by Mike Day
A short story for the WDC short shots, based on a photo of a lake, jetty and mountains.
|The Old Man and the Lake.
By Mike Day
Out beyond the weathered silver jetty and the lake’s languid surface, a wall of purple mountains stood beneath the pale sky. Thanks to the early morning chill, tiny wraiths hung a hairs breadth above the quiet water.
The old man, who slouched comfortably on an upturned bucket at the end of the pier, let out a long sigh. His breath turned to fog. It reminded him of the dragon’s smoke that he and his brother had blown as they walked to school on winter mornings.
In another couple of hours the first of the holiday makers would come and despoil the solitude. Until then he could be alone with the dark water and sky crisscrossed with white trails of jetliners.
The Great War was done with, the second a black shadow on the world’s horizon. He and Todd, his senior by two years, were skimming stones across the summer lake.
‘Why the Navy?’ Charlie asked whipping his arm forward with all his strength.
‘Eight, nine, ten,’ counted Todd watching the flat stone skip across the surface. ‘Still don’t beat my record. I want to see the world, be somebody. I’m not going to be stuck in a hardware store when I’m twenty.’
Charlie was pushing the pebbles around with his boot, ‘Will you come home for weekends?’
Todd playfully smacked his hand against the back of his kid brother’s head. ‘Yeah and if it snows we get to go home early.’
‘I meant while you’re in training.’
‘Guess I might get home for Christmas, don’t know really,’ He fired a stone out past the fading rings. It caught the water at too sharp an angle and submarined beneath the waves.
‘Ha,’ Charlie laughed at the justice of it. ‘What about Bethany, she’s pretty keen on you?’ he asked as he squatted down to examine a rock.
‘Can’t have a steady girl when you’re in the Navy.’
Charlie launched his missile, ‘Oh,’ he said as it bounced along.
‘Fifteen,’ muttered the old man as he smiled at the memory.
A pair of geese kept each other company across the heavens, he watched as they grew smaller and smaller until first one then the other faded into the distance.
His callused left hand, which was lightly holding the corked handle of his fishing rod, was adorned by the gold band that he still wore. A fine line ran from the vanishingly small tip of the cane rod, out to where a vivid black, orange and yellow float bobbed slowly up and down.
Charlie and Bethany were sitting together on the swing seat that hung in the porch when the big black Navy car pulled into the drive.
His heart began to thunder as the smart looking officer climbed out and carefully replaced his cap. ‘Mom, Mom!’ he called as the messenger approached.
Bethany clung to him that night though neither of them had planned it. Perhaps grief gave them both the need and the permission.
Todd’s body didn’t come home. His parents had a service held for him four months later whilst Charlie, now in uniform himself, stood beside his young bride and tried in vain to hold back the tears.
When, a fleeting two days later, he climbed aboard the troop train he promised to return to her.
Charlie sat very still on the galvanized bucket, his gaze over fifty years behind him. She had waved until he’d lost sight of her as the train tore them apart.
A twitch of the float brought him back. It ducked once, twice and then vanished below the surface. He pressed the outside of the reel with his thumb and struck hard to drive the hook deep into the fish’s mouth.
As the lake trout came to the surface it thrashed the water into a white frenzy. A series of waves like the RKO signal spread out in all directions. He let it dive, watching hypnotised as the old wooden reel span.
Once the fish had made its run he began to haul it back, raising the line and winding in the slack as he lowered it once again. Twice more the valiant fish made a bid for freedom and twice more the patient fisherman let it run then wound in the line.
At last Charlie lifted it by the line from the cold water. It turned slowly in the sunlight to reveal the pale orange stomach that gave it its local name of Paper Belly.
He took out his pocket knife and carefully retrieved the hook.
The fish twitched and gasped on the rough wooden planking as he reset his line, its pale lips and liquid eyes mouthing pleas to an indifferent world.
The sound of the waves told him that the beach was close. Then the rattle of a thousand rock filled cans announced the start of the German machineguns. The crack of an artillery shell sprayed icy sea water over the landing craft. He tasted sea salt mixed with the bile of fear as the ramp dropped.
Charlie couldn’t see the beach for the soldiers ahead of him. Then the stinging buzz of lead dropped a man to his left. They scattered and ran through the surf, up the too soft sand and Charlie, along with two others, dived into the shallow scrap of a shell hole.
Bernie, a Corporal from the north, lay on his side and rattled out a fusillade of obscenities. Paul, a quiet guy from upstate New York, pushed himself up on his elbows and peered over the rim.
‘Get your head down,’ snarled Bernie.
Paul turned his head, ‘I’m just trying to see…’ They never found out what he was looking for. A bullet, one amongst ten million others that scared the air that day, ripped through his throat leaving a red mist in the air.
