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Michael A. Guy

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The Last Renaissance Man: chapter 7 excerpt
By Michael A. Guy
Monday, November 26, 2007

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continuing with some excerpts leading up to the release of my own webiste: in a few weeks (this site will also feature my music). This is from Chapter 7: "St. Michael's Flower" For those following the story: Sir Henry finally gets off on a holiday still suffering from grief, fatigue and with the excuse of Fly-fishing in the English countryside, is also looking for the "Plague cure" plant that Nicholas Culpepper informed him grew in the local area near a certain brook. (chapter 6) But, does Henry have the knowledge to avoid picking a similar, more deadly plant?

After an hour I had scrapes and cuts from choking brush and twigs, as well as several sticks from the hook, one which embe dded itself in my upper forearm (I pulled it out with great difficulty and greater pain, emitting a howl that would surely scare anything in earshot.) But one thing I didn’t have was a fish—nor did I see any signs of one.

            I glanced at my watch in my shirt pocket: past two o’clock—another hour. Do be sensible Sir, and put the watch in your shoulder bag. I wound the strap around in such a way that the bag hung out of my way, and more from my back than from my side.

            One thing was certain: any trout near the bridge (if there were any!), were long gone or hiding deep under their nook. I had made a noisy beginning to this trout fishing sport for sure. I would work downstream, the only possible way to go; upstream was impossible, too steep, and dangerous. Once I found a new likely spot, the leather boots would have to be removed. The shiny leather soles, when wet, were a nightmare. I should have a broken back by now, if God had not intervened. I had fallen nearly ten feet and landed square on my lower back on an exposed rock—miraculously, I arose to find only a painful bruise. I had enough of flies; I went downstream in search of a muddy bank to dig for worms.

            As I thrashed through the underbrush, I thought that this tangle of saplings must be the Wormwood that Hilda Aldwych had spoke of—with spring, they were shooting up green all over, most only three to twelve feet high, but a dense canopy. Perhaps, I’d see signs of the Angelica flower—would I recognize it from my sketches last night? I could pick some and then visit that Miss Aldwych tomorrow.

            I passed inviting pockets under miniature waterfalls, which occurred after every run gave way to another rock ledge. Was there a trout under there? That’s where to try.

            Three overturned rocks, and an excavated patch of decayed leaves later and I had a handful of wriggling, earthworms, which I tossed into a curved piece of peeled birch bark. Other bizarre creatures I found under rocks nearest the stream fascinated me, some like tiny crabs, with large front legs and willowy appendages, which fluttered while swimming in the pool’s still waters. Were these creatures what the feathered lures attempting to imitate?

            I returned to the head of the pool at the little waterfall. I baited a small worm beneath the feathered fly, heavy enough to sink, then tossed it into the stream above the rock ledge. It shot swiftly down the run, while swirling uncontrollably—I tried to tighten my line to control the drift, but the twisting currents spit it out towards the pool. Repeatedly, I did the same tactic, until impatient with despair—each time it would not float where I wanted it to, despite lifting my rod. But as I’ve said, I’m stubborn and I thought there must be something below under that rocky ledge.

I remembered the tiny balls of lead that came with the fishing line—they had grooves, through which I now ran my line on one, pinching it closed with my fingers. Now it sank under that ledge, and within seconds, I felt a lightening fast series of jolts that took me by surprise. My rod tip jerked, but as I clumsily pulled on the line and swept the rod tip up, the hook came flying out of the water, minus the fish. When I unhooked the lure from the overhanging Wormwood boughs above the pool, it was also minus the worm. But there was a fish in there!

            The secret is: you must be on edge; ready like my cat to pounce on his prey. Walton said that if you did not hook one after he bit once, they’d be shy the rest of the day. I ignored that advice—but three tries later with new worms; and not even a nibble. Perhaps Sir Izaak knows his craft—

‘You do not think ye know better than Mr. Walton? You didn’t read that chapter on how to bait with worms, did ye?’

Until one has succeeded in actually landing his first trout, eternal hope and dark despair wax and wane along with one’s faith in his tactics. Sheer stubbornness keeps some to their task; I hadn’t the faith to slog the bog, looking for more fishing nooks.

