I couldn’t tell where the sound came from, but my uncle and I both heard it as we walked. It was a whine of canine speak coming from somewhere out across the water, and seemingly from everywhere beyond. It floated heavy on the current of the Grand Ronde River, then continually evaporated on the upsurges of canyon air.
We were there for trout. This was our purpose. The noise happened to precede us, and I assumed it wouldn’t last.
We were walking along a railroad track that paralleled the river. It was hot. Not the best time of day for fishing, and we knew this, but the opportunity was there so we took it. The must of creosote hung rich and wide in the air, and my legs were being peppered with feckless hoppers. They were buzzing black hoppers—the kind that sound like tiny automatic weapons, their magma underwings rattling like party favors. They were everywhere. So was the sound we heard.
Coyote? Hurt coyote? Dunno. What do you think?
No idea. Coyote, probably.
It was a sad sound, muffled and moaning at the outset, rocketing up to a point pitched, dirge like wail, then declining to a whimper. It was the sound of something recognizing its own passing. I began trying to put it out of my mind. The sight of a clear bend of open water was enough.
We decided to work separate sections of river, my uncle continuing upstream. Making plans to meet back up at the pickup at dark, we separated. I stepped off the tracks and moved across a flat expanse of blanched and exposed bank toward the river.
I hung back from the edge of the water. A garter snake sunned at the base of a stalk of mullein, near where I prepared my rod. The snake flashed off into the water and disappeared downstream like a ribbon of dark smoke. The sun was really working. It glared knifelike off the water—big and white and real. The smooth rolled river rock amplified the water noises and converged on me in a congress of white noise. For a time I forgot about the sound we had heard. I tied on a dark muddler—something I could toss out recklessly on the water. I liked the fly because of its ambiguity. When it hit the water, it could look like a waterstranded hopper or other terrestrial, but the right manipulation and a little weight could make it come alive like a sculpin or trout fry. I liked its dynamic nature. It could be what I needed.
I pitched the fly out, keeping back from the water’s edge, crouching as I approached. I knew where the trout would be on a day like this: they would be deep. They would be in the shade of overhanging limbs. They would hover where they could avoid the heat best, where they would expend the least energy, where they could find the easiest prey. Trout are much like us: opportunistic, often lazy, hierarchical and vicious—yet prone to flashes of brilliance punctuated with long bouts of inexplicable behavior. Much like us. And they are beautiful.
On the third cast, a trout snapped at the fly as it lighted on the river, but missed the fly. I let the fly drift past before lifting it back up, then pitched it again upstream of the spot where the water had broken. As it floated through, an arc of electricity rose from the green riverbed and struck the line. I set the fly and fought the fish. I netted the fish and wet my hand in the Grande Ronde before undoing the fly from the trout’s jaw and admiring. A rainbow. A silver rainbow, argent, iridescent, flecked with sidereal orbs across its glistening flank. These dots were a constellation of sorts. A foreign topography. This was a primordial world and a sacred thing.
I stared into the trout’s eye—an antique copper coin. The fish panted. So much to admire in the world.
Gorgeous. I said this word aloud. It must have been loud enough. As my voice wafted away on the river breeze, the howl I had heard, and forgotten about, began again—or I noticed it again. It was louder now, charged with eagerness. Somewhere downstream on the opposite bank. But how far? And what?
I returned the fish. It hung above the emerald bottom stones of the river, surprised by being sunblasted and air-scorched, then it bolted forward, back under the branches hanging low across from me. I turned from the noise, eager for fish. I caught some. I lost others. I dipped my hat in the water like a tin ladle and put it on. The river water mingled with my sweat and ran over my mouth. A hawk was wheeling up there above, and beyond it the high air was filigreed with cloud. It was ideal. But as I worked my way upstream and the sound diminished, the more the canyon walls listened, falling in on me to hear.
I fished for hours, slowly upstream, until I heard it no more. I never saw my uncle. A few hundred yards and a dozen fish later, the day was failing. I sat down near a dogwood stand to watch the evening arrive. Dusk was filling up the canyon, and I knew I was missing the best fishing of the day. Mayflies were dancing out their tiny lives above and upon the river and the trout were gorging themselves on them. But I just sat and listened to the water. Though I was a quarter mile from the spot, I kept imagining that I heard the noise. It was like the phantom pain of an amputee. The sound of a ghost. Was my ear inventing this? What was I imagining? Was it the noise, or the vocalized timbres of converging wind and water? What in God’s name was that sound?
I checked my watch. It was almost time to head back. I decided to go to the sound. I collapsed my pole and put it in its case, along with my reel. I cinched my pack tight, high around my upper back. I strapped my rod case across my back and went toward the river. I walked along the water until I came near to where I thought I heard the sound. I scoured the river and saw no simple place to ford. This stretch was narrow and deep. The opposite bank was choked with thick scrub and trees, and the water there was quick, dark, and grew deep fast. Mid river I was to my chest. My pack would be soaked. I would soon be treading water. I stepped forward and realized that the opposite bank was undercut—a shelf into the water. The river deepened all the way to the other side. It was nothing but deep water and wood snag. The next step sent me full into the river. I couldn’t feel the bottom and I was drifting with the current, carried 30 yards downstream before I found a place to land—a small break in the dense trees and thorns that offered a rocky path up and away from water. I scrambled up the rocks, soaked, and got behind the thick tree line that followed the river.
