Flying Fish Rhapsody
"Karen?" My voice echoed off the dim, bare walls. She was gone this morning when I awoke.
I threw on sweats and boots and an old windbreaker and took the long path to the river, knowing I would find here there. She liked to watch the salmon every year as they returned up the Snake River to spawn. There's a waterfall there we dubbed "Lover's Leap" where the salmon dash toward the rocks, flying into the air as they hurdle the onrush of water, heading home. Karen used to call their flopping and water splashing the "Flying Fish Rhapsody," but I haven't heard her say that in quite some time.
And there she was, standing along the bank, arms limp at her sides, eyes sweeping the water, the world around her broken and distant. She didn't even hear my approach.
"I thought I'd find you here," I said and she cocked her head slightly, attempted a smile. She wore my bright yellow raincoat and New York Yankees cap, her blonde hair curling up around the edges from the damp morning air.
"It's not going to rain, is it?"
She glanced blandly at her sleeve. "Oh, this. No, I just grabbed something out of the closet. Sorry I didn't wake you, David."
I slid my arm around her waist and we watched the panorama together. Salmon bounced in and out of the water periodically, reaching for the sky, heading to the falls.
"There aren't so many fish this year," she said dully.
Karen wasn't the same women she used to be, hadn't been for quite some time now. I wasn't the same man, either. We were robots, simulacrums of ourselves, going through the motions of our former lives.
"The dams upstream are killing them," I told her, feeling the need for some explanation. Whenever we spoke now, our words were nothing more than unimportant things to fill the silence and the brooding that surrounded us. "The young ones can't make it all the way."
"Suffer the little ones," she said, and I cringed. "As always."
I let the moment pass. Our daughter, Katie, was only 5 when she died. She had a temper tantrum one afternoon and stormed into the yard away from her mother. Karen thought she'd let her cool off a bit before retrieving her. When she did, she found Katie dead, drowned in a small stream that led through the neighboring yard from the river. She'd only been gone a few minutes, Karen said, kept telling herself since that day. Her death was just last year.
"They're voting in Washington soon on whether or not they should divert the water around the dams," I went on. "It'll save the salmon, they say. I hope it's not too late."
"They better do it quick, I suppose," she said. "I don't see them lasting much longer at this rate."
Another salmon jumped at the bank of the river and got caught in the rocks. Karen casually stepped down and nudged it back in with her shoe. Her face was expressionless.
"Are you going to be all right, Karen?"
Still no expression. "Today would have been her 6th birthday."
Again the cringe. I had nearly forgotten. I wondered if Karen would ever be the same again, if she would learn to get through this, or if something in her would snap like Dr. Rainey said might happen. I thought I could snap myself.
- - -
That night the wind hissed through the leaves and a tree branch tapped softly on the roof. I slept restlessly and awoke at 3:00 am to find Karen gone. I searched the house in a tired stupor, room to room, finding nothing.
"Karen? Karen!" I called, each moment growing more intense, thinking that something awful had happened to her, or, as I'd thought several times over the last year, that she had done something awful to herself.
I rushed out the front door, aiming toward the path to the river but found Karen standing on the porch, leaning slightly over the log railing, staring into the yard. The edges of her robe flapped in the dull wind.
"Karen?" I started, but she raised her hand to hush me.
"Shh . Can you hear her, David?" Her voice was shrill, excited, like she used to sound a long time ago.
Her hand raised further, then twisted to beckon me over. "Come here. It's Katie."
Something clenched in my throat and I approached her. Her eyes pierced the darkness and a gleeful smile rimmed her profile, something I hadn't seen in a year.
Madness, I thought.
"Katie, come here," she called, the final word turning into a giggle. "Look, she's wearing her little gray dress."
"Karen, please..." My voice cracked with unexpected weakness.
"Please!" I grabbed Karen's arm and spun her. Her eyes darkened and she tore her elbow from my grip.
"Dammit !" she cried and turned back to the yard. "Now she's gone again. Are you happy?"
- - -
The next night Karen slept on the porch. I could do nothing to stop her. I pleaded for hours but nothing I said mattered. Angry, I stayed away, but at 1:00 am I brought down pillows and laid a blanket across her lap. I took the chair beside her and tried to sleep. The evening was cool.
