He was careful not to handle the fish roughly. The barbless fly dropped easily out of the fish's mouth, but it was tired. It had put up a good fight. A brook trout is a beautiful thing. Like the northern lights. Like a peacock. Mother nature likes to show off now and again, and she did a doozie on the brookie. Bright red and yellow dots lined its sides, flashing in the lazy sun.
The old man reached a weathered hand into the chilling water. He gently turned the fish in the current and helped it breathe again. It finned beside his boot briefly and then shot away, back to its home under the brittle roots of a stream-side tree.
The man smiled and chuckled in spite of himself. Good fight. Strong fish. By God, beautiful fish. God, thank you for these beautiful fish. You know what they have meant to me.
Josef liked to talk to God, but it was really a way to speak to himself without feeling crazy. He'd lived alone since his wife had passed. The kids had tried to "rescue" him. They didn't understand and Josef had even yelled at his son. It was the first time he had ever yelled at one of his children.
"Fritz! You will not tell me how to live my life. There is not much of it left. What I do with the rest of my life is for me. Not for you!"
"Dad, you're being foolish..."
"How dare you speak to your father like this? How many times in your life have I called you foolish? How many times have I doubted you?"
"Dad, I'm sorry. We're just so scared. I think about you alone in this house. It makes me sad. And worried. You don't get around like you used to..."
"Good, you leave sad and worried to me. Let's fish."
"Dad, we talked about the fishing..."
"We talked? You talked. I know the streams. They know me. If they choose to take me, I will go with a smile on my face."
Frederick rubbed his temples and tried to think of an argument that made sense. He closed his eyes and lost himself in the neon crumbs of his mind.
"You promise not to go too close to the water?"
Frederick sighed, but inside of him there was a smile. Old Josef. That's what he had always been called. Even when he was young, before he was a father, they had called him 'Old Josef'.
Frederick grabbed onto his father's forearm and marveled again at the contrast - strong muscles covered in skin like rice paper. Josef pulled his arm away.
"I don't need help falling, Fritz."
"You hold me because you love me. I understand. But you must understand, too. A man has his pride."
Frederick looked down with shame in his heart. He knew he was right, not the old man, but the validation changed nothing.
"Dad...I'm sorry. Let's go fishing."
Frederick did not know that his father fished without him. He did not know that, most days, the man spent thirty minutes battling trembling fingers, trying to get his waders on, covered with sweat by the time he had finished. He did not know that he still tied his own flies, arthritic fingers aching with the pleasure. His flies were simpler now. Life was simpler now. His wife was gone, his heart was broken, and, whether he admitted it or not, Josef was done with life. Now it was just a matter of patience.
The brook trout had been the first fish of the morning. It was a perfect winter day. The sun was soft, and it made everything appear as if viewed through a cheese cloth. The sun was rising and his muscles felt good. He waded back out into the stream until he was over his knees. His gargoyle fingers pulled line from the reel and he cast lazily toward a large pool. He fished the pool for an hour before a strong brown trout nipped the fly from the surface. Josef raised the rod and kept tension on the line. The fish dove, and he coaxed it out. The fight lasted almost five minutes. When the fish was beside his boot, he slipped a hand down and knocked the hook out. The trout was gone is a flash of silt. Joseph smiled. You do not get so tired? Or are you just a fighter? Well, you are back with your friends now.
It happened so quickly that Josef couldn't process it. The water was frigid and his legs were almost numb, even with the waders. He turned to head upstream and his right leg found the 'Y' of an old tree branch. He heard a sound. A snapping noise that played throughout his body. He sat down hard in the water, dumfounded. He thought of the slingshot he could make with the limb and chuckled at the absurdity of the idea. He tried to stand and, though there was no pain, his leg would not support him and he fell face-forward into the icy water. The shock of the cold water was abrupt and exhilarating. It cleared his mind. He was, at most, a mile from his house. It had been a mild winter, but the temperature was still in the thirties. Josef. You cannot make it home. But. Get up, old man. Get up.
Josef was soaking wet, and his waders felt filled with cement. His whole body was growing numb. With a terrible slowness, he dragged himself toward the deep hole. He took an old Barlow knife from his pocket. It was wet and his fingers were numb. His hands bled as he cut into the cork of the old fly rod. Three words: I love you.
Fritz would find it. And he would know. With the last of his strength, Josef launched the rod onto the bank. It caught in a some brambles by the creel looped over a low-hanging limb. Hell of a shot, Josef. Once in a lifetime shot, old man. He smiled. He looked at the blue sky. He thought of his wife. Of Fritz. Of Helen and his grandchildren. A tear escaped his eye. But he was not sad.
He stepped off the ledge and sunk into the deep hole, pulled down by the weight of his waders. The water had already numbed him. He opened his eyes and, in the clear water, he was almost sure he could see the big, brown trout. He sank further and further, until he touched the bottom. He had always known that the hole was deeper than it looked. He closed his eyes and felt the stab of death in himself. He smiled again. This is a good thing, Josef. The fishes were good. Beautiful day. Goodbye fishes. Thank you and goodbye.
Josef was dead long before the sun set. Long before the the stream was bathed in the light of a Cheshire moon. Long before the nighthawks cried. Long before Frederick sat in his chair and knew, inexplicably but with certainty, that his father was gone.