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The Mentor

The rock was imposing, in its majestic strength. It earned the respect of the river withstanding the rampaging floods, the erosion of time and the countless bumps of trunks.

The rock was imposing, in its majestic strength. It earned the respect of the river withstanding the rampaging floods, the erosion of time and the countless bumps of trunks, with many signs left to prove this as tiny scars. Oh, how many times they had sat on that boulder, so big and cozy to look carved by human hands instead of God’s wishes. Its wide surface was easily accommodating two persons, leaving enough space for their wicker creels, for the jackets and for their dreams. Now that he was sitting there alone, absorbed in his thoughts, now that his mentor had left this world many years back, this rock appeared even too big for a man for whom those dreams has left space to the time of memories. That was their rock, not so close to the water but enough to make them feeling part of that river. From that position they could easily control a wide stretch of water, from the upstream big bend and down to the riffle, where the wide flat started to run and the water was breaking in a myriad of tiny flows. His mentor loved to sit there for hours, waiting for the evening hatch, while indulging to the warmth shaded by the riparian foliage, with his rolled cigarette always in his hand. Spring and summer were their favorite seasons with the growing of new life but they did not disdain autumn and its melancholies either. Fishing during the autumn hatches with the typical small flies and the cooler temperatures was somehow relaxing, but June was still their beloved month, especially during the first weeks when the abundant big flies hatches moved the big trout out of their dens. At times his mentor was keeping silent, not a single word. He was looking tired and lost in God knows which thoughts, and he had learned to respect his silences. He was not disturbed by this quietude and that was a simple chance to enjoy the nature around them. In both cases, whether speaking or resting, his mentor and the nature were teaching him something. It was only a matter of reading the right signs. He never confessed of calling him mentor although he always had the feeling his mentor could perceive it and intimately please of this form of respect and devotion. Neither he forgot to always precede a respectful sir in front of his name. And his mentor had done the same with him. They met many years back at the local postal office. Behind the desk he saw him entering the office with a waxed paper packet in his hands. He was well dressed, sleek and distinct in appearance, with well tidy moustaches. He was very kind and after paying what due he left the package addressed to a location in the United Kingdom. Then he quietly left giving him a smile. Several times he was back again at the post office, to collect his parcels or with packets and letters always addressed to the old world. With the exception of an occasional exchange of missives with his mother, living somewhere in NY state, most of his correspondence was with other fishermen. He did not recall how they started to talk but eventually they got a feeling. He learnt that his mentor was living alone in a small wood cottage several miles away and that he was a fly fisherman. As a matter of fact, from how he spoke, it seemed fly fishing was the most important thing of his life. He got firm prove of this in the years to come. His fly fishing talks had the poetic taste of exalting and he liked to listen him for hours, mentally taking note, with respectful silence, of every single word.

The first few rises started now to show up on the water of the pool although he did not notice concrete hatches of any sort, maybe because of that cold wind that was blowing down north and that, sometimes, was delaying the flutter. Still lost in his thoughts, he kept turning in his hands that fly box of which he knew every single corner and all of its inhabitants. He was completely sure about the right fly to use but he stared at the fly box like a beginner assaulted by the so typical incertitude. But he was not a beginner, not any more since long time. All around the Sullivan county he was known to be especially capable and this, after all, was pleasing him, despite his simple nature not accustomed to personal glorifications. The choice of the right fly, how many times he discussed this dilemma with his mentor. A choice implies for a reasoning, it forces you to think, evaluate, observe. This was making fly fishing so different from all the other systems. Either you accepted the compromise of a fly of fantasy or you believed as essential the exact matching of the right hatch, like his mentor loved to do, there was always a short moment of meditation behind, but also the awareness of never having certainties. Yes, he was sure about which fly to tie to his gut leader, now hanging in anxious wait like a spider web broken by the wind. It was a light dry fly with tails and hackles of a lightly mottled dun shade, the divided wings of mandarin duck and the fur body of a pinkish color. He always smiled while thinking of that fur coming from the vixen’s private parts, but it was right the urine staining to give it that specific tone. He did not find anything better to imitate the color of that mayfly the day he was sitting by the Ferdon’s together with his friend Albert. That morning they have been severely beaten by the indifference of trouts, down by the river, during a heavy hatch of Ephemerella Subvaria. The fly was born right there at the inn where they were back to heal the wounds with a deserved hot meal. And only God knows how much this fly was killing once he went back with Albert to take their revenge on those squeamish trouts. He later baptised the fly with his friend’s family name and it became a constant presence in his fly boxes and of those of many others later on. He loved fly tying, maybe even more than fly fishing itself. He loved the magic hidden behind those turns of thread, within those feathers. With those life simulacrums he was able to deceive the river and its nature, even if this was the only way he would ever have allowed himself to fool God. His mentor revealed him the secrets of the gentle art. He well recalled, like it was yesterday, when many years back he stepped on the porch of the small wood cottage, knocking and waiting for the permission to enter the door. For the first time his mentor did not hide the tying table like he always did before. He was totally mesmerised by those tools with all the threads, feathers, furs and hooks in front of him. He realised he had not even greeted for the surprise and turning his head he saw his mentor preparing the coffee with a sort of smile under his black moustaches. Then they sat at the table and his mentor started to show him all those small packets of waxed paper where he saved his tiny feathers. He magnified the character and the value of some of these while he moaned the low quality and uselessness of others, especially to tie flies good enough for their rivers. Many of these last ones came from the United Kingdom and were sent to his mentor by pen friends of the old world. Some of the names on the envelopes he was sure to recall, maybe he read them on the books his mentor allowed him to read during the afternoon spent together; books that talked about dry flies and chalk streams of southern English counties. But also books that were celebrating the fishing with the nymph.