I began walking downstream again, following the trees, approaching the place where the sound seemed once loudest, now hearing nothing. I walked on, trying to see the railroad tracks across the river, hoping to identify something, some signifier, to show where I was when I heard the sound before. I walked on. The breeze was picking up. The river seemed louder now on this side of the canyon. A chorus of frogs chimed from the marshy flats nearby. A dark nimbus of mosquitoes orbited my head as I walked and strained to hear—all the sounds but the one I wanted were shouting themselves to me. I kept on, swatting mosquitoes, stopping often to listen. I began whistling as I walked, invoking the noise. I looked ahead and saw the truck in the distance, across a rusting iron bridge. I knew that I was near where I’d heard the sound before. It was somewhere near. I gave a shout.
Frogs. Crickets. Breeze in the soap grass.
I whistled loud, then waited. Nothing.
Again a whistle. Another shout. No answer. I stood in the dark, oblivious to the circling mosquitoes and lost within the cacophony of Oregon dusk. It was gone. Whatever it was, it was silenced. Gone away. Lost again in the wind on the river—a casualty of other sounds. A casualty of my desire to fish. I stood a few more seconds. Down past the bridge ran the road, and a car moved far up there in the distance. Its faraway lights sliced the curtained haze, told me how dark it had gotten. I walked away. I walked away from the dark toward the familiar. The car, then the cabin, food, a shower, a game of hearts, and a fitful sleep.
As I moved away from the trees and onto a small path toward the bridge, I stopped. I hadn’t heard anything. I hadn’t. But I turned. I walked to a sliver of cleft in the thick riverside scrub and called in.
And there it came. It was now pitiful and faint, yet deep. From somewhere ahead of me, this something was making a sound. I entered the trees and scrub and was met by a fusillade of gooseberry and wild rose thorns. The angular basalt descended to a mangle of snarled wood and limbs—like a beaver dam unglued and socked into deep water. It was dark under the short canopy. Tomblike. My torso was caught in a bind of thorns, each movement slashing. In the murky wood light, my face fully entered a suspended spider’s web. It coated my head and I scrambled to clear it off of me, shivering of what else might be in this tangle. Whatever was making the noise now noticed me. It was thrashing in the water, near an iceberg shaped mound of wooden detritus. I was 15 feet away. The sound was filling the small area now, loud as ever. I could hear the frenzied swish of something flailing against the river. Finally, breaking my way down the steep woody embankment, I saw it. In front of me, barely visible, five feet out in the river and trapped by the grabbing limbs of the river branches was a tiny mound with two cobalt, shark-like eyes. It was the head of a dog, barely above water. The water covered everything but the dog’s eyes and snout. The dog was crying. There is no other way of saying it.
I got into the water. It was deep and like oil, overhung with cobwebs and choked with twisting wood. Clinging to limbs, I eddied toward the floating face, my feet not feeling the bottom. The closer I got, the wilder the dog became, thrilled to see me: warm blooded and approaching through the stupendous dark. It kept speaking to me with a pleading whine that was undoing me—an eagerness breaking my heart.
Reaching the dog, I saw what was keeping it submerged. It was wearing a collar fitted with a makeshift leash of orange bailing twine. The twine was wrapped tightly around the dog’s neck and caught deep in the floating jetsam. The Gordian leash was bound in the tangle, and the dog in its frenzy had spun itself into a tight bind here in the unctuous, dark and slow moving section of water. The dog had been treading this water to stay afloat for who knew how long. In the muffling dark, I fumbled through my pack for my knife. I hacked through the twine until the collar was loose. The dog raised out of the water slightly, trying to lick my hands and face, kicking and pleading and clawing my legs as I bobbed along with it, suspended in the green water.
Free from the twine, the dog paddled to the bank edge, and I followed behind. With a strain, the dog lifted itself onto the bank and stopped. I watched it try to summon the strength to shake its coat free of the river in that wild gyrating way dogs shake off water, but the dog couldn’t. It turned its head away from me listlessly and struggled up the sharp bank. About halfway up the bank, the dog stopped, unable to move further. I lifted the gaunt and dripping dog in my arms and carried it up the rest of the bank, then down to the waiting pickup where my uncle was dismantling his fly pole.
Within an hour, my uncle, the country lawyer, had found the family who was missing the dog. This was backcountry. People knew people. They spoke uncompelled in the cafes and at the gas pumps, and it was through this veiled system of exchange that he learned of a family named Brauer who was missing a part Collie mutt called Scout. We met Brauer Sr. at the Chevron station in Joseph, Oregon. I sat in the car with a Snickers bar, reeking of dogwet, listening through the open window as my uncle and Brauer talked about Scout. The dog shivered in the bed of Brauer’s Dodge Ram. Somewhere nearby, Barracuda was playing on a radio.
That dog loves water. You can’t keep him outta it. You’re tellin’ me he found him floatin’ in the Ronde?
Shit. That won’t stop him. He’ll be right back in there, first chance.
I had moved on. I quit listening. I fumbled with the radio, finding nothing I liked. A tussock moth flew into the cab, blundering headlong into the dome light above me, hurling itself percussively into the plastic fixture. Thock Thock Thock.
We drove back to the lake, to the cabin, over a dark way flanked with road kill. I used hot water to counter the cold river—a second baptism from the day. I climbed to the loft. I pulled the edge of a jean quilt up to my neck, like Jonah caught in the whale’s mouth. Through the window in front of me, I could see the aspens shimmering from some distant light, the light of some side world. I watched them shimmer and breathe in the night air, the breath rolling off the lake at night. When I could no longer watch them, I slept. When I awoke the next morning, the aspens were still there, still pulsing softly.
Joe Griffin is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Oregon, where he studies rhetoric and composition with a specific focus on epideictic rhetoric: the rhetoric of praise and blame. When not at school, he can be found spending time with his wife and their two-year-old twins. Failing that, he’s probably on a river somewhere in the Coast Range.