Tufa Rock

by | Jul 13, 2021 | Fiction

TUFA ROCK by Dylan A. Smith

Bill dreamt of wicked things, and all of them were new. See the way these feelings startled him awake just minutes before his father’s old clock radio was set to sound at five. And how, beside the clock’s red numbers, a glass of water shone white as milk in the moonlight. And see the shower water, how it wound down the young man in wet milky rivers. And how the moonlight reflected from within the kitchen sink as he stood over it, chewing Mrs. Hunter’s bread, or finishing cup after cup of coffee, or filling his father’s old red thermos with hot water and whiskey and lemon; and just as he’d readied himself for leaving, how his mother was all in white to help him with his gear, with his ladder, and to kiss him goodbye in the moonlight. Out east the desert mountains were edged in red. And it wouldn’t be until his father’s old red pickup was up and running again, and down the mountain again, and moving smoothly toward the desert’s edge that the young man would shake free of these new feelings, and the moonlight, for the day—in a single rage of red—always burst forth from behind the high desert mountains the moment Bill pulled up to Hunter’s.

It was Sunday. It was winter in the desert. A voice on the radio spoke of a map, of some incomplete human map. There were blue jays caught in the netting wrapped around the Hunters’ cherry tree, and Bill watched his breath take shape as the garage door crept slowly up. And there was Hunter. And there was Bill out of the truck and nodding up toward Mrs. Hunter, who had been waving in the window, and then he was helping Hunter with his gear, with his ladder, and then the young men were inside the truck and back on the road, and heading out east toward Pyramid Lake.

“You were saying yesterday about the Root twins,” Hunter said, opening the red thermos. He was tall and lean and had been Bill’s closest friend since the second grade. The Hunters had come to the desert from the borderlands, from the south; from where the air was thick, and the rivers green, and from where objects were subject to rust. The young men were close with Hunter’s older brother, too, a drummer living in a city farther west. Twice Hunter had left the desert to visit him. And Bill had been thinking of the moon as they drove, of how all night the moon’s fullness had cast its white light upon the shining scales of the trout and black snakes in the lake.

“Right,” Bill said. “The Root twins. So I grew up across from them, remember. They had this little yellow house.”

“The cul-de-sac house,” Hunter said.

“Right,” Bill said. “That’s exactly right. By the river. Well, my mom is working with their dad now. I remember he was a pastor, or a priest, Mr. Root, and I’d go to their house after school. Like I’d wait there for my parents to get home from work. He was always at this round table in the living room, Pastor Root, in this darkly lit living room. And always drinking red wine and working on his sermons.”

“Holy wine,” Hunter said, and he handed the thermos to Bill.

“Right,” Bill said. He took a short sip and Hunter smiled. “Right. And sometimes he’d read them to me.”

“He’d read them to you,” Hunter said. “His sermons.”

“Right. If he had a problem with one, he’d read it to me. It was always this brutal Old Testament stuff, you know, it was always waters rising, floods and plagues and brothers. Repent, repent, repent. Anyway, he fell off a ladder while taking down his Christmas lights. Mom says his skull fractured, that she’s been reworking him from the ground up. Who is he, you know, raising his hands; how and when to take a shit.”

“Jesus,” Hunter said. “Jesus, man, that’s awful. And Mrs. Root? And the twins?”

“I don’t really know. I heard they’re staying here after graduation,” Bill said. “Especially now. That’s what I heard, that they can’t afford to get into anywhere either. But I don’t really know.”

Hunter unwrapped a loaf of Mrs. Hunter’s bread. It had been resting in a thin white towel in his lap. Steam and smells rose from the bread, from her living bread, and wild horses cast long shadows on the mountains. This desert is composed mostly of tufa rock, a kind of bleached-white limestone. The tufa rock is porous, chalky. Bill could hear his father saying the words aloud, the words together, tufa rock. Bill’s father had liked this phrase; it was something he had often repeated while he fished.

Tufa, he’d say. Tufa rock.

Hunter dismantled his mother’s bread. It was to be a good day for fishing. The sun was no longer red, the air cold and clear. A voice on the radio said, And the sun shall not strike you by day, nor the full moon by night. The young men chewed on bread, and there was the shining lake in the valley below them.

Already there were men on ladders in the water. Bill switched off the radio and brought his father’s truck to a stop on the side of the road, which had turned to tufa rock. Pyramid Lake is capable of great depths; of immediate and unfathomable depths. The angler must splay his folding ladder at the edge of these depths. It is simply best practice. You wade out and it’s three feet, it’s only four feet of water, and it could be one hundred yards of this. You wade out until you find the edge, and this is where you splay your ladder, on the confident edge. This is best practice. You look out over the three hundred feet of dark water, and this is from where you fish, on the edge, from your ladder.

