It’s hard coming to a small town. At least, that’s what I’ve heard people say. I can’t speak any truth to the saying since I’ve lived my whole life in Foggy Meadows. As far as tiny towns in Rhode Island go, it’s probably the tiniest. It’s known for one thing: fishing. I’ve fished here with my father my entire life. A solid seventeen years. We raise a garden and catch our food, so there’s never really been a need to leave. We go to Foggy Meadow’s pitiful market three times a week to sell what we catch. In matters of actual U.S. currency, what we bring in is pretty unimpressive, but it’s enough to buy a new bar of soap or to replace our socks after three toes start poking out the end. The real reason the local townsfolk meet is to swap stories and the goods they’ve gathered, grown, or caught for the week.
I’m pretty sure every family in Foggy Meadows has been here since the creation of the town. Parents teach their kids what their parents taught them, and the cycle continues. Nobody ever leaves, and people rarely visit. On occasion, we get a family that loses their way and ends up in our town to ask for directions. I’ve seen them a few times. The father always has tube socks pulled midway up his shins and generic tourist sandals. The wife will either sit in the car with the kids while her husband asks around or the kids will be hiding behind their father, glancing around our desolate town with intrigue and fear. I wouldn’t say our town is spooky, but it’s probably pretty close to what people would consider a ghost town. I only bring this up to point out how odd it was for our insignificant town when a stranger decided to pay Foggy Meadows a visit.
It had been quite a while since we had seen anyone new in town. I would guess six months or so, but it’s hard to keep track of time when you’re always doing the same thing no matter what day of the week it is. You can imagine everyone’s surprise when they saw the scruffy man walk into our town square. People were starting to pack up their things when the first person noticed his grand entrance. Grand in the sense that he had a strange, haggard walk that contrasted with the normalcy we were all used to. The man had thick, curly black hair with a Scottish cap resting atop his head. His large stature quickly became apparent as he approached the makeshift stand I stood behind. I normally don’t have to look up at people since I’m a bit over six feet tall, but I would guess this stranger had a solid 8 inches or so on me.
“Do you know how to fish?”
His tone was rough, but not unpleasant. It reminded me of waves lashing at a rocky shore. However, what he said was what caught me by surprise. I looked down at all the fish laid out before me and then back at the man. I stared at his face waiting for him to break a smile or show some sign that he was trying to rile me up. Of course, I knew how to fish, the evidence was right in front of him. After an awkward period of the man just staring at me without moving a muscle, I responded.
“Yes sir, I caught all these beauties myself. Most of them are fresh from this morning. I can do a deal for you if you’d like to buy a few”.
“I have no need for these fish,” he responded, “but I know of something that will teach you how to fish.”
This statement once again caught me off guard. I didn’t know who this guy thought he was, but I had been fishing my whole life. Even as a newborn I was out on the boat with my father. I tell people I’m the best fisherman there is because I’ve been on a boat every day of my life, but in reality, it was because my mother passed away during my childbirth. It’s not something that my father or I ever shared with people.
“With all due respect, sir, I’m already quite the fisherman,” I responded. “Ask anybody here in this square, they will tell you I’m the best. Some even say I have a blue thumb”.
My attempted joke fell flat. The man once again stared at me without blinking. Thinking back on it, I don’t think he had even blinked once during our conversation.
“Meet me south of Rickety Rock Pass tonight. When the sun has nearly gone to bed”
Saying nothing more, the man turned and walked away. The whole square watched as he made his way into the forest adjacent to the square. The fog in the forest quickly enveloped him, making it impossible for any of us to truly know what direction he was going.
“Who was that, Peter?” my father asked. He had just made his way back to our booth after helping our elderly neighbor Louis pack away his leftover produce.
“Not sure,” I said, “I didn’t catch his name. Did you not recognize him?
“The way the eyes were on him, I don’t think anyone did.” my father replied.
