Fish Tales: North Pacific

PERHAPS IT WAS COINCIDENCE THAT THE LAST DAY of Harry Wilson’s life was also the best, and he wondered about that possibility as it drew to a close. He had planned all along to spend the day with his fly rod, but there was no way anyone could have planned on all those fish.

He reached the coastal Alaska lake mid-morning. The remote location alone might have guaranteed him the solitude he needed, but then there was the matter of landing the airplane: a tricky approach over the conifers towering above the outlet, followed by a full-flaps, drop-like-a-rock descent before he ran out of lake and wound up in the brush at the other end. No wonder he had never seen another angler there. He thought of it as his lake, not because some piece of paper said it was, but because no one else knew the place the way he did.

Sometimes the outlet stream’s first pool held steelhead fresh from the sea, but most of the time it didn’t. He had already told himself that the fish didn’t matter that day. But on his very first cast the nymph hesitated somewhere in the current, and when he hauled back with his line hand the whole stream seemed to come alive just for him. The fish made four spectacular jumps before the tippet parted and the line went slack. Harry didn’t care.

He promised himself he wouldn’t count the steelhead he hooked, and he didn’t. The important point was that there were enough fish to make him forget The Thing: the treacherous mass of cells gone wild that had risen from his pancreas and then invaded his liver, his lungs, his God-knows-where. Three months earlier, Harry hadn’t even known he had a pancreas.

The trees’ shadows had spread halfway across the lake by the time he returned to the Cub, fumbled through his pack for one essential item, and turned the airplane around to face the stiffening breeze. For the first time in 37 years he did not review a pre-flight checklist before he hit the starter. Like the number of fish he hooked, fuel reserves had joined a long list of concerns that no longer concerned him.

The sun was settling toward the ocean by the time he crossed the shoreline. He set out to race it to the horizon even though he knew that the heavens moved faster than men, including men in airplanes. With the Cub trimmed and flying smoothly, he reached into his shirt pocket. His doctors had recently either promoted or demoted the morphine to all they had left to offer. He’d filled the syringe before he left that morning, not with the conservative dose he used to keep The Thing at bay, but all the way to the end of the withdrawn plunger.

His red blood mixing with the morphine looked like the red blood in the sunset. He pointed the airplane’s nose toward the colored part of the sky and all the emptiness beneath it.

Then he let the North Pacific slide by below the wings, certain that he’d get where he needed to go soon enough.

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