The River Why


By David James Duncan

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The classic novel of fly fishing and spirituality republished with a new Afterword by the author.

Since its publication in 1983, The River Why has become a classic. David James Duncan’s sweeping novel is a coming-of-age comedy about love, nature, and the quest for self-discovery, written in a voice as distinct and powerful as any in American letters.

Gus Orviston is a young fly fisherman who leaves behind his comically schizoid family to find his own path. Taking refuge in a remote cabin, he sets out in pursuit of the Pacific Northwest’s elusive steelhead. But what begins as a physical quarry becomes a spiritual one as his quest for self-knowledge batters him with unforeseeable experiences.

Profoundly reflective about our connection to nature and to one another, The River Why is also a comedic rollercoaster. Like Gus, the reader emerges utterly changed, stripped bare by the journey Duncan so expertly navigates.


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My birthday began with the water.

—Dylan Thomas

What house is this? here's neither coal nor candle,

Where I no thing but guts of fishes handle…

—Zachary Boyd, "Jonah"


"Gus the Fish"

"It is a doubt if my body is flesh or fish," he sang in his grief; "hapless the woman who loves me.…"

—Charles Williams, Taliessin through Logres

Having harbored two sons in the waters of her womb, my mother considers herself something of an authority on human fetuses. The normal fetus, she says, is no swimmer; it is not fish-, seal-, eel-, or even turtlelike: it is an awkward alien in the liquid environment—a groping land creature confused by its immersion and anxious to escape. My brother, she says, was such a fetus. I was not. My swimming style was no humanoid butterfly-, crawl-, back-, or breaststroking: mine were the sure, swift dartings of a deformed but hefty trout at home with the water, finning and hovering in its warm black pool.

Having harbored no one anywhere in his body and lacking a womb, my father knows almost nothing about human fetuses. This did not stop him from penning and publishing a grotesque article about a human birth. My father is a writer secondarily and a famous flyfisherman primarily, and his stories, books, and lectures on the latter art—not to mention his ruddy face and dumpy, wader-swathed figure—are renowned throughout the flyfishing world. One of his favorite articles was published in a 1954 Field and Stream under the title "Gus the Fish." Written in a painfully contrived and uncharacteristic Doc-And-Me-Went-Fishin' style, "Gus the Fish" treats of the angling adventure of a certain obstetrician who finally succeeded in hooking and landing "a chubby eight-pounder" who had "eluded all anglers for over nine months" despite being trapped in "a small pool in a river only five feet, five inches long"; then in the concluding paragraph my father spills the beans all over his little allegory with the forgettable intimation that "Ol' Gus is not some wily brown trout lurking in the waters of a Letort, Beaverkill, or Firehole. Oh no. Ol' Gus is nothing less than my new little lunker son, my first-born fish and flyfisherman to be!"

The fisherman's is an inexplicably privileged place in this hard world: there are people wearing straitjackets and living under lock and key for innocuous crimes such as dressing or speaking like Sherlock Holmes, Caesar, or Armstrong Custer, yet there goes my dad—famed and respected in his twenty-five-pound vest, hat full of phony insects, rubber trousertops flapping about his nipples—trudging scot free along the world's trout streams armed with dangerous hooks and fish knives, whipping the flesh of innocent bodies of water while amusing himself with such mental marvels as his wife the dwarfish river, and his son, Gus the Fish.

My father's name is Henning Hale-Orviston. His parents were English aristocrats, and his speech and manners derive from them. He carefully maintains his distinguished accent; he drinks Glenfiddich Single Malt Scotch; he smokes Rattray's Highland Targe and Balkan Sobranie in meerschaums and briar perfects; he drives a Rover in the city and a Winnebago on the road; he lectures in white shirt and tie, fishes in tweeds, and sleeps in silk pajamas; his flies are constructed with a scrupulousness rivaling the Creator's; his handwriting is like calligraphy, and when he autographs a book he writes the entire name. He is, to my chagrin, the one person in the world who calls me by my legal name, Augustine,

so to his chagrin I call him H2O.

