The old man cast his fly rod out over the river, watching as the line flicked and tricked the surface, finally floating the bit of feather and string on the softly rippling water. He watched the current carry the fly for a few moments before he began reeling the line in. It was August on the Northern California coast, and the sun was burning through the high morning fog as the man began packing up his catch and his creel to walk back over the rocky banks toward the road that led to his small house.
As he turned to go, he noticed a young woman sitting on the edge of the riverbank. She lifted her hand in a small wave when she saw him watching her. The old man squinted into the sun and began his morning walk back home.
“Good morning,” she called, as he came closer.
“I hope you don’t mind me watching you. I’ve never really seen anyone fly fishing in person before.” She was sitting on the grey rocks, watching him with dark eyes as he drew closer. He thought she looked no older than twenty-one or twenty-two. She had long brown hair that reminded him of his oldest daughter, who now had children of her own.
“Nope. Just in movies and stuff,” she said with a smile. “It’s cool. It looks kinda hard, though.”
“It takes a lot of practice. What are you doing out here?” He looked toward the small road that ran parallel to the river, but he could see no car, and there were no houses closer than his, which was over a half mile away.
The girl shrugged. “I’m just walking. I like to walk. I’m walking down the coast.”
His bushy white eyebrows lifted in surprise. “Down the coast?” He looked around, but only saw a small green backpack sitting next to her, no bigger than a child’s book bag.
“You’re just walking down the coast? From where?”
“Well,” she said. “I started up around Seattle, and I’m just walking south.”
“How long have you been walking?”
She smiled. “Off and on for a few months now. I stop some places and work for spending money every now and then.”
He looked the young woman over, noticing her thin, brown appearance and cheerful eyes. Her hair, he noticed, was a little tangled. He remembered last month when he’d had to comb the tangles out of his youngest granddaughter’s hair when she was visiting with her mother and brothers.
“Well, I’ve just caught three salmon here. Come on up to my house and I’ll cook them. There’s more than I can eat myself.”
“Oh, you don’t have to do that.”
He frowned, “Well, if any of my kids was on their own, I’d want someone to do the same. It’s no big thing to share.”
Her face lit up and she stood to join him. “Thanks. I like fish.”
“They’re the healthiest food for you, you know.”
“I’m sure they are. Thanks again.”
“You’re welcome,” he said as he continued walking over the large tumbled stones that lined the river. They reached the road, and he noticed her stop to pick some black berries that were growing wild along the hedge.
“There’s a lot of those in my yard,” he said. “You can pick them there.”
“Oh, okay,” the young woman continued walking, her worn shoes flapping on the asphalt road as they climbed uphill.
“Your parents okay with you traveling on your own like this?”
She shrugged. “They’re not really the kind to notice, you know?”
“Not really. I’ve got three kids, two of them girls. I guess I wouldn’t want them traveling all on their own like that. You don’t hitchhike, do you?”
“Nope. Just walk. I like walking.”
He huffed a little. “Well … I guess that’s a good thing.”
“Most people are a lot nicer than you’d think. I haven’t had any problems.”
“Well, you just be careful, young lady.”
She smiled and looked at him from the side. “I will.”
“What’s your name?”
“I’m Mary,” she said. “Mary Finlay.”
He cooked the salmon simply, with a little salt and pepper, adding a couple of fried eggs for her as she chattered about the people she’d met on her journey and the places she’d been. They sat and ate in his small kitchen, at the table his wife hadn’t wanted when they’d separated years ago. Its scarred formica surface glowed as the morning sun streamed through the large windows.
“When was the last time you got cleaned up, Mary?” he asked as he finished his coffee.
“Oh,” she frowned, as she appeared to search her memory. “I rented a room with a bath and all that last week.”
“Well, you’re more then welcome to use the washroom here. I have some things to do outside, but you just help yourself to a shower if you like.”
“I wouldn’t turn it down,” she grinned. “I never really know when I’m going to have the money to get a room with a bathroom, you know?”
He nodded. “Help yourself. I don’t have anything fancy, and I’m not sure there’s any shampoo.” He rubbed his bald head. “I don’t really need it anymore. There might be some under the sink from when my daughter was visiting.”
“Just soap is great, thanks.”
He nodded, “Okay then. I’ll be outside working in the garden.”
He shrugged and walked out the door. As he walked down the step, he noticed her shoes, which were sitting on the back step, covered in mud from the riverbank. He picked them up to examine them and scowled when he noticed the hole that was forming in the left sole and the rubber trim that had lifted and was peeling away.
“Cheap shoes,” he muttered before he set them down and walked out to check his vegetable garden.
