Living in the Shadow

As for man, his days are like grass,
he flourishes like a flower of the field;
the wind blows over it and it is gone,
and its place remembers it no more.

Psalm 103:15-16

My eyes burned from lack of sleep, because Hugh, the old man beside me in the truck, had insisted that early in the morning was the best time to fish, even if that meant getting up hours before the sun. Still, I was glad that we’d started before the roads got busy. Despite Hugh’s waning eyesight, he had to drive because I was unfamiliar with handling a stick shift, so the road became an obstacle course where the lives of men hung in the balance. I made peace with God on the way.

We traveled without speaking, Hugh’s waning hearing making conversation ungainly and impractical on the highway. Eventually, we pulled onto a dirt trail; the predawn Kansas sky was stained the color of my dark blue jeans while the sounds of nature were drowned by the rumble of Hugh’s F150 as we barreled toward our unseen goal. Finally we crested a hill overlooking a triangular lake, descended, and parked along the far side, which was a dam of dirt and chunks of concrete. Hugh tugged a rod from the truck bed and plucked a lure loose from a metal tackle box.

When I asked what lure I should use, Hugh tacitly pointed one out—he was there to fish, not teach—before he shuffled toward the water, the squishing sound of saturated earth under boots silencing the noise of nearby insects. He must have been my height at one time, but the vertebrae in his back had compacted on each other, shrinking his frame. I watched him for a while; Hugh had no patience, like a child, which was why he used lures rather than bait. As he meandered along the shore, each cast was a precise motion directed by years of experience, infused with precision and cunning. Even the sages among the fish were naive before him, yet Hugh’s steps were short and heavy, like those of an infant learning how to walk for the first time.

IMG_1061We fished until dusk before heading home.  At seventy-nine, most men would have abandoned fishing altogether, but not Hugh, to whom fishing was as much a part of life as breathing. Hugh must have been tired, though he didn’t let on, his mind stubborn and his body tough as braided line.  To submit to his aged body and quit the water would have been like settling into a nursing home.

Hugh and I made countless such fishing trips, and it did not take me long to realize that Betty, his wife, was thankful for my presence on the trips. She feared Hugh might fall prey to his age while alone afield with no one to help, a sentiment I could understand.

***

When we weren’t fishing, on stray summer days or during the winter cold, I worked with Hugh in his garage. He’d been building his own fishing lures for half a century and had his own patented spinner design that no store carried and few knew how to replicate. He had all the materials stored away: a tin melting pot, molds, wires, spinner blades, clevises, hooks, thread, silicon tails, deer hide, and feathers—most of them legal—not to mention all the tools necessary to follow the inclining of his imagination. As I soon discovered, there is an art and deep satisfaction to ensnaring a fish with the product of one’s own mind and hands. Color, shape, pattern, and buoyancy all factor into the creation of a believable spinner or plug, and the slightest mistake can fracture the illusion, disrupting the tranquility of a pond as much as a pitched stone.

Of course, the garage was always in disarray, despite Hugh’s best efforts to maintain order. As the law of entropy dictates, life moves from order to decay. Desks were piled with supplies and projects in their various stages while the floor was a collection of saw dust, old matches, bits of metal, and flecks of silicon or animal hair all sunken into the pores of a rubber mat. We would create for hours at a time, dipping our latest masterpieces in paint, coating a knot with clear sealant, or trimming the tail tied around a hook. Hugh praised my artistic touch; his hand held unsteady now—tremulous—like the line on a heart rate monitor.

Hugh’s son and daughters were grown, and his grandchildren were adults and distant, just as my own grandfathers and grandmothers were either dead or distant. We had formed a surrogacy, one with the other. I was fascinated as he divulged his wealth of fishing lore, each secret a technique crafted through years of effort and dedication, not understanding why Hugh chose to teach them to me, not realizing that I was becoming a living will, the testimony to a life in its final years.

***

When I first met Hugh, he owned a two-year-old English Pointer named Zeke. For decades, Hugh had hunted quail, trained several dogs to perfection, and raised generations of Pointers. Zeke was the product of years of breeding, and his unspoiled genes manifested in the patchwork of his white and brown coat, the grace of his lithe form, and the intelligence revealed in his eyes. Still, his training was juvenile and showed when he would wander too far during a hunt or started after the occasional rabbit. The bond between Hugh and Zeke brought out an affectionate side of Hugh I rarely witnessed. There was a fence separating the kennel from the garden and garage, designed to keep the Pointer out of mischief, but normally Hugh let the animal roam. Sometimes when Zeke was fenced and his master was preoccupied, the dog would lift the gate latch with his nose and sneak inside so he could be close. On occasion I would glance up from a lure and there would be Zeke, standing beside Hugh as he worked.

Then suddenly the dog house was vacant, the bowls empty, and when I inquired, Hugh described how he had found the Pointer’s lifeless body outside one morning; Zeke was chewing on a stick when a piece of wood lodged in his throat, strangling him. Hugh doubtless had journeyed to a field and buried the dog where the tracks of quail could mark the grave, but he forewent sharing the details.  He didn’t seek a replacement, the demands of owning and training an English Pointer being extensive both physically and emotionally, a younger man’s game. The bond between a man and his dog is profound, and in Hugh’s old age, I suspect he was unwilling to risk such a loss again.

***

After an absence of a couple years, due to college, I remember visiting Hugh and discovering the home much as it had always been, neat yet marked with the flair of an outdoorsman. There were homemade knives in the kitchen and a loaded 12-guage shotgun propped behind the bathroom door. The backyard burst with gardening tools, coolers and old tomato cages arrayed in a semblance of order that few could decipher.

Hugh shuffled around with the same ungainly gait, determined to maintain a productive existence, but time had found its opening. When I saw Betty, I noticed the way her features had shrunk, the way her veins wrapped around her arms, and when I hugged her, my thin frame enveloped hers. It felt as if she had become a marionette, skin stretched over sticks and air, her life strings coming undone. I had heard the rumors: Betty’s lung cancer had resurfaced after a decade of remission.

As we normally did, Hugh and I worked away in the garage, amidst the dirt and rust, silent as we normally were, yet together. While I surveyed the collection of fishing poles and tackle, I found myself pondering who would sort through the remains of Hugh’s life, ascribing value to his possessions apart from memories that would dim with time. Hugh continued to work, unwilling to stop, perhaps unable to, and it was while he bustled around the room doing his best to set his house in order that realization finally settled on me. I’d heard mortality in hushed words and somber silence, and I’d sensed it even as a child. But as I watched Hugh, I saw it the most clearly, how we all reside in the shadow, life and eternity existing only a breath apart.

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