They grabbed him and hauled the nineteen year old boy down to lie between them. He was staring as though the world had just played the stupidest practical joke in its whole grim repertoire on him.
Charlie put his hand over the wound, blood, hotter than he’d expected, welled up through his fingers pulsing to the beat of a fearful drum. The Corporal was trying to get a field dressing out of his belt pouch. ‘Come on, come on!’ Charlie shouted over the sound of battle, his voice cracking with fear.
Bernie was tearing at the paper wrapping with his teeth. When the pad was at last free a length of gauze trailed from each end. ‘Okay Pauly, I’m gonna put this Band-Aid on you. You gonna be right as rain, you’ll see…’ He nodded at Charlie.
He braced himself and peeled his hand away. Blood bubbled and frothed but it didn’t pour out like before. He glanced at his hand, absently noting the way his fingers were glued together.
Bernie pressed the bandage to the wound and as gently as a newly minted father lifted Paul’s head to pass the bandage underneath. ‘Hold his head while I get this tied,’ he instructed.
Charlie cupped the injured man’s head in his hands and, for the first time since the bullet had struck, looked at Paul’s face.
His lips were pale as he tried to say something. Charlie lent closer but could only hear the bubbles crackling in his lungs. He moved his head away and saw the boy’s eyes looking up at the blue sky. Paul’s mouth opened and closed half a dozen times forming little “O’s” and then moved no more.
The fish had slowed it’s thrashing to the occasional tired flick, it’s gills slowly opened and closed as Charlie tapped the bowl of his brier pipe against the side of his heavy boot. By the time he was done with tamping down and patting his pockets for matches the fish was motionless.
He lit a match and held it over the toffee coloured tobacco and sucked steadily to pull the flame down to it. As the first sweet smoke wafted between his yellow teeth he tossed the dead match into the water. It floated nearby, turning slowly in circles.
The sun’s heat had swept away the last of the mist to transform the lake into a silver blue mirror for the mountains. They wore pleated skirts of dark pines that swept gracefully down to the waters edge.
A mother duck, walking like a diver new to flippers, led her offspring down to the lake and, having seen the old man throw something into the water, swam in his direction.
Charlie puffed on his pipe and smiled as the soft down balls rocked from side to side in their efforts to keep up with her.
Behind the low wooden railing at the edge of the beach the nineteen sixty Rambler American gleamed in the sunshine.
Bethany ran splashing into the lake with a small boy holding one hand and a pretty ten year old girl caught in the other. She was laughing, her long red hair streaming out in the sunlight like the fiery tail of a rocket. Both children were screaming with delight as she propelled them in beside her.
Back on the beach, where the pebbles met the grass line Millie the “too cool to play” eldest pretended to read a fashion magazine. She wore round sunglasses similar to a pair that Jackie O had been photographed in and the disapproving scowl universal to teenagers.
‘You’re going to miss summer vacations at the lake when you move to Boston,’ Charlie said as he juggled a round stone back and forth between his hands.
‘Daddy, I’m going to college, I won’t miss a thing.’
‘Not even us?’
Her look softened a little, ‘Well maybe… If something breaks or I need to use the laundrette.’
‘I thought you liked this place?’
‘It’s fine for kids… and old folks,’ her grin was mischievous.
‘Well you might have some one day. You might even make it to old age if I don’t strangle you first.’
With a screech she threw the magazine up into the air and leapt to her feet. ‘You’d have to catch me first,’ she shouted as she ran down towards her mother, the same red hair burning in the sunlight.
The warm rays had at last crept across the water and reached the old man in the red checked shirt. He flicked the line, moving it out a few feet and listened to the soft slap, slap, slap of the waves on the shore. Off to one side a cabin’s chimney had begun to smoke as someone prepared to cook breakfast. The smell of wood smoke and coffee caressed his nose and made his stomach rumble.
Quietly, softer even than the little waves, he heard the sound of a step on the first plank. He frowned and flicked the line out again. Pad, the foot fell again, pad, pad, it quickened its pace. Moving with a stealth that hardly caused the old timber to complain, the furtive visitor approached.
‘Gotcha!’ Charlie cried suddenly throwing his arm behind him and scooping the thin form up against his back.
Pale, slim, freckled arms wrapped around his neck. He felt their soft warmth against his cold skin and saw the unruly snakes of red hair that flowed past his face.
‘Grandpa! You cheated. I snuck up on you and you cheated.’
‘That’s because I’ve got Jenny detecting radar,’ he chuckled.
‘Well… Granny says you’re to come in and get washed up for breakfast,’ she said as she tugged him up from his seat.
He reached down and picked up the fish, ‘So, are you going to carry this for me?’
She gave a little girl scream and ran, laughing, back towards the cabin, followed more slowly by the old man and the Paper Belly.
Word count 1972.