She’s going to make me lonesome when she goes. And I know she will… full-life loaded on a plane over seas, mountains, history, countries. Designations meaning nothing but to us homo sapiens, who’ve always drawn invisible lines, breaking things into pieces we can manage. Like we cut up steak. Chew hard. Chew slow. Sink teeth and swallow smiling.
She’s three years younger, but has a good foot over my head. Raised Midwest on God and grain, we spent our childhood riding the edges of cornfields horseback. Making big squares connect to where we wanted to go, skirting on permissioned access, stalking perimeters like predators do open spaces. Roundabout ways you don’t understand but from an airplane, when the land lays out like a quilt and you see the design through all the wrinkles.
We were brought up to be mothers, but neither of us has met expectations. Our clocks are broken or lost or just not paying attention. But it’s okay—don’t worry or pray—we want it this way. For after leaving those cornfields we both found ourselves out West, in desert landscapes and boulders and endless alpine sky, and those expectations we’d brought along died of exposure on the mesas, or drowned in backcountry lakes. Maybe we could find the bones if we cared to backtrack, but maybe they’ve been gnawed by rodents into nothingness. In any case, I couldn’t tell you where to look now, where plans came undone. It makes me confident though, and even proud, that my sister wanders the same trails I do.
And this summer, she says, she wants to fly fish. Can she come along? Can I teach her? So I give her a rod and reel, a box of dry flies and some nymphs, hoping she’ll still be around in the fall. Improved clinch and double-uni, some 5X and here’s nippers. I put my hand on hers clutching the cork grip and make the back cast strong. Exaggerated. See there? Don’t break the wrist. Forward. Gentle. Don’t spook the pool.
We hike up streams and bushwhack mountainsides on game trails so steep even the dog looks sketched-out. Small streams and smaller still. We follow drainages as far as they will fish and then some, on the promise of trouty-looking water. Here it’s not the next bend, but the next pool, next log-jammed shelf that lures us farther, like working our way up an escalator moving the opposite direction.
As much as has been said about the healing power of waters, they also just pass the hours, which is perhaps what does the trick in the end. Blue rivers running slow and lazy; and never realize the time. And she was looking for that. For the summer to go quickly. To keep her mind off a shoulder injury and surgery that harnessed her to the ground when all she wanted was to climb high, calloused fingers sticking to granite like a lizard in the sun.
Her eyes crinkle in the corners like chocolate cookies our grandmother used to make. She’s caught one. Of course she has. And isn’t it beautiful, she says. Isn’t it great. Again and again the miracle happens. Trout made real out of nothing. She’s spotting them now, where one will be holding or feeding, before I can point. Try that one. Are we hurting them? she asks. And I say I don’t know. I say I haven’t worked that out yet in my head. But I show her how to crimp barbs and wet her hand and slip the hook free in a jiffy. Just like nothing happened, even though we both know it has. It helps.
I’d like to think I’ve taught my little sister some things. But like much we tell ourselves—that flannel is flattering, that we don’t drink too much, that we’ll organize the silverware drawer tomorrow—I know it isn’t true. I know that in all but age she’s “Big Sis.” The one I’ve looked to for advice even when I haven’t asked.
I’ve rarely had to. Because she wears the answers like she keeps her hands—raw and open, blistered and healing. She’s taught me how to live in the present, how to time a joke, that cursing is good medicine and it’s okay to get angry, that dessert should be daily and anxiety and disease are better when shared (our price of admission for common genes). And that this is all very hard work. So hard, sometimes we break, and must go looking for pieces of ourselves shattered against boulders, lost in talus fields, sunk in streams with stones in our pockets.
But most of all, she’s taught me what it’s like to have a friend. To rediscover a kid you liked as an adult you love. To want to hold onto someone, to a thing and days so badly, you choke holding your breath, wanting time not to pass. Wanting the waters to still, to freeze, for that gem of a cutthroat to always sparkle as it does in the sun on the palm of your hand.
Now snow has started falling in Colorado’s highcountry, on the peaks where ptarmigan age back to white and grasses rust out at the end of season. But warm days hold and fireweed flanks trails in random streaks like a bad home dye job. And we keep fishing until we can’t anymore. Until summer is silent. Until time passes and I breathe.
On a skinny unnamed stream, a chunky hopper-fed cutthroat rises and takes my dry, sipped off the surface like a gnat from picnic lemonade. Sweet, rimmed with sweat. And I wait longer than I should before releasing her, back into a world where she belongs. Before she slips through my fingers and I hold them out, watching water drop into sky-blue and disappear.