The Carnation Life: The Salmon Moon, or Longing


“Moon started up the river. He drove the dog salmon ahead of him saying…you shall be food for the people, O dog salmon. But he had first said, dog salmon, go down. Afterward Moon wondered if he had made a mistake, then said dog salmon, go upstream. Then they became dog salmon and ran upstream. This was Moon’s first work. If Moon had not made that mistake, first the dog salmon would have run upstream all the time, and never have gone down to the bay as they do now.”  –Snoqualmie Charlie

In September the full moon rolls across the valley, and by 3 am fades into a pale flattened disc the color of bone.  Come morning dew covers everything: my meditation cushion, clothing on the line, the fairy handkerchiefs scattering the grass. A cross spider takes up residence in my bathroom window; each morning she has woven a brand new web, and sits in the center most days.  She mated, and now waits. The back of her swollen abdomen mottled brown and gold, with a tiny white cross etched there, evolution’s own tattoo. I have unimaginatively named her Charlotte. Hundreds of cross spiders appear around town, in fields and barns, setting the radial lines of their webs with the prevailing winds. When I walk in the forest, I come home clothed in spider silk, a bride of the woods. Charlotte will often disappear, but I’ll see the tips of her legs peeking out from a crevasse in the windowsill, at the end of a signal line, waiting for gnat or horsefly. One Sunday night the sky darkens and rain pours through the gap between my porch roof and the house, rendering her web a lacy patchwork of holes. By morning she’s made a new one, the size of a dinner plate and slightly to the east, and sits in the middle as if nothing happened. How will she know when it’s time to spin her sac and die? One morning I wake and both she, and her web, have vanished.

The river swells with a weekend rainstorm, then recedes. The moon stares down with hooded eyes. It’s an odd numbered year, and six million pink salmon, or humpies, have entered the waters of Puget Sound; by late September they’ve hungered thirty miles upstream to the Tolt in Carnation.  Fish scupper up the flats, up the shallows, the male’s telltale humps visible as they swim over pebbled riverbed, searching for places to spawn, then die. The females turn on their sides and fan their tails, making nests of gravel.  A quarter mile downriver, below the suspension bridge, hundreds of silver sinuous forms swim in place against the current.

The fish keep coming, thousands a day, and the earlier ones begin to die. I startle a dozen large black vultures on the opposite shore; they take off, tilting in the wind, to settle high in the cottonwoods.

The swallows that were darting and weaving above the river like a giant swarm of bats disappear, on migration to Central and South America. In their place each night great rafts of ducks fly over, carpeting the sky with their sound, their wings. I cannot see them, only hear them, and upon waking at midnight they are still there, high thin cries pulsing.  Every evening the death toll on the river grows. Salmon pile up at the edges, on branches, half in and out of water, gasping. They thrash the surface like otters, swimming with heads poked out. Their jaws spasm. Some lunge onto the banks, as if compelled to walk, then slip back onto their sides, lie motionless. Their silver eyes stare through me. After a day they resemble ash, turn the color of the rocks: dark schist and gray green sandstone, speckled granite and milky limestone. Marble veined with purple and green and crimson. Their carcasses will fan out into the watershed through floods, or borne in heron stomach or gut of raccoon, nourishing the cottonwoods and Indian Plum come spring.

The things we cannot see rise around us.  The moon wrestles with the river, the rocks. He pulls at the earth’s crust, tugging it a foot here, a foot there, lengthening our days. While the planet builds new mountains, the moon coyly turns his back, moving slowly away each year.  I want to capture the moon in a mason jar, store it for the winter solstice; mix it with starlight and pour it out on the kitchen table in the dark of December.  Instead I lay on a blanket in the backyard, absorbing the light of distant stars.  A barn owl lets out a hissing shriek, a pale ghost making rounds in the dark.

Elk move out of the spruce forest, heavy-footed, aloof, and fan out on the hayfields of Carnation Farm.  Five bulls, grazing but alert, pull at the grass, feeling nightfall on their backs: a constellation of antlers above sturdy heads. The October full moon, the Hunters Moon, rises above them. To the Snoqualmie people Moon is a transformer. To me Moon is an alpha male, a king. I imagine him pulling the salmon upstream, ordering the light to dance on the bare branches of cottonwoods and sending rocks tumbling down gullies. His skin is golden and full as he saunters across the southern sky, pulling rocks and birds and fish with him.  Sometimes Moon is a seducer. Coming home, when my car breeches the top of Tolt Hill and I release the clutch and drop down into the valley, he is there, peering over the mountains’ dark silhouette. A teasing burlesque moon, throwing out skirts of light then stepping behind a cloud veil.

By the dusk of late October there are no more salmon coming, save a lone male. He slices a trail of alternating graceful arcs on the water’s surface, a trail made of reflected light, that if it could speak, would shatter the silence. In the wine-dark river up, up, up he continues, past summer swimming hole, past boulders white with owl plash, past bramble and bridge. He’s reading an ancient text. Behind him, the banks grow heavy with rot, with death, the water still.

Tonight Moon rests, bathing the elk in a soft glow.  He builds a path on the water’s surface, pulling me upriver with a bittersweet ache. Leaving me empty handed but full.

Carnation, WA, October 2013

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