To his greater chagrin, Ma calls him "Hen." To her way of thinking, Hen is a rough-and-ready handle on her man. To H2O's way of thinking, Hen is a ludicrous and unwarranted insult. To my way of thinking, Hen is a nickname with several features of interest: among Northwest fishermen, a hen is a female steelhead; according to H2O, Ma is a river; if these designations are accurate, it is obvious which of my parents would contain, sustain, and determine the fate of the other—and through observation of our family the truth of the symbology is apparent. Under the Orviston roof it's Ma who calls the shots.

That's not all she does. If ever a man's wife was his nemesis, his antagonist, his antithesis, Ma is H2O's. In those rarefied circles of purist anglers among whom Henning Hale-Orviston is considered the last word, Ma Orviston is considered the last laugh—for though she has never published a word on fishing, and though H2O has struggled to keep her existence under wraps, Ma has, through the medium of fish-gossip, attained to an infamy rivaling H2O's fame. The reason? O Heresy! Lower than Low Church, lower than pariah, lower than poacher, predator, or polluter, Ma is the Flyfisherman's Antipode: she is a bait fisherman. A fundamentalist. A plunker of worms.

One of my father's least favorite stories was diluted, distorted, and published in a 1954 Sports Afield under the unlikely title "Nijinsky"—an artifact not worth a glance apart from the color glossies. The story's uncut version lacks color glossies; it has never seen print; it is hard to believe despite its historicity; it is never told when H2O is around. But once a year it is recited at the Carper Clan Gathering (the Carpers being Ma's kin) by my bardic uncle, Zeke, who calls it "The Deschutes River Episode." Zeke tells it in two installments, pausing to chug a beer between: the first part is a pretty fair imitation of my father's accent and Literary Sportsman writing style—but after the beer the story transmogrifies into a Zeke-yarn delivered in his most exaggerated, overcooked Eastern Oregon drawl. It goes like this:

'Twas early in the autumn of nineteen hundred and fifty-three that the then-unmarried Henning Hale-Orviston endured the most extraordinary adventure of his already illustrious angling career. Beneath a brilliant brass sky and enclosed by canyon walls rendered ovenlike by the relentless desert sun, Orviston had spent an entire day plying the glistening green waters of Oregon's famed Deschutes River for summer-run steelhead. But despite his unflagging efforts and unrivaled skill, he had nothing to show for his labors but the memory of a few small trout caught and, of course, carefully released. Worn to exhaustion by heat, glare, and the constant drag of waist-deep current, Orviston elected to make the proverbial "one last cast" before undertaking the toilsome return to his car and small mobile home. His day of frustration was complete when, near the tail of that last drift, his masterfully tied bucktail streamer ceased its oceanward journey with that inexorable dull pull that can only signify a snag. Hoping for nothing but an end to his day of thwarted efforts, Orviston reefed disgustedly at his line, attempting to snap the 2x tippet. To his great good fortune, he failed even in this—for the instant he raised the rod the once-serene river exploded with the heart-stopping leap of the mightiest steelhead he had ever seen! No sooner did the magnificent fish shatter the water into glassy splinters than it was airborne again, and so again, continuing with literally scores of impossible, soaring, twisting leaps till its mortal enemy was inspired to dub it "Nijinsky," after the famed supernatural hero of the ballet. Thus commenced a battle between wily fisherman and godlike fish worthy of comparison to some savage encounter of knight and dragon in Legends of Yore.…

Seeming to realize that this was no mere worm-dangler with which he was dealing, Nijinsky soon ceased his mad leaping. Applying his wiles—and his brutish strength—the monster turned toward the long rapids downstream and set off at a calculated, untiring pace that the 2x tippet could not possibly thwart. Running, plunging, clambering through brush and water, Orviston followed, holding his rod high, increasing his pace when the line-backing grew dangerously thin, easing the pace and taking up slack when Nijinsky would allow it. Relentlessly, craftily, he pursued his silver leviathan with the determination of Ahab.

Two miles downstream and an hour and a half into the battle, Nijinsky retreated to the depths of an eerie, ink black pool. Here he remained as the daylight first reddened, then fled; here he entrenched himself as the sinking sun's shafts ascended the tortured rimrock, suffusing juniper, sage, and canyon wall with a last liquid light. Exhausted himself, Orviston could only hope the mighty fish was also tiring. With stout heart and reptilian patience, he applied all the pressure the feeble but faithful tippet could sustain. Inch by painstaking inch, he worked Nijinsky toward him through the seething depths of the ebony pool.…

Here's where Uncle Zeke chugs his beer—a fact especially worth noting because it's a thirty-two-ouncer! And if you could see the look in Zeke's carbonated eyes afterward, if you knew how vast the gap between H2O's published climax and the true tale he was about to tell, then you would know that the story of Nijinsky's End is offered here at the risk of my being disowned—if not drowned.

