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Hal Espen[Raines] has the talent, unlike most daydream novelists, to be a writer of extraordinary verve, imagination and skill.
— The New York Times
In a century of fly fishing, one thing has not changed. "It is our lost fish that I believe stay longest in memory, and seize upon our thoughts whenever we look back on fishing days." A paradigmatic Victorian gentleman, Lord Grey of Fallodon, published those words in a book called Fly Fishing in 1899. Over one hundred years later, there is still nothing as gone, as utterly lost to us, nothing as definitely absent and irretrievable as a lost fish.
"Seize our thoughts" is an apt phrase, for there are some lost fish that haunt us like old love. They live forever in what Izaak Walton called "the boxes of memory." Yet not all lost fish are equal. Sometimes there is a soothing completeness to the loss of a specific fish. The encounter has an accommodating narrative arc -- a beginning, a middle and a conclusion, at which, for some reason, one does not feel robbed. These flashes of enlightenment are rare and a blessing when they come. But fishing in the main does not allow for such an absence of Avarice, such a deliverance from Desire and its handmaiden Regret. That is because, once a fish is on our line, we don't want the imperial feeling of possession ever to end.
The governing emotion of fishing therefore is not one of attainment but one of anxiety about incipient loss. Every moment that a fish is on the line, we dread the sensation of being disconnected against our will, of being evaded, escaped from, of grabbing and missing. Every fish that slips the hook instructs us in the surgical indifference of fate. For like fate, a fish only seems to be acting against us. It is, in fact, ignorant of us, profoundly indifferent, incapable of being moved by our desires, by our joy or sorrow. We regard the moment when the fish rises to a fly as a triumph of piscatorial artistry, and when the line breaks or the hook pulls out, we feel cheated, outfoxed, chagrined. We take it personally. But to the fish, such an encounter is simply an interruption, unremarkable and unremembered, in the instinctual, self-absorbed journey of fulfilling its fishhood. What we experience as an exercise of will and hope, the fish encounters as an accident, no more or less remarkable than meeting a shrimp.
So, perforce, each departed fish pushes us toward a dim, momentary and reluctant acceptance of that inescapable fact against which the mind constantly rebels. For against all reason and evidence, we try to believe that life is shaped by a process of acquisition. It is, in fact, a process in which our dear things slip away, slowly and elegantly if we are lucky, rapidly and brutally if we are not. We try to believe, in poor old Jim Dickey's mysterious line, that we can "die but not die out." Lost fish remind us that time, like an undertow or gravity itself, will pull us down, will confound every hope of lasting, every dream of possessing something -- anything -- wonderful for more than an instant. Lost fish chasten us to the knowledge that we are all, in each and every moment, dwindling. Imagine my surprise when I discovered well into my sixth decade that losing fish can prepare us for a blessing as well as for pain.
Accepting the latter, the hurtful, seemingly accidental losses that life imposes on all of us, did not come naturally to me. I remember the resistance I felt in college when my favorite professor, a wizened, erudite man named Richebourg Gaillard McWilliams, was making a point about one of Nathaniel Hawthorne's doom-clouded stories. "Everyone who lives has to accept something that may seem impossible to the young. At some point in your life, you will come to know great sadness. You will lose something precious. Remember this." He did not speak another word, but we understood that class was over.
The professor's son, Tennant McWilliams, was my closest friend, and I knew from him the piercing experience that lay behind the old man's words. When it came to sorrow, life had given him no grace period. Mr. McWilliams was three when his mother, pregnant with what would have been her second child, died in a fall down the hard, steep stairs of an antebellum house in the Alabama Black Belt. A dozen years later, Richebourg McWilliams's father died of a heart attack when the two of them were quail hunting not far from that fine, airy, oak-shaded house. Theirs was a plantation family tracing its roots back to fifteenth-century French Huguenots who had gone to the rack in Languedoc. But in the end these landed gentlefolk, who owned cotton fields, sawmills and steamboats, were as vulnerable as the blacks who served them or the white yeomen who scratched livings from patchwork farms in the Alabama hills. Richebourg McWilliams, indeed, was no luckier in respect to the wounds of mortality than my own father, who was haunted all his life by the early death of a parent on one of those hill country farms at about the same time.
