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Two Fishermen - A Winter Solstice Parable

Untitled ice fishing scene - Alaska Native Inupiaq Artist, James Kivetoruk Moses (1903-1982) courtesy Coe Center for the Arts

The oldest fisherman of the village is ready. And look, the youngest fisherman of the village is ready. Back to back they stand, in the middle of the village, the oldest fisherman facing West where the sun goes to die, and the youngest facing East where the light gives birth. Back to back they stand, silent, in the middle of a swaying circle formed by the gathered villagers, both young and old. For as long as anyone can remember, in this small village by the great river, this has been the way of their people to honour the passing of the longest night and the return of the light. So back to back they stand, in the middle of the circle, waiting, in the freezing cold of the last dark hour, dressed in their finest fur-lined parkas, fishing rod in one hand, hatchet in the other. Then finally the youngest fisherman intones:

“Old father, I can see the first light chasing night. Is it time?”

The oldest fisherman nods and answers:

“Young son, if you see the light, then it must be time and we must go.” Now, the villagers slowly open up the circle, and shoulder to shoulder, the old man and the boy head for the river. Shoulder to shoulder, they walk onto the frozen river and cut a path through the shallow drifts of snow. In the middle of the river they stop, and again stand back to back, the oldest fisherman facing upstream, the youngest downstream.

“Old father, what is it you see?” the young fisherman asks.

“I see the high mountains where man cannot live but where day after day the river is born anew,” the old man answers, and then asks in turn: “And you, young son, what is it you see?”

“I see as far as the eye can see, to where the river disappears beyond the horizon, and everywhere I look, I see all the wealth the clear water freely provides, every day anew.”

“Then I shall fish,” the old man states and kneels.

Wielding the hatchet he cuts a hole in the ice, then baits the hook at the end of the line of his old and worn fishing rod, lowers it into the frigid waters and waits. Soon the line tightens, the tip of the rod dips down and after a short struggle the old fisherman brings up a silver fish and says: “This is the last fish of the year. The old year’s catch has been good. The river has been generous.”

“Then I shall fish,” the youngest fisherman announces, and in turn he kneels.

He cuts through the ice, and baits and lowers his new, untested rod. He waits, and the wait seems endless, but finally the tip of the rod dips and after a short fight the young fisherman lands a splendid looking fish. Beaming with pride, the young boy holds up his catch and pronounces the ritual lines: “This is the first catch of the new year! May the river be generous!”

“And if that is your wish, then you must honour the river and return the first fish!” the old man continues.

Taken aback by these unexpected words, the boy’s enraptured smile makes way for disbelief. No one had told him he would have to… He was sure his ceremonial line was the last, and now the old man… and, and… this was a beautiful fish… And the boy is about to turn and object when the old fisherman’s commanding voice rings out and stops him.

“Don’t look back! Looking back is for the old. The young must look to where the river flows. Now, return the first fish!” Reluctantly, the boy obeys and releases his catch. In less than a second, the silver body slips away underneath the ice and when the boy looks up again, the old fisherman is standing next to him, offering a wrinkled smile.

“Now, the river has been honoured, and in the new year she may be generous, or not, and you must remember this: you can never fish in the same waters twice, because life and this river are forever flowing.”


With thanks to an old Greek philosopher — Heraclitus — who once famously wrote: "No man ever steps in the same river twice."

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