Mayfly image  Wayward short stories  

The Lake


Toney J. Sisk

You’re never certain how dark it is. Even the blackest night fails to absorb all color. With no moon to light a thing, only stars light the night weakly. They turn, twist and try to exert their astrological patterns against my retina, a scene which when I close my eyes hardly changes at all. Is Orion chasing Taurus, or is it the other way around? I’ve forgotten. As a child, I watched those starry plots unfolded, with their beasts, love, weapons of war and all things fanciful and civil. But I know now that these patterns are from the stars’ fusion ignited eons ago and have now twisted into patterns of constant slow flux. Or snuffed out. You begin to wonder, Will nothing stay still long enough to wrap a thought around?

“Christ. I never catch anything with your stupid flies.”

Now what? Brad shattered the stillness of our lovely five acre lake as perfect as a lens.

“CDC Damsel Dry? What an idiot fly,” he continued.

“I didn’t expect you to use it at night. Do you see any Damsel flies at night? They’re a morning fly” I lazily kicked my float tube toward Brad’s voice.

“Where’s my light?” he complained. “Why are we fishing in the middle of the night anyway?” Small waves from Brad’s tube reached my tube as he fought with his vest to find his light.

“Actually, it is more of a pre-dusk,” I offered. “And could you keep it quiet. You are disturbing the fish.” But I knew Brad was in one of his moods and wasn’t about to give in. A glaring beam shot across my face. Brad found his light.

“Don’t shine that towards me, please. I’m going to loose my night vision.”

“Whatever. Let’s head in. There’s some weather is blowing in anyway. Maybe I’ll stick a fish with my bugger on the way in.” I drearily agreed and followed the sound of his tube toward the dying light of our late September campfire. As wind waves pushed us along, the stars and growing clouds began to shine and shake through the glass of the unseen lake. We reached the camp quickly and stashed our gear away, not too eager to sit by the fire. After all, the wind was blowing the fire into the kind of confusion that complicates the finding of a warm spot to sit and chat. With a kick from my boot, the flames sparked up, complained and then joined the stars for a moment before settling down to the coals again. We scampered toward our tents and zipped ourselves securely into our ripstop.

The night passed as all camping nights pass, in zillions of sleepless minutes. The wind punch at our tents in gusts, with moans and whistles, almost human. The wind grew louder, with sounds of voices more real now, mixed with scratching twigs against the tents.

“Brad? Is that you,” I whispered loudly through the nylon toward Brad’s tent.

“No,” Brad shot back. “What’s going on?”

“Don’t know.” A beam of light passed quickly near my tent. More voices and mumblings and stakes being pounded. Brad probably went to sleep, deciding that the trip was ruined by his nemesis, “Damn wormers,” as he’d call them. I wasn’t about to get out of my sleeping bag to check on Brad or meet the guests. There is only one valid reason to leave a tent at night anyway, to pee. Oh, and bears. Besides, this wasn’t the time to face the kind of fears conditioned by childhood terror flicks. I mean, how likely is it that a group of sociopaths hauled up chainsaws 2,300 feet?

After a half hour, the voices ceased. I few more idiotic plots passed through my mind until I finally dozed off, only to be woken by the neighborhood birds. Then more voices arose, as our new friends decided to wake the earth with unintelligible voices and then footsteps near our tents.

“Wake up there,” demanded a voice.

Now what? I searched for a weapon just in case, but I only found a boot and the business end of my nail-knotting tool.

“Let’s get into our circle and hear my story,” demanded the voice again.

I unzipped the tent and poked my head out. I stared at a very tall man. A giant of a man. The giant jumped back a bit, startled. We starred at each other dumbly, like how two marmots must stare at each other the first time they meet on a mountainside.

“Who are you?” said the giant. Just then Brad unzipped his tent and showed his head.

“Who are you?” said the man again, this time to Brad. We all stared at each other, then Brad stood up.

Brad scratched his shoulder, adjust his neck, then asked “Who are you?” The boot in his hand evidenced a similar degree of resourcefulness as mine.

“I’m Peter.”

Brad stared a little harder at the giant then said with blank irritation, “Peter?”

“Yes. Hi,” Peter responded. “Who . . . uh, are you two?” More silence.

Brad’s eyes shift around the once peaceful camp, seemed to focus in and out, then landed on Peter. “I’m damn tired, that’s who I am. Why on God’s stinking earth are you waking us up? Fish don’t get up this early, Sport.”

Peter stepped back, evidently frightened by Brad, though he was three times his size.