Those English dry flies, everything started right there, a handful of these received by a pen friend had been the sparkle of his mentor’s thinking. Beautiful, imitative and well tied, but so unsuitable to work on American rivers, unprepared to the tough task of standing the running waters of their Catskill mountains. His mentor had studied and understood them and, most of all, had found their limits. Structural limits with hackle far too soft. He had observed the insects of their rivers, found the best materials and created perfect feathers and silk deceptions, fitting them to the local waters like an accomplished tailor. When his mentor, that day long gone, started to show him how to tie one, he felt immediately bewitched by those hands dancing around the small vise fixed to the heavy wood table. They seemed flying, like gloved hands of a juggler that, with vibrant movements, free the doves out of nowhere. He still kept in his fly boxes some of the flies his mentor gave him. Some of them well used, some other secretly untied to memorise the tying steps and the methods. And, little by little, he started flying himself.

Sitting on the rock, waiting for the hatch, he was thinking to the many he, in turn, had taught to fly, mainly the youngest, so full of enthusiasm, and so ready to dream. As if dreaming was a gift that we forget on the road while we grow up. Those countless days spent at the summer Boy Scout camps. He did it fuelled by passion, by love and maybe to repay that gift once received by his mentor. Seeing in younger eyes the pride of those clumsy first attempts, minute feather clusters that one day would have turned in may-flies, tiny deceptions ready to fly artificial flights on the river stones. What had been his great reward. Flying, dancing. The one he was hearing in the distance was music. It blended with the river sounds and seemed to come out underneath the stones. Not really the melody he liked to listen in his time, it was sounding more like a modern jingle coming from a car radio. Or maybe, a music of people feasting. The last banquet he had took part in had been many years back, he recalled.

A party organised for his retirement. Harry and the other friends organised it to celebrate his 26 years of service as game warden. Harry had been so nice, the party had moved him. To tell the truth, Harry was always nice with him, sometimes even too compliant. But this, he knew it well, it was one of the small, tiny advantages of being old. Most of the people tend to treat you sometimes with too much kindness when you are old, like it happened when you were a child. They forgive you many things, they are gentler and even their voice sweetens when they speak to you. But that’s far from being an unpleasant feeling. They were all at the banquet and only for a moment he believed to see in the crowd even those that had gone, even his mentor; maybe he was just tired or maybe it was the Bourbon they offered him. Or maybe they were really there to greet him. Ghosts of the past. Yes, they were all there. Even those poachers that he chased through woods and along river banks, even those he arrested, he was sure to spot some of them among the many faces. They knew he had been forced to do it, that it was his duty as Government officer, a duty he committed to respect 26 years before. And he knew that many of them had been forced to poach, a tribute to starvation that, often, pushes you to forget the laws. Trouts poached to feed their children and not their soul.

Now the sun had gone down behind the old sycamore and the scattered red was anticipating the oncoming night. It was time to go back, they were waiting for him at home and he already figured out they would have worried for him as he was late and, surely, they would reproach him. At his age, staying by the river, alone and late. If he hadn’t felt the fatigue on his limbs he could have thought of being a child again. Like when he was lingering in the wood around home chasing for squirrels. What could happen so terrible on his river? Could he possibly be hurt by those still trees, or maybe abducted by that friendly water? He has been already abducted by that water indeed, many years earlier, abducted and bewitched. What kind of monsters could have jumped out of the dark to assault him? Or could possibly that huge rock wake and overhang him with its imposingness? No, that rock had listened to his stories and his dreams for such a long time, a silent companion, and of these it was impregnated. Yes, now it was time to go back. The hatch wouldn’t have come that evening and he wouldn’t have caught any trout. But he wasn’t there for the fish, he was there for his memories. There, down the path, he turned on for the last time to watch the river, like he always did, almost to impress its beauty in his eyes. He thought to sight a man sitting where he was a few moments before, black hair and thick moustache. Motionless like the rock where he was sitting, his mentor was staring at the water. He simply turned on again and, continuing on his path, he smiled. Soon they would have met again...

Almost nothing of this tale is fruit of pure fantasy, except those small literary concessions to link the pieces of the story. It’s not fantasy the figure of the mentor, Theodore Gordon, neither is the figure of the old fisherman and fly tyer, Roy Steenrod. I am not allowed to know if Roy had intimately called Gordon as his mentor, but certainly these were the basis of their relationship. And certainly Gordon was Roy’s mentor. It’s not fantasy their preference for the month of June. How can’t you possibly love the heavy big flies hatches of that season? It’s not fantasy Albert, whose family name was used by Roy for his famous fly, the Hendrickson. It’s not fantasy the description of Roy’s first fly tying lesson, maybe not in those modalities, maybe not in those timings, but can’t we possibly doubt that one day it happened? A day during which Gordon decided that Roy was finally worthy of learning the Art. It’s not fantasy the banquet and not certainly the figure of Harry, the famous Darbee of the cottage on the Willowemoc. The banquet organised for Roy to celebrate his retirement. Of pure fantasy is surely the rock, but can’t we possibly assume that it does not exist a rock where, one day, two friends sat to talk feathers and trouts?  

Alberto Calzolari.

Hendrickson Variant, tied by Umberto Oreglini, using Qiviut dubbing for the body.

This piece appeared in Italian Deeds and Misdeeds, a book by Fly Line Edizioni, and it is reproduced here with the kind permission of the publisher Roberto Messori.