulder), and low-growing blueberry bushes about to flower. The shy lady’s slipper, with their pink petals peeked out from under spruce trunks. They reminded the middle-aged angler of his boyhood summers, those first days of June after school let out when his father would make the five-hour drive to the cabin in their red Rambler station wagon. His mother asleep in the front seat, Benjamin in the back, with Buck, their yellow Labrador sprawled by his side, and a week’s worth of supplies stuffed in the vehicle’s spacious cargo space.
He remembered tramping along the edge of the stream, whipping his father’s nine-foot Granger Special, a bamboo fly rod that now hung on the wall of his den. How he’d marveled at the startling beauty of the stream’s little brook trout compared to the pan fish he’d caught by the bucketful from the famers’ ponds sprinkled throughout the county where he was raised. How during high school he’d stalked larger rivers, returning less frequently to the cabin and the little stream that flowed through the balsam-and-spruce forest. When old enough to acquire a driver’s license, he’d travelled northeast to the Kennebec and the Penobscot Rivers and south to the Beaver Kill and West Branch of the Delaware. And later, as a young man, west, fishing the Madison, Yellowstone, and Bighorn Rivers as well as the Green and San Juan.
Like a man unable to quench his thirst, he’d continued his feverish pursuit of trout, traveling farther and farther from home, flying to more and more distant and exotic locations. He caught larger and more selective fish while acquiring the best and most expensive collection of rods, reels, and assorted other equipment.
Benjamin now followed the narrow path as it gradually rose above the stream whose current slipped through a gorge falling fast over slick shale and rough boulder. He kept to the trail, until cresting a ridge where a fall of water cascaded downward some fifty feet, splashing onto smooth rock and flowing into a pool he knew to be the deepest in the entire mountain brook. Picking his way between the outcroppings of rock and stone, he hiked down the side of the ravine, an expensive fly rod by his side. The graphite’s dark brown finish glistened in the waning light.
It was a warm evening, and by the time he completed his descent perspiration had stained the back of his khaki shirt. Removing a wide-brimmed hat, Benjamin ran his fingers through damp hair while sitting on a fallen log at the back of the deep pool. The scent of balsam was strong. The sound of the current, falling upon the smooth stone rose up around him. A lone phoebe flew out from its nest hidden amongst the cracks and crags along the ancient shale wall along the far side of the pool.
Benjamin searched the surface, looking for a rise form, dimple or depression, perhaps a shifting shadow, the flutter of a fin, any telltale sign that might betray the presence of a trout. But for the moment the woodland pool remained still. Benjamin Brady was not a patient man by nature, but he’d learned it was better to wait quietly rather than flail about the water when there was no sign of fish.
This he did until the first caddisfly hovered over the pool. The little aquatic insect looked like a tiny tan helicopter. A moment later another appeared, and then another. Two cedar waxwings began working the air above the pool, the birds taking bugs on the wing. Soon fish began to rise, the first a small trout making a big splash, then others also small, one slashing through the surface another erupting like a miniature ballistic missile.
The learned angler remained seated until trout were rising throughout the entire pool, feasting upon the caddis now fluttering above and skittering across the surface. He knew the tiny bugs were returning to the steam to deposit their eggs, an activity even the largest and most secretive fish could not resist.
By now, the sun had slipped below the rim of hills encircling the stream. The birdsong that had permeated the forest fell silent while the surface continued to boil with trout. And still, he waited. Then at the base of the smooth rock between two plunge pools in a circle of froth, Benjamin Brady saw, or more precisely, intuited the maw of a tremendous trout slipping out from below the smooth boulder at the base of the pool. I say intuit, because Mr. Brady would later provide no better explanation than to say he sensed the fish’s presence.
The trout that rose from below the base of the smooth rock was not one of those dim-witted, put-and-take, hatchery-bred, poor excuses for a fish. It was a wild western Maine brook trout, born and raised in the little stream. Unlike a tiddler that snaps at any fly dragged past its little nose or a mercy fish rising when least expected, this trout was one of those tough-to-take, hard-to-fool fish, the ones that tend to hang out under the radar, away from the mainstream, off the grid. It was the biggest trout Benjamin Brady had ever encountered in his many travels, a lunker. What some fishermen would call a hog.