“It’s more crowded than last week,” Hunter said. The young men had been silent for a time, watchful. Dozens of identical men were casting into the new day. Hunter took a sip from the thermos.

“It must be getting warmer,” Bill said. “Spring.”

“Let’s try the willow grove,” Hunter said.

“Right,” Bill said. “Of course.”

The willow grove is on the eastern-most edge of the south-side of the lake. In a landscape of barren white, the willow grove is a surprise, an oasis, a gift. Bill thought of his compass rose. The young men were planning to get tattooed together. Hunter’s girlfriend, Mandi, was working diligently on a design. Mandi longed for someplace new. It was to be a compass rose—an eight-point compass rose. Mandi detested the desert.

“My ribs are sore from yoga,” Hunter said. Bill had parked his father’s truck in the willow grove, tailgate to water, and the young men were unloading their gear, their ladders. Bill loved the willow grove. No one ever bothered to make the drive all the way out. To the young men, the longer drive was worth it. Hunter and Bill were always alone in the willow grove.

“Yoga,” Bill said.

“Mandi’s making me do it. She says the practice will make me a more precise and patient lover. I actually kind of like it—I think you’d like it, Bill. Yoga roots you. It would calm you down, man, help you sleep. Natural energy. I need less coffee. And the poses have these great names. Like there’s a mountain pose, an eagle pose. Ancient shapes. Cardinal directions. She has me working on my ocean breath.

Bill shook his head. “Ocean breath,” he said.

“Yeah, man, you should stay for dinner. Mom will make her bread, and I think Mandi might come over. We can grill the trout, talk about our compass rose. And then maybe we could all do some yoga.”

“No,” Bill said.

“No,” Hunter repeated. “Okay, Bill. Fine. No.”

Good blue water reached for the roots of the willow grove. The young men got into their waders, and then they became their poles and the net and their ladders. Unique waves made unique sounds. Like the sighs of some distance crowd, Bill thought. And he remembered something Hunter’s brother had told him once, how all songs are vessels.

“Drumming isn’t about the vessel,” he’d told Bill in secret. “Drumming is about what fills the vessel.”

“This isn’t the ocean,” Bill reminded himself. He spoke the words aloud and held in a cold breath. “These waves have nothing to do with the moon.”

“Don’t forget the thermos,” Hunter called from inside the lake.

“I got it,” Bill said.

“And the net,” Hunter called.

“I got it, Hunter,” Bill said. “I got it.”

There is a mountain inside the lake. It emerges from the bay on the lake’s northernly end, where motorboats pollute more shallow waters. It is the Pyramid; it is tufa rock. Birds circle the ancient shape. The Pyramid is white and made wet and more white with the shit of these birds. Bill waded cautiously into the water. The angler is not to bait the fish in Pyramid Lake. Artificial lures are best practice. You wade out to the edge, you splay you’re A-frame ladder; you tie a six-loop-knot into your lure, then you cast from high above the chest-high tide.

A time of silent action passed while the young men situated. Bill knew the trout had been up all night feeding beneath the full moon, but this did not matter to him. It had never mattered to Bill whether or not a fish was caught. For Bill, fishing had little to do with fish. He worked at being present from his ladder. The cast is a violent act, a sacred act. He brought his awareness to the pole, to the line, to his hand.

Bill loved these words. He loved lake, and rock. The strong four-letter words of fishing. Bill loved lure, loved fish.

After many pleasant casts Hunter said, “You sleep alright, Bill?”

The young men’s ladders were splayed several paces apart. Pyramid Lake is a terminal lake. It is a geographic sink, meaning its waters do not drain into the sea; meaning it has no visible outlet; meaning the contents of the lake are not seen leaving it. There is evaporation. There are subterranean channels. There is sub-surface-seepage. This was another of Bill’s father’s phrases. Sub-surface-seepage. Bill liked the phrase, too, its prefix and its cadence and all the sounds insinuate. Sub-surface. Bill liked to repeat the phrase under his breath, the words together; he would often repeat the phrase into meaninglessness, under his breath, while he fished.

Surface-seepage. Sub-surface-seepage.

“So you didn’t sleep, then,” Hunter said. “Right. Fine, Bill. I got it.”

“Christ,” Bill said. He shook his head awake on the ladder. “Hunter, no. It’s—I’m sorry.”

“I could see it in your eyes this morning,” Hunter said. “The edges of your eyes are red, Bill.”

“I know,” Bill said. He looked up at the moon, at the full and porous moon. “I didn’t sleep well, Hunter. I haven’t been. I think it was the moon so full.”

“Did you sleep at all, then?” Hunter said. He seemed to ask in earnest. “Did you have any dreams?”

