Learning to Drive on Lower Highland Lake

By: Brittany Collins

Smith College,  Massachusetts, USA

I’m sixteen and sunburned. To my right, there is a line of birch trees straight as tooth picks. They stand tall like candles on a birthday cake of shore. Somewhere, a baby laughs. A fire burns. All is relevant.

Months ago, I sat alone in our family car with the engine off. My legs stuck to the seat as I held the wheel and sang to the stereo, peering through my window at stratus clouds above.

What does it mean to steer?

“It’s not the time of day that makes a trout want to eat; it’s the water temperature.” *

Serenity is watching a salmon sky give way to stars and bat wings. It is knowing how to resist. Knowing to keep still. In a metal boat on Lower Highland Lake, water seeps through invisible cracks—just enough to cover my Converse, to remind me of temporality. My seat shifts as worms twist in a plastic bucket. Expectancy abounds.

“Early anglers in Hawaii would embark upon lengthy fishing trips in dugout canoes provisioned with bananas… The farther they went, the fewer the fish, causing some of them to mistake correlation for causation.” **

Seated behind me, oars in hand, is my second cousin and his wife, Joan. Together, they craft a balance of humility and strength—outwitting the perch, getting tricked by sunfish. My iPhone is wrapped in a plastic bag tossed deep into a vinyl pack. It does not beep. My line bends into a delicate parabola above the water, cast and waving fast in the wind as we wait.

In the car, in my drive, I knew not how I would meet the road; how I would learn to stall and stop, to do K-turns when no one was watching. Our mailbox was an iron wall, a thorny thicket that I could not surpass.

On the lake, however, I do not see roads. I do not hear music, save for the bobolink and sparrow gossiping overhead. Three people in a boat and nobody is talking, for we are learning the language of quiescence, its syllables punctuated by the plunk of stones and the bubbles of creatures stalling beneath us. They gasp; I gasp; we keep out of sight.

At last, a tug. My “clown pole,” orange, leans towards luck. It is the same pole that caught plastic fish in the backyard of my childhood, sturdy as I cast its hook into soil; the pole with which my five-year-old hands pierced gummy worms—the red and clear kind—at a local fishing derby, determined to win. I think for a moment how proud it must be—my lovely clown pole—bright against the muck, just trying to fit in.

And then a flopping tail breaks the water. It is a rainbow trout, a fighter. The sinews of my wrist strain against its pull. We are wary of each other. My cousins chant encouragement from behind, and it feels as though a bird is caught on my line, a confused lark that was always meant to fly. Now is its chance, as it is mine and the clown pole’s, the three of us caught in a triangle of hope.

My forearm interrupts the potentials of this scene, shaking as the fish flies towards our boat. I say “flies” because it’s nicer than dangles; hangs; suffocates; the truth of the matter.

The trout is heavy and jeweled. I cannot control its path. My cousin, equanimitous in a linen shirt, watches as its tail comes closerandcloserand

                                                          SMACK

                                                                  Into his face!

He spits a fishy spit and grins, unfazed, at my flurried apologies. The fish bangs beneath us, muscular, and I do not think of its babies, or its gills, or the stratus clouds of our faces peering down into its home. I do not think of Elizabeth Bishop, or tinfoil eyes, or scansion. I can’t.

Cousin Dave hands me the oars, and I begin a rick-rack path to shore, but we stop. He knows. We peer at our rainbow in a box. It’s OK, he tells me as we take the fish from its pile of ice cubes and toss it into the water. It was never meant to fly. Or, if it was, it is not my duty to say so. Who puts a rainbow in a box?

Sometimes I think
of how nice it must feel
to slide through the water unseen.
And sometimes I think
of the water itself, slick
and cool and constant.
Sometimes I feel
the copper sand
the mica and algae and gems of the deep
but then I remember
hooks hanging down
in all the nice places
with worms of temptation
a floor of skeletal crayfish cast
in a sepulcher of sand

and I suppose

that we aren’t so different
that fish and I
gliding and dodging
dangling perils
potentials for change

they gasp; I gasp; we keep out of sight

but sometimes I don’t want to think
about mortality
or morality
or mentality

I don’t want to feel
like an ogre of the deep
or a plankton, either
I just want to float
like a lily on its pad
to wait and wade
where there are no hooks,
no crayfish,

just
the trout
just
me

calm

but we must move on.

So.

I sit muddy on a park bench licking a spoon goopy with fudge. The outlines of my cousin’s eyes are cast against woodlands, dusky and deep. Joan tells me about Scrabble; the VHS tapes that she borrowed from the library; her blueberry pie. Dave razzes my unsteady hand as I suck a cherry from its fluorescent stem. An owl darts through fir trees.

I’m sixteen and sunburned and in need of someone who can teach me how to drive– who will exhale when I slam on the brake, nod when I say I knew better. Somewhere, a fish swims, scarred and smooth. The skeleton of a crayfish puffs against sand as a toddler jumps through the water, clumsy. A bobolink cries. It was not meant to swim.

A teacher appears with tackle and toolbox; he does not flinch at a fish to the face. “David,” says Joan, “you will have to teach Brittany to parallel park, to look over her shoulder as she changes lanes.”

Correlation. Gummy worms.

Causation. Iron.

Months later, on an autumn afternoon, I’m in a denim jacket and leather boots, copper leaves flying around me. “Ready for the crooked bridge?” David asks. A creek laughs below as I learn a new kind of trust. We are not on but above water, and something is cast within me. Deep and lingering, it pulls against the strain of what I used to know and what I am coming to know. David talks about Moby Dick and antique car shows as I clutch my wheel, cautious on this beaten path—all pothole and gravel.

“Ready.”

* J.D. Bingman, owner of Wild Trout Outfitters
** Brian McGeehan, owner of Montana Angler Fly Fishing