Creel by Michael Coffey
The worms were there at the corner of my grandfather’s garden, near the burn barrel, wanting me to dig them, bring them to some other wilder reality, in this case a cold April morning in the Adirondacks. I’d fetch the round-point shovel out of the garage and bring the green bait can, if I could find it, or use one of the slender Prince Albert tobacco cans my grandfather had discarded, a small red tin flask with a snap-top. I’d turn over a half-dozen shovelfuls of rich dirt like fudge and wait to see the purplish worms slowly squirming, sometimes only their tips visible, nosing around blindly in the fresh cut of air. One after another I’d pry them out with my fingers and into the can they would go, with a little tuft of grass and the black dirt to keep them alive.
I’d walk up the abandoned broken-up pavement that ran along the brook. In the trees it was dark and the only sound was the rushing of the brook, high with snowmelt off the mountain. I’d look for those pools Dad told me held the promise of trout, as if they were lingering there, holding themselves steady and unseen beneath the surface, waiting for feed to wash through. Kneeling on the bank, I’d bait the hook, a process that began first with trying to extract a worm from the can—they all seemed to know how to burrow in and disappear. But one would soon be captured, and though it writhed in my hand, the barb sounded it into surrender, as his body against its will became the meat sleeve of the metal shaft, Eagle No. 9.
The idea of a trout is pure muscle, muscle twitch defined against the press of the water, redefined at the end of the pole in my hand when it flips into the free, wary air, snapping back and forth. When it came, it was like some stranger suddenly touching me intimately or somewhere where I did not control the reflex—a swab stick on my tonsil, the hammer tap below my patella from Dr. Ganong. I’d start marching in a controlled panic, my sneakers splashing to land the catch in the brush. I didn’t care if the reel got wet or if the line got tangled as long as I got that trout, its green silvery red-speckled body in furious spasm, hung up there on a branch.
I’d learned to palm the sticky cold fuselage in one hand and with the other remove the hook as humanely as I could. The blood was thin, a smear of it. It smelled fishy; the worm was there, limp as a soaked shoelace slinking out of a gill. With a slight crunch the hook was extracted and the trout, its eye dull and disbelieving, dropped into my creel, the top shut fast. It whopped around in there for a good half hour while I recomposed myself, untangling my line, and fantasizing how many more I might get, until I didn’t hear the trout moving anymore in the creel, only the roar of brook and some stones tumbling.
NER Digital is a creative writing series for the web. Michael Coffey’s story, “I Thought You Were Dale,” appeared in NER 32.3. He is the author of three book of poetry and is is co-editorial director at Publishers Weekly.