The Specter of Norman Maclean
by Chad Towarnicki
The Pine Creek was an oil painting at dusk. The dark greens and greys that made up the mountainside bled into the water’s surface. The August droughts were keeping the waters low, but the shallow rapids still chuckled along in their cool beds. I was there with my brother, poking along.
As was habit, he was trying to fish from one end of the stream to the other before the water quit reflecting light. I was left to wander on the banks, wading out here and there, fishing but mostly forgetting to cast. I guess it had always been like that.
I approached a small rock escarpment that pushed back against the flow of the stream, forcing it to roll over to the south and disappear into the blackening hemlocks. At that sharp bend in the stream, my brother was sitting and changing his fly.
“Well, did you wet a line in every pool yet?”
He was sitting on a pumpkin sized rock, tying the line then nipping the excess off with his teeth. “Nah,” he said. “Found this little campsite here. Great spot. Must have had a fire on the little bank. Tent up on that flat grassy spot over there.”
I took a seat with him at the fire ring and looked back upstream toward a distant parking lot. “Wish we’d thought of that.” We stared down at the ashes as if they would relight on a wish.
Many summer days had been spent like this. Nothing specific occurred, but the days were not wasted. The memories of the Pine Creek were beginning to lose their sharpness as they tumbled along and away from us. We watched from the same bank as they’d go. Tumbled round.
The cicada chirps came to a crescendo in the treetops. A tossed stone plunked into the water, and the deep mumble of the stream came back into hearing.
He was up and peering over into a pile of driftwood. “Check out this heron.”
I followed the pointing tip of his rod to the overreach of a sycamore where the tangled corpse of a heron was hiding among the tossed branches.
With archeological precision and care, we pulled the sticks away and unfolded the corpse.
My brother stepped back to observe. “Well, here’s where the dinosaurs are hiding,” he said. “Unreal.”
The thin skin on the back of the skull was crowned with primitive feathers that looked like holdovers from the Jurassic. Mechanical legs were shedding their reptilian skin as the body dropped feathers in patches. A sharp beak was yawning wide as the vacant eye sockets looked up and away from us.
I pinched the tip of the wing and lifted. Unfurled and exposed it was five feathered fingers hiding under the tissue paper skin. “It looks just like a hand.”
“Not-so-distant cousins, I guess.”
“I guess. They’re so clumsy in flight,” I said. “I’ve probably retained that gene somewhere, though.”
“Not me, man. Fucking red-tailed hawk.”
He plucked a few pristine feathers that remained, different sizes and blends of blue and gray and white, and wore them like a corsage on his vest. It was true. He had a certain manner of grace about him.
“I’ll tie up some flies with these,” he said. “There’s a trout drifting somewhere out west just waiting for it.”
Gripping the beak closed, I rolled the skull until it cracked free from the spine. I drew a wide figure eight with it in the water, trying to free whatever foul smelling meat might still be clinging on.
“That’s going to make your vest smell like shit,” ahe said.
“Small price to pay. Not every day you find something like this laying around.”
“But, what would you even do with it?”
“I don’t know.” The skull nearly glowed clean as I lifted it out of the water. “Stow it on a bookshelf somewhere, I guess.”
“John James Audubon over here.” He shrugged and turned to head back upstream. “Not going to make much of a pencil holder, though.”
The shadow of night was spilling into the valley now that the sun had dropped behind the ridgeline. As black silhouettes, we made our way back upstream. One moved quick through the smooth shallow waters; the other meandered along the bank and stopped to greet the first few stars.
Chad Towarnicki is an English teacher, writer, and budding homesteader living on an old farm in Pennsylvania. He’s earned his MFA in Creative Writing at Arcadia University, with a Civil War short fiction manuscript. Fiction published in @Whiskeypaper (The Aster Flower), nonfiction published for Montgomery County Beekeepers Association. He tweets @chadtowarnicki.