Sunday, November 22, 2009

The stone

The field had been abandoned two years before. Someone had come and hauled off the cattle for the winter and in the spring they didn't come back. It had never been much of a pasture anyway, soggy in spots and overgrown with brambles and scrub in others. Left to their own devices the handful of cows must have gone half-wild, their hides a tangle of burrs and beggar's ticks by the time they were rounded up. After that nobody had scythed the grass and without the cows' patient grazing the vegetation had grown up, little sumacs and maples had sprouted and taken hold, creating a new green canopy just a couple of feet off the ground.

The boy hiked down from the road above, the cuffs of his jeans swishing through the high grass, until he came to the little stream that lay just behind a perfect colonnade of cattails. No more than two yards across and half that deep, its waters barely seemed to move, though if the boy dropped a leaf on its surface it would drift slowly off until it disappeared from sight. The stream bed was smooth and yellow-brown; if there were stones buried in the ground beneath they had long since been covered by centuries of silt and fallen leaves. There were tussocks at the water's edge that made for unsteady footing, but a few strides further off a great flat slab formed a bridge across the water, whether set there by a glacier or by some farmer's hand the boy didn't know. He could kneel on the stone and peer into the darkness beneath. In one corner, in perpetual shadow, a spider sprawled in readiness at the edge of an unbroken web.

It was only when he clambered to his feet again and stood blinking in the sunlight that he noticed the pickerel. It lay still and solitary in the water a few feet upstream, its narrow crocodilian snout aimed towards him, its lateral fins pulsing steadily, holding it against the current. The boy figured it couldn't have been more than eight or ten inches long. Its sides were covered in reticulations of green and white, and he thought it was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.

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