I speak of these things in the context of lost fish, because in fly fishing as in life it is always possible to make things worse, through clumsiness perhaps or hubris. Say, for example, you tighten the drag on a fish that has just seen the net. Or perhaps the fish was well hooked and you say to yourself in the tiniest mental whisper, "Oh, yes, this wonderful creature is truly mine," when it has not yet been taken from the spacious, amniotic embrace of its watery home. If you conflate this kind of carelessness with unrepeatability -- with knowing that you have blundered away a pleasing coincidence that will not come again -- then, my friends, you have a departed fish that will never desert you. Certain of my lost fish -- a largemouth bass in Alabama, a brown trout on the Missouri River, a permit in Belize -- have been with me so long as to become icons of instruction about the importance of avoiding avoidable mistakes. I think of the respective mishaps by which they gained their freedom and I gained pedagogic memories -- with the bass, an overtight drag; with the trout, a strike too hard by half; with the permit, a hook set slow as the thunder that follows lightning down a mountain.
Unlike Mr. McWilliams and my father, I knew little as a child about unavoidable losses, those to which one responds with courage or by being crushed. I had few occasions until comparatively late in life to consider the hierarchy of losses, to learn about assessing them in the way of Tennyson, who said that, while much may vanish from our lives at any given moment, much abides. Comrades, those words seem less facile to me now than when I first read them, for reasons I hope to illustrate. For the nonce, however, let us return to the subject of lost fish, if for no other reason than to prove how capacious a sentence was left to us by Lord Grey. For example, when I think of lost fish, I often turn in memory to the falsetto hotel keeper in Bellagio. The town is on Lake Como near the Swiss Alps. This is Mussolini country. Nearby, irritated Italians put an entire platoon's supply of bullets into Benito and his foolish mistress, Clara Petacci, and then hung them upside down, like marlin or tuna.
Unlike fish, they were dangled in a spirit of ridicule rather than admiration.
Anyway, that was the neighborhood, and the hotel keeper of whom I speak had a voice like a set of church bells. I knew, of course, that the age of the castrati was three hundred years past, but his voice had that kind of purity, a boy's voice pushed into an artificial tingling range beyond soprano.
The man with the wonderful voice and his mother owned a small hotel of austere, clean rooms. I spent a night or two there before moving into the nearby Villa Serbelloni, a writers' colony where I was to stay for the month of September 1991. The two of them, mother and son, radiated a kind of contentment you used to see among Southern families in which one or more unmarried sons or daughters remained at home and grew old with the parents. Down in small-town Alabama, these were often the most cultivated families. You would see them together -- gardening, dining out, going to church or to musicales or to Birmingham for the symphony, cruising in their Buicks on Sunday afternoon -- in a bond whose sweetness lay in a devotion that would be interrupted only by the rude fact of mortality and whose sadness lay in contemplating the terrible solitude that awaited the one unlucky enough to outlive all the others. Sometimes, of course, you wondered about the shadow side of such contrived domestic contentment, the parental selfishness or childish insecurity or lamentable romantic wound that demanded such a fortress existence.
The hotel, in any event, was a sociable place built around these two lovely innocents, the devout and scurrying and clearly doting mother and the trilling and unfailingly solicitous son. Perhaps because I was undergoing the predictable upsurgings of veneration and spirituality that casual Protestants often experience in deeply Catholic countries, I thought they seemed holy. Indeed, the severity of the hotel made you feel a little virtuous for staying there. It was built around a vine-shaded garden, and every morning I would awaken to the sonance of this gentle fellow fluting to the guests. He spoke in Italian or English, as if all he desired in life was their comfort. Was the room all right? Was there a need for more coffee or butter? Or for directions to the place for catching the tour boats? The man was an extremely polite musical alarm clock, rousing me gently, and when I went down for breakfast under the grape arbor, where I took my latte in an encompassing, almost aqueous green light in the incomparable Italian morning, and asked if there was a fishing tackle store in the town, he sang me to the right place.