"Karen," I finally got up the courage to ask, "Are you all right?"
"I think so," she said.
"Are you sure you want to stay out here?"
"You know it wasn't really Katie."
Her glare intensified and her tone softened. "If she doesn't come back to me, I'll have to go to her."
I was frightened, but also angry, pissed off at this unhealthy delusion she had forced on herself. But I knew it was coming. I was surprised it took this long to surface.
"You know, when Katie died it wasn't your fault."
Her gazed shifted, refocused. "So you've told me before."
"I meant it before, and I mean it now," I said. "She's been gone almost a year and I miss her terribly, we both do, but we have to be strong. We have to be strong for each other. Please don't go away on me, Karen. I need you."
She turned to me with deadpan eyes and grim mouth. "I know what you're saying, David, and from your perspective it may seem like I'm cracking up, but none of that matters because Katie was actually here. You'll see..." she said, and then, under her breath, "unless you don't want her to come back."
"Oh my God," I winced. Now the anger was gone and I was wholly afraid. She had finally gone over the edge. Maybe it was a good thing. Maybe it would give her a chance to heal, to find forgiveness in herself .
She turned away.
"Can we visit her grave tomorrow?" I asked.
She nodded that it was fine.
- - -
I called Doctor Rainey and he met us at the gravesite. We had met him in the hospital the night Katie drowned and I'd seen him in town a few times, spoken with him briefly about Karen. He took me aside once and said something like this could happen to either one of us. I thought it would be me.
When Karen saw him at the gravesite, her head cocked with curiosity until the specter of recognition darkened her eyes and she glared at me with an expression of betrayal.
"What's he doing here?"
"I asked him to come. I want him to help us."
Dr. Rainey wore a black suit and walked with a steel-gray cane that barely hid a slight limp. He extended a leather-clad glove and smiled sympathetically beneath his graying mustache.
"How are you, Karen?"
"I'm fine," she said, the words slipping between clenched teeth. "In spite of what he says."
We finally convinced her to go back to the hospital with him. I helped her to her room and stayed until a counselor came. We all met in a lounge that reeked of sterile bandages and talked about Katie.
The counselor's name was Brandy Mulligan, a plump woman with permanent worry lines on her forehead and twinges of red in her hair. Within moments, she had both Karen and I in tears. Karen heaved great waves of sadness until she fell, breathless, into my arms. God, how desperately she needed that. After two days, they allowed her to come home with me. I was so happy things were going to start to get well again.
Two days later, she died.
- - -
We made love the night before. It was not a sexual act, but an act of love, full of passion and remorse, of remnants of our youthful love and of memories of our daughter. She wept softly when we were finished, gentle cleansing tears. She was moving on, the tears told me, finally coming with me. She was allowing herself to heal.
But when I awoke in the middle of the night to an empty bed, I knew what she had done. I quietly pulled on my old windbreaker and boots and took the long path to the Snake River where the salmon hurdled "Lovers Leap" to spawn. I found Karen there, a part of it all now. Forever. That was a month ago.
- - -
I saw Karen in the yard last night as I slept on the porch. Katie was with her. I didn't call out her name because a small part of me still believed she wasn't there. The way the moon shone through the leaves and the grasses, it could have been anything out there. Or it could have been a little gray dress.
I walked to the river and stood barefoot on the rocks, smooth and cold. Salmon leapt. Water rushed. Their voices mingled, Karen's and Katie's.
The Native Americans tell an interesting tale. The Gods went to them and said they wanted to create the Salmon People. They needed two, a man and a woman, who would step into the river to become them, to sacrifice themselves. Out there now, the salmon are dying. Maybe I can help them. Maybe their sacrifice was meant for something greater. Maybe I can be with them again. Maybe I can be a part of their rhapsody.
About the author:
Michael Hultquist is a writer living and working in Lake Zurich, Illinois. He is the author of Risen, Edder, and Jalapeno Madness: The Hottest Little Jalapeno Cookbook. He has published several works of fiction and poetry, and he is hard at work on his latest novel, tentatively called Dark Spirit. More about Mike can be found at www.michaelhultquist.com.