Heads Up: This is the second piece of a four part holiday tale. If you haven't already, I'd recommend that you read Part One here. But then, don't let me tell you what to do.
Nate had been a fisherman since before he could remember. Dad had a small cane pole ready for him the day he could sit upright and for his fifth birthday he'd received a shiny new Shakespeare Wonderod. The fiberglass beauty became Nate’s constant companion and together they’d fished every trickle in the county. The Wonderod was shortened a few inches, courtesy of a tumble in Archers Pass when he was seven, but Dad had replaced the tip guide, making it as good as new. Nate reckoned he’d use it forever. That changed the day he found himself in Widow Harper’s tool shed.
Nate never knew Mr. Harper. He’d only seen the faded brown photos of the lean, smiling man displayed in the tidy front room when he collected his quarter and glass of lemonade after mowing the widow’s front patch. It was hard to imagine the handsome young gentleman in the pictures married to the wrinkled old neighbor lady, but Nate supposed love burned funny sometimes. That's what Mother always said, anyway, usually after Dad had done something silly. Nate mowed every week during the summer, mostly just stirring up dust, but Widow Harper appreciated it and treated him kindly enough. Twenty–five cents was good money.
The old woman’s reel mower was always out by the porch steps when he arrived and that’s where he left it when he was done, at her request. The tool shed where he supposed it was kept seemed off limits, though she had never exactly said so. But one muggy day, mid-mow, the wind kicked up a storm and the widow called from the kitchen door, urging Nate to hurry and put the mower in the building. It was rusty enough already. With fat drops and the flicker of lightning at his heels, he raced through the back yard to the once sturdy structure, tripped over the threshold, and tumbled into the darkness.
The shed smelled of age. Nate dusted himself off and, as his eyes adjusted to the faint light, he discovered, against the far wall, a small workbench that held a collection of small, rusting implements, reminding him of Doc Davis’ dental tools. There were shelves holding rows of colored threads, bags of molding feathers and strips of animal fur, and packages upon packages of Eagle Claw fishhooks. More fishhooks than Nate could use in a hundred years. Under the bench sat grocery sacks of musty smelling magazines. Outdoor Life. Field and Stream. Sports Afield. Years’ worth.
Above the workbench hung a calendar from 1937. He’d never seen a barn calendar that wasn't some combination of cars, farm tools, and buxom young women with sleepy expressions and not many clothes. He liked those other calendars, but this one tugged at him in a different way. Each month presented a fantastic view of breathtaking waters, men in odd apparel, and incredibly beautiful fish. Scenes that fired Nate's imagination and quickened his fisherman's pulse.
And above the calendar, resting on two heavy nails, was a fishing pole like he’d never seen before. A pole like those held by the oddly dressed men. Even through its cobweb coat Nate knew it was beautiful. Longer than he was tall, and elegant. Smooth tapered cork handle. Delicate bent silver line guides instead of heavy rings like those on the suddenly clunky Wonderod. And hand written in dark ink, near the bottom of the pole, were the words “Tonka Queen.”
For the remainder of the summer, Nate made sure to put the mower back in the shed when done with his chore rather than leave it by the steps. Widow Harper didn’t appear to mind. In fact, she had a gentle, knowing smile when he’d finally come back around for his quarter and cold drink. A smile that he’d never noticed before.
Nate’s fishing was changed by his discovery. He turned the Wonderod upside down, taped on an old bait casting reel that he’d found in Dad’s spare parts box, and loaded it with a length of heavy, waxed kite string. The other boys laughed so he took to fishing alone and found that he liked it that way. For the rest of the summer each sunfish was a monster western rainbow, each chub a splendid Catskill brook trout, each bass a glistening Alaskan salmon. Just like on the calendar. Just like in the magazines. It was an enchanted fishing summer and it ended too soon. But then, summers always do.
From the time he was six, after Johnny Culver had spilled the beans about the jolly old elf, Mother had warned Nate about looking for his Christmas presents. “You’ll spoil the surprise,” she’d say with a somber tone and a not-quite-convincing serious face. She swore that if she caught him poking around, it would be the last Christmas gift he’d ever receive. Nate always nodded, and kept poking. What Mother didn’t understand was that the thrill of the search, like the probing of new waters, is in the blood.
As Christmas approached, he found it. Tucked deep in the back of the coat closet, hidden amongst the smooth wooden dowels that Dad used to plug "them damn" carpenter bee holes, Nate found the rod. He recognized it immediately, right down to the stain pattern on the cork. The Tonka Queen.
Nate would one day learn that Old Widow Harper had given Dad the Queen, asking only that it find its way into Nate's hands for Christmas. Being a proud man, Dad had put new shingles on the widow's chicken coop roof in return. He needn't have. For immediately upon Nate's return from that first visit to the tool shed, the widow had recognized the look in his eyes. She’d seen it, years before, in eyes of a lean, smiling man. Seeing it again had warmed her heart. Seeing it again had made her cry. She'd been grateful for both.
Timmy withered. “When I was getting my coat I found some wood in the closet, Dad. I used that in the fire. The color drained from Dad's face...
Dad recovered quickly and stepped to the fire, blocking the view of the hearth. “Nathan, go help your mother finish those dishes.” Nate paused, wanted to protest, but knew better than to argue when his given name had been used. Besides, he couldn’t admit to knowing what was going on. Dad had tried to block the view, but Nate had seen enough. He had seen the small armload of burning dowels. He had seen the odd blue flame and the reflection of small metal pieces in the glowing coals. He had seen the curl of bamboo. Holding back tears, Nate turned and stumbled into the kitchen.
“What’s wrong, Nate?” Mother asked as he came through the doorway. “Nothing,” he replied through gritted teeth.
The story continues, here...