Mercury

by Jeff Vande Zande

Branson stood in the water, alone and chilled - listening to nothing. His fly rod's four pounds felt like a length of rebar in his fist. He stared ahead, and the yellowing woods blurred around him. Blinking his eyes into focus after a time, he looked up into the patches of grey sky between the trees. The distant birds there were small shadows of restless flight. Circling. Always coming back to the same place.

A soft voice called out.

Branson turned. A man in plain clothes stood behind cyclone fencing. It was fifteen feet high with a trellis of barbwire. Branson had fished this stretch of river before. He'd never seen the fence or thought of the closeness of the prison property to the river.

"Hi," the man said, sounding like a boy. "How's fishing?"

Branson took a calming breath. He shrugged. "Bad, like anything."

Each studied the other.

The man rubbed his chin. He smiled. "You think I could get a smoke?"

Branson touched his vest pocket. His cigarettes were there with tippet and a tube of fly dressing. He glanced at the other man.

"I was watching you." He pointed beyond Branson. "I saw you smoking upstream."

Branson nodded. He pinched the pack of cigarettes from his pocket and started out of the water toward the fence, stepping gingerly on the mossy rocks near shore. Earlier, around the upstream bend, he'd lost one of his favorite flies in some high branches. It was a pattern his son had tied. After losing it, Branson had sat on a fallen tree near the bank and picked flies from his day box and vest patch, dropping them one by one onto the river's surface until they all were gone. Nearly one hundred. He watched each one for as long as he could until the distance dissolved them. Before dropping the last one, a big hex pattern for fishing downstate rivers in June, he smirked and tied it on his line. He'd been crash landing it into some of the best holes for the last half hour.

Branson held a cigarette and the other man drew it through to his side. He had to press his face close to the links while Branson flicked up a flame. After a moment, Branson lit one for himself.

The man took a long drag and then exhaled, watching the smoke float up over the fence and melt away into the branches. "Thanks," he said.

They smoked silently. The river kept on as it had been. Branson sat and rested his stiff back against the fence. The sitting brought him some relief from what he'd been carrying.

"Catching any?"

He shook his head.

"I've seen fish feeding in there." He pointed at the river.

Branson nodded. "I've had fish out of there."

Leaves drifted down to the river and floated away.

"Used to trout fish myself quite a bit." He stared through the fence at the river. "Lived for it, really."

Branson's mind went elsewhere. The other man disappeared, as everything else had for him over the past couple days. His vision narrowed to a blurry patch in front of him and his jaw went slack. The chill came again.

"Pretty little stretch of river," the other man said.

"Hmm?"

"I said it seems like a good little river."

Branson exhaled a joyless laugh through his nose. "Seems," he repeated. "You got that right." He mashed his cigarette into the dry earth and twisted it back and forth.

The man behind the fence crouched down near him. His voice was close. "What are you saying?"

"The fish are poisoned. Can't eat them."

"How?"

Anyone who fished trout in the area knew the story. In the 1880's the Ropes Gold Mine had used mercury as its primary processing reagent. The mercury got into Deer Lake, which was the source of the river. "Deer Lake's twenty miles upstream. That's twenty miles of river. Shot."

The other man whistled. "All that from a gold mine in the 1880's?"

Branson lit another cigarette. "That and about thirty years of untreated sewage flowing into Deer Lake from Ishpeming."

"Ishpeming?"

"You never heard of it?"

"I'm not from around here."

Explaining that it was a little town over to the west, Branson threaded another cigarette through the fence along with the lighter. The other lit up and pushed the lighter back.

"Why are you fishing it?"

"It's close to home."

The man's hand was a claw where he held the fence. He steadied himself on one knee. "Do they expect that the mercury will ever get out?"

"They talk about it." Branson squeezed his right fist tightly until a knuckle cracked. He released his grip. "Everything's just goddamn talking. Lies. Nothing changes." He could feel it coming up.

The other man cleared his throat. "Yeah."

Branson took an angry drag and then exhaled. "I look in the fishing guide every year, and every year there's a black dot for this river. And every goddamn year they're talking about how it will leach out, but it doesn't. It's just pointless hoping. Not worth it." He stared at the river. He couldn't hear it through the pulse of blood ringing in his ears. "Christ," he said. He pinched his nose between his thumb and forefinger as though he meant to tear it off. His words ripped out of him like a sneeze. "He never got clean. Not really."

