Dreaming of Elspeth (UG)

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Elspeth loved me despite what I had become. A salmon, thrashing about in a seine that the crew was dragging out of the river. She, in her gum boots, was ready to knock me on the head until she saw my eyes and cried, "No! No!" Then she was letting me go.

    It had been the same the first time I was caught, when still in a state of disbelief I knew I had phased somehow from man to fish, just like that, the terror in me like a joy because I lived. But that look on her face had been there again. What was it about, not sorrow, not fear - more like shame - her "No! No!" telling me guilt was the cause of it.

* * *

    "What the hell," yelled Alastair, having seen Elspeth let loose a large, silver salmon.

    'That's two in a week', he thought, and money out of pocket and all because she was letting her emotions get in the way of the work. He had to manage the skiff, cranking it up the slipway and securing it before confronting her. Meanwhile, she and the crew finished picking salmon from the net, placing them in wooden boxes for transportation to the filleting shed. The seine was laid on a wheelbarrow and wheeled away to the hut and once everything was stowed, the shutters closed and bolted, Alastair cornered her.

    "Well. Why?"

    As there was no response but a faint shrug, he stuck his face in hers in a violent motion, saying nothing, his glare enough to frighten one of lesser spirit.

    "You would have too if you had seen its eyes," she said, feeling stupid and looking sullen.

    This had been the second incident with a fish and Alastair wondered if she was losing it and went at her again.

    "It's Iain, isn't it - but it can't be Iain, can it? A fish is just a damn fish and can't have eyes like Iain's. Iain has gone and now that fish is gone and what good will all this nonsense do us?" He was being deliberately cruel.

    Elspeth had kept her husband's share of the business and understood Alastair's frustration. So far she was proving to be an unreliable partner but given the recurrence of what she was finding in the net, she could not help it.

    Her husband Iain, business partner and friend of Alastair, had drowned on the first day of the fishing season. Thrown off balance when the seine seemed to snag on the river bed, he had tumbled over the stern of the skiff into the unraveling net. The skiff, towed by Alastair on a landline, had been hauled in quickly but not fast enough to save him. He was there, drowned in the tangle, no jump left in him, with a fine catch of lively salmon by his side.

    Elspeth helped haul in the skiff then had pulled at the seine with the rest of them, its long folds wriggling with fish until Iain's body appeared. Her keening could not be comforted. It got so bad that Alastair seized her roughly and tried to shake it out of her. At that her sensibility returned, her eyes focused on his face, her crying stopped and she hugged him fiercely. He responded dispassionately, trying to get past his feelings of anger at her loss of control. It was some time before they came out of it.

    She was too well aware of Alastair's concerns but her mind was still in a panic at what she had seen - a great, cold fish, arching like sprung steel with eyes that would have seemed strange in any fish - staring at her. No wonder she hove it back in the water.

    Alastair was calling her. The truck loaded and ready to go. He sounded impatient and told her to hop too but she moved as though coming out of a trance which further tested him. The sound of the horn startled her and she moved quickly to her seat.

    "We haven't got all day," he grumbled.

    She sat back trying to hide her emotion, but it was no use. Through tightly closed eyes tears welled and though her pride fought against it, she convulsed in sobs.

    Alastair glanced at her once but drove on, grim-faced and silent. He could not afford the guilt as he had a living to make and could not get on with it if Elspeth's hysterics were to constantly remind him of their betrayal. The boxes of fish he was delivering to the filleting shed had to be his reality.

* * *

    My terror vanished shortly after my struggles subsided. Drowned I was and I knew it, but some power, undoubtedly benign, had transported me into the being of a kingly salmon.

    The shock of knowing I lived was electric, for the quintessential I still survived. To prove it I had leaped into the sunlight, shocking the hell out of old Jim Brodie who was casting at the other end of the pool. I'm sure he had never seen such a fish dancing on its tail, the crash as I fell back sending ripples towards him. But I was not out to be caught for his sake and my impromptu meeting with Elspeth lay heavy with me. Why was she more ashamed than bereaved? Was it really guilt that caused her anguish, the Calvinism drilled into her by her father taking its toll? She should know in her mind it had been my fault. Tangled in the net, I could not remove my seaboots and filling with water, they dragged me down.

    The memory of my transformation was of a green light suffusing an underwater world, of startled little fishes, of a struggle against the intake of water and the horror of succumbing. Worse had been my fear of leaving Elspeth. Then came the shock of knowing that I lived, that I could still feel for her even as some mythic power claimed me for its own.

* * *

    Elspeth was conscious that Alastair was driving too fast but that failed to distract her from the memories she had summoned up of Iain. He was integral to her inner life and she could still see him, tall, solemn and red-haired, his gray-blue eyes set in a rather gaunt face.

    She had met him in her first year at university, where she was taking environmental biology. He was floored the moment he saw her, her smile imprinting him for life like one of Lorenz's ducklings.

    Iain's PhD, based on research into the causes of the declining East Coast salmon fishery, was a work that Elspeth joined in. It meant spending days and sometimes weeks, among the headwaters of the several rivers that had their source in the high back country. These areas were protected, kept in a pristine state so that the redds, or spawning grounds of the salmon, would remain unpolluted by human activity. Until he met Elspeth, he had gone alone, never imagining a companion, least of all a female. It was a wonderful time to be in love and finding such joy in life, they felt their future happiness was assured. Once they acquired their respective degrees, they would marry.

