In August 1998, while buried in work on behalf of the endangered salmon of my region, the Pacific Northwest, I was driven to despair by the seemingly unbridgeable gulf between American politics and biological reality. Literally hundreds of species of flora and fauna — from orcas, otters, and eagles, to riparian cedar trees, salmonberries, and wildflowers — depend upon the living bodies and nitrogen-rich carcasses of the Pacific salmon for their survival. By itself, this fact makes salmon recovery efforts almost infinitely more important than the unbridled generation of hydroelectricity at such infamously deadly dams as the four on the Snake River. Yet Stalinesque federal energy policies entrenched since the Cold War, treacherously biased research by the National Marine Fisheries Service, and ceaseless lies by public figures such as Washington’s Senator Slade Gorton and Oregon’s ex-Senator Mark Hatfield (who, respectively, have called wild salmon expendable “remnant species,” and claimed that 80 percent of the Columbia and Snake Rivers’ salmon survive hydroelectric dams, when 99.7 percent of them do not) guarantee the continued unraveling of the tapestry of life.
In the midst of my despair, I had a dream from which I woke overwhelmed and gasping. I have not seen the world in quite the same way since. Though my dream was about a trout, not a salmon, and though everyone to whom I’ve told it has had a different interpretation, all of them insightful, for me the meaning was never in question: whether I can convey it or not, I woke from this dream flooded by the feeling that a so-called “species” such as the coho, sockeye, steelhead, chinook — is a gift created in an unending Beginning, and a product less of evolution or natural selection than of unconditional love; I woke convinced that these primordial populations of fish bear greater resemblance to what we envision when we hear the word angel or god than to what we imagine when we hear the words endangered species; I woke feeling that to cause the extinction of such beings — as the United States is now doing under federal mandate — is an act not just of biocide, but of spiritual suicide.
Strange to say, I woke from the same dream with a kind of heightened calm that has guided my salmon work ever since, and even consoles me a little as salmon populations continue to crash. There are beings born of energies that neither industrial folly, nor my own, can scathe.
in the dream, I am standing in Montana’s Flathead Lake — the largest body of fresh water west of the Mississippi — teaching my friend Sherman Alexie how to fly-fish. The water, the air, my outward instruction, my inward strategizing: all feel as real as can be. What doesn’t, quite, is Sherman. Normally voluble, thoughtful, scathing, and hilarious, today he is silent, focused on his casting. His casts are looking good, too. Maybe fly-fishing — which requires thoughtfulness and can be both scathing and hilarious — has sponged him up. That’s what I love about this art: there’s no need for an identity, hardly; and certainly no need for words.
There are lake trout in Flathead. Mackinaw. They’re not native to these waters, whereas Sherman, a Spokane Indian, is a native fisherman. The world abounds in so many ironies of this kind that I can only believe irony is indigenous. The Mackinaw, in any case, live way out in the deeps, and Sherman and I are boatless. So I’ve brought him to where the Swan River runs into the lake, at a sheltered bay ringed by boutiques, hotels, restaurants, galleries, and tourists — not the sort of place I normally like to fish. But Sherman’s an urban Indian these days, indigenous to basketball courts, lecture halls, airports. He’s also a new dad, sleep-deprived and punchy. And he doesn’t swim a lick. One false step on one of my favorite rivers, and I’d be left to tell my friend’s wise-eyed three-month-old that he’s now an orphan. So this overcivilized, close-to-the hospital spot looks about perfect to me. I’ve even seen a few cutthroat trout cruising the shoals, though today’s agenda is simply to show my friend how to wade without drowning, read the water, handle a rod, cast.
When I look his way, though, a miracle! This long-haired whippersnapper who’s never fly-fished in his life is playing a huge lake trout. Bigger than huge — a gargantuan, hook-jawed male. Sherman’s even got it tired. I see the Mackinaw starting to give up the fight in the clear green water not thirty feet away. I can’t believe its size: fifty, sixty pounds. The catch of a lifetime!
Rubberneckers are already collecting behind us, shouting idiot encouragement, idiot advice. Damn. I tell Sherman to pretend that he’s Lot’s wife and that the people are Sodom and Gomorrah. I tell him to pretend his fly line’s an air tube and the fish is his child, and if the connection breaks, the child dies. Sherman’s already so focused, though, that he treats me like Sodom and Gomorrah. He’s handling his impossible fish perfectly, keeping the rod high, merely suggesting, with steady pressure, the direction he’d prefer the fish to go. And, huge though it is, the trout has about had it.
Looking around for a place to land the fish, I find trouble. We’re backed up as close as we can get to the shore, but are still belly deep in water, with a head-high sea wall trapping us where we are. There’s no beach, no shallows, no place to land the trout for hundreds of yards — and probably not a net in Montana big enough to scoop it up. Seeing the difficulty, Sherman looks expectantly at me. I feel my instincts kick in. I’ve landed salmon and steelhead in worse fixes than this. I ask, “Do you want to kill this fish?”