The other man was quiet. The river moved and smoke leaked upward from their cigarettes while intermittent yellow and orange leaves floated down off the trees around them. Everything else was still. "He?"

Branson felt it wanting out of him, like the urge to vomit after too much drinking. It would be awful, ripping, and yet he could feel it coming.

He flicked his cigarette toward the river. It didn't make it.

"Sonuvabitch." He pushed himself up, walked over to the smoldering butt, and crushed it out with his boot. He looked at the other man behind the fence. "My kid," he said. "My son."

He couldn't stop talking. Deceased wife. Son falling in with the wrong crowd and then falling away. Crystal Meth. Yes, even in a little pisshole town like this. Branson told the story of how his son had sold the switchblade - the switchblade that had belonged to Branson's father. The switchblade that Branson's father had bought shortly after being diagnosed with esophageal cancer. The old man had wanted a switchblade all his life and only bought himself one off the Internet once he received what was essentially a death sentence. Buying the knife was illegal. "What are they going to do, arrest me?" Branson's father laughed. Weakened by chemo, he clicked the blade open and retracted it for hours at a time. Having the knife seemed to give him a little strength - though not enough. When his father died, Branson got the knife, and he kept it as a reminder to himself that he should live life for the moment. Taylor, Branson's son, knew the story of the knife. He sold it anyway. He needed money. Maybe, in his deluded mind, he used the story of the knife to justify selling it.

Branson kept talking. He told about his son's weight loss -a skeleton draped in skin. He told about the arrest. And then the rehab. Depression, fear, wanting to sleep a lot, difficulty in sleeping, shaking, nausea, palpitations, sweating, hyperventilation. And then better days. And more better days. Branson had started him on fly fishing and thought that it might be some kind of new addiction that could make him forget the other. A good addiction. During the past winter there'd been the fly tying and the way his son had lost himself in it - and found himself. It seemed like every turn of thread was a stitch, making his son whole again. There was the day early in the season, in this very river, when his son had turned without a sound and collapsed into Branson in what turned out to be a long hug. It said thanks. It said I'm trying. It said this is a prayer.

Branson sniffed. "And then last week I woke up and the house was empty. A junkie friend of his said Taylor was still in town. I shook it out of the little prick in a grocery store parking lot." He held his hands out in front of him and they moved the way they had moved when he'd throttled the kid. "Told me that Taylor was using again. That he had been using for awhile." He released his grip, as though he was holding more than just air.

The man behind the fence scratched his ear. He looked at the ground for a long time, pinching his lower lip. "That's tough."

Branson stood stunned from his release.

"You can't blame yourself. My old man-"

Branson held up his hand. "Look, don't feel that you have to say anything. I'm done with him. I'm spent."

The other man turned around abruptly at the sound of something moving behind him. He cleared his throat. "I should get back. I can't stay here too long. Someone will come."

"Sure." He picked up his fly rod.

The other man bent over and picked a paint brush out of the grass.

Branson looked at the brush and the yellow paint on its bristles.

"That's the job they have me on. I'm painting a storage shed. I'm on a little break." He looked behind him again and waited. He turned back and pointed his brush toward Branson. "Can I ask another favor?"

Branson smirked. "You can have the rest," he said, reaching for the pack.

"No." He shook his head. "No, it's not ... it's just that I want to know ... I want to ask you about the river."

"What about it?"

The man stepped closer. He looked over his shoulder again. "It's just that I get down here whenever I can - any time I have some kind of outside work detail. And I've memorized this one little stretch. I've just wondered ..."

Branson studied him and felt his eye twitch.

"It's just..." He took another step closer, as though he might try to walk through the fence. He pointed again, this time with the hand not holding the brush. "Up around that bend there. What does it do?"

"What?"

The man smiled. "The river. What does it do? I've always wondered. What's it like?"

Branson looked behind him at the river. He turned back and swam his hand through the air. "Just kind of snakes around in the woods."

The other's face changed, looked disappointed.

"I'm not sure what you-"

"I just mean ... is there anything else ... any other details?"

He shrugged. "I don't know the whole river."

"That's okay. Just anything."