    However, in meeting Iain, she had also met his libertine friend Alastair, whom he had known since boyhood. The trouble was that when Iain left her to finish his post-graduate work at UBC, Alastair made it brazenly plain he was out to seduce her. She could see there would come a time to teach him a lesson, perhaps by simply demonstrating her independence. He was quite mistaken then, when he gleefully thought his arguments were the reasons that finally broke her.

    She picked a Saturday when her roommates Marg and Helen had gone home for the weekend before giving him the nod. That night, using loneliness as an excuse, she insisted she take him out for a beer. He accepted of course but come closing time she teased him by refusing to go up to his place then pacified him with the suggestion that he walk her home.

    "The girls will be abed," she said, "so there'll be nothing doing - besides, we have a rule that forbids sleeping over with boyfriends." She could see his disappointment.

    'Poor thing', she thought, but Alastair manfully went along with it in the hope that there would be a next time. At the door she let him kiss her but refused a caress, stirring his lust as much as she was stirring her own. At that moment she flinched inwardly at the thought of Iain and her imminent betrayal but she had to prove herself and with a bloody minded come hither, led Alastair up to her room. His trepidation vanished when he saw the apartment was empty.

    Shortly afterwards, when Alastair was feeling blissfully tired and had expectations of staying the night, she oh, too cheerfully, tossed him out. He walked home in a daze wondering if in the getting, he had been had.

    Alone, she fell to dreaming of Iain. From the beginning she had wondered about his love of water. Robust as a polar bear, he had a preternatural affinity for swimming under it for what seemed five or ten minutes at a time, even in freezing water with a skim of ice on its surface. She had watched him in deep pools, salmon following him, the wet mop of his hair like carageen waving about the rocks at low tide. Once she watched him thrust above the surface, out to his waist, arms akimbo, a shout on his lips, pieces of new ice falling in a crackle about him. In that instant she had thought 'Give him a liester, put a crown on his red head and he'd be the river god incarnate'.

* * *

    When Elspeth released me, I had swung away downstream towards the sea, a powerful incoming tide against me with thousands of salmon streaking by on their way upriver. There was a place that tugged at me, tugged at my memory, a place where I wished to rest. It was the pool under the Old Stone Bridge, an ancient gathering place for those newly arrived from the sea. There I would be out of the swing of things and have time to think. After a long while I felt the flood still as it balanced between its ebb and flow until the moon rose, its rays fingering the black depths. About then, a sudden shadow fell upon the surface, sending us all swiftly to the bottom and I wondered if an otter had entered our refuge.

    But it was Elspeth who came, walking in from under the bridge and wading deep and deeper into the pool. She kept her feet, for her seaboots, filling with water, gave her stability even as they dragged her down. Then she was in over her head and letting herself sink through the fathoms, her form caressed by moonlight, her breath streaming freely to the surface. Aghast, I went to her and watched her drown. I could do nothing, not weep, not show any gesture, but look into her eyes, fins fanning as her hair settled about her, wreathing her face, her eyes still open, her hands reaching out to me.

    The ebb took her slowly, then quickly downriver to the sea with me in tow. We surged over the bar where she slipped away from me, an apparition drifting over the sand and down the long slope into the deep. I watched her go, a strange feeling urging me to be patient as it was her time now. I turned inshore and joined a school of migrating salmon that waited the favor of a flowing tide.

    A few hours passed before it turned and suddenly she was beside me, I sensed her sleek and silvery in the dark. A sense of urgency ran through the shoal and thousands of migrating salmon moved as one in the tug of fast water.

* * *

    Several months later Alastair was fishing his favorite ripple at the end of a pool where the full flow of the river settled after exiting a narrow gorge. He was after the brown trout that ventured from their lairs in the deep water to catch flies in the rough, shallower water downstream.

    Casting expertly and watching the fly float on the current, he figured he had another hour or so of daylight in which to pursue his sport. A patient man, he was content enough at having already caught two fine trout but as there was plenty of daylight left, he would continue to try his luck. Fishing alone was the only time he had peace of mind so he would enjoy it while he could.

    In killing the last fish he had suddenly glimpsed its eye as it went glassy in his grip. It had been months since Iain and Elspeth had met their respective fates and the eye brought it all together again.

    It had taken a few months for him to relax and with her out of the way the business had become nicely profitable. His guilt too, about the sly release then the abrupt tug on the rope that led to Iain's drowning, also subsided. Though Elspeth's body had not been found, he knew damn well where she had gone. 'Good riddance to both of them', he thought, they deserved each other.

    He saw a large fin charge up the ripple and into the first pool then came a tug on his line and the reel whined. It was no trout he had seen but a salmon. Trying to coax it out of the pool, he moved gingerly along a series of underwater ledges that led into the gorge. He was hardly aware of this in his concentrated effort to tire the fish. After a while it grew so dark, he had to go back which further increased his determination to land the brute, for such he imagined it. His grip tightened allowing no slack in his retreat. Still balanced on a ledge, and for the umpteenth time, he very slowly reeled it in, his rod held high. There was a sudden release of tension which almost threw him off balance. 'Damn', he thought, 'I've lost him'. Not so, the salmon lunged heavily bending the rod until its tip was under water at which moment Alistair slipped. Too late he released his grip then water was filling his waders and he sank out of sight.

    Darkness descended quickly and as though awaiting the moment, a full moon soaring from behind a nearby hill, flooded the countryside with a cold light. In the interior gloom of the gorge a huge salmon arose and danced on its tail, its silver vying with the moonlight before it fell back into the depths with a great splash.

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