Sherman nods without hesitation. It’s Indian tradition. Part of my own Celtic tradition, too: Fionn McCool did not catch and release the Salmon of Wisdom; he ate it. That’s how he became Ireland’s greatest hero.
But what an incredible creature this is! I say, “You’re sure?”
My friend nods again, and I don’t argue. My catch-and-release fishing is a civility necessitated by my country’s enormous population and lethal industrial ways. The fate of this fish is between it and Sherman. It’s Duncan-clan code, and an honor, to serve my friend.
I tell Sherman to hold the Mackinaw’s head as steady as he can near the surface, but to let it run if my actions frighten it into a fresh outburst. He nods. I turn to the lake trout and focus. Jesus, what an animal! No way to tail it: my hands wouldn’t reach halfway around. I’ve got no choice, in this deep water, but to grasp it by the gills — a prospect the catch-and-release Yankee in me finds appalling. To touch a trout’s gills is almost always fatal, causing bleeding that eventually kills the fish no matter how gently it’s released. I ask Sherman a third time if he really wants to kill and eat this beast. I hear nothing but Indian in his yes.
OK. I wade around my friend till the trout is directly in front of me, then relax my shoulders, take a slow, deep breath, and ease my hands up under the fish’s belly, where they can’t be seen. Now I’m stroking the Mackinaw’s cold, smooth, human-sized abdomen. It seems to welcome this, seems to relax down into my hands. “My God,” I whisper. “Look at it!”
As if Sherman were looking at anything else.
Now comes the necessary treachery. I slide my hands, palms up, along the fish’s body till I’m cradling it beneath the head the way a lover might his beloved before a kiss. The Mackinaw gazes downward and doesn’t struggle, doesn’t even move. I could make my attempt now. Knowing, though, that all hell is about to break loose, and that this creature is strong enough to break my grip, if not my fingers, I’m not quite satisfied with this approach. Every predator it’s ever known has attacked from above. I need its trust before I betray it — and after the betrayal, I’ll need the strength of my legs. I should attack from below. The water’s cold. My waders will fill. But this is a once-in-a-lifetime occasion. Still cradling the massive head, I take the deepest breath possible and slip quietly beneath the surface of the lake.
I . . . ease my hands up under the fish’s belly, where they can’t be seen. Now I’m stroking the Mackinaw’s cold, smooth, human-sized abdomen. It seems to welcome this, seems to relax down into my hands. “My God,” I whisper. “Look at it!”
the Mackinaw and I are now face to face. Nose to nose. In its world, not mine. It regards me with surprising calm. Thanks to the treachery in my heart, I regard it far less calmly. My fingers are in position, just behind its gills. The fish remains motionless. It’s time.
With all the speed and strength I have in me, I drive my fingers deep into the Mackinaw’s gills, my thumbs clamping down on the outside like padlocks snapping shut. Blood gushes instantly. The huge mouth flies open. The fish’s eyes, too, fly wide, swing impossibly forward, stare into mine, become too human, gape in outrage. Its whole body shakes wildly, and crimson blossoms around us both. But my fingers are in its vitals, its equivalent of lungs. Feeling this, the fish stops shaking, locks its gaze on mine, and, to my horror, slowly begins to speak: Don’t you remember? . . . The elders have forbidden —
No! I can’t allow this! Fatal wounds have been inflicted. Let death be fast. I straighten my legs and rise up into my world, ripping the huge trout out of the water with me. Blood still flying, the fish thrashes wildly, but my fingers are eight spear points driven into its very life. The power soon departs from the thrashing. I feel the creature’s surrender, a kind of sigh. Movement continues, but listless now: a convulsive memory of the lost ability to swim.
Unsure of my true feelings, I choose wood for an expression, turn to Sherman, and signal that the fish is his. Sherman’s expression is pure awe. I don’t know whether he heard the animal speak. I don’t ask. Killing a fish — especially this fish — should be a quick, reverent business, and this poor animal is still struggling to breathe into my fists. “Pull your prayer together,” I say to Sherman. “I want this to be quick.” He nods and follows as I heave the fish up over the sea wall and scramble after it.
The Mackinaw’s appearance draws a mass exhalation from the crowd. Sherman’s godlike trout now lies on an incongruous mowed lawn. It’s no longer struggling but is still gazing up at us with intelligent eyes, its breathing desperate, the sound as distressing to me as was its speech. People encircle us, cheer and gawk, pound our backs, do what crowds do. I want them to vanish. The Mackinaw’s gasps are unbearable. I’ve forgotten to bring a “priest” — the Irish term for a cudgel used to kill a captured fish. With no civility at all, I snap, “Someone find me a club! Fast!” Most of the people continue to gawk. Those who try to help return with feeble, lightweight sticks. A clueless woman hands me a willow switch. I toss it away. “A priest must be strong, heavy!” I bark. The fish continues to gasp.
