The river snaked its way around juts, boulders and banks, seemingly looking for the path of least resistance to its surface tension. The Walking Man's sense of aloneness made him turn away from the church steeples and the humanity on the high road. This is where he belonged, alone among nature where the only English-speaking voice was his own - the landscape only spoke bird, water and rabbit - and he could tell himself to shut up.

He stopped next to a particularly friendly boulder, the top soft from generations of moss, the underside slick with the remains of upstream vegetation. The worn shoes and the reeking socks were the first to come off, and his legs were thrust into the cool lazy water. The river protested in splashes and ringlets, then decided to just go around the new obstacle.

 

The forest seemed scrubbed of the presence of people, but it didn't seem to mind the intruder as long as there was no smoke or axe or trash to be left behind. The Walking Man dipped a calloused hand into the water, rinsed the grime and travel from them, then cupped a drink to his lips. The river was cold and refreshing, the water tasted sweet and herbal.

 

A buzz sounded over his head, and a kerplop sounded in the river soon thereafter. He turned slowly to spy on the bee or dragonfly, but he was startled to find an old man wearing a tweed jacket, a fly-fishing rod twitching in his hand. No sound indicated the approach, and the boulder the stranger had chosen was also surrounded by the river. The stranger's pantlegs, however, were still dry. Unless he was a gazelle in tweed, the old man must have sprung up from the rock itself to try its luck in the fishing hole.

 

The old fisherman's rotten-apple face sported a large curving unlit pipe. His eyes twinkled like the running water, and the wrinkled hands masterfully batted the fishing pole to make the fly on the end of the line look as tasty as possible.

 

"'Evening, Lad," he said with a charming Irish lilt. "Good day to find a friendly salmon or two, isn't it?"

 

The Walking Man snapped his gaping jaw shut with an audible click. "Yes, Sir, it is at that."

 

For an age the Walking Man stared silently at the fisherman, who seemed not to mind. The old man also kept watch over the younger roadworn fellow, but didn't make it as obvious.

 

Finally, the fisherman said, "Most people go off into the town these days. Nobody much goes for a quiet jaunt in the natural." Twitch, twitch. "Just as well, I s'pose. What made you turn left 'stead of right, may I ask?"

 

"Nothing, Sir, I enjoy the quiet solitude. The road is lonely, even though the blacktop is always crowded. I have a lot to think about, and sometimes being my only audience brings the trouble to the surface." The Walking Man found himself at ease, as though he were discussing baseball with his grandfather on a still summer day.

 

"Just as well, just as well." Twitch, twitch, YANK! A six pound salmon erupted from the water and flew noiselessly to the bank, where it immediately stopped flapping and twisting. A quick flip of the old man's wrist loosened the fly from the salmon's mouth. Another flip, and the fly was again playing its deadly bug and fish game on the rivers outer layer.

 

Without skipping a beat, he continued, "You didn't turn away because of the church spires, did you, Lad? I find them comforting, myself."

 

"I don't know," the Walking Man said, surprising himself with the revelation. "Ever since... for a long time, I have not enjoyed the shadows of churches."

 

The old man fixed his sparkling eyes on the younger man, seemingly probing the partially answered question out of his mind. A look of sadness spread slowly over the wrinkles. "It's OK, me boy. You're looking for someone to blame over her loss - you've started with your wife, yourself, and now the Almighty himself." His eyes flickered upwards towards the puffy nimbus clouds.

 

The Walking Man again found himself snapping his gaping jaw shut. "H... how did you...?"

 

"I can see it as plain as that salmon poking at your shoestrings," he replied, nodding towards the water. Sure enough, the kin of the salmon on the shore was trying to devour the strange-tasting worm wriggling out of an old shoe.

 

"It's not for me, Lad, to say otherwise. Yeh need to come to some sort'a understanding with everyone, one that you can live with. You've a long way to travel yet, and a lot of blamin' and cryin' to accomplish." Twitch, twitch. "Don't turn away from anyone until they've had their turn at defense in your mind's court. Only then can you be at peace, if only within your own self."

 

YANK! The other salmon and the shoe both broke the surface tension to journey into another drier world. They flopped next to the other salmon on the shore, then were still.

 

"Take your time, perhaps sleep a bit. There's a good lad."

 

The Walking Man felt himself overcome with the weight of his troubles, his eyelids turned to leaden weights. When he awoke, the old fisherman was gone, as was the Walking Man's shoes.

 

Next to the sleeping salmon were a worn but serviceable pair of leather walking boots, the ones the old man were wearing. They fit comfortably, and the salmon fit in the empty hole in the Walking Man's stomach after they were cooked over an old fire pit.

 

For the first time in his life, the Walking Man turned back to take the road more traveled by, and that made all the difference.

 

 

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