In a short story by G.E.M. Skues, Theodore Castwell is an angler who, after death, finds himself fishing the hole of his dreams, for eternity. In Greek mythology, Tantalus is such a jerk that he finds himself surrounded by things he desires, just out of reach, for eternity. Here at The View From Fish in a Barrel Pond, Quill Gordon finds himself relating to both predicaments although he eventually has the good sense to extract himself.
Inspired by an old copy of The Compleat Angler and a jug of cider, what follows imagines Castwell and Tantalus as Piscator and Venator, in the style of Izaak Walton, Charles Cotton and oh, I don’t know, Ed Zern, I guess. Illustrations by J. Eyre, in a Collins’ Pocket Classic Edition of the Compleat Angler published in Great Britain in the 1930s(?).
*the first hour*
TANTALUS. Wait, sir! Wait! I can’t keep up with you.
CASTWELL. I hold back for your benefit but you’ve still not caught up. What’s keeping you?
TANT. Trout are swirling, right there, not fifteen feet from shore! A few minutes is all I ask, to ascertain what they feed on. After that, it won’t take long to bring a few to hand.
CAST. Spent mayflies, no doubt, perhaps a few cripples that never made it off the water last night. Or little brown beetles that crashed, trying to fly before they were fully warmed by the morning sun. Take your pick. The breeze brings them here, nearly every day at this time. But this is not a time to be fishing. There’s work to be done!
TANT. Half an hour at most! I see them right there! Twelve casts, and I will be all about business. Honest.
CAST. Your first business this fine day is a leaking commode but don’t worry yourself one bit; with each other for company, time for us will drag by only twice as slowly. Fishing may come later, after the commode. Bring a hammer, just in case.
*the third hour*
TANT. Well played with the hammer, sir; that commode didn’t stand a chance. To think we nearly didn’t have this opportunity to fish from this small boat! In order to have just the right fly, I’ve brought along an entire bag of fly boxes to cover all situations.
CAST. As for the commode, you did your part, too, being so quick with the mop, but there is not time to tie on even a fraction of your collection!
TANT. You’ve caught a fish, sir. What delicate bit of art have you chosen from your tin that formerly held mints?
CAST. It is a size-14 cream-colored dubbing wad with crumpled deer hair legs.
TANT. But it looks like nothing!
CAST. It also looks like anything and anything will catch more fish than your fly, which is nowhere near the water.
TANT. But now we have drifted or they have moved and my fly falls short. In order to cast further I shall stand!
CAST. Then widen your stance and find your center before you pitch us both overboard! And observe, Nimrod, that the fish on your side have now seen you in the sun and are even further away. I choose to stay low and cast into the shade of the shoreline.
TANT. But you cast so close to the shore that your fly will surely land in a shrub! Hey! You’ve caught another fish with your cream-colored dubbing wad with crumpled deer hair legs!
CAST. No, I changed my fly while you churned the water with that ball of tinsel you lob so recklessly.
TANT. Did you change to an Elk Hair Caddis? Queen of the Waters? Hare’s Ear? Are the wings up or down? Did you select a Wulff style fly? Is it wet? Is it dry? Is it red or is it green? Yellow? I probably have one of whatever it is in my bag.
CAST. Same fly, but brown. I have a black one, too.
TANT. And another fish! How many is that?
CAST. This makes three and the rest are a given, as long as the breeze blows this way, so that’s that. There’s work to do before lunch and more to do after. Take us ashore.
TANT. But I do not yet know, precisely, what the fish are feeding on!
CAST. Something small, with crumpled legs. See? I’ve caught another one! Take us in now or you won’t get to clean septic filters later.
*the fifth hour*
TANT. There is no breeze and the lake is like glass!
CAST. A breeze would be a blessing, right about now. Or a thousand fragrant posies, of which this stench is the opposite. Be quick with that bucket and brush! The sooner you put that filter back in place the sooner we close the hatch on this foul portal.
TANT. I see a rise! And another!
CAST. Let me tell you there are no fish in this vault. You are overcome by fumes and we will both succumb to the miasma if you are not careful and quick.
TANT. Oh, sir, not in the septic tank. I speak of the lake. From shore to shore its surface is dimpled by rising fish!
CAST. Look at your work and watch which way you scrub and swish that thing. Gobs of grease and shreds of wipes spray in every direction!
TANT. I’m trying to be careful, I should have worn gloves, but the fish are feasting on something like children on candy!
CAST. I shall impart to you, Nimrod, that the trout are feeding on ants. I will also tell you my eyes are burning and I wish you would hurry.
TANT. Sir! Ants can not swim. Do they walk to where the fish are?
CAST. If you would only finish this task I would tell you of ants on their nuptial flights.
I would tell you of new queens, fat and tasting of lemons, flying for the first and only time on wings meant to last less than a day, each with a tiny consort, who hangs on for dear life until the ride is over. You would learn that sometimes they land on loamy earth and the two start a colony together, but sometimes their wings give out over water where they wallow helplessly until they are eaten by trout. Oh, never mind. Now that I’ve told you, put the lid back over this hole!
TANT. Watch your step, sir!
I am pleased greatly to offer my collar for you to grab onto. I am more pleased to see only one of your legs went in, and only part way, but you are choking me. Follow me to the ground and you will be clear. That’s it.
First, I will replace the cover so no one important falls in. Then I will bring my bucket and brush. I shall have your pants scrubbed clean in a jiffy and we can fish for trout. They still rise!
