by Heather Goodman

Last August, huddled around a wood stove, watching twilight settle in, my parents, brother, and I shared a bottle of port appropriately named Nostalgia. The sole guests at a quaint lodge in Alaska, we had the privilege of fishing the creeks attentively, absorbing the landscape intently, and relearning each other intimately.

The red salmon, the fish that prove the existence of adaptation, evolution, and, most of all, lust, move further into death in the short week we are among them. We see them in all of their last life stages. The salmon stampede as we ride up river in the boat; the fish rush and dive alongside the craft in a flurry of red, frothing the water. Up river they are haunting, magical, wondering, looming without a sense of place. So strange to stand in the water amongst them, lingering amidst them, wanting to spare them in their “afterglow,” as our guide calls their last days. Still, hook into one by accident and they fight like a man driven by desire. The salmon, many already dead on the banks, are juxtaposed with the fish we strive to catch, char and rainbows, fish in mint condition: healthy, with girth and breadth, clear and clean, vibrant and some even audacious in their color schemes.

The fish seem to have stolen their color from their geography. The land and sky humble me. Dad and I cannot decide if it is beautifully vicious or viciously beautiful. A number of days are positively sublime, colors heightened as if glacial water rolls over everything, giving it pulsating reds, greens, livelier yellows and purples, blinding whites and deepest blacks, all of it coruscating, as stones in water do. This incredibly raw, dangerous beauty makes me inhale longer, wade deeper, cast farther. And the evenings, long and late arriving, produce sunsets to match, as if the night is sorry to cover such tremendous color in darkness at all, even if it is only for three hours. The nightfall, eternal and hermetic, seeps crimsons that reflect the reds from the river, the curves of the primitive fish, their tight jaws. Molten oranges bleed the lines of the trout’s front fins. The brash golds are the char’s garish speckles. I have never seen cloud shadows before, but here they exist, elongated, darkening the sky prematurely.

In the light of our last day my brother and I are once again engaged in the old fight of who caught the bigger fish. For once I hold the trophy, and we are splashing in the glacial water, shoving our fish further out in front of us so they appear larger in pictures that Dad is taking, while Mom laughs with tears down her cheeks. Instantly I recognize this moment: we are again eight and ten, thrilled by fish slime and skipping rocks; reveling in the doting eyes of our parents, the sunburn on the back of our necks, the laughter spilling over streams, and the swimming with trout.

© 2005 by Heather Goodman.
Heather Goodman formerly wrote for newspapers and a magazine and taught high school English in Pennsylvania. She now teaches English at Dunwoody College and lives in Edina with her dog, where, at the moment, he chases his tail.