Zeke quiets his listeners with a six-second belch. Then—

High over the rimrock the Milky Way come poppin' out like God's false teeth—but ol' Hen Orviston never seen it. He never seen neither that it weren't him that had no fish on, but a fish that had on him: while he was thinkin' he was workin' his lunker in, the lunker was eyeballin' Hen's submerged shins, sniffin' the blood in the water from the fresh dings in 'em, thinkin' how he'd swallered crawdads big as what they was, fightin' off a nasty pair o' pinchers into the bargain. So it was lucky fer Hen a rockslide come rattlin' down the canyonside just then, spookin' Nijersey back to the deeps.

Hen turned one bloodshot eye to the hill t'see what was comin', his brains thinkin' somethin' mercenary an' Englishy, like, "By Jorj! Behaps the Very Gods residing in Heavenabove are sending some soul to witness my artful captuation of this noteable bloody fishe here by means of naught more than an artificial fly and frailest of 2x whippets. Jolly Ho! Now I'll have positivistic veracification of my performance, thereby enabling me to enhance the thickness of my wallet with scads of bloody endorsements from the makers of my rod and reel and line and boots and hat and creel and undershorts!"

An' sure nuff, through the dollar signs in his eyes Hen made out a handsome young cowpoke scramblin' down the scree, fitted out in Levis, Pen'lt'n shirt, sheepskin vest, ratty Stetson, J. C. Penney cowboy boots an' red bandana. He was slim, whiskerless, smokin' a Hump,* an' he packed a saddlebag an' a Sears Roebuck castin' rod'n'reel with ropy thick line, baseball-size sinker, an' three squirmin' nightcrawlers on a treblehook wishin' they was somewheres else. When H. H. made out this fishin' perfernailey, he thought somethin' more along these lines: "Zounds, Drat and Bother the Bleeding Fates! This is no gentleman! This young brute is a Neanderthal, come here to practice the illegeale bloody art of bait fishing after dark!"

He wasn't far off. But witnesses is witnesses an' money's money, so Hen held his peace an' his pole, played Stravinski, an' calmed his nerves with dreams 'bout the sweet shitload o' fat endorsement checks sure to stuff his mailbox, once he nailed his whale. But what was this? With his gizzard in his gorge, Hen saw the cowpoke fixin' t'cast dead into the pool where Nijinskivoffnev was hidin'! In a unEnglishmanly vocabulary reserved fer emergencies, H. H. Orviston Esquire hollered, "Hey! Gitcher young ass outta there! Can't you see I got a huge fish on!?"

The plunker held up'n took a gander at Hen's rod, but Nigursky was layin' low sinch the averlanch so the flyrod was just bent, not throbbin' or twitchin' at all. Never havin' laid eyes on a fly outfit, the cowpoke didn't know 'bout 2x tipplers made o' catgut an' all that class of equipment. He only seen Hen's fly-line, which he judged heavy enough t'horse in a wild bull, an' the Fancy Dan fishin' duds, camera purse, silly hat an' all. That made his mind up. In a boyish, friendly voice he hollered, "Hells bells, Cityslick, yer hung on the bottom! How long you been standin' there that way you rascal? Just bust that thang off'n come on over here—I got worms enough fer both of us."

At the thought of hisself usin' worms (he'd ruther been offered leprosy), H. H. Orviston was struck dumb. It was a piss-poor time to be struck so: he only smarted up enough t'howl out one terrible word 'fore the cowpuncher let fly with his lead baseball.… The splash o' the lead spurred Bozinski back into action. The sinker plummeted down, the steelhead plummeted up, the two lines crossed, and Henning Hale-Orviston's 2x nipplet snapped like a cobweb: Nijerkov leaped one last time an' was seen no more.…

H. H. took his three-piece nine-foot eighty-dollar flyrod an' busted it over his knee four times. He threw the splinters as far as he could, which was maybe six, eight feet. Then he picked up a waterlogged tree branch an' advanced on the young cowpoke in a manner that was s'posed t'look menacin' but which really looked sorta surly an' pitiful, considerin' the size o' his white-meaty little English-man muscles. At least his voice sounded good: "You had best refrain from that pole and defend yourself!" he boomed, "because one of the bloody twain of us is going to journey perforce into that river to search for my fish, by jorj!"