‘I must have that fish I say!’

I crept away from his bubbling home (having read in Walton, that trout can hear you move on the bank if you are clumsy to stomp or swear). I sat on a dry rock, higher above the stream, pondering how to proceed.

            Well let me just say it in this fashion: nine worms later, and no fish on the end of my hook, I said aloud:

            ‘At least I have succeeded in fattening this trout to perhaps epic proportions! He’s stolen every worm—he’s either very smart or I am a fool!’

            In fact he would not bite on every pass of the sinking lure, but seemed to wait until you were utterly bored or in a lax state of attention. Then the fish would strike.

            ‘They must see you. When I look away, or fumble with the line, he strikes. He’s a devil fish, a spawn of Sycorax!—or perhaps I’m in another dream.’

            On the tenth worm (It was hopeless but I am more stubborn than I realize), I jerked the rod tip mightily up, yanking the line. I am no master of the fish, but this time he was on. The line tightened, there, a swirl and flash—a copperish gold—what looked like a foot long form, shook its head hard in the stream—then, I took an unexpected bath!

            ‘Ooooh, the DEVIL! ‘Cold! ‘A possessed fish I say! I’ll have no more to do with ye!’

My pack wet, my rod submerged, the trout long gone back to his crevice, (with his tenth worm more painfully gotten); I landed my arse in the pool. A sopping mess, I slogged to shore, returned to my dry rock, (irrelevant now!), and sulked.

            Not the ticket at all. Why not drop a boulder on him, and crush the devil. Fly fishing my arse! I do think I’m the one who’s baited.’

            I opened my wet bag, and luckily, Sir Walton’s book was only damp. By chance, I opened it to the page where the advice needed was given: The fisherman must constantly search his prey in new waters; for the trout, once wise to the fisherman’s tactics, will have lockjaw or seem to disappear. You have done what is known as “spook the pool.”

            I am spooked, Sir! To give up trout fishing.’

            I swear to you I heard a rush of wind and these very words, forming against the babbling of the brook:“As no man is born an Artist, so no man is born an Angler!”

            Startled, I whipped around, gazing in all directions, expecting to see an apparition standing there. Was it a watery nymph hidden in the brook? The lesson taken I sat humbled. I had become a musical artist through a lifetime of composing and playing, should I now expect to succeed brilliantly on my first trout outing?

            “The good angler must bring a large measure of hope and patience.”

            ‘There again, you’re talking to me stream! I hear audible words. Or has Walton returned a spirit?’

            I was relieved of my frustration; it had become a salvation of sorts, a renaissance. With renewed spirits, I would finish the day. I searched the book for a chapter on how to reconstruct my tackle—And yes, instantly, the brook babbled appropriate instructions. I was amazed at Mother Nature’s intuitive warbling:

            “Read ye Walton’s chapter four, the third and fourth days.”

            Uphill, from the bank, through the border of saplings, there showed a woodland meadow, enclosed by dense shrubs and forest, with an old stonewall, partly fallen, along the northern fringe, upon which a honeysuckle hedge yonder grew. There above the stream, I’ll sit and read, whilst this shower falls, gently upon the teeming earth, and gives a sweeter smell to the lovely flowers that adorn this verdant meadow. My luck, a broad beech tree, to shelter me from the rain, and provide cover from this brief sun-shower.

            “There behind the cumulus, in the northeast quadrant of sky, a rainbow’s arch appeared, color by color above the wall of Wormwood and Maple; the birds in the adjoining grove seemed to have a friendly contention with an echo, whose dead voice seemed to live in a hollow tree, near to the brow of that hill. I oversaw the silver stream glide silently towards its gravitational center, an expansive lake, the tempestuous sea far beyond; across the valley in which the pond did lay, arose the ridge, they call the Blue Mountain, and other verdure, in which specks of sheep did safely graze. These and other sights so fully possessed my soul with contentment that I thought of neither time nor the elements, yet rather of a poem that happily expressed it:

I was for that time lifted above the earth,

And possess’d joys not promised from my birth.”*


*paraphrase: Izaak Walton, The Compleat Angler; chapter IV, Third Day;. 1653.


