His mother called him “Will,” because “William” was too big of a name for a small boy. But when his father needed to make a strong point, he was called “William.”
On a large tract of farmland, stretched along a rocky shelf high above the river, Will and his brother roamed through hundreds of acres, across unkept wheat fields and into the wooded hills. They made forts from fallen tree branches and swung on grapevines across the valleys.
The eastern flank of the property held a canyon of limestone and dolomite, smoothly carved by the cool and clear waters of time, originating from underground springs in marshy headwaters long miles upstream. And the deep, mid-sized river was blessed with wild brook trout.
When Will was eight, his grandfather came to stay with them. And three of the four sunroom walls in their small family home were made solid. A bed and a chair were added, and Grandfather placed an old wooden desk by the remaining windowed wall, where he sat and tied flies for what seemed like days at a time to Will. And in between each fly, the old man raised his head to scan the landscape.
Grandfather brought along chickens: ten hens and one rooster. And he promised Will and his brother that if they helped him build the chicken coop, he would teach the boys to catch brook trout at the bottom of the canyon using the feathered, hooked creations from his desk. So they built a fine chicken coop with scrap lumber. And on one late June evening, Grandfather told the boys, “We’ll walk down to the river in the morning and go fishing when the rooster crows.”
Will tossed in his bed that night, eager with anticipation for what events were to come with the daylight. Twice he arose and walked outside, barefoot, onto the cool stone porch to judge the length of remaining time left in the night. But Will could sense only emptiness in the still and silent darkness. He knew it wasn’t time yet, and he returned to bed.
Then finally, the rooster crowed.
Will and his brother walked in hushed shadows through dewy fields and descended into the half-lit canyon behind Grandfather, just as the earliest rays of light brought the wild world back into existence. It was the first true dawn that Will had ever been part of, and he could feel life waking up all around him.
That summer, Will learned the habits of trout and what it took to catch them. They spent every morning walking down the widening path into the canyon to catch fish and put them back. Sometimes, though, they kept enough trout for a family brunch, and Grandfather taught them how to clean and cook the fish.
And so, year after year, Will and his brother fished the summer mornings once the school year ended in June, rising to the call of the rooster and fishing until the high sun reminded them to go home and do the other things that boys should do.
By Will’s teenage years, the steep canyon path had become too much for Grandfather, and Will often fished by himself while his brother slept in. He would return to tell stories of the big trout he fooled and even bigger trout that had slipped the hook. Grandfather would nod in approval and tie more flies for Will to fish the next day — always when the rooster crowed.
After high-school, two brothers made two separate plans. And like cars in adjacent lanes at a stoplight, Will turned west, while his brother headed north over the horizon, never to be seen again — he became a police officer and was killed in the line of duty only a few months after his training.
The chickens died too. Grandfather continued to raise new hens and new roosters, but when Will came home it always seemed like the same group of familiar birds.
In his twenties, death was a mystery to Will. And once, sitting in shady porch chairs overlooking the wheat fields, Will asked Grandfather how it felt to know the end of his life was so close.
“Will, I can’t explain that to you,” Grandfather said with a thoughtful sigh. “You can’t know until you see your own children grow and succeed and hurt and live. And after so much pain and happiness in one life, it prepares a man for his own end, without regret and without fear. Just knowing that I’ve lived, and that I’ve left some good things here . . . that is enough.”
When grandfather died, Will and his father began to fish the canyon together, and Will brought his wife and family back to the home on the high shelf by the river more often. Having two daughters somehow brought him closer to his own mother, and Will watched as everyone grew and became more and lived in their own way.
At the age of forty-two, Will crossed the middle divide of his own timeline — with fewer hours left ahead for him than he’d already left behind. Will could feel that he was on the back half of his life, and the realization inspired him.
After his daughters were married, Will retired from the work that had given him the means for a comfortable life. Empty since his parents died, the house on the high shelf above the river received Will and his wife once again, and they made it their home. He repaired and painted the coop and raised chickens again. And he watched the birds find grasshoppers in the same wheat fields he’d run through as a child.
When the morning rooster crowed, Will again descended into the canyon to join his memories and the wild world in its daily routine. While releasing a brook trout, he noticed the age of his own hands. They were old. They looked like his grandfather’s hands.
“How many knots have I tied into my fishing line using these hands?” Will wondered. “How many flies have I tied, and how many times have I wet these hands to release another trout? How many more trout have I left to release?”
The age was also in Will’s hands. There was pain in the most common movements now, though he’d learned to accept it. He could see and feel the history in his own hands as he folded his fingers around the fly rod to make the cast again.
At eighty years, Will realized that he would never take the trips or see the destinations that he’d dreamed and planned for as a young man. He felt the breakdown of his body, and he knew that time was shorter for him now than it ever was long. But it didn’t matter, because he’d lived and hurt and loved — he’d felt pain and happiness, and because he a knew his place on earth so completely. He knew the canyon and the shelf, the wheat fields and the woods. He knew the trout and they knew him by the waves rippling beyond his boots. Will and the trout played a symbiotic game — sometimes Will won, and sometimes the fish won. And because of all that, everything was okay.
Will climbed up the mountain path and out of the canyon. He walked through the back door and into the old sunroom to sit at his grandfather’s wooden desk. He paused in thought and then put pencil to paper.
When he’d finished, he looked up through the sunroom glass toward the fading orange October daylight. Will walked to the porch and felt the cool stone under his feet as he scanned the landscape of his life.
The rooster crowed before dawn.
Will lay still at last. Hands folded on his chest. Eyes forever closed.
On the wooden desk lay pencil, paper and the message: “Just knowing that I’ve lived, and that I’ve left some good things here . . . that is enough.”
Enjoy the day.
T R O U T B I T T E N