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  • The Salmon of the Heart
  • Tom Jay (bio)

Speckled Dream

I went to the sea for myself. She fed me health, new legs. Perhaps a speckled dream to wrestle in the night.

Years ago, working as a boat puller on a troller in southeast Alaska, something happened that is an image for the beginning and end of this essay. We were fishing the Fairweather Grounds off Lituya. The skipper called me to bring the landing net to his side of the boat. He was working a big king on the kill line1 and gave me instruction on how to approach the salmon with the net. It was the biggest king I had ever seen, perhaps a hundred pounder. As I brought the net behind and under the salmon, it began to swim away—not fast, but steady, like a draft animal pulling a heavy load. The moment had the inexorable quality of awakening: as the kill line went taut, the salmon and I were in the same world—the hundred-pound test leader snapped, and the fish flashed out of sight. I recall this story to remind me that the salmon is free and that these musings are only lines and hooks that hold it momentarily.

As I turn forty and enter the second half of life, it occurs to me how the salmon is like the life of the soul. Salmon is born in a rivulet, a creek, the headwaters of some greater river. He runs to the sea for a mysterious sojourn; his flesh reddens. Mature, he awakens once again to his birthplace and returns there to spawn and die. Loving and dying in the home ground resound in us. We all want a meaningful death in a familiar locale. Salmon embodies this for us, our own loving deaths—at home in the world. Salmon dwells in two places at once—in our hearts and in the world. He is essentially the same being, the sacred salmon, salmon of the heart. [End Page 95]

The Leaper

The doctor was explaining how sperm moves, like salmon, and how the uterus gives them hold, creates “current” so they know which way to swim. I thought, Jesus, salmon! and knew I was one once. It was as real as this: I could remember the slow torture of rotting while still alive in a graveled mountain stream. Humped up, masked in red and green, dressed for dancing, I was Death’s own delight, her hands caressing me . . . and this is the part I can’t remember: whether she laughed or wept as we rolled in love.

Introduction is a word that at root means being led into the circle. Here is one last introduction to salmon. Not long ago, a friend and I were sitting by Admiralty Inlet talking. I mentioned an idea to create a sculpted “rainbow” of salmon of all species. One end of the rainbow would rise out of Puget Sound, and the other would end in a well in an alder grove on the shore. My friend responded to the idea by saying, “The salmon is the soul in the body of the world.” Indeed the salmon is at least the soul of this biome, this green house. He is the tutelary spirit that swims in and around us, secret silver mystery, salmon of the heart, tree-born soul2 of our world.

This essay depends in part on the notion that language—like salmon—bridges subject and object worlds, inner and outer. Language is the path, the game trail, the river, the reverie between them. The language-bridge shimmers there, revealing and nourishing the interdependence of what it joins. Each word bears and locates our meetings with the world. A word is a clipped breath, a bit of spirit—inspire, expire—wherein we hear the weather. Our “tongues” taste the world we eat. At root, language is sacramental. The study of etymology reveals that language is trying to contain, remember, and express the religious event at the core of our mundane awareness.3

The heart of language is not merely communication but consecration, each word the skin of a myth. A telling example of this is...