            Still, he did not give any direct instruction on how to actually cast. I flipped a few pages. He notes to be sure that you always have a peacock feather or such fly in your bag; that usually the smallest flies are the best; and note, that the light fly makes the best sport on a dark day, and the darkest fly on a bright day. That seemed contrary to me, but then I am no expert. Lastly, he notes that you are to retire to your magazine-bag (he calls it) and vary your flies, making lighter or dimmer, according to your luck or the day.

            And for the winds…”

At this, I looked to the sky, and realized I had become pre-occupied. Clouds were gathering, yet a beam of sunlight broke through, like a religious painting of the Renaissance masters, and shone visibly earthward, illuminating a spot with golden light, directly across the stream from me. There was a patch of dense vegetation growing there. Was a hidden angel meaning to direct my attention there? Looking, I saw the dense saplings growing above the patch, and beside the bank where the cobbled stones of the streambed forced the water to rush against it, were many bushy shrubs with dainty white flowers. Recognition jolted me. That must be it! The Angelica, the Arch angelica!

Wrestling my journal from the jumbled mess of my bag, I tore out the page with my sketch of the plant. I picked a few stems that had the flowers; it looked similar, but what if it were the Water Hemlock? There was no way to be sure, without the help of Hilda Aldwych, so I carefully pressed the stems into the middle of my copy of Walton’s book. As I did, I happened to open it to page 109 on the winds:


…take notice, of the winds, the south wind is said to be best:

            ‘…when the wind is south,

            It blows your bait into the fish’s mouth.’


            I closed the book on my pressed flowers; it was not only good advice, but looking skyward, I saw that it was now fully cloudy, and perhaps not so amazingly, the wind was southwest. Umm, fishing is best. If Walton was wise, I had optimum conditions. Yet, before I waded downstream, I examined these plants more closely; they were not all the same, though the flowers were indeed similar. One was surely to be the water hemlock, but without any such adult specimens to examine, these seedling plants did pose a confusing problem. The only measure to take was to sample both varieties. I pulled up one of each slightly dissimilar plant, finding the tiniest sample of each kind. Hilda would know which to use by closely defining the leaflets of each. I rinsed the roots in the brook, washing off the boggy soil, shook off the excess, and wrapping them in a page torn from my journal, put them in the bottom of my bag.

Rummaging there, I thought to check for my watch; thankfully, it was unbroken. After the dousing, and the spill upon the boulder, it was something of a miracle, like much else of such a day as this, or what I could remember of it.





y God, ‘tis nearing five on the clock! I have to go, if I’m to reach the inn by dark.’

A flush of uneasiness passed over me, yet, I had an impatient urge to rush downstream, and try for one last fish with the fly this time. But, as I had so recently learned, no fish are caught in a hurry or in anger. One can present the bait, the fish must bite in his own time. Mother Nature intervened, turning her forward-looking, shining face of gentle beauty, to a darker, foreboding countenance.

            The sun was obscured by clouds, which were thickening in the Southwest quarter. The breeze rising, blowing the tops of the trees on the ridge and stream bank, were now bending over, their tips pointing northeast. Yet, down here on the stream only enough breeze was blowing, to ruffle the still pool only slightly; exactly the perfect fishing conditions I had just read of! Tempting to try a few last casts, despite my inner voice warning of the lateness and unpredictable nature of the elements.

            I impatiently sloshed down around the “S” bend in the brook, slipping on the many smaller stones. Here, I came to a most peculiar rock formation. The streambed ran down an incline that was composed entirely of slippery, mossy rock; not individual boulders, but one solid face of gouged rock, like a slide. It went down for perhaps ten feet then ended in a little waterfall as it fell the last feet vertically, and spread out in a good-sized oval pool, which looked dark and likely the deepest spot yet on this brook. This could be my defining moment. It could convert me to fishing forever. Or perhaps, I would foolishly end my useful life in another bizarre accident.

            ‘You Sir, are pushing your luck with God’s good angels if you persist. Even St. Michael would frown on such a risky endeavor. Perhaps there is tomorrow?’

However, I have seldom found a chance to repeat my opportunities—how often does life give us the exact same conditions twice? When we come into this world, it seems we are issued a ticket to an excursion, but it is a journey with no return fare.

