Willie never told his father much. Maybe that’s why he wasn’t sure if he would even bring it up. But his father stopped stirring his coffee while he listened and never did reach for his cigarette as it burned to a stub in the ashtray. So Willie let a little out, and then a little more, like his fishing line, until he’d finished the whole story.
When they headed out the farm road, Willie always noticed the brook that snaked out of the woods, disappearing under the road and into a dark pool. It was probably the same stream that ran from Charlie Zink’s pasture and the same that fell steeply under Zander’s wooden cider mill where their father took them to buy glass gallon jugs of cider every Thanksgiving.
“That’s a fire hole,” his dad had said. “When the fire horn on top of the town hall blasts, that tells where the fire is. The volunteers bring the ladder truck and the big, slow tanker loaded with water. When the fire’s out, they come by a fire hole like that one and fill the truck again. They dug the holes years ago, and they go way down deep; hundred feet, or more.”
Sunday morning Willie had walked the gravel road to Sugar Road, then on another mile past the cow pastures and Zink’s homestead until he reached the pool. He carried his fishing rod with a can of worms and a new fishing fly he had ordered from the Sears Roebuck catalog. Willie had helped himself to his brother’s hip boots, and although they were clumsy and hot to walk in, they allowed him to get to the places he hoped the big fish were waiting. But mostly it was the feeling of the water as it rushed past the back of his legs while he stood in the middle of the brook. He’d feel part of the stream; right in the middle of everything.
First, he’d try his luck at the edge of the fire hole. Willie speared the first worm as it wriggled in his fingers, plopped it into the water and let out the line. It wasn’t long before he got a quick tug, but when he checked, there was nothing left but a clean hook. It was more of the same until the worms were gone, and it was time for his new green and red fly. Willie cast the bait to a perfect spot, but a branch caught the line. As he reached to jiggle his line loose, his feet slipped, and he slid with the loose gravel down into the fire hole.
He had been careless leaving the boots all the way up and strapped to his hips, and now he felt the weight as they filled with water. Although his neck and shoulders were underwater, Willie reached above his head and barely grabbed a clump of the grassy overhang. He leaned to his side and desperately threw one leg to catch the heel of the boot just out of the water, resting on a tiny gravel shelf. Willie managed to slip the empty boot off, and then carefully lay back in the water enough to raise the other boot and let it empty.
While he slogged along the road on his way home, with the dripping hip boots slung over his shoulders, Willie felt a strange calmness and thought about drowning. Now as they sat at the kitchen table, his story: the reaching, the slip, and all the rest, escaped in unplanned words. His father’s face remained frozen, and he didn’t interrupt but just stared while the smoke from his untouched cigarette coiled from the ashtray, and his coffee grew cold. When it was done, Willie walked outside with a heavy feeling pressing him the way a wet evening mist could settle low over the barnyard. He wished he hadn’t told and revealed a secret about himself and wondered how stupid he must have seemed.
But Willie wasn’t really bothered by the dying part. It was that no one would know. The relatives would have been cheated with no body to cry over at his wake, and people would talk about the boy who had disappeared long ago.
He would have just been gone, a skeleton in hip boots standing at the bottom of a fire hole, the bones of his arms waving with the current.
And only the fish would know.