I found it the first day, and many a mild afternoon after finishing my writing, I made my way down there to eye the owner's comely daughter and to try to wheedle local knowledge from her old man. The stock of fishing gear was limited, as was the proprietor's English. But in other respects, it was the ideal tackle store. The place was a combination working man's bar, coffee shop and news stand. It had beer, cappuccino and almost new British news-papers. There was supposed to be a game warden who would tell me about getting permission on the private trout streams in the region, but he never showed up. That was all right. By that time, my attention had shifted to Lake Como and my discovery that the water of the swimming beach at the Villa Serbelloni was home to a lot of fish.
It wasn't much of a beach, a rim of sand in a protected cove at the bottom of ancient stone steps. To the left as you faced the lake was a bluff that marched in ever higher ramparts toward a forested point of land that commanded one of the great views of Lake Como. In classical times, Pliny the Younger had a villa there, which he named Tragedia. To the right of the little beach was a piazza and towering boathouse -- all of the same gray stone exposed on the flanks of Pliny's promontory. In back of the beach rose a sloping hill of tawny grass. It was spotted with fig trees and olive trees that looked dusty gray in the September sun. If you followed a winding gravel road to the crest of the hill, there, straddling the neck of Pliny's peninsula, was the Villa Serbelloni, a house that had over the centuries accreted outward from a fourteenth-century Saxon tower. What I am trying to say is that it was a damn fine place to be, and as a Southerner, I felt at home there, since the hospitality of the place, strangely enough, was financed by bourbon whiskey.
A little history is in order. Two noble families, the Sfrondatis and the Serbellonis, owned the place for four hundred years, each generation adding a wing to the house or improving the gardens with terraces, grottoes, chapels and elaborate plantings of boxwood, yew, cypress and bay. Over the years, the visitors included Leonardo da Vinci, various Holy Roman emperors, Queen Victoria and Kaiser Wilhelm. Flaubert, taken with the beauty of the place, pronounced it "a truly Shakespearean landscape." He added, "One could live and die here."
Ella Walker, an American heiress with a late-blooming, robber-baron hunger for European culture, did just that. Using the money her dad had piled up from the sale of Hiram Walker whiskey, she bought the place in 1930, and she died there in 1959. On her deathbed, she bequeathed the estate to the Rockefeller Foundation, stipulating that it be used as a retreat for
writers, composers, artists and scholars. Since then, many famous names have passed through. But the only guest the staff still gossiped about was John F. Kennedy. On a state visit to Italy on June 30, 1963, he made a side trip to Bellagio, where he managed to arrive unencumbered by the First Lady. There ensued certain New Frontier recreational rites that scandalized the help.
I was first informed of JFK's misconduct by the stern Italian widow who supervised the household and kitchen staff during my visit. She stiffened, however, when I raised the subject again a few days later. In the interim, I had picked up some tantalizing details from other local gossips. Was it true that Marella Agnelli, wife of the Fiat chairman Gianni Agnelli, had journeyed from Turin to welcome the president to Villa Serbelloni in a deeply personal way?
"This could not be," she said. Not only was the beautiful Marella wed to the elegant Gianni Agnelli but she was, in fact, an aristocrat in her own right before they married. Someone from her fine Italian family would never sleep with an Irish-American, president or not.
Years later, Marella Agnelli was interviewed by Sally Bedell Smith for her sexual history of the Kennedys, Grace and Power. "Maybe yes, maybe no. It is impossible to say," Mrs. Agnelli said when asked about the rumored dalliance. "I am an old grandmother, and Gianni and I are still very much together."
I'm the last one to make excuses for the Massachusetts billy goat, but it's clear to me that President Kennedy, a man well versed in European traditions, can hardly be blamed for following the customs of the place in which he was a guest. Long before Jack and Marella arrived, Bellagio and the Villa Serbelloni had a rich history of what the guidebook calls "romantic sojourns." An eighteenth-century poet-priest, Giuseppe Parini, tutored the Sfrondati children at Villa Serbelloni and apparently cut a democratic swath through both the servant girls and the visiting noble ladies. He was eventually fired for taking sides in a mysterious slapping incident involving a chambermaid and a duchess.
