Norman goes to Black Jack’s to have a few drinks with Paul, who insists on paying. Paul says they should go back to the Blackfoot that night, and insists on driving by way of Missoula so that they can stay a night at their parents’ home—now it’s Paul who is trying to help Norman by taking him fishing. Paul hadn’t heard Norman’s reconciliation with the three Scottish women, and perhaps thinks Norman is trying to be brave. Paul suggests that they stop and call their mother to tell her their plans. Paul ends up making all the arrangements for what will be his and Norman’s last fishing trip together.
Once again the brothers’ roles are reversed, as Paul, who could never think of yoking himself to another person in marriage, can only imagine what kinds of judgments Norman has had to deal with at his wife’s family’s home. Norman has foreshadowed tragedy earlier in the novella, but here especially, there are no surprises, and we are meant to read the rest of the scene with the knowledge that Paul will not return to fly-fishing.
They arrive late to Missoula, where their mother is thrilled to see them, especially Paul. She butters all his rolls with his favorite chokecherry jelly—she’s forgotten that this was actually Norman’s favorite, but they never have the heart to correct her. Their father is in retirement now, and loves hearing about Paul’s real-world reporter stories. After dinner, Norman says that they’d love to have their father fish with them tomorrow; Paul agrees. Their father looks as if his congregation had asked him back for another farewell sermon.
Paul’s mother treats him like the prodigal son in the Bible, who left home and spent all his father’s money, but was welcomed back all the same with joy and forgiveness. Coupled with these feelings is a respect for Paul as someone in touch with the “real world.” Norman’s father is especially moved by his sons’ desire to fish with him, and the novella comes full circle as the father returns as a major character once more.
As Norman helps their mother with the dishes, Paul says he’s going to run to town to see some old friends. It’s now quiet in the house—they all thought Paul, so recently out from prison, might stay home tonight. Norman’s mother stays silent, only saying “goodnight” before going upstairs to bed.
Though the dinner is a touching scene of family reunion, this resolution does not last for long, as Paul, so tough in some ways, seems weak in others—like his inability to resist certain temptations. Like Norman, Paul’s mother fears to address Paul’s issues.
Norman isn’t sure how much his father knows about Paul, but assumes some things have reached him from the congregation. Now (after Paul leaves) his father asks if Norman knows what Paul has gotten into lately. Norman shakes his head. His father remarks that Norman has changed the spelling of their last name from Maclean to MacLean. Norman says he’s simply given up, since everyone else spells it that way, but his father murmurs that it’s a terrible thing, since it suggests that they’re Scottish Lowlanders and not Islanders.
This initial conversation is oblique—it seems like there is some important meaning behind Norman’s father’s more-or-less innocuous comments about his strong pride in their family heritage. The changing of Norman’s name, however, represents on a deeper level the father’s belief that Norman has escaped his paternal guidance and is growing detached from his heritage.
As Norman’s father goes to the door, he turns and says that he is too old to help anyone, and Norman is too young. He says help is giving part of yourself to another who needs it and accepts it. It’s rare to be able to help anyone, he says, since we don’t like or know how to give part of ourselves, or the part we have to give isn’t what’s needed. Norman says that help doesn’t have to be that big. His father asks if Norman’s mother helps Paul by buttering his rolls, and Norman says she might. When his father asks if he helps Paul, Norman says he tries to, but he doesn’t understand him, or know if he needs help. His father remarks that he should have had a sermon on this: when one is willing to help but doesn’t know if anything is needed.
Just before Norman’s father goes to bed, he begins to speak more explicitly about his worries regarding Paul, worries that align to a great extent with what Norman has been pondering over the course of the novella. Norman initially seems to want to comfort his father, reassuring him that help doesn’t need to be overwhelming, but that it can also mean small acts of kindness. However, Norman then confesses his own uncertainty about the nature, extent, or even necessity of his attempts to help Paul.
Norman waits a long time before falling asleep. Before getting up, he hears Paul open and shut his door. He remembers that Paul is never late for work or fishing. The next morning Norman descends to breakfast, where the family is waiting for him. His mother says that Paul has made breakfast for him. When Norman looks at his brother, he can see the blood vessels in Paul’s eyes.
On the surface, Paul sometimes seems able to balance his wilder ways with his duties as a son, brother, and fly-fisherman. It is only by paying close attention and looking into his brother’s blood-shot eyes that Norman sees that Paul may be flailing, even if he doesn’t know it or doesn’t want to stop.
