There was a tree, I think it was called the hawthorn, that grew profusely in Ireland when I was a child. We travelers called it the bread and butter tree because you could eat the leaves. Nature never lets you go hungry.
My father was a traveler born, and so was I, “born on the straw” as they say in Ireland, a “chavvie”…that’s the traveler word for child.
Every morning when I got up, the view was different. I slept on a bunk in my parents’ motor home, an ambulance in its former life. Dad liked the blacked-out windows because they stopped the curious from peeking in. The Irish are incorrigibly curious.
My Dad believed strongly in the power of education. My mother was not a traveler, and, raised in the settled life, she could read. So he set her to pass this skill on to me as soon as possible, and in no time I was learning my letters, and starting to make up stories. My Dad took great pride in the way I took to literacy.
One Christmas I discovered a marvelous present from him, a small plastic typewriter, complete with a stack of paper and new ribbons. It was a toy, but it worked, even if the printed letters were uneven.
I knew exactly what I was going to do with this wonderful present. I was going to write a great story, as good as one of those books my mother read all the time, when the potatoes were burning and the fire was going out, and other travelers would say, “Oh, that’s just Maire, with her nose stuck in a book again.”
I would make a great show of clearing a space for it on the tiny table in the caravan, stack up the sheets of paper beside it, and sit down seriously to write my great novel.
My father, busy weaving tiny little china beads into intricate belts and hatbands, would look at me over the top of his glasses and say, “now, what are you going to write about?”
And I could never think of anything to write about.
One night he tapped his pipe on the table, and said, “why don’t you write about the fishing?”
He had woken me up that morning at 3 am. The dawn of that day was a sulky, dark, grudging thing, creeping out from behind the hills and shrugging into a worn overcoat. I was right in tune with it as I stumbled out of the caravan. I hadn’t felt like going fishing.
My father carried his rod, a creel, and little else. He might not even use the rod, being adept at “tickling” a fat trout into the creel.
We started, following the river upstream and pausing at various places for Dad to cast his line and wait patiently, pipe steaming, for a bite. I sat beside him on the bank.
It was almost summer, but no one had told the weather that. The grey mist was slowly giving way, but the clouds still billowed above, promising rain later in the day.
The river danced past over a rocky bed. Dad had dropped the line in a deep hole, but the rod refused to twitch.
“Do you see the rabbit?” Dad said suddenly.
“What rabbit?” I put my head up like a retriever as if I expected him to tell me to go fetch it. Indeed, with that quizzical sense of humor, he might have.
He pointed with his pipe across to the opposite bank. I strained my eyes among the reeds but could see nothing.
“Further up, near those trees,” he said. “There’s two stalks of grass that aren’t stalks of grass at all.”
I looked harder, and then I saw a twitch and a swift movement, but the rabbit was gone before I could get a good look at it.
“There now,” he commented, “you sit surrounded by all this life and industry and you see none of it.” He laughed. “Do you know why the rabbit took off?”
“No, was it afraid of us?”
“It was afraid of the fox. Sniff the wind coming over here. Can you smell it?”
I sniffed and caught the traces of a rank odor.
He reeled in the line, and I followed him further upstream. The river bubbled into a small weir. There was likely looking fishing hole here, deep and mysterious.
As we crossed to the other bank through the shallows to reach the fishing hole, I noticed eddies of small silverfish in the shallow pools.
“Do you have your net with you? We might have a breakfast of sprats when we get home.”
I had my net crammed into one pocket of my jacket and a jam jar in the other, with a string tied around the neck for carrying. Not much of a fisherman myself, I could scoop up sprats with the best of them. They were delicious fried in butter and served on toasted bread.
I filled my jar while Dad found himself a spot on the bank, and cast his net into the fishing hole. There was a slapping sound from the water and I knew there were trout here, so I crept up onto the bank, stowing my jam jar between two stones, and lay down to watch my Dad’s fishing line snake through the air.
The heavy clouds began to thin out, with small patches of blue. Maybe it would not rain after all. I could hear a dog barking in the distance as the Angelus bells started to ring, calling the population to worship.
We did not go to church, but my father laid down his rod and gazed quietly at the beauty around him, and I did the same and felt my soul fill with a joy that is almost impossible to describe. The wind shifted the trees, and the tolling of the bells struck deep in my heart.
This was our simple worship, and when my father had done offering his soul in thanks for the fine trout lying on the bank, and the beauty of the morning, we got up softly and began the long trek back to the wagon. Somewhere a tractor roared into life, signaling the start of a working day for the settled people.
We walked in companionable silence, my Dad with his reel and his creel with the trout laying on the bottom, and I with my brimming jam jar.
Dad woke my mother by waving the fresh trout under her nose. I started to work getting a fire ready to fry the sprats. Dad cooked them himself, stirring them in the butter until they were fragrant and golden, while I made the toast, hooking thick slicing of bread on a bent coathanger and dangling them in front of the flames.
But later that night, when he told me to write about the fishing, all I wrote was, “I went fishing with Dad this morning. He caught two trout.”
He often told me to listen, and look, and learn from the world around me, and find God in the gentle movement of the breeze, the waves on the sea, or the quick dart of a hare.
After he died, I went out to try and catch the last glimpse of him in the patterns of nature as he went on his way. Now grown up, with children of my own, I remember very clearly the things he told me when I was young.
And now I have written about fishing.