Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Publish a New Book of Short Stories about the Long War
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I waded into the shallows at the head of the pool and cast my ﬂy as near to the oak as I could without risking the line. Then, slowly, I retrieved it. I could not see my lure in the water but imagined how my movements would translate. When I jerked the line, the wooly bugger shot upward, top-lit at the surface, presented to any waiting predator—hopefully a trout, though I had inadvertently caught turtles in this creek. I paused, letting the ﬂy fall through the water toward the bottom.
On my third try, the rod came alive in my hand. For the ﬁrst time in a long time I felt a welcome burst of adrenaline, a better my breath quickened. As it fought against a shadow much larger than itself, the ﬁsh’s every burst of life was transmitted to me through the ﬂy line via the tippet, a thread of nylon, microns thick, the whole process a kind of naturalistic Morse code. For such a small creature it was surprisingly strong, bending the rod in half.
I took my time and let the ﬁsh run, careful not to give it too much line for fear it would entangle itself on the submerged tree. When the ﬁsh tired, I headed to the bank and reeled it in, lifting it from the water. It ﬂopped wildly and fell off the hook onto the mud, where it continued to thrash, opening and closing its gills, gasping. I pounced on it, picked up a rock the size of my ﬁst, and thumped its head until it went rigid.
It was a big one—not the biggest I’d ever caught—maybe ﬁfteen inches long, a couple pounds of lean muscle. It was a rainbow, a species once foreign to this water, introduced in the 1940s when the government stocked the river to satisfy the increasing demand of sportsmen. The native brook trout, more sensitive to environment than their larger, hardier cousins, had lost out.
It had been years since I had eaten trout of any kind, but suddenly found I really wanted to. I couldn’t bring my catch back on the bus—the park service’s rules and all—but I had my lighter and pocketknife. I decided the thing to do was to clean the ﬁsh, build a small ﬁre, and cook it on the spot.
First, to cut off its head. I walked up the bank and ﬂattened a patch of ferns to form a work area. I experimented with holding the knife in my good hand, but the ﬁsh was too slimy and kept sliding out from under the other. So I switched hands, now holding the trout in place with my right, pinching the knife in what remained of my left. I plunged in the blade just anterior to the pectoral ﬁn near the gill cover. Clear ﬂuid tinged with blood ran into the ferns.
Between my three ﬁngers to keep the knife from slipping as I tried to sever bone and the sinewy spine. It probably would have been wiser just to gut the thing and leave the head on, but my father had taught me how to cut ﬁllets, and I had done it that way countless times before. Force of habit dies hard.
I gripped the knife in the palm of my bad hand and nicked the tip of the blade into the spine, balancing the knife perpendicular to the ground. I rammed downward with the heel of my palm. The knife shot sideways and sliced through the index ﬁnger of my good hand. I cursed and tried to bend it; it would go only halfway, exposing white bone as ﬂaps of skin separated to reveal layers of red and yellow tissue. Then the bleeding started. Great. Now I only had ﬁve good ﬁngers.