I found her smoking at her usual spot on the old bridge. The cold made the smoke escaping her lazily open mouth look thickly blue-gray and which dissipated into the same colored skies above. She must have knitted the hat for the occasion, judging from the loud colors that somewhat resembled the digits of the new year.
“Better luck next year, right?”
She snorted without looking at me, and took another drag. I had always thought that she smoked in a particular way, with the thumb and forefinger pinching the filter, rather than the style one typically seen on television – it had a way of making her look like she was rushing through it rather than enjoying it.
“We’ll see if I even come back.”
“You say that every year.”
I propped my elbows up on the railing beside her and looked out to the winding river. From our vantage point, you could just see the mountain inn some half a kilometre down river before the bend and the thick forests concealed the complex. Idyllic smoke drifted ever upward from the old-fashioned chimneys that the inn still employed, reaching for the few stars that were yet visible in these faint hours before dusk. Although the innkeeper claimed that the sight of the night sky from the open-air hot springs a short walk into the woods was the best around, I seemed to find that the bridge had the better point of view. I don’t know why, but the gentle flow of the Morning River felt more soothing than the bubbling murmur of the Half-Moon Hot Springs.
“Do you want one?”
Without waiting for my reply, she unzipped a pocket at the breast of her jacket and withdrew a pack of cigarettes. With the ease that only comes with practice, she lit the new cigarette using the glowing bud of her own, and offer it to me, holding it as though it were a stick of incense.
I had officially quit some ten years ago, but it seems like I have the bad habit of not being able to say no one week out of the year. I took it with relish.
“What do you think this guy does the other fifty three weeks out of the year?”
I had no idea what she was talking about. I was already a little lightheaded, and the tobacco made my extremities feel as though they were floating on a gentle wave pool.
It took a moment for me to realize that her vague gesturing was meant to direct my view to a lone figure by the edge of the river, standing somewhere between the bridge and the inn. It looked like a fisherman.
“Yeah, but he’s not a fisherman.”
“What do you mean?”
“A real fisherman would probably bring something to carry the fish he catches in, don’t you think?”
That actually seemed like a fair point. Apart from the long fishing pole, the figure in the distance looked like us – coat, wool cap, the traditional attire for midwinter. While my mind rather quickly comes up with the visual of a fishing hat, cooler and a tackle box, it was possible that the man down the river was just a casual fisherman who enjoyed catching and releasing.
“Ten years I’ve been watching that guy, and not once has he even come close to catching a fish.”
“Maybe you’re unlucky. Stop looking at him and maybe he’ll catch a fish.”
“I’m telling you, he’s not here to fish.”
She finished her cigarette and pulled out a small metal flask from her breast pocket along with her pack of cigarettes. With movements that I might call elegant, she dropped the smoldering cigarette butt into the flask and retrieved a fresh one, pulling out a lighter from the same worn box. Unfortunately, the moment was ruined when the lighter failed to produce a flame.
With a curious growl, she pulled me in, grabbing hold of the back of my neck until our foreheads touched. She felt warm.
Steadily, we coordinated the tips of our cigarettes together to light her own. It was harder than you think – we have to synchronize our breathing to keep the flame hot. When a plume of blue-gray smoke erupted from our joined bud, she pulled away, murmuring a thanks around the filter between her lips and resumed looking off at the fisherman.
“What’s his deal, do you think?”
“Assuming he’s not a fisherman?”
“Maybe he works for the inn and this is just how he relaxes.”
“He doesn’t work for the inn.”
I didn’t inquire as to why she knew that. If she was serious about watching him for the last ten years, then I suppose it was a matter of fact that she had already methodically crossed off the faces of the people she would see in the area.
“Then he’s a customer – we’re not the only ones who come here every year.”
“I’ve never seen him in the inn before. Don’t be stupid – you know how we are – if he was a regular, we would all know each other by now. There are two things you do at this inn – lounge in the hot springs or lounge in the tea room – have you seen him at either before?”
That was another excellent point, and one that I should have been able to connect myself if not for the warm fog enveloping my neurons. This cigarette might be making my mind feel hazy, but the gentle waves lapping at my consciousness was too enjoyable to cut it short.
“Here’s my theory,” She switched the cigarette from one hand to the other, and scratched her ear idly, “He’s the long lost love of the innkeeper, and he comes here every year in the hopes that she takes him back. She refused him decades ago, and in order to prove his love to her, he’s going to fish the Great God of the River out. With that feat, surely it would prove his devotion and dedication.”
She snorted again, a stream of quickly-dissipating smoke erupting from her nostrils, “No, you have to come up with your own theory. Don’t ruin the mystery by just agreeing with the detective.”
I sighed. When she got like this, there was nothing else to do but go along to get along.
“You’re almost right – he’s not just the former lover of the innkeeper, he’s her current one as well.”
“Well then he’s not her form-“
“He’s her boy toy on the side.” I whisper conspiratorially, “Of course, it would destroy her reputation as a nice, old, doddering innkeeper if the truth came out that she was such a sexy minx. So, in order to preserve her status and hide their scandalous relationship, he stays in a secret room at the inn – attached to her own, of course – and that’s why you’ve never seen him at the inn before.”
We shared a moment of silence, both facing out towards the horizon and the darkening skies above. Then, slowly but surely, we both began to laugh.
After a moment, she tutted and shook her head, “Forty points – your theory failed to explain why he fishes.”
“Because it relaxes him.”
“Not good enough. Thirty-five points, now.”
We both had nearly finished our smokes in the meantime. She deposited the butt into her small ashtray, but when she reached for more she found only a single one remaining in the pack. She stuck it between her lips with a wry smile in my direction we lit it with what remained of mine. After sharing for a minute or two, I decided to try out a second theory.
“He’s a ghost.” I declared with a tone of finality. When she didn’t immediately shoot me down, I continued, “You’re still almost right though – he’s not just the former lover of the innkeeper, he’s her deceased lover. He probably drowned here, a long, long time ago. He’s out here fishing not for fish, but for the engagement ring he meant to give her. It’s his regret of not ever asking her to marry him that keeps him stuck in the demimonde. One day, he’ll get the ring, he’ll give it to her, and they’ll both be at peace.”
She didn’t reply. We shared the cigarette and the silence until both were extinguished with her sigh.
“Seventy points.” she said quietly as she put away her ashtray. With a sniff and a little crinkle of her nose, she turned and brushed passed me, heading back down the trail that would lead her to the inn once more.
I didn’t follow right away, contented to just watch her walk off from the corner of my eye and note that the scent of lavender and tobacco slowly dissipating. It took many years to learn how to read her back, but I was fluent enough to know to give it a moment before catching up to her. In the meantime, I watched the man down below for a little while longer, until, to my amusement, he caught a fish, carefully unhooked it and then released it back in the river with the skill and ease of a seasoned angler.