            The only approach seemed to be a safe one. Feed the line down the slide by tossing out loops of slack and letting the rushing slide of water carry the fly to a random destination, then see what happens. I took the red ruddy in my fingers, carefully holding the bend of the hook to avoid the sticking point. Pulling off about a dozen feet of line, I looped most of it around the hand holding my rod, between my thumb and the fingers holding the rod handle, leaving six feet or so hanging from the rod tip. Now I swung the lure onto the top of the water slide. Luckily, this stream flowed north and the South breeze caught the fly and line and took it easily into the stream. The tumbling water swiftly washed the fly pool-ward. It not only worked, but was a delight to see the fly helplessly drifting downstream, very much looking like a true insect in serious trouble. At the end of the slide, I lost sight of its red wings, as it vanished in the waterfall that ended in foaming white-water. I had no idea where it was. How would I know if something took it?

Now I rapidly wound the slack line around the spool Suddenly, I saw the red ruddy pop from the surface in jerky jumps as it artificially swam upstream. A splashy snap at the surface near it and I thought I saw the form of a fish momentarily, so I instinctively jerked the rod back and pulled on the line. The ruddy only flew out of the water and startled me by landing at my feet. It was amazing how light such tackle is. ‘I am fairly certain there’s a good fish in the head of that pool, under the waterfall!’

            ‘I must try again; there is still time!’ I swung around, observing the woods, full of wind driven shadows of the bending trees. I took a quick glance at the sky: scud clouds were scooting beneath a black bank of heavy clouds. That fearful, primitive nature that is ever superstitious began to cloud my reason with fear, but I persisted, despite the growing danger of being lost in foreboding woods at dark. I heard strange noises intruding on my former solid attention focused only on the fishing. Snaps, cracks, and sighing sounds, which I assumed were tricks of the wind; what if some beast were on the prowl? And what of witches and demons? ‘What of them? Ye are a man of science. Do not tell me ye believe in them.’

            It’s strange how a perfectly rational man, shall behave in contrary ways when darkness and solitude overwhelm him. The looming night in such woods draws a blanket of sinister imaginings around the most benign surroundings.

Yet, I vow to make one last cast, (I promise!). Besides the bizarre scene of hundreds of May Flies, whose opaque wings fluttered above the stream, there came a sprinkling of raindrops as large as grapes, blown by the wind and smattering my face, landing in the stream forming teacup sized depressions. This obscured the surface with a gray veneer of distortions. The wiser course would be to leave off this fishing and get out while there was still light to see.

            I hurriedly yanked line from my spool; the fly at the end was hooked on the rod-tip, and I could not reach it. It would not descend to the stream. I plopped down on a wet rock, removing the stuck fly, and consequently sticking it in my finger with a groan. By a miracle, after many minutes, I untangled a birds nest of silk line that came undone as though by itself, but not without causing confusion and loss of more precious twilight.

Now that I was wet again, I insisted, and gradually fed the line downstream in bumpy starts and stops. I could not see the fly, but I sensed it went over the falls. It was raining again, wind-driven sheets, which filtered through the canopy in sporadic drops. Suddenly there was a brilliant flash of lightning, which lit up the area and I could momentarily see every detail. I thought I saw my fly floating at the end of the pool, and I even imagined a fish shape near it. However friends, this is why the imagination of an artist is so vivid. We believe in our imaginings as though they were real facts. Or, are these the substance of dreams, and this world nothing but a landscape of fleeting shadows?

So abruptly, that I violently jerked the rod, a thunderbolt boomed like cannon fire, perhaps a few seconds after that flash. I have ensnared myself in an electrical storm as well as a squall. Hastily, thinking of retrieving my line and getting the hell out of there, I could only vaguely see the gray pool from where I was. Jerking my rod and wildly wrapping line around the spool, suddenly my line went taut. It must be snagged on something.

            ‘God, what a time for a snag! Ye should have suspected this. Accidents happen to those who panic.’

            As soon as I stood, the rod end bowed tremendously, and the snag seemed to move. ‘Tis the fish. The trout is on! Not now, I’ve not the time!’

