A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean
We sat on the bank and the river went by. As always, it was making sounds to itself, and now it made sounds to us. It would be hard to find three men sitting side by side who knew better what a river was saying.
On the Big Blackfoot River above the mouth of Belmont Creek the banks are fringed by large Ponderosa pines. In the slanting sun of late afternoon the shadows of great branches reached from across the river, and the trees took the river in their arms. The shadows continued up the bank, until they included us.
A river, though, has so many things to say that it is hard to know what it says to each of us. As we were packing our tackle and fish in the car, Paul repeated, “Just give me three more years.” At the time, I was surprised at the repetition, but later I realized that the river somewhere, sometime, must have told me, too, that he would receive no such gift. For, when the police sergeant early next May wakened me before daybreak, I rose and asked no questions. Together we drove across the Continental Divide and down the length of the Big Blackfoot River over forest floors yellow and sometimes white with glacier lilies to tell my father and mother that my brother had been beaten to death by the butt of a revolver and his body dumped in an alley.
My mother turned and went to her bedroom where, in a house full of men and rods and rifles, she had faced most of her great problems alone. She was never to ask me a question about the man she loved most and understood least. Perhaps she knew enough to know that for her it was enough to have loved him. He was probably the only man in the world who had held her in his arms and leaned back and laughed.
When I finished talking to my father, he asked, “Is there anything else you can tell me?”
Finally, I said, “Nearly all the bones in his hand were broken.”
He almost reached the door and then turned back for reassurance. “Are you sure that the bones in his hand were broken?” he asked. I repeated, “Nearly all the bones in his hand were broken.” “In which hand?” he asked. “In his right hand,” I answered.
After my brother’s death, my father never walked very well again. He had to struggle to lift his feet, and, when he did get them up, they came down slightly out of control. From time to time Paul’s right hand had to be reaffirmed; then my father would shuffle away again. He could not shuffle in a straight line from trying to lift his feet. Like many Scottish ministers before him, he had to derive what comfort he could from the faith that his son had died fighting.
For some time, though, he struggled for more to hold on to. “Are you sure you have told me everything you know about his death?” he asked. I said, “Everything.” “It’s not much, is it?” “No,” I replied, “but you can love completely without complete understanding.” “That I have known and preached,” my father said.
Once my father came back with another question. “Do you think I could have helped him?” he asked. Even if I might have thought longer, I would have made the same answer. “Do you think I could have helped him?” I answered. We stood waiting in deference to each other. How can a question be answered that asks a lifetime of questions?
After a long time he came with something he must have wanted to ask from the first. “Do you think it was just a stick-up and foolishly he tried to fight his way out? You know what I mean—that it wasn’t connected with anything in his past.”
“The police don’t know,” I said.
“But do you?” he asked, and I felt the implication.
“I’ve said I’ve told you all I know. If you push me far enough, all I really know is that he was a fine fisherman.”
“You know more than that,” my father said. “He was beautiful.”
“Yes,” I said, “he was beautiful. He should have been—you taught him.”
My father looked at me for a long time—he just looked at me. So this was the last he and I ever said to each other about Paul’s death.
Indirectly, though, he was present in many of our conversations. Once, for instance, my father asked me a series of questions that suddenly made me wonder whether I understood even my father whom I felt closer to than any man I have ever known. “You like to tell true stories, don’t you?” he asked, and I answered, “Yes, I like to tell stories that are true.”
Then he asked, “After you have finished your true stories sometime, why don’t you make up a story and the people to go with it? Only then will you understand what happened and why. It is those we live with and love and should know who elude us.”
Now nearly all those I loved and did not understand when I was young are dead, but I still reach out to them.
Of course, now I am too old to be much of a fisherman, and now of course I usually fish the big waters alone, although some friends think I shouldn’t. Like many fly fishermen in western Montana where the summer days are almost Arctic in length, I often do not start fishing until the cool of the evening. Then in the Arctic half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise.
Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.
I am haunted by waters.