On the East Fork of the San Juan

Andrea Carter Brown

Down the mountain the ice melt flows. Another year, another ordinary
spring. El Niņo on the wane, no urgent reason for rejoicing or regret.
At the bottom of the river, a caddis nymph has slept beneath a stone
all winter. Now hunger and the clear morning light, falling yellow
on last fall’s aspen leaf, beckon him to swim, beckon him to cross
the stream which flows beneath an icy crust, the river under glass.

At once, a sluggish cutthroat trout, his eye a dull green isinglass,
notices the swimming nymph with just a little more than ordinary
interest. He lunges, misses. Does a disappointed fish feel cross?
Does the trout, hungry after the long cold winter, feel some regret?
Twitching his tail, flanks flashing with flecks of blue and yellow,
the cutthroat slips into an eddy where the river calms behind a stone.

On the bank of the river, a dipper perches on a gray-green stone.
Angled so, he scans himself a moment, as in a silvered looking-glass,
until, suddenly bending at the knees, he dips, and casts his shiny yellow-
lidded eyes alertly below the surface. Then, hurtling in (how extraordinary
for a bird!) he swims along the bottom, ignoring the trout (the dipper is no egret),
and looks for caddis nymphs, or whatever else he might come across.

Now a bear emerges from a copse of budding aspens, intent on crossing
the river. He blunders in, snout to the stream, and heaves a heavy cobblestone
aside to find his footing. The dipper flees, as does the trout. Without regret
the bear barrels on, drinks a moment from the river (he doesn’t need a glass),
smelling the water as he takes it in, inhaling a whiff of mud, the ordinary
scent of trout and caddis nymph, a hint of rotten aspen leaf, a bone yellowing.

By June the ice is gone, the trout is plump with milt, the caddis nymph a fly. Yellow
ribbon decorates the nest the dipper’s built beneath the bridge where the cross-
roads of two deeply rutted tracks are marked by a sign. The hunter, his ordnance
right-angled over his shoulder, hikes up the river, hoping for bear, his stone-
cold eye alert for movement within the aspen grove. Slipping past a Douglas
fir, he waits. He’d shoot the hungry bear without the slightest feeling of regret.

Back at the bridge, a fisherman in rubber waders hoists his aging creel, regrets
his father’s war torn net and rusted reel. He fastens on a favorite lure (the yellow
spotted spinner, Meps size 0, his last Black Fury) and tests his rod, bending fiberglass
with a stiff and wrinkled hand. Stepping now into slow water, fearing the cross-
currents further on where the river turns to rapids, he spots the pool, just a stone’s
throw away, one he knows: close enough to cast, far enough to fool an ordinary
trout. Sitting on a rock, the fisherman’s wife regrets that she is childless. A cross
to bear, she thinks. With pencil and a yellow pad she writes a poem about a stone
faced mother, a glass half empty, a lonely life which could have been ordinary.