            Nature was in control in all quarters. The fish, solidly hooked, seemed to impel me forward, down the slippery slope, as I excitedly wound slack line. I saw violent splashes in the pool, and my line end rushed around in an arc, heading towards me. (I assume that fish was seeking to regain his rocky fortress.)

            ‘Not again!’ In a moment’s notice, I was in the pool itself. Thankfully, I landed on my feet in water not as deep as it had seemed, but I was suddenly standing waist deep in cold dark water. With not exactly calm assurance, I turned and rushed to the right-hand shore, holding my rod aloft like a mast on a ship, while feverishly winding line, only to find my snag!

‘Lord, the monster’s still hooked!’

            Pouring, the pool distorted from raindrops, the fish drove against my rod tip, diving for cover. The nicely bowed rod now gradually pulled him from beneath the bubbling fall, and I could just scarcely see him rise. He was a monster indeed! Well over a foot long; perhaps almost two.

Calmer now, I actually enjoyed what could only have been less than a minute of serene confidence but royal pleasure. I worked him toward the shallow water near my feet, and could see it was indeed a nice trout, but different than the little ones of earlier, with a hooked jaw and darker spotting overall. Unexpectedly, he parked his snout on a cannonball-sized boulder, and in the snap of your finger, as well as the coincidence that consisted of another lightning flash, he revealed all his pagan glory! Imprinted on my mind, was an image of a sovereign fish, looking more like a great Salmon, than a Royal Trout; showing all the speckled beauty of the species Mr. Walton says hails from Northumberland.

As abruptly, he was gone, as quickly as he’d been hooked. ‘He’s a master of his element. A true Prospero of fish!’

My presumption was that he had used the boulder as leverage to spit the hook from his jaw, possibly tearing his flesh in the process. ‘There’s a great fish that would rather impale itself and die than suffer capture!’

            I’d no more time to think of my loss or his gain. With growing alarm, I wound up my tackle, imbedding the fly hook (which was still tied on!) into the cork of the handle butt. Without further delay and without breaking my rod in half, I rushed up the bank. Thinking I was heading south, towards what I thought was the bridge, there was only the dimmest light available for my escape.

            The coloratura of light breaking through my Renaissance canvas of that afternoon had turned to nightmare twilight of deceiving shadows, dancing with every bending bush and tree. With increasing panic, nothing seemed familiar; not the path to the meadow, not the upstream course to the bridge, not the brook itself, whose running was drowned out by the windy roaring of treetops, the hammering of rain on the canopy, and periodic bursts of thunder. Flashes of lightning provided only momentary relief from the chaos of demonic forms, serving more to swerve me with illusionary thoughts that possibly I was headed in the wrong direction.

To make matters worse, my rod was poking through the brush and tangling every few steps on a branch or briar; it did not occur to me, to pause a moment and take stock of my bearings, and also break my rod down to its portable mode. I was, yes, panicking a bit. The path, which was nothing other than an animal track to begin with, was just not visible, now with the rain pouring down in sheets and the wind blowing a squall. Finally, in frustration, I decided to head down slope again in an attempt to recover my bearings by following the brook. I had worked downstream from the bridge, so it seemed common sense to just stay as close to one bank or the other and work my way back upstream, until I came to the crossing. Yet, it was now dangerous, being almost inky black down here, and slippery along the bank, strewn with boulders, mud, and brush. Luckily, the sound of the brook, and the pockets of white-water, made finding my way easier.

            After what seemed a long, hard bushwhack, I was feeling I was making little progress, having gone what could only be some dozens of yards. Still no bridge. I looked up to my left, and saw the bank rising steeply to what was the spot I remembered opened to the meadow, where I had before sat and read Walton’s book. A flash of lightning confirmed my suspicion; I was near where the beech tree should have been, and the stone wall. I climbed, or rather virtually crawled, up the steep bank, at times using my rod handle end as a walking stick, poking it into the muddy, forest floor. I broke through the dark forest and was at the edge of a clearing, but I didn’t see the beech tree, or stonewall. I was confused. Was this the meadow and which way across it would lead to the road? Towards the middle, I noticed a dark form, yet it was only as tall as a man was. Then there was another flash, and the black visage seemed to be moving. In my distorted mind, at the time, it appeared to me to be beckoning—strangely in my direction. However, with the increasing anxiety associated with a sense of being lost, it could be anything—still it gave me the jitters. Surely it must be a tree or shrub of some sort.

