DREAMING OF ELSPETH by Alexander Lang

Elspeth loved me despite what I had become, a salmon thrashing about in the seine that the crew was hauling from the river, she in her gum boots 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!" as though she was blaming herself.

 

"What the hell," Alastair had yelled, seeing Elspeth let go a large, silver beauty. That's two in a week, he thought, money out of our pockets and all because she's been letting emotion get in the way of her work.

 

In charge of the cobble, he had to crank it up the slipway and secure it before confronting her. In the meantime, she and the crew finished lifting salmon from the net and jas he had a living to make and could not get on with it if Elspeth's hysterics were to constantly remind him of his own betrayal of Iain. 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 had survived. To prove it I had leapt into the sunlight, shocking the hell out of a fisherman 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; was it taking its toll? She should know in her mind it had been my fault.

 

Tangled in the net, I could not remove my sea-boots and these filling with water, had dragged me down.

 

The memory of my transformation was of a green light suffusing an underwater world filled with 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 it 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, red-haired, with 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 and he, his doctorate. 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 him 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 reeds; the 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. Once they had 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 abroad, 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 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 had said, "so there'll be nothing doing - besides, we have a rule that forbids sleep-overs with boyfriends." She could see his disappointment.

 

Poor thing, she thought, but Alastair manfully went along with it in the hope there would be a next time. At the door she let him kiss her and was surprised to find her lips as hungry as his and next thing she found herself in a hot embrace. 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.

 

What Elspeth had not counted on, was her own ache that came crying at her the moment she'd allowed his caresses. There was no denying her increasingly desperate urge. Soon she was riding it over the top with him, into oblivion. Afterwards, when Alastair was feeling blissfully tired and had expectations of staying the night, she, oh too much regretful of her fall from grace, 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, the memory of him, an essential part of what kept her sane and whole. Robust as a polar bear, with a preternatural affinity for water, she had seen him submerge for five to ten minutes at a time, even in the freezing depths of a mountain pool. Once she had watched him thrust upwards through fresh ice, plates of it falling like broken glass around him, arms akimbo, and with shout on his lips. In that instant she'd thought; give him a leister, put a crown on his red head, and he'd be the river god incarnate."

 

Remembering what they'd had, she would comfort herself by refreshing the memories, their times together when she helped him pursue his studies, the nights by campfires under Orion and those swooning moments afterwards in his arms when she'd known there would be no other love.

 

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 Black Neuk, a deep pool under the brig at Corbie's Linn, 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 sea boots, 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, my 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 swiftly down river 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. As I watched her go, a strange feeling urged me to be patient for it was now her time. I turned inshore and joined a school of migrating salmon that waited the favour 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.

 

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Several months later Alastair was fishing his favourite 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 down-stream.

 

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 a long time since Iain and Elspeth had met their respective fates and the eye brought it all together again. But he had learned 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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