Rarely found in midstream, such fish prefer to inhabit the seams, under fallen trees, cutback banks, in the shadows, along the edges of memory, the fringes of reality. As big fish often do, this trout rarely rose to the surface, never leaving its hidey-hole unless to feed and then only at night. An apparition, a phantasm, a shadow within a shadow, this particular brook trout spent its daylight hours brooding over the great mysteries of the universe, a bodhisattva returned from its heavenly kingdom to reach nirvana through the act of helping others.
It was the maw of this celestial being that Benjamin Brady had sensed rise at the very entrance of the deepest pool of the little stream as the sun fell behind the western rim of the ravine. The same maw rose a second time to devour a tan caddisfly made of feathers and fur fashioned around a steel hook with a point honed as sharp as a sparrow hawk’s talon, a caddis pattern knotted to a line connected to Benjamin Brady’s shiny new fly rod.
The Buddha-to-be felt metal pierce bone, and with an angry leap flung its body skyward, its tail clearing the surface, spraying water in all directions, as the mighty trout collapsed back into the pool.
After that first burst of energy, the great fish sunk back under the base of the smooth rock that spanned the entrance of the deep run. The chakravartin calmly closed its eyes, repeating a mantra taught to it in a past life by Avalokiteshvara, the Lord of Compassion, himself. Knowing struggle was useless, the pain in its jaw, the metal embedded in its bone, the pressure pulling upward was all an illusion, the mysterious fish employed all of its powers of concentration and settled into deep meditation, a practice perfected after many seasons, over many lives.
Above the surface, Benjamin Brady called upon all the expertise a man can acquire during a single lifetime to play the fish. The first stars had appeared in the darkened sky by the time the trout slid slowly out from under the boulder at the base of the pool, coming, as if willingly, to the weary angler’s side. Like Ahab facing the great whale, Benjamin Brady stared into the brook trout’s black eye, sinking down through time and space, through a universe of ample facts, but little meaning, free falling through a vast void.
Rushing past the centuries, he heard the sound of countless mountain brooks, smelled the timeless scent of balsam and pine, saw trilliums, lady slippers, and lupines, may apples and trout lilies, bluets and violets, blooming through the millennia.
He passed Harry Middleton, standing with a shoeless old Indian, boy and man smiling up from an icy cold stream. He heard Alan Ginsberg howl with pain, Jack Kerouac and Gary Snyder chant mad mantras. He Listened to Harry Plunket Greene lament the loss of his beloved Bourne to over-fishing, tar, salt and the final indignity—hatchery-bred trout. He saw Romilly Feddon and his French guide, Jean Pierre, wave from a river in Brittany, the future ghosts of World War I hovering about them like sacred faeries—so much suffering, so much madness. But Walt Whitman sang a song of good cheer, as did Emerson and Thoreau from the latter’s cabin by the pond while Wordsworth and Shelley added their melodic words from across the great pond. Falling farther, Father Walton and Brother Cotton spoke softly alongside the lovely River Dove, welcoming the lost angler into the Brotherhood of the Angle. Soon after, Dame Juliana, the fifteenth-century mother superior of fly fishing, called out a prayer for his salvation. Farther and farther into that black eye he fell, now passing the Fisher of men, who hung limply from the cross, blood flowing freely from a wound in his side. Farther still, by chance, passing Chiang Tzu-Ya, sitting with legs crossed in the lotus position, fishing without a hook.
Beyond Cold Mountain, under shifting clouds and mist-soaked fog, two nameless monks laughed and laughed. Benjamin Brady found Siddhartha Gautama sitting serenely under a banyan tree, heard the hymns of the Veda sung by the original sages, until at last, he came to a time before mankind, and then a time before life, and then a time before time itself.
Then he blinked and found himself, once more, by the side of the pool, the brook trout between his palms. The bodhisattva, having completed its journey was now a Buddha, and when the man parted his fingers the fish slipped beyond his senses as if it had never been.
And what of Benjamin Brady you may ask? I’m told that in that single blink of an eye his fever cooled, his thirst quenched, and having shaken off the red dust of this earth, he rarely travels far from his family’s seasonal camp. Most days he can be found along the little stream that flows down the side of western Maine’s Boundary Mountains where he sits, sometimes for hours, listening to the sound of water spilling into a forest pool, and although he continues to fish, some say, he no longer uses a hook.