Another week-long waltz with the trickster gods

We were driving south on Route 53 through Wisconsin, making good time, when Jim looked at the bumper-to-bumper traffic on the other side of the road, crawling north for miles on end, and said: “Wow, I’m glad we’re not on that side of the road.”

I gasped and said: “Jim! What are you saying!?!!”

Jim clapped his hand over his mouth, but we both knew it was too late. We were doomed. Now it would just be a matter of time before our lane ground to a standstill.

Jim is a sports fan, so he should have known better. You don’t mention a perfect game when your pitcher has retired 23 or 24 batters in a row. You don’t whisper “300” when you’ve bowled nine strikes in a row.

And you don’t comment on somebody else’s traffic woes when you’re flying along at exactly nine miles over the speed limit, just like every other carefree car on your side of the road.

We were returning from our annual weeklong fishing trip to Canada, which was another reason why Jim should have known better than to tempt the trickster gods of traffic. After all, we had been dancing a cautious waltz with the trickster gods of fish, weather and boat mechanics all week long.

But the gods had been kind to us, so maybe that’s why Jim let his guard down.

Every culture in the world has tales of trickster gods woven through its lore — gods who can give as well as take. The Norse had Loki, the shape-shifter who played pranks not only on men but also gods. The Navajo had Coyote, who stole fire from the gods and gave it to man, as did Prometheus for the Greeks. In Australian lore, it was Crow who stole fire from human women to use for his own purposes. In Africa, Br’er Rabbit played every prank imaginable, and then even if you captured him he could trick you into throwing him safely into the briar patch, where he wanted to be all along.

There are trickster gods in fishing camps, too, and they were out in full force the week that Jim and I were in Canada. But because we knew them well, we were ready for them when they came.

For example, we would slow the boat at a likely spot where the water lapped across a fishy-looking rocky point or fallen log in the water, and when we cut the motor and started fishing, we would have a strike on our first cast. “Great spot!” we would cry.

And then nothing, cast after cast after cast.

Finally, enough would be enough.

“OK, two more minutes and we’ll go somewhere else,” we would announce.

And then we would have another strike within seconds, convincing us that we should stay a while longer.

And after that, cast after cast after cast without a hint of action.

Or we would wake up the next morning to sunny skies and light winds and decide that there was no need to bring our rain gear down to the boat because the forecast was for a dry day. But before noon we would be pounding our way across the lake, icy rainwater coursing down our backbone into our shorts as we tried to beat it back to camp before the lightning moved in. Still, the fish seem to bite best in the rain, so we would head back out as soon as the lightning passed. This time we would bring our rain gear — and the sun would come out.

Or we would leave the minnows behind because the fish had been biting better on leeches, and then we would sit and watch the smallmouth bass tear into schools of minnows around the boat as our bobbers sat motionless over a lonely leech. But OK, that would give us a chance to put down the fishing rod and reach for a bucket to relieve ourselves — only to see the bobber plunge beneath the water just as we stood hopelessly watching, with more urgent business at hand that couldn’t be interrupted so cleanly. At least, not until the bobber popped back up and sat still once again.

You might think the trickster gods are evil or vindictive, but they’re not really. They’re only mischievous, so there was plenty to smile about as the week passed, if you kept the right attitude toward their pranks.

In the end, the trickster gods are usually more generous than miserly. But they never give freely, without also collecting a maddening toll of some sort. And it does no good to curse the trickster gods, because it only urges them to raise the toll. They seem to like it best if you laugh at their prank as heartily as they laugh at your best-laid plans.

And Jim and I had plenty to laugh about that week.

So that’s why, as we flew south down Route 53 while the northbound traffic snarled to a stop, I gasped when Jim said he was glad we weren’t on that side of the road. It was like sending a singing telegram straight to the trickster gods of traffic.

We were surely doomed.

But that’s not how it turned out. We sped along at nine miles over the speed limit, all the way home. We breathed a sigh of relief as we pulled into the driveway after a long, easy drive.

So I guess the trickster gods appreciated our casual laughter every time they played a prank on us during our week of fishing. It was good to know that, at least this time, the trickster gods were on our side.

Or maybe they were just tempting us to head north again this time next year — and you know how that drive will turn out.

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