Along Stretches Of This River

We use words to build images. We put the words together in a particular order, and if we’re lucky, something happens other than the relaying of information. The reader takes those words and assembles and reassembles them in their mind. It’s the inseparable sensory experience we’re after (we being the writer and the reader).

In the town where I now live, there’s a river nearby. If I have a good day working, writing my way into a draft, I might set aside time to fish in the evening. It’s a small reward, this kind of escape. Recently, I’ve spotted osprey along stretches of this river. The enormous birds patrol in ovals overhead. One will eventually curl its wings under and fall into a dive, throwing huge talons, at the last second, into the water. If it’s lucky, it pulls out a fish.

Because the shad are running (as the locals say) osprey in this town are eating well. When I finally wade out into the river to cast, I pause. Across the sky, osprey spin and drift. Then they fall, crashing their bodies into the current. One can make a peaceful day of watching such meticulous activity, though if the shad could talk, they might respectfully disagree.

This river is sometimes clear, other times opaque. Inside it, things are alive. Mornings I wake and try to write, to build at least one engaging image out of words, and in the evenings, when I walk a section of the river past the fall line, I shuffle slowly into the current. I’ll false cast until, eventually, a long stretch of floating line will land on the rippled surface. The clear leader attached with a nail knot at the end sinks first. I let the line swing into a dead drift. If I’m lucky, I’ll feel the hit and lift up. If I’m luckier, the hook will set and the line will jolt into life.

Here’s my reason for even mentioning the river at all:  The other day, I caught a shad. Three red scratches, all evenly spaced apart, ran from the fish’s silver middle to the lavender ridge near its tail. I’ve been trying to shake this image, but I can’t. I keep seeing it in my mind. I keep thinking about the story it implies.

The red scratches were fresh talon marks. It was this single image that implied part of another story, one that had nothing to do with me. An osprey must have dropped the fish. I held the same shad. It was a strange sensation, this quick connection to other things. Like the speaker in Elizabeth Bishop’s famous poem, I let the fish go.

But the image has stayed with me.

Locals here have shared that during the shad run, it’s not uncommon for fish to fall from the sky. You can drive to the grocery store and find them flopping in empty parking spaces, others dropping onto windshields of moving cars. I know that back on the river the osprey spin and drift in widening ovals. They search for what’s alive. They’re not the only ones.

Jon Pineda

Jon Pineda is the author of the novels Let’s No One Get Hurt, winner of the 2019 Library of Virginia Literary Award for Fiction and the Emyl Jenkins Sexton Literary Award, and Apology, winner of the 2013 Milkweed National Fiction Prize.  

His poetry collections include Little Anodynes, winner of the 2016 Library of Virginia Literary Award, The Translator’s Diary, which received the 2007 Green Rose Prize from New Issues Poetry & Prose, and Birthmark, was selected by poet Ralph Burns for the 2003 Crab Orchard Award Series in Poetry Open Competition. 

He is also the author of the memoir, “Sleep in Me,” a 2010 Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers selection.  

In addition to teaching at Queens, Pineda directs the creative writing program at William & Mary, in Williamsburg, VA.  

Pineda teaches fiction, creative nonfiction and poetry in our low-residency master of fine arts in creative writing program.

His website is

Contributions by Jon Pineda