“Well, I . . . we’re here to, I mean,” began Peter. The other people in camp now came into focus. A dozen or more people from 50 years old to teenagers were standing 50 feet away in a small clearing near as many tents. Somehow these folks found ground enough for their tents in an area that makes finding two tent sites a challenge. A middle aged obese man stood next to an attractive young woman. Two teenagers in huge down jackets like giant hand grenades sat on some dirt idly picking at something on the ground, glanced at us, then continued picking at the ground, evidently thinking about something more interesting, like breakfast . The other men and women stood around in various states of animation, as confused or embarrassed as we all were at the events and what they might mean. Peter attempted to break the odd spell that fell on the campgrounds and spoke softly.

“Uh, we’re just a consoling group from the GNB, uh, the Great Natural Birth, a new group. This is my first event,” he continued, moving his eyes quickly back and forth between his group, me, the trees, and anything else that might offer some encouragement. “I’m the host.”

“I see.” I tried to dispel some tension. Brad’s eyes flitted back and forth from the camp, the people, Peter, the lake, me, his feet, the sky—with the expression of someone watching a television movie whose characters suddenly jump out of the tube to have a conversation with you.

“I’m really sorry,” continued Peter softly. “If we could just shake hands our group can get back to our events. They’re new to this.” He looked back at the group. “Maybe you could join us for breakfast.”

Brad shot me an icy glance. “I tell you what,” I said as apologetically as possible under the present circumstances. “We have a bunch of breakfast food here, but thanks for the offer. You get back to your group, and we’ll get our morning started here.”

“Well, ok.” Peter shook hands with me, avoiding Brad’s eyes, which still had a glossed over look of disgust tempered by disbelief.

Peter joined his group. He raised his arms in an apparent gesture to gather people around him, then gave a brief wave at us. I waved back. Others waved. The teenagers continued picking at things on the ground. Brad scratched his stomach with his boot, then looked at his boot, then at the boot in my hand.

“I see you were well prepared, too. You better put that nail knotter down before you hurt somebody.” He turned his head at the group, then whispered, mainly to himself. “Where in hell have we landed now?”

“The finest brook trout lake in three states, that’s where we are,” I offered, but doubting that this thought will somehow restore the sanctity of our weekend away from all things unpredictable.

“There is not enough room on this lake for two people, let alone a dozen. It’s not like we can camp anywhere else on this lake. I think we’re stuck here. Who knows,” he continued as stared down the new camp, “Maybe we haven’t woken up yet.”

“Maybe you should hit yourself with your boot to make sure,” I suggested.

Brad looked at his boot as if to test the idea. “I guess we should get some breakfast going and get our lines wet.” We filled our tin cups with granola and water, and ate while we pumped a few extra pounds of air into our float tubes, checked our leaders, and chatted about the usual things fly fishermen to before hitting it—flies, tippets, presentations, life (OK, we don’t talk about that much).

“Maybe they’ll be gone tomorrow,” I offered.

“Maybe. Or maybe the people of the Great Natural Birth were born here. Maybe they are reincarnated mayflies who have gotten irritated by all the bad impressions of them that we’ve been tying all these years. You can’t be too certain. They could even . . . .” Brad’s intellectual tirade was interrupted by the aroma of bacon soon filled the air. Eggs followed. Then pancakes. My salivary glands began to complain.

“They need to learn the value of traveling light,” I offered, as I chomped on some granola, which, set against the backdrop of bacon odors, began to take on the texture and aroma of Velcro. Deciding a Callibaetis might be the way to start, I put on a leader with a light tippet. I picked out the best looking olive brown quill bodied, CDC pattern in the box. Brad seemed to settle down a bit and began some routine leader maintenance, looking as distraught as a child who has had his television permanently turned off.

“Let’s get into our circle. . . .” Peter’s voice rang up. The group was far enough away that a few words trickled in through the bacon- and pancake-laden wind. Aside from the odd visitors, the day looked serene. The wind picked up its leaves and sent them scratching in delicate phrases over the ground.

“And let’s welcome our guests.” Peter raised his arms toward us like a great bird, though our tents seemed far enough away to not be considered “guests”. More words drifted out way, mostly unintelligible and mixed with gusts of winds. “Make the rocks our words . . . the leaves our phrases . . . trees our sentences.” The swirling leaves scattered more words. “. . . the mountains, the essay on our lives . . . . Let’s go forth and find nature’s articles and notes and report again . . . sharing our stories. . . .” More gesturing as the wind mixed words with the irritated leaves.

During the broken sermon we finished our tinkering, gathered up our boots, flippers and float tubes, glanced toward the group, then immediately headed 300 feet in the opposite direction.

Our lake had one unfortunate character of great flyfishing lakes--poor access. We made our way through the kind of shore mud that would make a dinosaur pause before chewing choice pond weeds. The pond filth tugged at our flippers as we fought toward navigable water. Upon finding a more liquid environment, we tossed our flies in random directions, happy to return to any semblance of what a perfect camp once promised, and, who knows, might still promise.