"So be it, Slicker," said the cowpoke coolly. "An' I'll guaran-goddamn-tee ya it ain't gonna be me!" Settin' down the castin' pole an' steppin' away from the water, he took off his vest and ratty Stetson…

an' a long braid o' pretty blond hair fell from under the hat an' down acrosst a chest that even ol' Hen could see was far from flat. By Bleedin' Jorj! The cowpoke was a girl!

Henning Hale-Orviston hunkered down on a rock an' started to laugh. So he says. The cowgirl says he was cryin'. "Well, come on," says she. "Come on an' fight me!" (Bein' used to her brothers and unused to British Chivalrousness, she waited fer action, holdin' up a small but damned efficient pair o' dukes.) Hen just kept on laughin'—the high, hysterical squeals of a man whose brains rode on down the trail an' left him all alone on the nightwide prairie.

Then, forgotten among the rocks, the Sears Roebuck started screamin' like it was alive. "Wellp," says the girl. "If you're only gonna set there, I'm gonna man my pole, 'cause it's plain as pee there's a fish on it." She pulled a bowie knife an' stuck it in a handy log, addin' "Try an' jump me an' I'll gut ya!"

Hen's weird caterwaulin' got berserker an' berserker while he watched the girl pick up the Roebuck, set the hook into somethin' damn heavy, an'—in a unsightly tug-a-war that didn' last five minutes—haul a thirty-pound ballet-dancin' steelhead onto the bank… an H. H. Orviston bucktail streamer still stickin' in the corner of its jaw!

Poor Hen's lunatic laughter floated out over the swirlin' eddy an' up the black rimrock walls; it ricocheted an' spilled undimmed outta that canyon an' onto the scrub plains where a pack o' maraudin' coyotes took it up in glass-smashin' unison dissonance—with cadenzas. From coyote to coyote it carried out over the desert an' jackpine country, givin' cowboys an' ranchwives an' loggers the willies an' their kids creamed jeans from Mosier clear east to Ukiah, an' north on up the Columbia River Basin to the Seven Devils Mountains, where it belonged. The followin' Sunday there was a rash o' new faces in the region's Houses of Worship, an' every hymn was sung fortissimoso in hopes a drowndin' out all recollection o' that godawful laugh still boundin' from bone to bone inside the troubled skulls o' the faithful.…

The cowgirl found a driftwood club an' whacked ol' Burrzinsky till one eyeball popped out. This she took as a sign that he was dead. She'd have liked to've sat an' admired her fish awhile—but things weren't so picturesque somehow with the one eye hangin' down the cheek on a nerve string an' the blue-devil din pourin' nonstop outta the Slicker. So she turned to the rubble of a man on the rocks…

an' that strange, universal compassion women have fer any creature too wounded, sick, or crazy to care fer its ownself suddenly flooded her heart. Seein' H. H. soaked to the gills, scraped an' bloodied, rubbin' his eyes', huggin' his knees, suckin' his thumbs, howlin' an' howlin', she gathered deadwood an' scraps o' nine-foot flyrod fer a fire. From the saddlebag she produced a flask o' Redeye, took a stiff swig, poured a drop into ol' Nijerkey's toothy mouth, an' passed it on to Hen—who left off his warwhoopin' an' downed half the bottle at a chug: a damned nice piece o' drinkin'. As campfire an' firewater dried his clothes an' brains respectively, he finally seen the cowgirl was a pretty little thing an' a differnt fire lit up an' dried him out quicker'n what wood or whiskey could o' done. Meanwhile she was hittin' the Redeye pretty good herself, an' feelin' pretty bad 'bout bustin' the Slicker's 2x pippit an' catchin' the fish he'd pooped out for her; an' it was mighty dark an' lonely; an' the coyotes sounded weird tonight; an' the fire was cozy an' the whiskey good, an' the Slicker awful pitiful lookin'; an' she'd've liked to've cheered him up, an' she'd growed up watchin' horses an' bulls an' chickens an' her brothers; an' the blind red passion was siftin' through the air; an' she judged Hen was quite a feller, even if she hadn't figgered which kind he was quite a feller of.…

So as the flyrod blazed an' the juniper brands smoked off the evil spirits, as the river grumbled an' the crickets sang loud, Henning Hale-Orviston an' the cowgirl cuddled up an' giggled—an' damn if they didn't fall in love, or leastways into what folks in those situations fall in. When the night grew cold the two grew warm by beddin' down in the sand, an'—

—just their luck: a child was conceived.