"I can tell you what I know." He started from the trailhead where the river is fast and choppy with whitewater. The speed slows when the river splits around a long grass island, and gets slower yet when the two branches meet up again and then widen. "Lots of brookies in that riffly wider section," he said. "Good fishing." He talked of the depths in the holes and how some of them were well over his head. His son had pulled a seventeen-inch brook trout out of one. "I'm sure you know that the big ones usually stay in those deep holes during the day, but for whatever reason it came up after a little attractor pattern right on the surface. Broad daylight." Talking about trout got him talking about cover. Windfalls. Deadfalls. The overhanging banks.

"Gets strange back there, too" he said, listening to himself tell it, as though speaking it aloud were making the river real. "Last spring the winter run-off came through heavy and tore the hell out of the place. It was like three rivers coming through there."

The other man stared at the water. "There was a riot last spring," he said. "Even trustees were locked down."

Branson nodded. He explained that when the water levels had receded, the river had moved. "For about an eighth of a mile, there's just this dry river bed where the river had been. It just jumped its path."

The other man looked at the moving water. "I wonder how that happens - like it was going wrong for all those years."

Branson shrugged. He looked at the river and where it disappeared around the downstream bend. "I don't know much about the river from here down. I usually turn back here. I've heard it gets slower and deeper on its way out into the lake."

The other man held both hands in the links and looked upstream. A smile haunted his face. "You've given me a lot to think about." He let go of the fence. "I fish this stream at night."

Branson looked at him. Something in his eyes - something lost, sad. And yet something still alive. Something he had given him by simply describing a section of the river that the other man couldn't see.

Branson held his rod out after a moment. "You want me to try to catch one? You want to hold one?"

The other man smiled at the fly. "You always fish with that Pterodactyl pattern?"

Branson laughed. "I might be able to pick one up. These brookies sometimes go after anything."

The man crossed his arms and made as though to watch, smiling. Branson lit a cigarette, passed it through the fence, and then lit a second cigarette for himself. He carried his rod into the current and checked behind him for branches before casting. He used a roll cast.

The hex landed like a stone into the holes. He tried to finesse it. He smiled at his mistakes and looked at the man behind the fence. The man's face, which had been watching everything boyishly, was changed. Pale. He locked eyes with Branson and his head shook almost imperceptibly, like a leaf turning in a slight breeze. Everything about his face said no. Said don't move. Said this is really bad.

Branson stood still and soon heard the footsteps coming through the leaves behind the other man.

The man pulled his gaze from Branson and looked searchingly in the treetops.

"What the hell are you doing back here?" The new man had a rifle. His pants were black and his shirt was slate grey and crisp. He had a badge and a baseball hat with the same badge. He also had a handgun and a billy club.

The prisoner didn't stop looking up and said that he was watching the birds circling.

"For twenty-five minutes?" The guard looked up through the autumn leaves.

"It's been awhile since I've seen birds circling like that. It's pretty, really," the prisoner said, pointing.

The guard didn't seem to see Branson. Branson was still, except for his heart flipping like a fish in a creel.

"You're damn lucky that Dutch didn't catch you here."

"I know."

"He doesn't buy your act, he says. He says the nice ones are the ones that eventually stab you. He's just waiting for you to screw up."

"I know."

The guard gestured with the gun. "Well, let's go."

"Okay." He didn't look at Branson again.

"So what the hell am I supposed to tell Dutch?"

The prisoner shrugged.

The guard shook his head. "Bird watching."

The prisoner went first, and the guard followed behind him.

Branson listened to their feet in the leaves. He watched them until they dissolved into the trees. He looked up. The birds were gone. It wasn't long before the sound of the river was all that was left. He stood surrounded by it for a long time, listening. Calming himself. Thinking.

He didn't stop fishing. Even with his ridiculous fly. His ridiculous chances. He took his wader belt out of one of his vest pockets and strapped it around himself. Deep water was ahead. He cast the big fly at some likely spots as he worked his way downstream. Lake Superior was somewhere at the end of the river. The mercury would never really be gone. It would settle in the lake. The lake would do its best to absorb it. Branson fished toward that body of water.

2007 by Jeff Vande Zande.


Jeff Vande Zande lives in Michigan and tries to fly fish its many blue-ribbon trout streams as often as he can. His debut novel, Into the Desperate Country, was recently released from March Street Press. He maintains a website at www.jeffvandezande.com.