Their father can’t find his fishing tackle at first, so they leave later than they expected to. They then spend more time hunting for a hole that won’t require their father to wade. Paul and Father argue about the right place, but finally they agree on a certain hole down a side road. The road leads them down to a grassy, boulder-covered flat, perhaps the end of the ice age lake before the glacial dam broke. On the mountains above them are horizontal scars left by receding icebergs.
Although the brothers’ father slows them down, their love for him is such that this doesn’t bother them nearly as much as Neal’s laziness, for instance. Once again, Norman calls attention to the ancient, massive glacial events that have marked the natural terrain of Montana today, on a scale practically inconceivable for humans.
They catch sight of the river down a steep bank, next to red and green Precambrian rocks. Norman and his father recall how they picked such rocks to build their fireplace. His father remembers how some had raindrops on them. He loves to think about the ancient rain splattering onto mud before hardening into rocks—nearly a billion years ago, Norman says. His father pauses, having given up on the literal belief in God’s six-day creation of the world, but he corrects Norman by saying half a billion years ago—his kind of compromise between science and religion.
The aesthetic beauty of the event that Norman’s father so loves to remember is due both to its age—that it took place so long ago as to render human thought and life miniscule—but also to the particular image of a regular, unexceptional rainy day in the ancient world, not too different from what humans experience all the time. This interplay between eternity and the normal everyday is awe-inducing for him.
Father says he’ll head down to the open water, while Norman and Paul stay by these big rocks. Paul suggests that they fish together. This is unusual, so Norman knows Paul is still trying to take care of him. Paul says he will take the opposite side, which is better for roll-casting, as roll-casting isn’t Norman’s forte. Norman again feels touched by Paul’s thoughtfulness.
As Paul and Norman are both competitive and of different skill levels, it usually makes more sense for them to fish separately. That they will fish together helps to secure this moment in Norman’s memory as special and particular, colored by the brotherly love between them.
As Norman wades into the water, big flies slam into his face. They are stupid and swollen, perfect prey for fish. He knows he’ll have to find a fly that looks just like them. Paul carries only several flies with him in his hat-band; he’s always chiding Norman for carrying too many. But Norman is confident that he’ll need one of his special flies that Paul doesn’t have. He opens his box to see a Bunyan Bug No. 2 Yellow Stone Fly, with a cork body and stiff horsehair.
Norman immediately moves into strategy mode, now shifting from being “touched” by Paul’s thoughtfulness to regaining a competitive spirit with his brother. To someone who doesn’t fly-fish, Norman’s description of the fly means little, which further calls attention to the affectionate way he describes it.
Norman takes the fly out and feels content: he feels loved by the women in his life, Neal seems a distant memory, his father and brother are fishing with him, and he might even catch more fish than Paul. He casts the Stone Fly out, and a fish that seems like a speedboat roars up to snatch it, before heading for deep water. Norman can’t release line fast enough to follow it, so he forces it up into the air as in a rodeo. It’s a large Rainbow trout. Suddenly it tears itself loose from the fly, leaving Norman empty-handed.
Having set this day up as the last day that he would fish with his brother, Norman goes on to paint an idyllic picture of it, one affected both by recent events and by the state of the fishing-hole at this moment. Yet Norman’s first cast is a failure, reminding him to feel humble in the face of the river’s mysteries and to respect its depths.
Norman has learned his lesson from this one cast, and for the rest of the day he is careful to let out enough line, even all the way across the river. Norman recalls a teacher who had told him it didn’t make sense to say “more perfect”—but twenty minutes earlier he’d felt perfect, and now he feels justified in feeling “more perfect” each time he snags a Rainbow.
Having learned from his initial mistake, Norman approximates what his father might call a state of grace, something exceeding full human comprehension, or what Norman describes in another way as “more perfect.”
After Norman catches his sixth Rainbow, he hears a massive splash to his left. He can’t think of anything that big that swims in the Blackfoot. He thinks it’s a beaver, but as another big splash falls in front of him, Norman realizes that Paul is raining down rocks on his side of the river, annoyed that Norman is catching so many more fish. Norman looks up to see Paul shaking his fist at him; he feels even more perfect.
Engrossed in his rhythm of fly-fishing, Norman initially can’t understand human activity as anything other than a particular aspect of nature. Paul may have just acted tenderly towards his brother, but his own sense of competition has also kicked in now.