She joined him soon after, her hair freshly washed and her face shining. She sat on the edge of the split rail fence lined in chicken wire.
“Hmm?” Her eyes were closed, and she lifted her face to catch the sunlight in the small clearing around his house.
He paused pulling weeds, flexing his hands that were slowly becoming stiffer with every year that passed. Soon, he thought, he wouldn’t be able to tie his own flies anymore, and he’d have to lower himself to buying the inferior brand they carried at the mercantile in town. He had no doubt his daily catch would go down.
“I’ll drive you into town. You need some new shoes. Don’t worry, I’ll buy them, but yours are about to wear out and then where will you be?”
Mary frowned a little, and he watched in amusement as she tried to mount an objection.
“You really don’t have to—”
“Course I don’t have to. But you need new shoes, don’t you? Good ones. You have the money for that?”
“No,” she said quietly.
“Well, I do. So don’t worry about it. Like I said, if it was one of my kids, I’d want someone to do the same.”
She paused before she offered a small smile. “Thanks.”
He bent down to start weeding again. “Now, just let me finish this patch and we’ll go.”
They drove into town in his old blue truck, bouncing over the rutted roads as grey clouds gathered, spoiling the clear morning and casting deeper shadows through the trees that towered on either side of the road.
“You headed south some more today?”
“Yep. Don’t worry, I’ve got an umbrella and a rain coat.”
He nodded, silently contemplating the road in front of him.
“Where you headed next?”
She shrugged. “Further down the coast, I guess. I stay mostly along Highway One. I like being near the water.”
“You get down far enough, you’ll pass by my son’s farm on the Central Coast.”
“Yeah, you might recognize him. He looks just like me, but with more hair.”
She snickered. “I’ll have to look for him.”
“You do that. And if you pass by this way again, stop by the house.”
“Thanks, I will.”
They finished the drive in silence, parking in front of the old mercantile just as the sky began to spit down a cool drizzle. They walked inside, and he waited as she tried on shoes, picking out a few sturdy hiking socks from a basket by the door to add to the purchase.
He nodded at the stout woman who rang them up, dismissing the questions he saw in her eyes with a solemn nod and polite smile. They sat on the bench outside as she put on her new shoes and socks.
“Those going to give you blisters?”
She shook her head. “Don’t think so. My feet are pretty tough anyway. I doubt these will bother them any more than the old ones did.” Mary held the old shoes in her lap, looking at them thoughtfully. “I don’t have room in my backpack to take them with me.”
He frowned. “Why would you want to?”
“Oh,” she said, “I don’t know. I’ve had them since the beginning. They’ve held up pretty well, considering where I started.”
He sighed. “Well, you have to let go of old stuff, you know. Otherwise, you’ll go through life carrying all sorts of useless things with you.”
She nodded, still looking at the shoes. “I know it’s silly, but I just don’t want to throw them in the garbage. It feels disrespectful.”
He looked at her, with her green backpack and determined young face. He didn’t want to contemplate just how far her journey would be, or how uncomfortable it would be at times. He simply hoped she would meet a few more nice people along the way.
“Tell you what, I’ll take them back to my place and give them a proper burial. Would that suit you?”
She giggled. “What?”
“I’ll bury them for you. Like a pet or something. I’ll even put a marker up. That way, if you ever come by my place again—even if I’m gone—you can pay your respects to your old shoes.”
He nodded. “It’s no big thing.”
“Thanks, I’d like that.”
“Well, that’s what I’ll do then.” He nodded and stood, holding a hand to help her as she stood in her warm new shoes. She bounced a little, and stuffed the extra socks in her bag. Finally, she handed her old shoes to the old man, who tucked them carefully under his arm.
“Well, I suppose this is goodbye.” He held out his hand and she shook it cheerfully.
“Thanks for breakfast. And the shower. And the shoes. I really appreciate it.”
“You take care and stay safe, Mary.”
She nodded, threw her backpack over her shoulder, and stepped onto the sidewalk.
“Bye,” she called over her shoulder with a small wave.
He waved back silently and walked back to his truck.
When he got home, he dug a small hole on the edge of the clearing, put Mary’s battered old shoes in the bottom, and covered them up. He got a rock from the river that he had placed in the garden, went in the house, and found a black permanent marker. He carefully wrote a small verse on the rock, and went back outside to place it by the hole before he went back to pulling weeds in the vegetable garden.
Here lie Mary Finlay’s shoes
Beloved servants, now at rest
Mary knows, you did your best
And as you sleep and slip to dream
Her warm and happy feet will beam