A century later, the composer Franz Liszt took a house near the villa when he arrived at Bellagio after borrowing, rather permanently, the wife of a French count. The couple lived near my little beach, and their frolics eventually produced a daughter named Cosima, who was to marry Richard Wagner. I was not able to add to the amatory legends of the place, but so far as I can tell I was the first guest to arrive with a fly rod.
My thought was to practice my casting in the afternoons after I finished writing. The spacious grassy plateau behind the boathouse was an ideal place, and alongside it there were plum and fig trees with fruit ripe for the taking. So I practiced long, reaching casts, forward and back on the dry, sunburned grass, trying in a relaxed way to comb the familiar tics from my delivery. Then one day, taking a break, I ambled along the battlements of the tall stone boathouse, and there, twenty feet below, swimming lazily beneath the windless surface of Lake Como, were scads of fish. The best of them were large gray fellows of two to four pounds who loafed along in a way I came to think of as impudent.
So my practice gave way to an afternoon ritual of casting to these arrogantly cruising Italian fish with every fly and nymph in my box and then retiring to the tackle store/bar for consultation with the proprietor. He readily identified these fish by their Italian names, but he drew a blank when I tried him on the aquatic nomenclature I had learned in England. Were they loach or roach, barbel or tench or bream -- all common warm-water or "coarse" species in England and elsewhere on the continent? I figured that if I could come up with the English name, I could call my fish-mad Cockney pal Derrick Seymour in London and find out what natural food these fish ate and then figure out a fly to match it. One thing I was certain of was that they were not trout, and in all my inquisitions about trout in the area, my friend at the bar had never mentioned trout in Lake Como.
So my drowsy, pleasant and almost fishless September progressed. Every morning, from my apartment on the slopes of the olive grove, I watched the mists rise from Lake Como and tapped away at my word processor. By afternoon, I waded out to a large gray boulder off the swimming beach or prowled the elevated terrace beside the boathouse. From these locations, I cast to the alluring gray fish that drifted along just under the surface. I knew they had to eat something because by now I had seen the Italian commercial fishermen in slim, high-bowed boats taking them on slowly trolled hand lines. One day I had a strike on a tiny Clouser minnow that my friend Dick Blalock, then in the last year of his life, had tied for our brook trout excursions on the Rapidan. My fish was a five-inch yellow perch, as unmistakable in its perchiness as if hoisted from a Vermont pond. I was cheered to think I had now caught a fish in Italy, but this little fellow was clearly not one of the Como cruisers.
I learned a bit about local fishing lore. In past times, the offshore commercial fishing rights on Lake Como had been controlled by wealthy townsmen called "masters of the lake." The locals developed several styles of nets and trotlines with lovely names like lina, sibiel, spaderna and mologna for taking perch, whitefish and herring. They also used long drift nets marked with small bells so they could be found in the dark. But the nastiest work was done with the frosna, or harpoon.
Even among adherents of the Redneck Way of Fishing, fish-gigging is way down the evolutionary scale. Who would have expected such a debased practice in such a classical setting? I attribute the popularity of the technique to the maddening effect of the gray cruisers, and I discovered that not even Liszt was immune. When he was not making babies with Marie de Flavigny, writing sonatas inspired by Dante or giving legendary concerts in Milan or Como, Franz liked to unleash his inner Good Old Boy. "Towards evening," he wrote, "we amuse ourselves fishing by torchlight. Armed with a long harpoon we glide across the waters looking out for drowsy fish dazzled by the lamplight hanging from the prow of the boat."
Across the 160 years that separated us, I saluted Liszt as a phrase maker. By day or night, "drowsy" was exactly the right word for these fish. I also vowed that, unlike the great composer, I would not be reduced to fish stabbing. I surrendered to the verdict of Lake Como. The lone perch would be all that I received. Each day after writing, I fished for a while, without expectation or angst, and the month moved along in a bending, autumnal rhythm. Cooler breezes jiggled the last fruit from the trees in the hillside orchard. With the changing light, the colors shifted subtly. The leaves on the olive trees somehow settled more deeply into that zone of gray-green color you see in the forested backgrounds of Renaissance paintings. Perhaps to punctuate His satisfaction with the heavy, sexy, wholly Italianate ripeness of the place and season, God decreed an intervention in the workings of Nature upon humankind or, more specifically, upon me. There came to pass an opportunity for me to interrupt my fishlessness. It was, by my lights, a miracle. I thought so then and I think so now. I was on my rock, not a speck of hope in my heart, when it happened.