We stayed at the far side of the lake, not wishing to draw attention to ourselves, and not wishing to become a character of a sermon that Peter could be conjuring up.

“They’re looking at us.” Brad broke the silence as I was tying on what I hoped to be a more productive tiny spinner—although no bugs were floating or flying anywhere since we arrived. I looked toward the far shore. A few people were gathering and apparently looking in our direction. I gently kicked my tube toward a point in the weeds near another point that Brad was working.

“Maybe they are just looking out over the lake at the mountains,” I offered. “I mean what else do you look at up here besides the mountains and birds, unless you’re two rabid fly fishermen looking for insects and fish?”

Brad cast toward an opening in the weeds. More people joined the group. Someone waved or pointing toward a bird that just too flight. Or perhaps it was Peter gesticulating at the universe. The wind pick up some mumblings and sent them over the water, growing small waves. A thin column of smoke curled behind the group, then broke up in the growing wind.

“Maybe they’re a clan of modern urban cannibals?” Brad offered, as he tossed his ubiquitous bugger toward another clump of floating weeds, and then stripped in with a motion that looked more designed to gaff a fish than deceive it.

“You might have a point there.” I finished tying on the spinner and made a few careless short casts in random directions. The one odd thing about lakes is that if you get bored at all, you’re probably doomed to become really bored, especially if there is nothing to focus your attention on. Nothing, accept a group of random people who will not leave the periphery of a beautiful range of trees, weeds, glowing ancient mountains and a sky punctuated with the occasional cloud.

Now if only an insect would show up to validate my spinner choice. Twenty minutes later and I was furiously tying a midge pattern onto a fresh 15-foot leader. When in doubt, you can always attempt to prove something with a midge pattern. You may not see midges flying around, but you can always talk theoretically about what their life style a few fathoms down, or ruminate upon the perfect shade of olive brown with a red-wire rib that’ll bring a fish, even though on this day we were just as likely to stick an old Buick than any living matter.

Looking around for any signs of life, I glanced toward the camp. But the thinning column of smoke was all that remained. Perhaps the folks were in their tents to avoid the few drops of rain that were beginning to fall. Perhaps they vanished, quite literally, into the spiritual vapors of the earth. Unfortunately, that seem the least likely thing. Most likely, they were busy summoning up this and that monstrous or spiritual nothing.

I removed the leader and put on a shorter, stronger one, then searched for a large fly, maybe of a delicate olive cast. Delicate olive is always a good color. I fingered a lovely olive marabou callibaetis/damsel/scud/leech-looking pattern, and decided this was the next perfect fly for the current conditions. Brad continued stripping his bugger.

At the start of my first perfect backcast toward the perfect underwater forest of lovely weeds the exact color of my fly, something on shore caught my eye. A shoulder perhaps, maybe a hat, behind a rock. I peered closer, and a hat moved. I made another cast, then saw another movement. Brad turned his head toward me.

“Did you see something?” he asked, nodding toward a tall tree. At first I saw only a bush, then I saw a figure dart up and down.

“I think I see someone.” Not surprising, since I didn’t see anyone in camp.”

“Probably adoring the woods,” offered Brad as he slapped his bugger hard onto the surface of the lake. I guess you can’t expect a group of people to stay in one place, but somehow you expect them to stay their distance from God-fearing humble fly fishermen.

“Over there, too.” Brad pointed toward another part of the lake where a creek spilled in. It was difficult to see who was there, but it looked like two or three people crouching down.

Suddenly, all the hills seemed alive with people. Some stooped over, some walking, some stumbling. Soon, maybe they’d start walking toward us over the water.

Brad looked in a state of disgust and confusion. As I peered through some other bushes at what looked like more people, I heard a splash.

“Was that a rise?” I asked.


“You sure?”

“Yep. Let’s get outta here. I can’t fish here.”

“Couldn’t it have been a fish?”


Brad started kicking his tube toward shore in powerful strokes. I’ve found it best to let Brad go his way in these moods, which has gotten us out of a lot of trouble in the past, and has gotten us into just as much. He wasn’t one to flow with the unknown in unusual social dynamics. He just gets pissed.

Once back on shore, we hoisted our tubes, flippers and fly rods, and headed toward camp, keeping our eyes and ears focused and tuned as tightly as suburban fly fisherman could manage in the woods. Closer to camp, we froze when he heard voices, which is not too unusual given the number of people inundating a bathtub-sized lake.

A couple hundred feet from camp, we spotted 4 people kneeling on the ground. Being unfamiliar with the finer points of sneaking, we did the best we could to get closer without being noticed, not knowing exactly why we had to sneak in the first place. Brad’s face evolved from pissed-off to something resembling an irritated curiosity. Peter’s voice rung up.

“Under these shale and limestone layers are leaves and fossils. There is a story here, if only we can read it. Look here: This is possibly a footprint or a leaf. Only the Chickadee in these trees know for sure. Get to know the Chickadee.” A look of amazement swept across the faces of those gathered around Peter.

