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The Cerulean Trout

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by Jacob Sotak​



Jerry parked his red Toyota truck up beneath the large, sun-faded trout that had been leaping off the side of Mac’s Sporting Goods store for nearly thirty years. He slid out of the cab and strode toward the door, taking a deep breath before stepping inside.

“Surprise!” sang a chorus of voices. “Happy retirement!”

Jerry waded through the crowd. He shook a few hands. Someone handed him a Miller Lite. He’d just managed a swig when someone yelled, “Speech!” and pretty soon the room was quiet and everyone was looking at him. He scanned the wall of expectant faces, searching for something to say.

Between each head poked a slice of Mac’s shop: a rotating display of neon bass lures, neatly arranged boxes of rifle ammo, red wool mackinaw jackets, red reflective driveway markers on spindly white stems, folding camping chairs, butane lighters, brown plastic tarps tucked into plastic bags, the long wooden counter with the register at the far end, and the cork bulletin board behind it that was barren except for a single white poster with a photograph and big red letters: MISSING.

He looked down at his boots.

“Shoot,” he stuttered. “I appreciate you all coming out.”

He found his footing and continued.

“Fifteen years ago the Air Force played a cruel joke on me: It sent me to an air base that’s not on any maps to fly planes that don’t exist.”

A few chuckles rippled across the crowd.

“But the joke’s on them,” he continued. “It’s been the honor of a lifetime to call this place home.”

Jerry raised his beer in a toast.

“To all of you at Thunder Butte, the flight teams, the crews—especially my guys at Hangar Seven—thank you.”

He paused.

“And to the United States Air Force I say, “Look who’s laughing now.”

With that, Jerry swilled his beer, crushed the aluminum can, and spiked it like a wide receiver. Everyone cheered.



A half hour later the store was empty. Jerry and Mac stood bent over a sheet cake with a few pieces missing. In the center of the cake was a military crest drawn onto the white frosting with blue piping.

Mac put his arm around Jerry just as he made a trough through the icing with his finger.

“Glad to be a free man, Jer?”

“Mac, I’ve been flying airplanes for most of my life and doin’ it for Uncle Sam for about three decades. I always figured that I’d end up on a one-way trip to Mars long before I had to worry about retiring. If I’d have known I would have figured something out.”

“Figured what out?”

“Life. A family. Hell, even a dog. I’ve been a stick jockey so long I don’t think I can do anything else.”

“How about another drink?”

Jerry nodded. Mac disappeared into the back.

He emerged with two rocks glasses, a bottle of gin, and a long slender rod tube under his arm.

“What the hell is this?” Jerry grinned.

“I’ve been holding onto this for . . . well . . . since before Pete . . .”

Jerry’s face twisted.

“I would have told you sooner, but he made me promise . . . I gave him my word.”

Mac set the glasses down on the counter and laid the rod tube carefully in front of Jerry. He uncorked the bottle and poured two fingers in each. He handed one to Jerry and grasped the other.

“To Pete.” Mac held up his glass.

“To Pete,” murmured Jerry.

Mac took a sip. “Shit!” he barked. “The note!” He set his glass down and disappeared into the back again.

Jerry picked up the glass and downed the gin in a single slug. The booze and memories made his eyes well up. Jerry looked up and found the poster with the red letters. He stared at the photograph. It was of a man in a military flight suit. He was tall and fit, his blue eyes sparkling above a toothy Kodak smile. Beneath the photograph was printed MAJ PETER H. DAIMON, USAF.

Tears spilled over the red rims of Jerry’s eyes and ran down his weathered cheeks.

“Found it!” Mac exclaimed from the back of the shop. Jerry wiped the tears from his eyes with the back of his sleeve and cleared his throat just as Mac reappeared, brandishing the note. He set it down on the counter and poured another round.

“Ain’tcha gonna read it?” he prodded.

Jerry pulled a Swiss Army knife from his jeans and sliced open the envelope. He unfolded the note and ran his sleeve over his eyes again before reading it aloud.

Jerry—

Happy retirement, you old bastard.
I built this rod for you (with a lot of help from Mac). The taper is modeled off that Powell rod you broke on the Oxbow a few years ago, with some added backbone. Hope you like it.
Thanks for all your advice about fishing, and flying things. I’d be lousy at both if not for you. Let’s bend an elbow when I’m back.

Tight Lines,
Pete


Jerry placed the note on the counter, now pockmarked with tears. He wiped his eyes again and picked up the rod tube. He unscrewed the cap, pulled out the white muslin rod bag, and withdrew the rod.

Jerry picked up the butt section and held it up to the light, inspecting the craftsmanship. It was bamboo, the color of oversteeped tea. It had satin nickel guides and thread wraps of burgundy trimmed with silver. It seemed to glow in the fluorescence of the shop. A dark polished reel seat swirled below the tapered cork grip, flanked by matching nickel hardware. The two sat and admired it, only breaking their gaze to take the occasional sip of gin. Mac finally broke the silence.

“Jesus, Jer,” he said. “You should fish it.”

“What?”