A teenager hands me a driftwood limb that might have worked when it was green, but it’s been bleached to the density of balsa by the sun’s rays. Desperate, I try it anyway. Pinning the fish between my knees, I breathe a silent prayer, hope Sherman is doing the same, then strike a blow on the back of the massive skull. The priest snaps like a breadstick. The Mackinaw keeps gasping. “Damn it! Come on!” I say to Sherman.
Lifting the trout by its ruined gills, I take off along the sea wall. Sherman follows with our fly rods. The fish is as heavy as a seven-year-old child, and my waders are sloshing with water, but I try my best to run. We pass coffee shops, galleries, and motels, their windows lined with gaping, fist-pumping people. Muffled faces shout at the sight of the fish, leaving steam clouds and nose grease on plate glass. Blood runs down my forearms. The trout gasps, its body weakly swimming against my chest. I feel utterly sick and wrong.
But we come, suddenly, to a tiny beach empty of people, curtained off by small willows and littered with driftwood. And I instantly find a heavy, hatchet-length tree remnant: the kind I call a “river tooth.” Its iron heft fills me with calm: the perfect priest. I vow to salvage this moment for Sherman, to dispatch this magnificent animal with the dignity it deserves.
Laying the Mackinaw on its belly, I straddle it again. As I take aim at the shining back of its skull, I notice it’s the same width as my own and precisely the green of the lake’s deep waters. I can see down into its depths, as if it were made of water.
I draw a breath, repeat my prayer, and strike the green skull dead center and hard. The trout shudders all through its body, then grows still. I heave a huge sigh. Thank God. It’s over.
Then, impossibly, the Mackinaw begins to struggle.
Sherman watches with calm acceptance, as if he thinks killing a big fish must always be this hard. Maintaining focus, I strike the lake trout with all my might. It struggles harder. I hit it again and again. The harder the blow, the harder it fights back. I try to pray as I pound, to maintain a sense of reverence, yet I administer what comes to feel like a merciless, murderous beating. Darkest blood pours from the ruined skull, turns black — and becomes hair. The more the blood flows, the longer the hair. Enraged by my own horror, I pound the increasingly broken, increasingly human head, only to feel the body quickening between my legs. The fish’s blue-green flesh becomes brown skin. Its fins become fingers, hands, arms. Its tail lengthens into legs. It’s alive! Growing! I’m straddling God’s deep magic, creation’s own truth, and hooks, fingers, treachery, priests can’t alter, slow, or stop it! The no-longer-green body, strong arms, long legs, become bluejeans and a workshirt, become my own daily garb, become a much larger, much more powerful creature. “Wait!” it groans into the beach cobble. “Please, wait!”
I drop the river tooth, free the pinned body, and stand back. Our quarry lies face down on the beach, black hair to its shoulder blades, iridescent like magpie feathers where it’s not drenched by blood. The back of its head is a pulp, pulsing in time to its heartbeat. Yet the sprawled arms move to push its body up. The creature gathers itself, stands, turns to us . . .
It is a man. A beautiful Indian man, with Sherman’s kind of skin, my kind of clothes. And he looks at us with a face so open, so free of blame or anger or pain, so perfectly willing to undergo the deceptions and wounds we’ve inflicted that I can’t speak, can’t think, can’t move. His hands are slender and strong, with blue veins against brown skin. His body is muscular, willowy, perfect. His eyes are black as night in the center, white as snow at the rim, and so clear that I feel at once: he sees things we don’t. This is no mere man.
The Indian-from-water is looking around, now, at the world into which he’s risen. He is smiling with pleasure. His smile encourages Sherman and me to notice our world, too. The water and sky are brighter, greener, and bluer than we remembered. The mountains cup the lake’s waters so intricately we see love in the gestures of every slope and stone. And the Indian-from-water’s face is so appreciative of our world, so sensitive to it despite his wounds, that water rises in my own eyes.
He senses this at once, turns to me, and with all the love, gratitude, and appreciation he has shown for our world, he smiles: at me. The water rises faster, flows down my cheeks. He forgives me. He forgives me.
Suddenly his gaze lifts. Seeing something beyond me, his already shining face grows more radiant still. In a voice as deep as a man’s but as thrilled as a child’s on Christmas, he cries, “My Father is here!”
Sherman and I see no one, yet somehow we share his joy. We don’t need to see anyone. The lake Indian’s love is so huge we feel the Father’s presence just by gazing at the son. “Please,” he says, with almost unbearable gentleness and innocence, “just let me say goodbye to my Father. Then I’ll come with you.”