I looked up at the tree, but only saw two nuthatches fly off.

“The Chickadee flies because it knows the wind. Get to know the wind . . . . Well hello. Our friends have returned.” We were discovered. Peter stood up and looked toward me. He avoided Brad’s eyes.

“Uh, hello again. We’ve just come back to . . .” I wasn’t sure how to complete the sentence, but sensing Brad’s eyes behind me, and feeling a little fearful of what he might do next, I quickly said, “to break camp. How are you folks doing?” I was always the civil one.

“We are doing wonderfully. We found some fossils, and some muskrat tracks around the lake.”

“At this elevation? I suppose that’s possible. There are marmots everywhere, though.” I didn’t want to offer that there isn’t a muskrat within three counties.

“Look at these markings. This could be a footprint or a leaf.” I looked at the faint scratches on the rock, which could indeed be a small footprint, a leaf—or just random scratches in ancient dirt. Brad leaned over to look.

“Perhaps it is a primordial mayfly. I bet you didn’t know they used to roam in these parts. There’s more of them on the top of that mountain. . . .” I shot a threatening glance at Brad, though I was glad that only snide was coming out and not something else, like a rock or a stick.

“Perhaps it is,” thought Peter aloud. “Have you done much fossil hunting?”

“Oh, yeah,” offered Brad. I shot another glance at Brad. I was about to send the conversation in a safer direction, when I noticed the two teenagers, still affixed to the same spot of ground, picking at pieces of shale near their feet, the kind of kids the carve initials and other choice words into campside trees and stumps. Peter looked in their direction.

“They’re doing what teenagers do, stare at the ground, throw rocks in the lake, you know. Sometimes it isn’t easy. Come. We are about to share some food.”

Anticipating what must be going through Brad’s mind, I tactfully declined and said we needed to get down the mountain before nightfall.

Brad and I walked toward our tents and started taking them down. The teenagers started skipping pieces of shale over the water. Brad shot his head in their direction, paused for a long moment, then returned to pulling stakes from his tent floor. In the middle of the camp, a large campfire roared up.

“A lunch fire? Whatever,” said Brad as he attached his rolled tent to his pack. “And you thought my urban cannibal theory was stupid.”

We got most of our packs together, our tubes deflated, and our rods stashed to the frames when Peter walked toward us.

“Are you two fly fisherman?”

“Well, yes,” I answered.

“Wow. That’s a real art.”

Maybe fly fishing is the Shakespeare of sports, but I never felt comfortable entertaining the art question.

“I’ll have to try it sometime,” continued Peter.

“Brad here is an instructor. Maybe someday you can take a lesson.” Brad’s razor glance shot my way, giving me the reaction I wanted.

“Well, maybe someday. It Is an art.” said Peter, and then continued, “Hey, I have an idea. Our young ones here brought some alcohol, which we can’t tolerate. I don’t want to throw garbage around or carry it out. Would you two like them?” Peter handed me two bottles of beer.

“Uh . . . sure, we’ll take them for you. Thanks.”

“Good. Hey, you two enjoy the hike down and have a great day.” Peter walked away. I gave a bottle to Brad, who held it up to the sky.

“These look pretty good. Might be a home brew." Brad pondered the dark bottle of beer a little longer, then, with some reluctance, said, "well, let’s hit it.”

We put our packs on, walked through the group of remaining tents, nodding at the folks perfunctorily, and was about to step onto the trail down, when Brad stopped me with a “Fish.”


Brad pointed toward a corner of the lake that was about to disappear as we took the first turn on the trail. “Big one, too”.

I looked toward the water, scanned the water for a few moments, then saw a large fin briefly knife through the water. You know there’s a big fish when he bothers to show a fin. “I don't think that's a rock this time,” I offered.

“Nope.” We both continued starring toward the water. Silent. The sound of failure.

We continued down the mountain. A half hour later, we dropped our packs, and pulled the beers out. The beer was near body temperature. It’s lovely brown liquid tasted like chocolate sliding down my throat. Brad raised the bottle to the sky and drank half the bottle. “Nice,” he exclaimed. “Who were those guys, anyway?”

“I don’t know. Trouble in paradise.”

“I suppose.” Then after a moment, Brad looked back up the mountain. “You don’t suppose they have more beer, er, confiscated more beer?”

“You mean, you want to go back up?”

“Well, suppose not.”

We put our packs back on and continued on. We were silent most of the way down the mountain. I looked up at the crumbling limestone hills, a little buzzed, wondering if the little creatures frozen in fossils up there were struggling to be heard against the advances of time, rain and wind. I'm not sure I wanted to walk back up and ask Peter.

--Toney J. Sisk


Thoughts? Send to