One day the cowgirl would name that child Gus. But highfalutin' Hen'd stick'm with Augusteen.

That's how Zeke tells it. And that's more or less how it was. The cowgirl was Zeke's little sister, Carolina Carper, my very own Ma.


The Rogue River Fishing War

I'm a-goin' fishin', Mama's goin' fishin'

An' de baby's goin' fishin' too.

Bet yo' life

Yo' sweet wife's

Gonna catch mo' fish dan you.

—Taj Mahal

I am ashamed to report that back in '53 my parents were not as scrupulous (nor as affluent) as they are now. Upon learning that their riverside romance had ignited an inexorable series of metabolic transformations in Ma's belly, they drew up a secret pact: due to the incompatibility of Sears Roebuck fishing gear to endorsement money, they would proceed as if Nijinsky had been the conquest of H2O with his cremated cane rod, 2x tippet, and name-brand equipage, and Ma would forever hold her peace. Thus the steelhead's gaping treble-hook wounds were described as evidence of an earlier run-in with a less-skilled angler, and the repeatedly fractured skull and popped eye were attributed to an overdose of adrenaline coursing through the veins of the conquering hero. Official photographs and measurements were taken, the corpse was mummified and hung over the fireplace, and H2O unabashedly cranked out one of his patented How-To-Land-A-Lunker stories full of useless tips for flyfishing rookies and ill-disguised hints that Nijinsky would never have met his demise were it not for SuchandSuch-brand rods and reels and lines and boots and hat and creels and undershorts. Within three months of the Deschutes River Episode they collected enough endorsement money to finance a hasty wedding and two-week winter steelheading honeymoon on the Rogue River—H2O's idea being that the Rogue trip would soften Ma's Desert-Ranch to Portland-Suburb culture shock, but might still wean her of her homespun ways; he could take some photos and dredge up a few articles if the fishing were any good—maybe something like "Flyfishing Bride" or "Love and Lunkers on the Rogue"—thereby allowing the trip to pay for itself; the only unforeseeable problem was the weather, and if it should sleet ceaselessly, so much the better for consummating the marriage ad infinitum beside a cozy fire in their suite at the lodge. Such was the plan. So much for plans.

The "Rogue River Fishing War" at least served the traditional purpose of the honeymoon, for honeymoons are intended to seal the union of bride and groom till death does them part. But whereas we imagine the usual chemistry of such excursions to be a uniting through corporeal and spiritual familiarity—a sharing of meals, scenic wonders, wines and bathrooms, of kisses, caresses, and inane little foofoo names—my parents enjoyed no such chemistry. Their honeymoon was more fusion than union—the resulting bond not that of lovebirds, but of a tough metal alloy. The effete angler and the raucous cowgirl were the materia prima, the Rogue River the crucible, worms and flies the catalysts, angling the white-hot fire, and a marriage that has stood the tests of time, backbiting, frontbiting, hells, highwaters, and haymakers the resulting compound.

Because of the extreme bias of the War's two survivors, I can only list those events which they agree took place:

1. H2O's efforts to instruct Ma in the hallowed art of fly-angling met with the most invisible species of success, achieving a kind of catharsis when the instructee's reluctant attempts at false-casting left a #4 Humptulips Hellion dangling from the lobe of the instructor's ear.

2. To atone for the ear, Ma chucked her flyfishing equipment (a costly wedding gift from H2O) far out into the roily waters of the Rogue and returned to the Sears Crane-and-Cable.