One more hole lies between the brothers and their father. Paul yells across the river to ask what the fish are biting on, and Norman says yellow stone flies—he asks if Paul wants one, but he yells back no. Norman, now that he’s gotten ahead of his brother, starts to think about character: how Paul never looks to anyone but himself to get him out of trouble, and how this could be dangerous—but that Paul almost always is a winner. Norman decides that there’s never one way to respond to a character or event; perhaps the only way is to see how fish are responding on any given day.
Although Paul and Norman are fishing the same hole, they have two separate strategies, and two separate skill sets. For Norman, Paul’s own unique way of fly-fishing says something more profound about what he is like as a person, and how he refuses to accept help, even (or especially) from his brother. Norman is frustrated by this self-sufficiency in some areas, even though he admires it in Paul’s fly-fishing.
Now Norman is no longer getting strikes, and his Bunyan Bug fly no longer seems so appealing. He looks across at Paul, who now is fishing over the water he’d just finished. This is rare enough that Norman stops to watch. Paul immediately starts catching large fish in a row—10 by the time he returns to the other hole. Paul calls across to ask Norman if he has the No. 2 Yellow Hackle. Norman doesn’t, but Paul doesn’t hear him over the roar of the river. When Paul reaches him, he gives Norman his fly and says the fish are feeding on drowned yellow stone flies. Norman asks how he figured that out. Paul says that thinking means noticing something that allows you to see what you weren’t noticing before—which then allows you to see what isn’t visible.
While Norman can grow jealous of his brother’s talent, he also has enough respect for it to be content with merely observing Paul in action, and attempting to determine how he works on a river. Paul, in turn, can afford to be magnanimous now that he’s found the key to fishing this hole: finding a fly that imitates the “drowned yellow stone flies” the fish are feeding on. Paul’s response to Norman is philosophical rather than practical. It makes a kind of logical, or perhaps artistic sense, but one that isn’t immediately clear.
Norman tells Paul to say what he means. Paul says that he first noticed on this hole that Norman was no longer catching anything here. Then he noticed that the upper hole was in sunshine and this one was in shadow, meaning that if there were flies here they had to come from the sunlit hole, which was hot enough for them to hatch. Since he couldn’t see them dead in the water, he knew they had to be a few inches under. Paul tells Norman to wade out and try where he had fished. After multiple casts, Norman sees a small ring rise to the surface, meaning either a small fish on the surface or a big one further underwater. Paul wades out and says he’s going to fish the rest of the hole.
Norman, for one, doesn’t have the desire or patience to work out what Paul means, so Paul turns to the pragmatic in describing how he went about discovering where the fish were feeding. His explanation has much in common with the way Norman tends to describe his strategy. Significantly, though, this is not the way Paul initially chooses to talk about how he fishes—instead it is a translation from another kind of logic.
Norman catches two more, even though he’s on Paul’s side of the river: with ten, he quits, since the last three were the finest he ever caught—not in size but rather because Paul had waded out to give him the fly he used to catch these fish, and also because these were the last fish he ever caught fishing with Paul.
Instead of growing frustrated that Paul had solved the puzzle of this fishing hole, Norman feels both respectful of and touched by his brother, who has regained the upper hand in their relationship, at least in the here and now.
Norman says he’s going to sit by his father and wait for Paul. He’s certain that his father is reading the New Testament in Greek on the bank, in the peace that he’s found in old age. Norman contrasts the deep, profound voices of the river in the cliff’s shadows to the chattering, friendly sounds of the river in the sun. He sees his father high on the bank in the sunlight, reading. He tells Norman that he caught four or five fish, and that they’re beautiful—he’s the only man Norman ever knew who used the word “beautiful” so naturally. When he asks Norman about the fish he caught, Norman answers that they’re beautiful too.
Norman also has a clear sense of respect for his father’s peace of mind, finding in it the kind of grace that his father himself always stressed. Within Norman’s thoughts, this grace is linked to the diverse voices that make up the space between the cliffs and the river. Norman even takes on his father’s language at this moment, showing how he has internalized his father’s connections between nature and divine grace.
Norman’s father says that in the part of the Bible he was reading it says the Word was in the beginning. He used to think the water was first, but he realizes that if you listen to the river, there are words beneath the water. Norman says this is because he’s a preacher: Paul would say that words are made from water. But his father says that the water runs over the words, and Paul would say the same thing. He asks where Paul is, and Norman tells him he’ll be there soon.