“Take this up to the ’Bow and give it whirl.”

“It’s my last day. I’m retired.”

“Day’s not over yet.”

Jerry looked down at his watch and back at Mac. His face curled up into a smile. Mac smiled back and pulled a small neoprene pouch from his back pocket. He handed it to Jerry.

“My contribution. Click and pawl. All lined up and ready to go. I even put a leader and tippet on there for you.”

Jerry wasted no time. He returned the rod to the tube, stuffed the reel in his vest pocket, and jogged out the door of the shop.

“Give ’em hell!” Mac yelled after him.



Jerry jumped into his truck. It rumbled to life and sped out of town. Jerry turned onto the unmarked gravel road that swept up toward the mountain, one hand on the green rod tube perched in the passenger seat. His mind flitted back to the first time he met Pete, stumbling upon him—still in his damn flight suit—shin deep in Jerry’s favorite run. If it had been anywhere else in the world Jerry might have chased him out of there, but he was too elated to find a fellow angler confined to the same otherwise desolate patch of the Eastern Sierra.

Only the Air Force would put a top-secret air base next to a blue-ribbon trout stream, Pete used to say.

The truck’s clock read 11:53. Jerry pressed on the gas, fishtailing through gravelly turns. The moon was low on the horizon and filled the truck’s windshield. It was pale and yellow and pregnant.

Jerry spotted the large rectangular sign attached to a tall run of chain-link fence. He stopped the truck short of the gate and rolled down his window. Protruding from the ground was a weathered white post topped with a small metal box. Jerry leaned over and entered a string of numbers into the backlit keypad. He sat and waited, reading the sign he’d read every day for the last fifteen years.

WARNING

MILITARY INSTALLATION

OFF LIMITS TO UNAUTHORIZED PERSONNEL


With a mechanical buzz, the chain-link gate jumped and began to roll open, rusty bearings squealing like scared mice. Jerry drove through.

The track rose up a small hill, and when Jerry crested it, he could see the air base below. The row of squat tan hangars cast oblong shadows across the dark tarmac runway. Jerry skirted the airstrip and drove behind a hangar with a large number seven painted on it. It loomed as he drew near, a sleeping curved, corrugated beast.

Jerry parked the truck. He pulled a pair of hip boots from behind the seat, donned them, and fished a small fly box from the glove compartment. Jerry removed the rod from the tube and fit the sections together. He gave it a little shake, feeling the length and power and action.

“Damn you, Pete,” he said softly. “We were supposed to retire together. What the hell am I gonna do now?”

Jerry pulled the reel from his vest and mounted it on the rod. It chirped brightly as he stripped off some line and laced it through the gleaming nickel guides. He opened the fly box, picked out a small Muddler Minnow, and tossed it back into the truck. He tied on the fly and hooked it to one of the guides, looping a length of line behind the reel before winding it snug.

He found the worn path that led to the river and eased himself into the water. He stood for a moment in the stillness, letting the moon and the river and his loneliness wash over him.

He stripped ten arm lengths of line off the reel and began to cast. The rod flexed and pulsed rhythmically in the moonlight. As he fished the world melted away. He was no longer Jerry, the intrepid pilot, the decorated officer, the loyal friend. His whole being unspooled, each cast melting away the years and the scars and the memories until he was just the fly. A scared little creature searching for salvation in the wine-dark water of the river.

The take sent a shock wave through the rod and into Jerry’s gut. He felt a savage head shake and then the line ripped from his fingertips as the fish turned downstream. The reel screamed. Jerry tried to palm it but he lost his balance and had to catch himself. It screamed again. The rod pulsed and bowed. Jerry began to shake—equal parts excitement and terror—as he slid along the crumbly bank, grasping at the cork like the yoke of a troubled plane.

Jerry knew where the trout was heading. A hundred yards below them, the river curved into a deep horseshoe with undercut banks filled with snags. He had to act fast.

He found his footing in a patch of gravelly substrate. In a single sweeping motion, he dragged the rod across his body and cocked his arm. The line came taught and then went slack. Jerry raced to gather up the slackening line, worried that he’d pulled too hard and broken him off. But before he could come tight to the fish again, it leapt.

The trout hung in the pale milk of the moonlight, his massive head gleaming like a distant nebula. Jerry could see its quarter-sized black spots and the blue shimmer of its gill plate. It was a beautifully healthy mature brown trout.

In that moment, it seemed to Jerry that all creation halted and that the two had become fixed, petrified in an umbilical connection like two halves of an hourglass, vessels of an unseen force exerted upon them, running through them.

Then the trout began to ascend into the sky.

Jerry stood transfixed as the trout continued its ascent high above the water. As it did, it took on a kind of ghostly glow, wrapped in a thin veil of moonlight. It was only when his line lifted off the dark water that Jerry snapped from his trance and realized that he hadn’t broken the trout off after all. He watched in disbelief as the luminous glow that enveloped the trout began to travel down the line.