“No,” Bill lied. “No, man. Or if I did, I don’t remember.”

Hunter’s brother was seeing a therapist in the city who translated dreams. The therapist’s goal was to make a map of the subconscious mind. She was versed in symbols and archetypes, in myth. It was the art of making connections. Hunter’s brother urged the young men to share their dreams. It was important work. It could make them closer friends, he insisted, better friends. The practice could save them.

Sometimes they would send a dream through Hunter’s brother into the therapist for translation. The therapist did not mind this. She could always tell when the dream was not Hunter’s brother’s, but the therapist was in it for the discovery, for the art of the translation. What should it matter to her, whose dream it was?

“Well I did,” Hunter said. “I dreamt, Bill.”

“Right,” Bill said. “Right, Hunter. Please—please. Tell me. I want to hear it.”

“Well it was my childhood home,” Hunter said. “At night.”

“The south, then,” Bill said. “By the river.”

“That’s right. My ancestral home. No moon. The conceit of the dream is this—that the home is a church. And Mandi and I had broken up. I knew this, I felt it. And she was marrying someone. I didn’t know who in the beginning of the dream. She’d bought my ancestral home.”

“And turned it into a church,” Bill said, casting. “For her wedding.”

“That’s right. But they were living in it, too, her and this new boyfriend. I mean, her husband. And so, I’m there, you see, at night. I’m by the river. There’s no moon. And I’m looking up at my ancestral home. Where I was raised. Where my mother had raised me.”

“And what did you do,” Bill asked. He watched Hunter cast in a long and elegant arc. Bill thought it a very good cast. “You went inside,” Bill said.

“Of course, I did,” Hunter said. “The door was locked, so I went in through my bedroom window. My room was there, it was untouched. It was lit by the red of the clock. I was in the kitchen. There was milk set out. I drank the milk down. I was in the living room. I was looking at these pictures, Bill, all these pictures. I had to use the toilet. No one was home. It was dark. And I was going up the stairs.”

“To her room,” Bill said.

“That’s right,” Hunter said. “Up to her room. To my mother’s room. To Mandi’s room.”

“Christ,” Bill said.

Then a bend in Hunter’s line brought the weight of his body forward on the ladder, and in the moment it took for Hunter to straighten himself Bill realized he’d forgotten the thermos, and the net, and that he’d left both objects with the bread on the tailgate of his father’s truck. “Hold,” Bill said, pointing at Hunter. Bill slipped his pole into the notch on his ladder. Bill was looking at Hunter; Hunter was looking over the arc of his reel, and into the depths of the lake; then Hunter was looking at Bill. “Hold,” Bill said again, pointing, and he was struck by the depth in his voice. It was his father’s voice. “That’s big, Hunter. Hold it,” he said. “Wrestle it. I’m getting the net.”

And in the next moments the young men became their movements; Hunter was his first step up the ladder, pulling with hip at the base of pole, which had gone bending with the weight of the fish; and as Hunter struggled to be beneath the base of pole, Bill was three steps down splayed ladder; he was hands over head into lake; and he was chest and hip and thigh through all that dark, cold water.

“Wrestle it,” Bill yelled. He was laughing. “Hunter, wrestle it.”

Bill was Hunter’s laughter; Hunter was Bill’s primal yip.

“It’s a fish,” Hunter yelled. He was laughing. “Hurry up, Bill. It’s a fish.”

One hundred yards of water prevented Bill from shore, and the net, and then it was those same hundred yards back preventing him from ladder. There is gravity under water, Bill reminded himself. He pushed, pushed. He leapt from rock to rock, pushing. There must be gravity underwater. And then Bill was on shore. Bill was in the willow grove with the roots, with his father’s red truck; he was there with the bread and the thermos and the net. He turned back and witnessed several precise moments of Hunter’s struggle with the fish. He looked at the moon. He thought of Mr. Root and took a long drink from the thermos. All those sermons written; all those sermons gone. Rocks into water. And with the thermos and the net Bill returned to the lake. The moon was above them with the sun—with the striking sun—and looking north Bill saw the Pyramid of tufa rock towering over Hunter; and the thermos was red in Bill’s hand; and both were wet with the new feeling.

Tufa rock, Bill said.

He was pushing, pushing into lake. Tufa. He pushed through black water and then he was behind Hunter and moving up ladder. Tufa, tufa. Bill said it to Hunter. They were on the splayed ladder with the fish, on the edge, and Hunter pushed his hands out at Bill.

Tufa, Bill said. Tufa. Tufa rock.



Photo used under CC

About The Author


Dylan A. Smith is a writer with work in Vol. 1 Brooklyn and (mac)ro(mic) and Maudlin House and sometimes helps to curate fiction workshops with a Brooklyn-based project called Think Olio.