Initially, Norman objects to the relationship his father makes between words and water, wanting to preserve a respect for nature’s inherent difference to human words. For Norman’s father, however, it is not so much human words but divine ones—God’s creative will—that are behind both nature and all human activity.
Paul appears on the river and holds up two fingers, meaning he has two fish left to reach his limit. Norman and his father get up, and Father throws a rock over to Paul’s side of the river, so that Paul almost loses his fish. Paul laughs and shakes his fist at him. Paul wades downstream and becomes a shadowy figure with a wand, circling faster and higher and longer, making one last cast for one last fish.
In the midst of their discussion, in which Paul is never far from either of their minds, Paul’s own glee and contentment interrupt them, and both Norman and his father catch some of Paul’s contagious energy as they admire his magnificent but controlled rhythms.
Norman’s father, looking out at Paul, says there must be a big one where he’s casting, just around a rock iceberg that splits the powerful current. Norman agrees that a small fish couldn’t live there. Paul’s body pivots, his arm is raised high, and his wand bends: suddenly everything springs, and then Paul remains uncannily still with the wand pointed at ten o’clock, the fly now swept into water. The wand seizes as the fish bites, and tries to jump out of Paul’s hand, as he frantically throws out more line. To Norman, everything seems electrically charged but also unconnected between the wand’s convulsions and the fish’s sparks. Slowly Norman begins to see the relationship between the convulsions and sparks.
Norman and his father keep up a running commentary, a kind of constant footnoting to explain and describe to each other what Paul seems to be doing instinctively, even unconsciously. These passages take on a miniature narrative arc—at the moment of highest tension, Paul is poised with his “magician’s wand” bent, and then the rest of the story unfolds smoothly and naturally from there. Norman attempts to understand Paul’s casting as a kind of natural energy, movements connected in subtle ways.
To Norman, the performance looks like children playing. Norman and his father reassure each other that Paul will get the fish. Paul works the fish into shallow water, and then is pulled out into the current himself. Norman curses, amazed, then feels guilty for swearing in front of his father, who says nothing. Paul works the fish back to shore again, but the fish pulls him out, until finally Paul raises the rod high and skids the fish across the rocks to a sandbar, where the fish begins to gasp. Paul leans down to it, then stands up, faces Norman and his father, and raises his arms as a victor, with a giant creature dangling from his hand. Norman tells his father that that’s Paul’s limit. Father replies that Paul is beautiful.
Though the climactic moment has passed, Paul’s battle with the fish faces a few more hurdles before he finally, definitively triumphs. Norman and his father are confident in Paul’s ability, but they still watch the process as anxious observers of a competition whose result is far from certain. There is a playfulness to Paul’s strategy here, as seen by his victor’s cheer at the end, but there is also, as Norman’s father points out, a beauty in the unadulterated joy Paul takes in the process.
That would be the last fish Norman and his father ever saw Paul catch. When they would talk about it later, they thought it was fitting that they only ever saw the artistry of the fisherman, rather than the fish. Now, they watch Paul decide not to wade across the powerful river, but instead swim across, his cigarettes and matches in his hat. Norman and his father look at each other and laugh, as Paul charges up the bank streaming with water and showing them his basket.
Norman and his father decide that for them, fly-fishing is less about the result—the number of fish caught—than about appreciation of nature and the artistic process involved—a process Paul has mastered with his general melding of the playful, the humorous, and the serious, which we see again as he charges across the river and up the bank.
They all empty their baskets and take photographs of their fish, but the photos turn out overexposed and amateurish. There is one picture, however, that remains fixed in Norman’s mind: Paul is smiling, flies whizzing around his hatband, water streaming down his face. Norman remembers him from this day both as an artistic abstraction and a descriptive close-up from this picture.
Here Norman recalls another kind of memory, a moment frozen in time that Norman believes says something meaningful about Paul as a person, as both maddeningly particular in his weaknesses and yet somehow transcending these weaknesses through his artistry.
Norman’s father, who is shy in praise, tells Paul that he is a fine fisherman. Paul replies that he’ll need three more years to be able to think like a fish. Norman thinks about Paul’s strategy and says he already knows how to think like a dead stone fly.
Another way that Norman thinks about Paul’s artistic genius is Paul’s ability to think his way into the consciousness of others, even into non-human consciousnesses.
The three of them sit on the riverbank and try to listen to what the river is saying, as the late afternoon sun casts shadows from the Ponderosa pines onto them. Though they know how to listen, a river has too many things to say, so it is difficult to know exactly what it’s saying to each of them.
