Grilled fillets of bacon-wrapped snow goose steamed alongside a bed of fried spinach on the plate before me. Jerry told me to chew slowly. “I’ve bitten down on bird shot before,” he said, “and wouldn’t you know it? It’s harder than a tooth,” and he laughed a resounding laugh and waved a hand in the air as if to welcome the old memories he summoned into the room: goose sniped from the air decades ago, toothaches. Maybe he laughed at the karmic loop of a goose breast hiding that vengeful, tooth-cracking ball of steel close to its heart, literally.
“The spinach should be safe,” said Pat, and she laughed too, the same huge laugh that people who have been married for decades grow to share. Savanah, their granddaughter, my best friend, choked up at the thought of Jerry walking out into the garden with his rifle, taking aim, and blowing away a bushel of spinach.
Pat and Jerry hunted geese and fished walleye. They logged the Northwoods and built their home along the Pine River from chicken-scratch blueprints to reality. For holidays or for the hell of it, they scooped Savanah and me up from the bus stop after school and drove us three miles into the woods to their house. Stepping inside always washed me in a sensation I caught only hints of elsewhere in our little town: in the giant tractor tires lying back in the woods, mossed-over and full of water that was full of frogs; or in the occasional railroad spike found rusting in the lake; or in woodsheds in the old timers’ lawns, collapsing now and giving way to their plastic replacements.
But in Pat and Jerry’s house, I could feel that history. The walls were tacked full of black-and-white and sepia-toned Polaroids of giant fish, racks of birds, a half-dozen siblings bobbing down the river. I could feel that history in the coarse fur of the German short-haired pointer, pragmatically named Hunter, always by Pat or Jerry’s side, who seemed never to die.
And so, after dinner, after Savanah fell back to the living room and tapped away at her phone, face lit by its glow, when Jerry leaned across the table and asked me, “Have you ever been to Ross Lake?” it felt like an invitation to those times gone by. I had never heard of it.
“You won’t find it on that map of yours,” he said, pointing to my phone on the table, then looking over my shoulder at Savanah, who was sucked into some pale-lighted vortex beneath the wood-paneled ceiling. He shook his head.
Savanah and I were next door neighbors all our lives, separated only by a field of wildflowers that was split with a footpath to each other’s homes. We gravitated toward each other the moment our legs grew the muscles to do so. Elementary days were spent spinning fantasies in the woods around town, chasing chickens in Pat and Jerry’s yard, lounging with Hunter down by the river. Then we grew old enough to make the same mistake so many small-town folks do, and spun the roulette wheel of romance. For a few years we took turns breaking each other’s hearts, casting each other away, reeling each other back in. It wasn’t until our twenties that we figured out we had it right in our earliest years. We had separate lives now, but we still occasionally stumbled into weekends like that one, where we were both back home, where we found ourselves around Pat and Jerry’s dinner table.
And so when Jerry gave me oral directions to Ross Lake, which I jotted down on a notecard, he was excited. Excited, maybe, because the one thing he could never get Savanah into was fishing, and he had spent years watching the rigmarole of her and me, and for his patience he was rewarded with something he seemed to always want: a grandson. A fisherman to show the ropes. And someone who might get Savanah out on the water. It was my unspoken mission.
“You’ll see,” he said. He held his hands as wide as the dinner plate. “There are bluegill in there like this. Pike that’ll pull you out of the boat, if you don’t watch it!”
And he laughed his resounding laugh. And I felt Savanah shake her head behind us as if to say, “Oh, you boys.”
When I patted Hunter on the head and said my goodbyes, I told Jerry “Thank you,” which on that night I meant for more reasons than usual. For looping me back in time, for directing me to that space, for taking me in as a grandson on account of the two things we held deeply in common: that we loved his granddaughter, and that we loved to fish.
There was a windmill in the center of Ross Lake. I blinked hard and looked again to confirm its existence. It was real; it floated there, maybe twelve-feet tall, on a platform, milling no wind. I wanted to investigate, but with a rather Pat-and-Jerry-like line of logic, I told myself, “Well, it’s not going anywhere,” and I began to fish.
I had a lot to prove. I wanted Pat and Jerry to see that the legend lived on, that their history was still baked into the nature around us. I wanted to have beautiful pictures of fish to send to Savanah, to show her the wonders of life beneath the water, the dynamism of the lake’s surface, why it was always worth it to cast a line.
I threw spoons, spinners, worms, cranks, divers, rattlers, swimmers, and jigs at fallen trees, sunken rocks, patches of lilies, and in the open, muddy water of Ross Lake. I paddled in laps until my shoulders locked up. I cast my line hundreds of times. Nothing. I docked on shore and rummaged around the rotten branches for worms and beetles to use as bait. Even with them tipping my hooks: not a nibble. I fished until the sun, strangely hot on that fall day, burnt my cheeks and split my lips. When the afternoon melted into evening, I dropped my pole. There were no silver minnows in the shallows, no baby bluegills to kiss the surface, nothing alive at all to snatch the sheen of bugs that blanketed the water. Ross Lake was dead.
I paddled to the windmill, which cast a shadow upon the water now. A rusty chain ran from the platform into the murky depths, holding it in place. The underside of the platform had a chute that shot out into the lake. I would later learn that this was a wind-powered aeration system, meant to pump a lake with oxygen when it loses its source of fresh water – when the inlets dry up, when the springs stop flowing. It was a last-ditch effort by the county to save the lake, which was tortured year-round by the brutal winters, colder than ever, that froze it down to the mud, and then by the summers, hotter than ever, that cooked the oxygen from its water.
I held onto the windmill’s platform and stared out at the lake as the sun set. There were no ripples on the surface, no fish snapping the bugs from the lily pads. Utter stillness: a dark mirror. I should have known this deathly quietness was possible when my phone did, indeed, know exactly where Ross Lake was. Jerry was wrong when he said my navigation couldn’t guide me there. The notecard with his directions sat folded and unused on my passenger seat. His secret place had been found.
I wondered how long it had been since this lake held any fish, much less Polaroid-worthy ones. I bobbed there, gripping the windmill to keep me in place, and I wondered – what do I tell Pat and Jerry? What do I send to Savanah? I imagined the photos on my wall someday, the food on my plate. High quality captures of lifeless landscapes. Lonely windmills. Fish fillets from a box. I saw that future in my hazy reflection in the dead water, and it made me sweat.
Maybe it was inevitable that time would loop me around and spit me out here. I could recreate, pretend things weren’t changing. But at the end of the line is the story I’d tell around my own dinner table some day: the one about the dead lake.
A ninety-degree day in late September. Probably Pat and Jerry had to sit inside and watch old movies all day. And Hunter slept next to the fan. And Savanah lit her face with her phone screen. What else was there to do?
I let go of the windmill, started to paddle home.
I’d keep searching. Deep in the woods, down twisting gravel roads. At the ends of unnamed streams or where bursting springs form a watery cradle for life: there must be a lake for me. A story. That’s what fishing is: searching unknown depths for a story. That’s why Jerry loves it so, why he wants Savanah out on the boat with him. Or with me.
No, fishing Ross Lake wouldn’t be my legend. I told myself then, as the shadow of my canoe passed over the lake floor, that even if it’s the last thing I do before the sun turns us to dust, I will see the Earth as it was.
Brandon Hansen is a Truman Capote Scholar at the University of Montana’s MFA program and the Nonfiction Editor of Cutbank. His writing has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and his work has appeared or is forthcoming in Puerto Del Sol, The Sierra Nevada Review, LIT Magazine, and other publications. He’s from Long Lake, Wisconsin.