My father helped me pack away all of our leftover goods and we started making our way back to the house. On the way back, a thought about my conversation with the strange man kept pestering me. He told me to meet him tonight at Rickety Rock Pass. Sure, I knew where the place was and I could definitely go south of there, but there is no way he should have known the name of it. In all honesty, I don’t even think the place had a name. It was just something my father and I started calling it after we found out it was a good spot to catch flounder. We named it after a unique pile of rocks along the shore that looked like they would collapse at any minute. We had an ongoing bet of how long it would take. We had been waiting a year so far. My guess was two years. My father’s guess was three.
I couldn’t focus on the salmon and potatoes my father had prepared for supper. I knew it would be absolutely crazy to meet a total stranger in the middle of nowhere, but something kept nagging at me. It couldn’t hurt to see if the bearded man made an appearance, right? I didn’t even have to actually make an appearance myself, I could just keep my distance and see if the man showed up. Before I knew what was happening, I had told my father I was going for an evening stroll. I threw on my jacket and headed out the front door.
The night was cool with a slight breeze. Very common weather for this time of year and good conditions for an evening stroll. I’d often find myself on walks after supper. Nature had always had a calming effect on my soul.
I made my way towards Rickety Rock Pass. It was a bit of a walk when going at a casual pace, but after about half an hour, I had arrived at the familiar rock formation. It was still standing. After every wind storm, I made sure to check it. There were some very severe ones that I thought for sure would tumble the oddly assembled stones, but it was always in the same condition as the previous countless times I had checked on it. This wasn’t the location I was told to go to though, I know I had to continue going south. My pace became slower as I made my way. I told myself to be prepared for anything, after all, the man might be crazy. Crazy wasn’t a word we used often in Foggy Meadows, but every once in a while, I’d catch a headline on newspapers out of the corner of my eye while walking around the square. Crazy people doing crazy things in places much bigger than here. For all I knew, the man could have grown out his shaggy hair and beard in the prison he escaped from. These thoughts weren’t enough to stop my legs as I made my way along the coastline, however. Curiosity was a much stronger friend than fear.
My feet brought me another 10 minutes south of Rickety Rock Pass. They stopped immediately when a natural cove came into view. I recognized it, but it wasn’t an area I was familiar with. Along the cliffside, an arch protruded. The first time I had been here the arch caught my eye because the inside shape of it resembled a teardrop of water. This time it caught my eye because of the bearded man in a raggedy boat now floating underneath it. I froze. My strategy to stealthily approach the area had been completely forgotten, and now I stood completely out in the open. As my eyes adjusted to the dimming light of the day and the fog, I realized his back was to me. I contemplated leaving immediately, but once again a natural force seemed to be luring me towards the stranger. When I noticed he had a fishing pole in his hands, his words from earlier came back to my mind. Do you know how to fish? After a few more minutes of watching him, I noticed he hadn’t caught any fish. This was my cue to show him just how good at fishing my seventeen years of experience had made me.
“Hey mister, I found you. This is a neat spot. Do you come here often?” I inquired. Due to the distance, I had to shout a bit. My voice came out a bit more shaky than I liked.
He didn’t turn around, he just raised his right arm and motioned for me to come to him. I’m not sure if he just didn’t realize how far out he was, but there was no way I was going to swim out to him. The water was freezing, and I didn’t bring a spare change of clothes with me. As I stood there wondering what I should do next, he motioned again for me to come but ended his action by pointing down the shoreline a bit. That’s when I noticed a boat with an oar that looked very similar to the one he was currently occupying. I had come this far and the man’s odd nature had made me curious, so I made my way to the boat and pushed myself out from the shore. The water was calm, making the journey towards the man effortless. When I had gotten about two boat lengths away, I stopped. “Any luck, mister?” I asked.
He acknowledged my existence with a tip of his cap.
“What’s your name anyway?”
I knew he wasn’t having any luck. There were no fish in his boat. There wasn’t anything in his boat at all other than him and the primitive fishing rod he held in his weathered hands.
