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The Parable of Salmor
By Tim Fox
You may not know this, but long ago, another great fish swam with Salmon up from the ocean into the river every year to spawn. That fish was named Salmor.
They were siblings, Salmon and Salmor, but possessed of different hearts. Salmon was committed to the tradition of his people. Salmor, younger and more forgetful, cruised the places in the ocean deeps where his kinfish did not go. And so he saw things that gave him ideas that were different from those of the elder Salmon.
Salmor saw the way many of the other kinds of fish in the ocean laid eggs year after year and lived very long lives if they were able to avoid the many other hungry fish that lurked the vast dark waters. He saw how giant toothy swimmers with a taste for eggs would eat those that tried to defend their nests. As he watched this, he thought and thought.
Salmor thought about how lucky he was that his people spawned in rivers where the ocean monsters could not reach them. In the river, he knew that he and Salmon were the biggest fish. There were no orcas or sea lions, only trout, sculpins, minnows and cray fish. If only he didn't have to die after climbing into the high river to spawn, he thought. It would be perfect. He could live without fear, master of mountain waters, and breed year after year when the rest of his kin arrived. He could have many, many offspring over many years.
So, Salmor asked River Spirit if there was a way he would not have to die after one spring, one summer and one fall in the river. River Spirit simply said no, and would hear nothing more of such talk.
Salmor was angered by River Spirits hasty, inflexible response and turned to Ocean Spirit with the same question. Ocean Spirit was very busy that day and had little time to think, but could see no harm to his realm if the wish was granted. So, Ocean Spirit gave Salmor the life-span of a sturgeon, but, the spirit added, once you are in the river, you must stay there. Ocean water will become poison to you.
Salmor didn't hesitate to agree. He was so overjoyed with the prospects he imagined, he gave the price no heed at all. Without looking back, Salmor headed toward the river. As he swam, he insulted orca and sea lion and raced past them before they had a chance to react. He cruised across the estuary, feeling the water cool and grow clearer. His body began to transform as he entered a column of fresh water. His great back bulged into a swollen hump that thrust his dorsal fin upward. His snout curled into a permanent scowl that drew his lips away from his teeth leaving them exposed as if snarling. When he hit pockets of salt, his flesh recoiled, his gills burned, his blazing yellow eyes stung. He surged fiercely to get through the pockets and into the river.
Finally, he cleared the estuary and started inland. As he swam, he looked around and saw shadowy trout dart to avoid him and watched cray fish scuttle under rocks. Compared to him, they were all tiny.
Soon, he came to Salmon who was resting in a deep cold pool, waiting for the river level to drop and warm with late summer brightness. Salmor told Salmon what had happened and said that Ocean Spirit would do the same for Salmon if he asked.
Salmon hardly gave it any thought before he refused. Salmor scoffed. Both fish swam side by side throughout the summer and did not speak to one another again. After a while, Salmor started to get hungry. He needed to eat so that he would have reserves for the winter. He swam up and down the river catching anything he could, trout, sculpins, cray fish, even a few unsuspecting ducks. But most of his meals were small and infrequent and he was getting frustrated by his insatiable hunger. Salmon was hungry too, but true to his way, ignored it.
Salmor was only somewhat bulkier when, at last, spawning time arrived. Now, he thought, my time has come. But he had to take care to avoid injury so he would not get sick or be too battered when winter came. Salmon didn't mind receiving or dealing out damage and charged at Salmor when he tried to defend a mate and nest. Angry, but worried for his safety, he deferred again and again, though he was the biggest of all the fish in the river. He knew he could be patient and work out a plan so that he would be more successful the next year.
By the time spawning was almost done, even the small early-returning salmon found they could bully Salmor and he had only a very few chances to try to fertilize any eggs. Still, he thought, I will fatten up over the winter and spring and be so big that Salmon will flee at the sight of me and I will fertilize many eggs.
Salmor watched his elder kin disappear as autumn deepened. He swam on alone into winter and ate everything in sight. Still, he did not think he was growing as much as he needed. But there was nobody around for him to use as a comparison except trout and minnows, so, over time this feeling diminished with his memory of Salmon and he came to believe that he was growing immense.
Late winter arrived and the river filled with tiny fry of some kind. They were small but so numerous that his belly was filled for the first time in months. He ate and ate, feeling himself fatten.
Spring came and with it came Salmon, back into the river. Much to Salmor's surprise and frustration, he was not much larger than the returning fish. In fact, it seemed he might even have been somewhat smaller than he had been the year before. No matter, he thought, he was stronger because he didn't have to use up the energy that Salmon did to swim all the way into the mountains from the ocean. He felt he would do better.
But he didn't do better, even though he tried harder and didn't worry as much about scratches and bites. By the time spawning was over and Salmon had died again, Salmor was bruised and frustrated. He floated for a while, resting and healing, and started to grow hungry. He swam to the river’s mouth and saw schools of fish cruising the estuary. Time to feed, he thought, and surged toward them, but the moment he left the river current, his flesh began to burn. He wheeled around and shaot back into the fresh mountain water. So close, but beyond reach.
Then noticed the raccoons and insects eating the carcasses of the dead Salmon that were strewn all around him. And he thought, I can do that too. So he did. It was a horrible taste, that rotting, moldy muscle, but he was able to fill up and fatten. He grew faster than he had the year before and when the clouds of mysterious fry emerged again in late winter, he grew really fat. He felt like he was truly giant.
Salmon returned again, reborn for another spring and much to Salmor's dismay, he was only just the same size. His determination wavered instantly and, as in the years before, his fear for his health made him hold back. He had no success spawning, but being stubborn, his resolve hardened again as Salmon died with autumn.
Salmor was ravenous. No matter how rancid the carcass, he devoured it. He was practiced now, he told himself, and the next spring would be his. He knew how to snatch emerging fry by the mouthful, and he did it. But while he floated, bloated from his binge, he tried not to notice that there were hardly any trout, sculpin, cray fish or insects in the river. The water seemed cloudier, dirtier, and more stale than he remembered. No matter, he told himself, he was far too insignificant a being to be able to have any influence on such a large scale. It could not possibly be a consequence of anything he was doing. So he thought nothing more of it. But with so little to eat, he quickly grew hungry. Out of desperation, he swam to the estuary again, hoping a careless perch might venture into the river current, but the ocean fish kept their distance. Salmor pleaded with Ocean Spirit to grant him access to the great salt sea again. But Ocean Spirit remained silent.
So, miserable, Salmor waited. Finally, the first pair of salmon arrived with the spring. Salmor struggled to follow them upstream until they stopped to spawn. By then he was hardly more than skin and bones. He was so tired he could barely hold against the quietest currents in the river. When no more Salmon arrived, his heart fell. He was done for.
He watched bleakly as the two fish spawned and died. He ate what was left of them entirely, but hardly gained a pound. Frail and incoherent, he hung on, waiting for late winter, putting all his hope in a bounty of fry. When the time came, one tiny cloud of hatchling fish emerged from the gravel right where the two salmon had been, and as Salmor was about to eat them, he realized what he had been doing in the previous years.
Despair filled him. He closed his mouth, leaving the fry to scatter and hide among the riverside roots and in the deep dark empty holes. Salmor knew then why River Spirit had ignored him.
With an anguished sign, Salmor gave himself to the current. He didn't drift too far before getting hung up in a jam of fallen trees where his last energy slowly dissipated. As darkness filled him, he felt the nibbles of hundreds of tiny mouths, the fry and other remaining river life come out of hiding to feed a fresh start.
This final realization brought Salmor peace: I am Salmon now.
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