Far out on the still surface of Lake Como, with nary another human being or boat in sight, fish began to rise. Not just to rise, mind you, but to strike savagely. I have never seen anything exactly like it in fresh water. Here was a compact school of fish striking in the roving marauder fashion of jack crevalle or bluefish. Then, it became clear that out of the fifty-six square miles of Lake Como's surface, a divine will was directing them to the patch of water in front of the rock I inhabited. They veered this way and that, feeding all the while, but always swung back toward me as if locked on a radar heading. I had on a dry fly, a number 16 caddis, and I cast, perfectly, if I do say so. The fly landed right in the path of the school. Soon my little fly was rocking on the wavelets of their frenzied feeding, and in a moment, I was taken, as the English like to say.
And oh, brothers and sisters of the angle, how I hate to tell what happened next. Since Franz Liszt did not cover this circumstance in his Lake Como diaries, I quote from another great composer, the late Mr. Roger Miller of Nashville, Tenn. To wit:
Dang me, dang me, they oughta take a rope and hang me.
For over forty years, since I learned to snatch crappies from the turbid waters of South Sauty Creek in North Alabama, a terrible, fish-levitating force had slept in my arm, like one of those alien pods you see implanted in the sci-fi movies. By steady effort, I tamed and controlled this monstrous reflex. Yet in that beautiful place, that site blessed by Pliny's poetry and Jack Kennedy's boinking and finally by a divine piscatorial intervention decreed for my sole benefit, this dormant muscular spasm chose, as if by its own malevolent will, to awaken. In this rare moment, this long-awaited taking by a mysterious fish ravenous for connection with me, I executed the South Sauty Heave. If I had been using marlin tackle, the fish would have sailed through the air and flopped on the sandy beach of the Villa Serbelloni. Alas, I was using trout tackle, specifically a leader so fragile it could barely lift the tail of your sleeping cat.
Back at the bar, my friend was sympathetic.
"This is very unusual," he said, leaning against the glass-topped counter that held cigars and tiny rubber shrimp.
"In what way?" I said.
"There are brown trout that live deep in Lake Como," he said with the weighty tone of a man revealing that there was a lost colony of Neanderthals in the rocky crags of the Simplon Pass. "They very seldom come up."
No, I thought. I do not want to listen. I won't listen. I fought back an urge to put my fingers in my ears. But he was into it now, swinging as relentlessly as a casket lid toward the inevitable closing of his story.
"But sometimes they do gather into schools on the surface and behave as you describe. No one knows why. They make a snapping sound when they feed."
"Like castanets," I said, snapping my fingers in a hopeless little motion.
"Yes, exactly." He beamed, as if proud of my observatory, if not my fishing skill.
I asked if it was likely to happen again. I thought perhaps my visit to the shores of Como had somehow coincided with the season of rising up and feeding with the sound of castanets. Hell, it's a romantic country, Italy. I do not know the Italian words for "You have the brains of a zucchini." But I know the look and body language that expresses the same thought. There's a kind of nonverbal Esperanto understood on fishing grounds the world over. That look told me I could stand on that gray boulder for as long as I liked, and I would see the ghost of Franz Liszt slinging a harpoon before I got another look at a brown trout.
Over the years, the trout that swam away with my caddis fly in its mouth has become one of the most prominent residents in that box of my memory reserved for fish lost despite a cosmic stroke of unrepeatable luck. I still wince at the memory of the exact moment in which I raised the rod too sharply, felt the tiny click of the line breaking and set that fish free beneath waters that once moved under the gaze of Pliny and Leonardo, which raises a question. How did I become a man who cared whether a bloody fish got away?
Copyright © 2006 by Howell Raines
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