But we don’t want him to come with us! We don’t want to finish killing him! We have no more wish to take this wondrous being from his Father than to have the hearts ripped from our own chests. We would refuse to finish killing him, if only it seemed possible. But those wounds . . .
The water Indian’s eyes turn now toward the crowd we left behind on the sea wall, near the mouth of the Swan. They’re specks from here, those people. But again his face fills with uncontainable joy, and he cries, “My children! My sons and daughters are here!”
Hearing this after all I’ve done to him, I can’t help but let out a sob. Yet I also feel myself beaming, see Sherman beaming, too. Because the sons and daughters are here! And the lake Indian’s boundless love for them! His willingness to reveal that love to us! His physical beauty, blazing eyes, refusal to blame! It’s all over for Sherman and me. We are Flathead Lake–deep in love with this being-from-water. I feel ready to follow him, feed him, fight for him, serve him, drink the lake for him — and maybe even beg him to adopt me, should the occasion arise.
The water Indian says, with more affection than I’ve ever heard, “Just let me say goodbye to my children and to my Father. Then I’ll come with you.”
My eyes stream as I nod. We’re so confused. We don’t want him to come with us! We want his Father and his children to keep him forever. We adore this perfect being-from-water. Anyone with eyes and a beating heart would adore him. But there are strange, unbreakable laws at play here — “fishing,” I think we call them. So once he says his farewells, he’ll be coming with us. How terrible! How wonderful!
Giving Sherman and me — his catcher and attempted killer — a heart-melting smile of gratitude, the lake Indian sets off toward the distant crowd. We follow like faithful dogs, wondering if we can convince him not to make us finish him off. What a position to be in! Fishing! Bloody ridiculous! I can’t take my eyes off his back, can’t stop staring at his hands. I notice his clothes are dry, and I glance at Sherman, who sees the same thing. The water Indian’s hair is in a braid, though he never braided it. Then we notice his wounds: they’re nearly healed. My heart leaps at this sight. Please, I’m thinking, don’t make us kill or eat you. Heal! Live forever! Yet, at the same time, I’m thinking, But don’t leave us either! Let us live where you live. We’ll all go to your world. We’ll adjust. Let’s go!
There’s a fresh problem, though: we can’t keep up with his strides. The lake Indian walks the way a Mackinaw swims, with incredible fluidity and speed. And we’re in waders — mine full of water. We run, or try to. But without meaning to, the lake Indian widens the distance between us. This growing gulf is unbearable to me — like watching my home burst into flames, like hearing my child has cancer. We try our best to get closer, but we’re gasping now, the way the Mackinaw gasped, and the lawn above the sea wall is suddenly littered with logs and railroad ties — for a wall-repair project, I guess — and though the Indian-from-water strides across these logs with the ease of a trout gliding over rocks, Sherman and I keep falling. When we step on the logs, they roll to the side. We jump up again and again, lose our fly rods, hurt ourselves, limp on in pursuit, but the lake Indian’s workshirt and jeans, his healed head, his shining black braid get farther and farther away.
We’re a hundred yards behind when the crowd parts and then closes around him like water.
We reach the crowd a half minute or so later, shoulder our way through, search every face, circle the blocks of the town. But we never see the beautiful Indian-from-water again.
And we are so relieved.
And utterly heartbroken.
There is one thing we now want as much as we want the lake Indian to live forever, and that’s to be with him again — even if it kills him.
When at last I turn to Sherman, I am not eloquent: “You caught a fucking god!” I gasp.
Sherman stares at me and nods.
“I may never fish again,” I say, hating the words the instant I speak them.
But Sherman just smiles. No nod this time. He has recognized at once what I only now realize: that we will never stop fishing for the one we have just, somehow, released. Not till he’s ours. Or we’re his.
The fish’s blue-green flesh becomes brown skin. Its fins become fingers, hands, arms. Its tail lengthens into legs. It’s alive! Growing! I’m straddling God’s deep magic, creation’s own truth.
i wake to a blue dawn, my Montana bedroom open wide to August, the trout stream out the open door silver and singing, the mountains beyond the stream cupping the waters so intricately that I see love in the gestures of every slope and stone. My heart pounds and pounds. Like the river-tooth priest just pounded. Maybe it’s broken now, my heart. Maybe it’s my own heart I just pulverized.
I can’t escape this dream’s gravitational pull. Nor do I wish to.
There is a faith called fishing. It is my faith. I am sworn to its service and its gods, and once you swear, you are no longer your own. How can I quit until the gods themselves command it?
There is a faith called fishing. Some say it’s a form of waiting for that which has never been seen. I say, whether I’ve seen him or not, I love him. And gladly go on waiting.