“The water can be your friend when you learn how to understand it. It is wiser than it appears, you know.” He didn’t speak loudly, but his words made their way to me clearly.
“Does it know what lottery numbers I should choose?” I replied wryly.
Once again, he ignored my attempt at a joke.
“Touch the water, lad. Let it speak to you.”
I looked down at the water. Water that I had come to know over seventeen years of my life. I can’t say it had ever spoken to me before, though I had talked to it plenty during my fishing trips. It definitely knew everything about me.
Deciding to amuse the old man, I extended my hand down the side of the boat with an outstretched index finger. Upon contact, a cold tingling sensation rose into my hand. This wasn’t unusual though, I experienced this every time I touched the cold ocean water of Rhode Island. I withdrew my hand back into the boat.
“Didn’t hear much, sir. The water must be sleeping.”
The man reeled in his fishing line and set the pole inside the boat. He made a cup shape with his hand and scooped it down into the water, pulling it back up. After a few seconds, the collected water in his cupped hand started rising several inches above his hand. After a few more mesmerizing seconds, the water stopped moving. I noticed it had formed into a small fish shape. The water fish swam circles in the air a few times before hopping out of the man’s hand back into the water. The old man grabbed his rod again and cast it once more into the ocean without saying another word.
“Whoa. Where did you learn to control water like that? Is that some magic trick or something?” I sputtered, not believing my eyes.
“We do not control the water. It simply speaks to us if we allow it”.
When he completed his sentence, I noticed his fishing line tighten. He immediately started reeling in whatever it was he caught. I expected a large bass based on how bent his rod became, but once again, what I saw was something I didn’t fully comprehend. When the hook came out of the water, it revealed a hat made entirely out of water. He reeled it in, unhooking it from the snag. In one fluid motion, he flung his current hat out into the air and put the water hat on his head. When the water hat reached his head, it immediately turned into a hat like the one he previously adorned but in a black color rather than the previous red color. The old hat that was thrown shattered into a million water droplets as it hit the ocean.
I sat there stunned once again by the strange workings of the bearded man.
“Where did you say you were from, sir?” He hadn’t answered any of my previous questions, but I didn’t figure it would hurt throwing out another one. I didn’t know what else to do.
“I come and go, laddie. I am who I need to be for those that need me.”
Still unsure of what to do and trying to figure out what his response meant, I plunged my cup-shaped hand back into the icy water. After holding it down there a few seconds, I lifted it out and examined the water, waiting for something magical to happen. After a disappointing minute of waiting, I released the water back into its home.
“Say, mister, why is it not work—”
The remainder of my sentence became lost in the wind. The bearded man was gone, boat and all. I scratched my head and splashed some of the cool water on my face.
“C’mon Pete, you’re going crazy. He probably just paddled off after some crazy illusion trick he learned. You’re just a sucker who fell for it.”
The words were hollow, and I knew it. Something happened that night. I paddled back to shore and made my way home. After a brief conversation with my father, I went to bed.
. . .
I have gone back to the boat every day for the last 50 years of my life. The bearded man never again made a physical appearance, but he made a lasting impact. Even now, as I fish so I can bring home dinner to my grandchildren, he enters my thoughts. I readjust the black Scottish cap that rests upon my head. It’s impossible to say what exactly happened that day, but one of my favorite pastimes is telling my theory to any kid in the square that stops by. The adults think I’m crazy, but the children love to hear the story of the water spirit that gave me a new appreciation for the wonderful world we live in. I don’t know if the bearded man was a water spirit, but it feels right. It’s the story I keep telling. I think of a new twist I can add to it when I get home tonight as I dip my hand into the clear, blue water. I smile as the water rises above my hand, forming the shape of a beautiful, sapphire rose. It solidifies, and I put it in my fish cooler. I still can’t explain it, but I don't think I need to. My grandkids think I’m magic, and I’m perfectly happy with that.