3. Entrenched like European War troopers in their respective styles, my parents proceeded to grimly ply the waters while the honeymoon degenerated into a two-man Fishing Derby. H2O denies there having occurred a contest, but pictures of him in his 1954 Outdoor Life article, "Roguish Steelies Love Brightly Colored Flies," reveal the face of a man strapped to a bullet-pocked wall—hollow eye sockets, stubbled beard, strained grin at the Kodak he adored. It was a contest all right. And H2O's appearance was inspired by

4. The Fishing Derby Results: Ma—thirteen fish landed; thirteen fish killed; four fish lost once hooked; largest fish seventeen pounds. H2O—three fish landed; zero fish killed; eight fish lost once hooked; largest fish nine pounds.

5. H2O's policy of releasing his catch after a quick photograph resulted in the ugliest altercation of all. It seems that two of his three prizes were identical seven-pound bucks that, though caught on successive days, were taken from the same hole. Pondering this, Ma waited till they sat sipping whiskies in the crowded lodge bar, then suddenly loudly accused him of catching a single seven-pounder, snapping its picture, burying it in the sand, digging it up and photographing it again the next day, throwing it away, and then shamelessly claiming to have released it unharmed! (I must point out here that apart from the Nijinsky fabrication—for which he paid in blood—I have never known my father to lie about his angling accomplishments, not even such typical fibs as the adding of inches and ounces to fish taken in the Long Ago.) H2O heard her out, threw his Scotch in her face, and walked away; just as he reached the door, Ma's chair splintered against the wall over his head.

6. At the lodge, anglers and employees viewed the fledgling marriage with rabid interest: bets were made and small fortunes won and lost as wagerers gambled on what date or hour the divorce would commence, who would murder whom, or what article of tackle, furniture, or anatomy would be destroyed next. H2O was considered the villain of the drama—unjustly I think, but Ma stacked the deck by giving steelhead steaks to everyone she saw. Soon a cavalcade of rumors marched in their wake, among them these: a) the famous Henning Hale-Orviston couldn't catch his ass in a fish hatchery. b) the only fly of Orviston's that had ever hooked anything worth keeping was the one manufactured by Levi Strauss and Company. c) the increasingly wasted appearance of the groom as the war dragged on could signify but one thing: he was spawned out.

7. The barroom outburst proved the first of a series of eruptions wherein the cultural, genetic, mental, and metaphysical makeup of bride and groom received simultaneous (and therefore, luckily, incomprehensible) slander. Being the less skilled rhetorician, Ma ended one argument by punctuating H2O in the nose. Whether he didn't punch back because he's a gentleman (as he maintains) or because he'd have been used as a floor mop (as Uncle Zeke maintains) is open to debate.

8. Strangest of all were sudden truces called at unexpected hours of day or night wherein Derby contestants would schizophrenically and unconditionally disarm, disrobe, and engage in fiery embraces.


  • Praise for The River Why:

    "A whirlwind, madcap, humorous and sensitive novel"—New York Times
  • "A hymn to the waters of the earth and the wholeness of life. It is also funny."—Miami Herald
  • "A veritable epic of flyfishing... done in a high-velocity, exuberant style, sprawling in scale, heedless of form... The feeling for and evocation of the imperiled natural world is rhapsodic in its intensity; the writing energetic, literary in a distinctly American way... So amiable is the prevailing tone that the flowing narrative is able to absorb Koranic and Eastern mysticisms, Tao, Sufism, Zen-the religions of oneness and gospel of love-without turning into the kind of maudlin choral chanting that so often disfigures treatments of fusion of self and the world."—Publishers Weekly
  • This is a modern-repeat, modern -tale of maturity and redemption.—Christian Science Monitor

On Sale
Sep 8, 2015
Page Count
304 pages

David James Duncan

About the Author

David James Duncan is the author of the novels The River Why and The Brothers K, the story collection River Teeth, and the nonfiction collections My Story as Told by Water (a National Book Award finalist), and God Laughs & Plays. His work has won three Pacific Northwest Booksellers Awards, two Pushcart Prizes, a Lannan Fellowship, the Western States Book Award, inclusion in Best American Sports Writing, Best American Catholic Writing, two volumes of Best American Essays, five volumes of Best American Spiritual Writing, an honorary doctorate from University of Portland, the American Library Association's 2004 Award for the Preservation of Intellectual Freedom (with co-author Wendell Berry), and other honors. David lives on a charming little trout stream in Missoula, Montana, in accord with his late friend Jim Harrison’s advice to finish his life disguised as a creek.

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