CAST. Take this rule with you: the busier you are, or the busier you should be, the more fish will rise within your sight. And remember this also: When ants sprinkle from the sky the fishing will go one of two ways. You will either have a fly close enough to the real thing and feel like an expert until you tire of the sport, or nothing at all will do and you will abandon your rod so no one will see you surrounded by rises yet fishless.
Stay away from me with that brush and gather the dirty linens from yon camp while I burn these britches and bathe. I shall return forthwith, bearing fresh sheets for the important anglers due to arrive this very afternoon.
TANT. The anglers just now pulling in, three hours early? Should we sing them a song? I will sing if you will sing but if you don’t I won’t because I’m not that kind of fellow.
CAST. There will be no singing and it looks for us like no fishing, either, at least not while these ants fall. I advise you to busy yourself preparing the camp until I return. I dread the wrath of anglers who find all is not in readiness.
TANT. But we are not late. They are early.
CAST. To men such as them it is much the same thing.
*the seventh hour*
TANT. The waste lines have been cleared from inlet to outlet, the beds are dressed with fresh sheets that smell of lavender, and the anglers have all settled in. Some are in boats, surrounded by rises yet fishless, while others are in their cups, contemplating their own fishlessness. We ourselves enjoy small cups of barley wine here on the porch and I see, as the shadows creep out from the western shore, mayflies rising like upwardly trending snowflakes above feeding trout. What now?
CAST. My friend, you have kept time with my thoughts. But with conditions such as these, the fishing can go one of two ways…
TANT. I am confident which way it would go, with your guidance and sagacity and what not.
CAST. Another cup to seal the deal, then you will procure a boat and again you’ll do the rowing. We’ll find fish, fret you not. Now, take your nourishment.
TANT. I would like to think I have just the right fly. I’ll bring my bag.
*the eighth hour*
TANT. You had me row all the way to the far end of the lake and now we must sit and wait? My hopes of catching a fish fade with the light.
CAST. Fishing for trout requires patience and fortitude, Nimrod. One must study to be quiet.
Look to the east, atop yonder hill. The moon rises there and the fish rise here.
TANT. Indeed they do! Dainty sippers in all directions and did you see that mayfly? The one the size of a small pterodactyl? I know for a fact I have a pattern for that in a box at the bottom of my bag. At last I am witness to a legendary hatch, at the right place at the right time and with the right fly!
CAST. You would do well to look again and perhaps reconsider.
TANT. No, I’m sure of it. You go ahead and cast while I find that fly. Oh, I see you already are. I see, too, that you’ve caught a fish. I’ll join you shortly and we can both relish such merry making sport.
CAST. I’ve caught another while you rummage.
TANT. So now my knot is tight and my fly is there, to the right of where that fish just sipped. Another fish missed my fly, this time to the left! I see my fly but the fish evidently do not. Nor do I see your fly, obscured as it is in the mouth of that trout you’re bringing in. Oh, another close rise to mine and now two more! Mayflies emerge on all sides of our boat but the fish seem blind to everything but your fly, about which I hesitate to ask. Another size-14 dubbing wad, no doubt.
CAST. Do not forget the crumpled deer hair legs, but in black, imitating adults of another, smaller species, landing exhausted and spent from the exertions of propagation. They are easy pickings as they lay prostrate on the surface while what you refer to as pterodactyls launch themselves into the air. They, too, will return, exhausted and spent, in the hours before sunrise and truly large fish will come out to gorge on them in the dark. Until then, a black dubbing wad with crumpled legs will do, but when things are like this the fishing can go one of two ways…
TANT. Before sunrise you say? ‘Tis a match, sir: I’ll not fail you, God willing, to be at this very spot tomorrow morning before first light. Surely I will catch a trout then!
CAST. You’ll not fail me if you’re not here, for I won’t be either.
Tomorrow is another day in a long succession of days. Something will need scrubbing while, not a hundred yards away, brown trout chase minnows. Something else will require percussive maintenance and, while you pick up the pieces, a pod of rainbows will swirl past, plucking at midges. And I know, as I bring in one more fish, there will be no shortage of sheets that no longer smell of lavender. Now row us away from here before my drifting fly snags another one right in the lip.
TANT. Where to, sir? Shall we go ashore and bide time until the pre-dawn pterodactyl spinner fall? A quaff and a song or two, perhaps?
CAST. A quaff, yes, and who knows what we may bay beneath the moon. But your task now is to stop rowing in circles and find the dock.
*the eleventh hour*
CAST. Aw, look at you, with your head on the table! Pick yourself up and go to bed.
TANT. What? I was visualizing the pre-dawn pterodactyl fall, sir. Besides, this bottle is not empty and we’ve lost the cork!
CAST. Then slosh some more in our cups, Nimrod, not on the table this time, and let me tell you that when it comes to pre-dawn pterodactyls the fishing can go one of two ways…
TANT. Sir, you’ve slumped to the floor again.
CAST. Well, hand me my drink; I can sing just as well from down here.
Mayflies in the mornin’
Mayflies in the evenin’
Mayflies at supper time!
Dubbin’ wads and crumpled legs!
Spinners done layed their eggs!
TANT. Sir, that song is just as bad as the one you sang last night and the one the night before that but I thank you heartily for it. Let me help you to your room and we’ll get a fresh start tomorrow. Things will be different then, I’m sure.
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