            I thought perhaps it was Sedwick, come down the bank to look for me. Surely, he couldn’t do the rugged hiking required, let alone in the dark and storm. I was about to call out, when I thought better of it; what if it were some intruder perhaps, or a strange beast of some sort. My imagination went wild, and I was losing my usual rational thought, entertaining the idea of demons and witches. After all, hadn’t Miss Aldwych said this was a remote area, for people who practiced diverse things, even Satanism, although, I didn’t believe for a moment she did so, or was a witch. In this state of mind, I suddenly crouched down, thinking the best course was to avoid being seen. In case this was something strange, I found a boulder near the edge of the meadow woods and knelt by it, watching the undulating form. What should I do? Stand here all night in the pouring rain; surely to my left, across the meadow in that direction, would be moving away from the brook and therefore away from the bridge. That would not do, to run that way. Moreover, nothing would cause me to descend again into that dark, foreboding ravine, to the river. There was only one direction home, to the bridge and road. That was straight ahead, towards that phantom shape in the center of the clearing and then beyond to the border woods along the road.

            I summoned my courage, hoping it was inanimate, or friendly and rose, walking towards the waving form. As I got nearer, I should be able to distinguish its form and I would call out if necessary. Yet, all the while, it seemed to wave at me, as beckoning me forward. Was I stepping into its trap? Then more phenomena that were unusual seemed to materialize, with a sinister connotation rather than the pastoral comfort of the babbling brook that afternoon. I heard voices or what seemed to be almost a choir-like chorus of distant words. This simultaneous with rumbling thunder that receded over the valley and strangely echoed among the rocky vault of this riverbed. With the wind still furiously gusting, the trees behind me singing in the breeze, I could have sworn I also heard tinkling bells or chimes. Not unlike, the little tuned chimes we jingle in our choir performances at festive events. I tried to reassure myself:

            “‘Tis only a bush, a waving branch or something of the sort. Come now, yer imagination has a hold of ye. Be sensible. Perhaps ‘tis a sign, a hopeful one, on the direction to proceed. You must see the positive.”

Still, it was unearthly, and though I cannot remember what I thought that chorus was singing, it was clearly beckoning me forth. And, I know I heard audible words. So I sallied forth, swallowing my fear. Then I swear I heard my name called, “Henry, Henry come here.” Just like that. As I approached, I still could not distinguish what it was. “It is surely waving as an unfurled sail in wind, whatever it is!”

Now only a dozen feet or so from it, it grew in stature, apparently taller, growing jagged arms. Was it an evil black crucifix or just a dead tree? A cloaked demon or just a swirl of black cloud and mist? I’ll never know. I remember stopping, standing upright, and taking my fishing rod to probe out towards my phantom, now only ten feet or so away. It had suddenly begun to rain even harder; there was a fog blowing furiously across the clearing up from the cold streambed. I would prod it or swat it, if it should attack me; the moment I thought I touched it, I felt a violence knocked me down, shaking me to the root of my being. I had a brief painful sensation of millions of pins and pricks running from my head to my toes; then a sulphuric blackness snuffed me. Perhaps as just punishment for my recent weaknesses, God has allowed me to be struck to hell. So I might have thought, but I now know otherwise. Or, was this His stern admonishment, to turn me from my self-centered path? That was the last moment I can directly remember.

Whatever else I tell ye of the following few days, it is gained second hand, derived from Sedwick or Miss Aldwych. Until the day I fled for Portsmouth, when my senses partially returned, I was seriously ill and only partly capable of occasional flashes of rational thinking. Yes, I must not only have a type of temporary amnesia, but according to Sedwick, a momentary lapse of reason.


[From Sedwick’s narrative after I regained awareness:]


urthermore, Sedwick can tell what happened concisely, as he did to me in one of my lucid moments in the days following:....

       Web Site: The Last Renaissance Man

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Reviewed by Ronald Hull 12/1/2007
Culpepper may be a composer of some merit, but he is not fisherman--defeated on all sides by the beautiful nature he seeks.

Once again, so well written, that I, a fisherman, was drawn into his plight.


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