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by Mike Gaddis | Jun 10, 2020 | FISHING, FRESHWATER, Slider
A Healing Place

It was the day of his birth, the genesis of his sixty-third year, and it had been a good one.
It could have been celebrated anywhere in the world, as so many times before it had. But not today. Not this time. Today, it had been spent on the small streams near home, with the little wild brookies that so beautifully jeweled their waters, and afforded not only gentle sport, but incomparable solace and mellow memories. Memories of boyhood, and, more than all else, the guiding hand that above any other, had seen fit to suffer him then. To gift to him the wonder of its wisdom and company, and to bring him, before it left his youthful shoulder, to be a man.
More even than all of that, he had thought the harder — each time he had carefully held and released another of the small and glistening calico warriors of the waters — of the wrinkled, old envelope that had rested sacrosanct, sealed and unopened through all the years. That bore on its jaundiced face in scraggly letters written by that same, but then palsied and failing old hand… For Braden, to be opened upon his 63rd birthday…
Blood, as a river, runs the bed it may carve, but the more, the course that chance has chosen. And though it had been then the eccentric request of an old and fettered man, and so many times the temptation, and so many times the doubt…What if I should not be here then?… he had allowed of himself nothing less than to honor it.
Now night had fallen and he was home again, by the hearth, in his old leather chair. While within the laid-dry fieldstones of the middle-room chimney, a small flame chuckled softly among oak splits. He could hear faintly, Kathy, in the side bedroom, humming softly her favorite tune, “The Sweetheart Tree,” from The Great Race. She had left his side, knowing his need to be alone, brushing his shoulder, and raising the back of her hand to gently brush his cheek as she passed…the sweet smell of her lingering yet, steeped to essence by the growing warmth of the fire.
Only the setter, now – Bliss – shared his company, and she lay placidly unassuming, by his side.
He would have been at peace, complete, but for the one thing. That at last he was free to do. Yet, still he couldn’t.
Though his heart beat anxiously in one sphere to open it, he was in another, reluctant. For so long it had been inviolable, an invaluable possession both for its origin and mystery. A tangible and uninfringeable remnant of the old man himself, symbolically close to flesh and bone.
Even so, it was unreasonable, of course, that it should remain so, and pushing himself up, he waited no longer. Walking to the safe, he slowly turned the numbers of the combination. Swinging aside, then, the heavy steel door, and reaching inside to retrieve the yellowed envelope that lay waiting, no longer fortressed by the mantra of the years.
Returning to his chair, he deposited it to the side table, hesitating moments more, pouring two fingers of Tennessee whiskey into a waiting shot glass, from which he slowly drew a steadying portion. The amber spirit burned as it went down, then leveled to surcease.
Setting the glass nearby, he pulled his eyeglasses from his shirt pocket, carefully slipped them over his ears. The time was at hand. He should wait no longer.
The keen edge of the reliable old Case knife from his pocket, once the steadfast companion of the old man himself, slipped easily through the papered, top edge of the thin package. Gently, he blew open its sides to expose the single, folded sheet inside. Removing it slowly from its sheath, he paused again, gazing momentarily into the flicker of the fire, considering as he did the soulful worth of what he held.
He could hear the sigh of the wind. It worked the still-barren branches of the small ash tree outside in a regular, softened rhythm against the glass of the near windowpane.
He hesitated moments more, thinking how long this moment had been in coming.
Then dropping his eyes to his task, and opening the folded page, he began to read the crudely scribbled hand on its face:
My dear Braden,
It will have seemed strange to some perhaps, perhaps even to you, that I have asked you to wait all these years to open this.
Though I trust that you have come to know by now, that the things I left you earlier and upon my passing…the bank trust, the guns, the rods, the reels, the lures and flies, the paintings of masters, the books of seasoned men, the various and sundry accoutrements of a sporting life well lived…were only latchkeys. I strove to have the best, and leave the best, but you should have realized as the years have passed that while they open the memories of yesterday, they survive only as material implements of sentiment and occasional utility for tomorrow. That the greatest of treasures lie beyond them.
And if you know that, you know by now as well, the larger truth. That they are not the things of the world that are most important.
Should, by chance, you have not come to this by now, I wish you too, before the fewer years that are left to you have fled, and you will have been buried in a common grave among the masses that never discover the difference.
Before you read the last line of this letter, I should like for you to STOP now. To do this one last thing for me. With the morrow, at the break of sunrise upon the hills of home, sit alone upon a highest place and ask of yourself what has meant most to you in the life you have lived. Not of your life with people, but of your life wild.
I have only…

Braden Lowry forced his eyes away, folded closed the sheet of paper, and returned it to its envelope. Sat for long minutes looking into the fire, thinking about the words that were speaking to him beyond those he had read. Words that were rising in unmistakable tremors from the past.
Tomorrow, at dawn, he would do what his grandfather had asked. He would be upon the height of Licking Stone Mountain, and seek the clearer message of the sunrise…
In the netherworld of first light, when everything appears as emulsion, he sat on the zenith of the great granite outcroppings atop the mountain. It was middle-March, a month properly made for contemplation, the morning unobtrusively clean, and he sought in the leafless landscape that rolled away in underhills and valleys for many miles before him perhaps something he had not found before. The slight northern breeze traveled restless and shivery, but as the light slowly grew, the warming promise of the sun swelled now as well, in golden, pinkish, lavender-and-lemon pastels over the eastern ridge tops.
As it did, he searched himself deeply for the greater message his grandfather was, beyond the grave, trying to portend. Not all the wonderful decades of worldly adventure, the wild, high places, the hunts and angling thrills of all the years? He obviously knew and celebrated those already. The ways of the old man with a boy, and his way with those of his own? No, for all his life he had been gratefully aware of these, maybe the more. The revered gifts of the old man’s will? No… “only the latchkeys” …the old man had said.
Now the molten, golden-orange and shimmering cap of the new sun crept above the confining boundaries of the mountain peaks, gilding the ridgelines, and spilling in pale gold upon the treetops of the highest underhills. As he watched, flowing slowly across the shadowy miles until only the wandering ribbons of the valleys lay yet in secret. While, as the softened light grew, the drabber, winter-still world became the more suddenly, almost springishly beautiful, and within him surged an inner peace as no other, a swelling of immense comfort, of confidence and completion. And in the moments that followed, he knew. What the old man was trying to say to him, what he had left to him beyond all other.
A healing place.

In all the years, in all his times of trouble and strife, when the way had been unclear to go on, always it had been so. Each time he had tried and could try no more, he came here. When even he had been too troubled to hunt or fish, he came here. Came alone. To some wild place in the world, near or far, a place in the moment untouched by people, their trivialities, or their passage. Always he had been mended, could see clearly then, no matter the difficulty, the way ahead. It had started with his grandfather, his gift of simply the great wild, and it was the most sacred and valuable of all the things the old man had left to him. The sanctuary within his soul.
That evening, he again took the yellowed letter from its envelope, unfolded the paper inside. His eyes traveling once more its length, and coming to rest upon its last line:
I have only the one regret in life and death. That I cannot be there, to see you now, as I was then. To know that you know.

He lay the letter in his lap, sat for moments more. Lay it on the side table then, and moved to the window. Looked deeply into the night.
“You are, Papa,” he said. “You do.”
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