Norman has adopted and internalized his father’s belief that a river contains and runs over words—that is, that a river holds many meanings (rather than one single truth), making it both profound and complex.
As they pack up, Paul repeats that he just needs three more years. Later Norman realizes that the river must have told both him and Paul that he would not have such a gift.
Here the river seems both to foreshadow and foretell Paul’s fate, though it does so by speaking to both brothers at once. It’s been implied throughout that Paul’s fate was unavoidable, and here Norman suggests that it was even prophesied as well—if one could only interpret the words of the river.
The next May, the police sergeant awakens Norman before dawn. Silently, they drive together down the Continental Divide and the Blackfoot to tell his parents that Paul had been beaten to death and his body dumped in an alley. Norman’s mother returns to her bedroom. She never asks Norman any questions about Paul—Paul, whom she most loved and least understood, perhaps knowing, says Norman, that it was enough for her to have loved him.
This abrupt transition clashes jarringly with the previous lyrical scenes of natural beauty and harmony. This an intentional juxtaposition, as it both reflects Norman’s rude awakening to reality, and allows more powerful, joyful images of Paul to linger in the reader’s mind (as well as in Norman’s).
After Norman tells his father the news, his father asks for more information. Norman says that nearly all the bones in Paul’s right hand were broken. After Paul’s death, Norman’s father begins to have trouble walking, and shuffles from place to place. Sometimes, grasping for more to hold onto, he asks Norman if he’s really told him everything there is to know about Paul’s death. Norman says it’s possible to love completely without understanding completely.
Norman’s extra piece of information is significant—a broken right hand would mean Paul would never be able to fish again, even if he had lived, and it also suggests that Paul fought back fiercely against his attacker. Norman’s father is physically, viscerally affected by Paul’s death, and initially it seems that Norman is the one to comfort him by assuring him that his love was stronger than misunderstanding.
Once Norman’s father asks if Norman thinks he (the father) could have helped Paul. Norman responds, “Do you think I could have helped him?” They both stand waiting, in silence. Later, Norman’s father asks if he thinks it was just a fight, unconnected to Paul’s past. The police don’t know, Norman says, and neither does he: all he really knows is that Paul was a fine fisherman. He also knows that Paul was beautiful, his father says, and Norman agrees. They look at each other, and never again talk about Paul’s death.
Though Norman initially reassured his father, they now face each other, both seeking the answers to unanswerable questions, and realizing in each other the ultimate insufficiency of their knowledge and understanding. They begin to come to terms with this lack of understanding, even as their guilt for being unable to help Paul continues.
Once, though, Norman’s father asks some questions that make Norman wonder if he eve really understood his father, whom he felt closer to than anyone. Norman’s father says that Norman likes to tell true stories, but he suggests that once Norman finishes these, why doesn’t he make up a story with its own characters—because only then will he understand what happened in the past and why. He says that those we live with and love, those whom we should know, are actually the ones who escape our understanding.
Norman had long presumed that it was impossible to understand his brother, but now he comes to realize how difficult it is to fully understand anyone, even those whom one loves and therefore, in theory, should understand—a paradox that is echoed in his father’s own words. His father seems to suggest that it is only through words and stories that one can hope to surmount this lack of understanding.
Now, the older Norman, who has been narrating, reflects that nearly all those he loved and did not understand as a young man are dead, though he still reaches out to them. Though he is too old to be a good fisherman anymore, he usually fishes the waters alone, in the cool summer evenings. Again, all of existence merges into the sounds of the Blackfoot River, along with the four-count rhythm of fishing and the hope of catching a fish.
Though Norman is now narrating the story at a long stretch of time from the events of 1937, it is clear that he has never stopped grappling with the unanswerable and unanswered questions of his younger self. The only solace he finds is in the eternal patterns and rhythms that he approaches in fishing.
Norman ends with a meditation on the ancient history of the river, a glacial flood among rocks spattered by eternal raindrops, rocks that conceal words underneath. He ends by saying that he is haunted by waters.
The book ends with no real resolution to Norman’s pain and confusion, but rather with a deferment of this human lack of understanding to a larger, more ancient scale. Norman’s problems feel huge and inexplicable, but then he is reminded of the vastness and eternity of nature and the divine, and achieves some kind of peace in his own smallness. And yet even this peace found through nature reminds him of Paul, and so Norman remains “haunted.”