Jerry started to backpedal, but as the glow crept down the tip of the rod, he lost his footing. Or rather, the riverbed seemed to disappear from beneath his feet. He kicked, but his efforts were futile. He was being dragged into the night air. Jerry tried to resist, but his actions were slow and clumsy, as if he were underwater.

He looked down. He was a hundred feet above the hangars and tarmac and the red Toyota truck. When the glow reached the tip of his finger, Jerry felt an all-consuming elation sweep over and fill him with absolute calm.



When Jerry opened his eyes, he was lying in a cot, covered in a supple gray blanket. He was in a tiny spartan room. The walls were cool sandblasted steel. In one corner leaned the bamboo rod and reel. His head throbbed.

Jerry spied a narrow door, threw back the blanket and stood up. He strode toward the door and walked through.

Beyond it was a chamber. Large tanks filled with water lined the walls. In one, he saw a brown trout. He approached the tank and beheld its beauty as it cruised happily around the empty lighted aquarium. It was plump and fit. Its blue cheek was a vivid watercolor brushstroke against its brown mottled skin. This trout was a picture of health and wild vibrance.

Jerry was so transfixed by the fish that he hadn’t heard the soft footsteps behind him.

“That’s a helluva catch, Jer.”

The words struck Jerry like lightning. He spun on his heels toward their source and was struck a second time. There, standing before him, was his best friend.

“Pete?!”

Pete stood tall and lean and healthy, as if he hadn’t aged a day. He was dressed in a simple dark tunic and matching trousers. His steel blue eyes gleamed like the burners of a propane stove.

“You son of a bitch,” blurted Jerry. “You’re alive!”

Jerry lunged and wrapped Pete up in a bear hug that nearly lifted him off of his feet.

“I thought you were dead! How the hell is this possible? Damn, it’s good to see you.”

Pete wriggled out of Jerry’s arms and put a firm hand on each shoulder.

“It’s good to see you too, Jer,” Pete said warmly. “I’ve got so much to tell you. You won’t believe any of it.”

Jerry’s head ached with questions.

“But we’ll have plenty of time for that. Come here. I gotta show you something.”

Pete pressed a button next to the tank that held the brown trout. A small portal opened and from it swam the most beautiful fish Jerry had ever seen.

It was about 2 feet long, with a shape that reminded him of a brook trout, but in dazzling blues. A tattoo of inky vermiculations ran from the crown of its head down to the adipose fin, blending into the deep blue-green of its shimmering sides where dark blue spots were trimmed with concentric rings of silver. It moved slowly, seeming to vanish and reappear, metallic and translucent and iridescent, as if it were water itself.

It darted past the trout. As it did, the brown sprang to life and followed. The two fish began to chase and spin, spiraling through the water, melody and harmony. Their intricate dance reminded Jerry of maneuvers a fighter pilot makes in a dogfight but infused with a primordial playfulness.

“I call her the Cerulean Trout,” explained Pete. “She’s an ancient species, the last of her kind. Part of the original planting.”

“What do you mean, planting?”

“Fifty million earth years ago, or so, a civilization from a distant planet in the Milky Way began identifying solar systems similar to their own within a few hundred million light years. Their scientists had discovered that they had unknowingly triggered a series of irreversible events that would lead, they feared, to a large-scale planetary reset. In an effort to preserve the unique flora and fauna, they began a relocation project. Earth was one of several dozen planets to receive a planting.”

“You mean there are other Earths out there?”

“In a manner of speaking,” continued Pete. “No one planet could sustain the complexity and brilliance of their native species. So the Stewards—that’s what I call them—studied the candidate planets and paired a selection of plants and animals with each. Earth received a handful. She was one of them. You’re looking at the origin of every salmonid on Earth.”

The two men stood and watched the fish twirl and pirouette in the illuminated tank. Jerry was the first to break the silence.

“So what happened to you?”

“I’ll tell you the whole story,” replied Pete. “But we’ve got our work cut out for us.”

Pete looked around them at the empty tanks and then back at Jerry.

“The earth is dying, Jerry. We’ve maybe got a few years to fill as many of these up as possible.”

“And then what?”

“Well, then we take them to their new home planets,” explained Pete. “From there they’ll evolve and form new expressions, new traits, new . . . life.”

“And what about us?”

“Us humans?”

Jerry nodded.

“Oh, I’m not worried about humans. The rocketmen will see to that,” laughed Pete. “But I could sure use a copilot.”

The Gordian knot of Jerry’s mind released, and for the first time in years he felt content. Everything that had come before seemed like a faded dream, an old movie, an inside joke.

Far below, the earth turned on its axis. The sun rose over Thunder Butte. Over the faded trout sign, over the hangars and the tarmac and the Oxbow. Over a red Toyota truck with a note tucked beneath its windshield wiper.

Gone fishin’, it read.


Jacob Sotak is an avid angler, fly tier, and rod builder. He is the founder and editor of Hookswain, a publication dedicated to fly fishing and the outdoors. He holds a literature degree from Dartmouth College, and his writing has appeared in the New York Times, Business Insider, and Gear Patrol. Jacob resides and fishes in Vermont.


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