The boy had been increasingly troubled for several days but didn't want to talk about it. Finally one Friday morning his father said, hey, what do you say, if you think the second grade can get along without you today, let's take the canoe and go fishing.
The boy revived like a reprieved prisoner, chatterinig impatiently as they made sandwiches and dug worms. Soon they were out on the Potomac, nosing along the bank in search of a likely spot. For a long way the ground was muddy and uninviting but there was no hurry. While the man paddled the boy read tracks.
A duck, he said. A little one with long claws, he thought.
Yes, the man said, surprised and pleased, a wood duck. They need the claws because they perch in trees. He flipped through the field guide for a picture of a woodie, but the bird himself came thrashing and peeping into the air almost from under the bow, his fantastic plumage flickering in the sun.
A day that started like that could not fail to go well, the man thought. In time the boy would open up.
A raccoon, the boy said. He went that way, but where did he come from? The tracks just start. The man couldn't figure it out either, although they went ashore and searched. The place was no good for fishing but fine for lunch and a long explore.
They found the wood ducks' nest, high in a dying sycamore, and a beaver lodge a dog had tried to dig into. Where the brush had combed debris from the river at high water there was no end of yellow tennis balls. Nor was there any beginning of the talk.
After another brisk paddle they found a fine fishing spot, a jutting rock ledge, but hardly had set up when a man and woman came along and made a lot of chat and continued drinking vodka gimlets frm a jug, it being not quite noon. The man and the boy moved on.
It was wet and grungy everywhere, but when are we going to fish the boy said so they set up in a fairly sandy place and started drowning worms, fishing one rod at a time because the bank was so narrow and brushy. The first rule was, if the man lost his worm or caught a fish it was the boy's turn. The second rule was, if the boy lost his worm or caught a fish he got another turn or two. The boy was making up these rules.
The fish were white perch, and they were devilish hard to hook but not much fun after that, so the man spent most ofhis time feeding peanuts to a bunch of small bold brown birds he did not recognize and could not find in the book. All the fish the boy was catching went into a bucket of water even though some were little more than minnows. They would go into the aquarium at home, where Sour Sam the snapping turtle lives. The man felt bad about keeping such small fish but not bad enough to argue about it and then Mr. Seaman, a wildlife biologist who is surveying Potomac fish populations, came along and said the boy was right, there was no point in putting the fish back.
Mr. Seaman also said the two largest fish in the bucket were probably about as big as any white perch in the river, which puffed the boy up not a little.
The fishing petered out and they packed up and drifted downriver. In a backwater they came upon a convention of eastern painted turtles, dozens of them, sunning on banks and driftwood. Let's catch one with the net, the boy said. No way, the man said, but I don't mind trying, and sonofagun if he didn't come up with a vividly colored male that had lingered long after the boldest of the others slipped into the water. This surely is the dumbest turtle in the world, the man said. Let's take him home anyway, the boy said, he'll be all right, he's bigger than Sam.
About what was troubling him the boy had not spoken and would not speak, although for a long time they sat on a log watching a flicker fight two starlings for a nest hole in a rotten oak. The staring seemed to be winning, and then it was time to go.
It was a long paddle upstream to the car, made delightful by one of those sunsets that stay gold almost to the last and then turn dull red as though the sun were actually going out.
Between his bath and his bedtime the boy told his mother all about the problem.