By Bruce Woods
A river runs through her.
When she wishes to (much as you would indulge in a languorous stretch), she takes the shape of a net bowed by the current. Detritus carried by the flow (leaves, bits of stick, the scraps of things that have died upstream) catch against her and linger, as do the small fishes (stickleback, immature trout, and salmon fry), that spend their days alternately daring against and surrendering to the strength of the river. She keeps none of this when she returns to a more compact form. The brief capture is akin to a spinster brushing her fingers over collected figurines; a tallying, a remembering.
Her river is a strong and narrow thing, born of high mountain springs but fed to a mighty rush each year by snowmelt and the grudging surrender of glaciers. No lazy, grassy meanders for it; just rough tumbles and the surge of deep channels, and sharp whirlpools of eddy where it beats its way around protruding rocks. Because she is within it, it is a lucky river. When the salmon runs of its sisters falter and fail, it is reliably full of these creatures that fight their way upstream to spawn and die. Many anglers come to pursue them each year, and though the current is strong and the footing both rocky and uncertain, few of those that stumble beneath it actually drown.
Few, but some; it is a lucky river, not an unnatural one.
Each species of salmon, from the smaller sockeyes that are legion to the Chinooks, big as tuna, has its own set span of years between birth and return. The sea-time that separates these is solely spent in eating and growing, building fat and muscle for the eventual suicidal return to the river’s currents, which they must batter against without pausing to feed before earning the brief ecstasy of mating and the slow dissolution of their bodies that follows. They leave the shore paved with corpses, food for gulls and ravens and bears.
Her cycle is on a far slower schedule. Human generations have tolled their passing since man or woman last saw her form. Her time has, however, come around. Early in the summer, before the annual migrations fight their way upstream, she feels an old impatience. Beneath the ripple-blinded waters of a long pool, she draws her body into a shape almost forgotten.
There is only one fisherman upon this stretch of her river. Too eager to wait for the crowds of salmon, he plies the waters for lesser prey; casting tiny nymph flies, each no larger than a grain of corn, upstream and across, to bounce and stutter across the hidden rocks in search of a hungry trout.
She teases him at first, with quick plucks at his thread-and-feather creations as they drift by; and time and again he lifts the rod tip to set the hook only to find nothing, as his line jerks free of the tug of water and tumbles around him like tossed string. These failures only convince him that he is close to success, however, and he works the pool with eager determination. When the next cast drifts close she nimbly wraps the leader around the jut of a waterlogged root.
He strikes again, momentarily thrilled by the resistance he feels, but quickly identifies the snag for what it is. Jerking the fly rod up and down, tight line hissing and slashing free of the water with each attempt, he tries to work the hook free of its hidden capture. Finally, despairing of saving his tackle, he points the rod-tip at the water and pulls to break the leader free, his face turned to one side to protect his eyes from the returning whip-snap of the parted line.
This is her moment.
While his head is away she rises from the water and composes herself upon a riverbank rock. She is there, water still streaming off of her, when, line snapped free, he turns to face upriver again.
Startled, he takes an involuntary step backward. A rock rolls beneath his feet, and the current conspires with it to try to take him down. The result is a brief, splashing, whooping dance, his long fly rod flailing as he struggles for balance. She is watching as he rights himself.
“Don’t fall in,” she says. “I did. It’s cold.” She shapes each syllable carefully, like a child handling a knife. Her voice is soft and new and seems to surprise her mouth.
Struggling heavy-legged against the current in his baggy waders, he makes his way to her. At first glance, he had thought her skin green, but surely that was a trick of the water flowing from her and the leaf-dappled light. As he gets closer the illusion disappears, and he sees that she is pale and lithe and lovely, and without a scrap of clothing.
“My God,” he says, averting his eyes from her nakedness. “Here, let me help you.” He offers her his many-pocketed fishing vest, heavy with the tools of his sport. She is small enough that it covers her from shoulders to mid-thigh. “Who are you? Is there someone looking for you” Somewhere I should take you?”
“My name is Neckan,” she says, wrapping the khaki vest tight around herself, dark spots spreading as it soaks the wet from her skin. “There is no one. But could you take me someplace warm, and dry?”
She is beautiful enough to derail his reason, to hold his rush of questions at bay.
He takes her home and finds among his clothing a shirt that serves as a dress for her, leaving her looking at once lost in its folds and lush beneath. He feeds her (broth is what she seems to crave, hot and thin). He gives her his bed and lies all night unsleeping, chivalric, upon his couch.
In the days to come she provides him with answers enough to allow him to let her stay; vague little things that shy away from further questions like a wild creature in a cage. “I’m alone,” “I didn’t fall, I jumped,” and “The river didn’t want me so it gave me back. To you.”
So he buys her clothing, accepts her into his life with wonder at his luck. And one night soon thereafter she leads him to his own bed. Beneath him, she is a wild and rolling and hungry thing. Her passion both frightens and thrills him, but the latter grows and the former recedes with time.
He introduces her as his lover, and his friends, casual by nature, accept her without question. A couple now, they fall into a life together; one of fierce sex and rare, oblique conversation. He has never been happier.
As the summer progresses, he is content to give her the time he would once have spent fishing. His friends, though, eager anglers, return from their trips unsatisfied. The salmon runs are poor things this year, they say. The river, flush with runoff from an unusual summer’s heat, is fierce and unforgiving. There are drownings; four fishermen first, and then a child who strayed too close to a crumbling bank.
Not knowing why he tries to keep these things from her, but she hears snippets of the conversations around her. She grows morose, and their loving loses its fervor. Then one night he finds himself atop her, thrusting toward his own pleasure, only to realize that she is limp beneath him, and crying.
He rolls away, guilty, his own passion instantly gone, and she turns to him, strands of hair pasted to her face with tears.
“You have to take me back,” she says.
It is almost autumn by the time she convinces him, and the salmon runs, such as they were, are only a trickle.
There are few anglers still trying the waters, and none within sight as they walk to the pool where he found her. Wordless, and with a faint smile (from a mouth that has been bereft of smiles for some time now), she slips into the cold current and, asking the question with only her eyes, reaches up to him.
Some say drowning is the most painful of deaths, though firsthand testimony is clearly lacking.
It is not so for him, as her arms, clearly green now, draw him close to her beneath the battering of the current. Against all reason, he believes in his own immortality as he opens his mouth to choke the river’s hard coldness into his lungs, as his heart races and then surrenders to the fate of the few salmon scattered around him, as blackness blooms its rose-petals behind his eyes.
He believes, and he believes.
And then, for a mercifully brief time, he doesn’t.
Bruce Woods lives in Eagle River with his wife and two cats now that the children have moved out. He is a professional writer/editor with more than 30 years in magazine publishing, having worked as editor of Mother Earth News and Alaska Magazine, among others, and having published both nonfiction and poetry books. Prairie Schooner magazine featured his work in its “Writing from Alaska” issue. His Birdhouse Book, brought out by Sterling/Lark, is still in print and has sold more than 100,000 copies and his new book Royal Blood is available at amazon.com.