By Carmella Guiol
“I hope we catch a female,” my friend Selena says as we hike along the grassy banks of the Bartlett River. “Mmm, think of all that fresh roe…”
“Actually, I don’t want to think about eating slimy fish eggs,” I say to her, “even if they are straight from the source.”
She ignores me and carries on. “I’m going to cut it open and eat it right on the spot, sashimi style! I want to feel its heart beating as I chew,” she says, shouldering the fishing rod she finagled out of the teenage boy who works at the lodge.
I wrinkle my nose and shake my head. “You’re disgusting,” I say.
Everywhere we’ve ever traveled together, Selena always manages to gross me out with her food choices— whether it’s by scraping bivalves off a craggy cliff in Brittany for a quick snack, or sucking the brains out of a lobster at a roadside shack in Maine. “It’s the best part,” she said between slurps, butter running down her chin, while I watched on in horror.
It’s our last day in southeast Alaska before heading to our respective homes—Austin for Selena, and Miami for me—and we’ve spent the last two weeks hiking, kayaking, and camping all over the region. During our travels, we have learned that Alaskans live for salmon, spending much of their summer stocking their freezer so that they’ll have plenty of fatty fish for the long winter ahead. Although it’s mostly chum or pinks this late in the season, Selena is hoping for a sock-eye—a female, of course.
As we maneuver our way through the tall grass, I trail behind Selena, singing all the songs about fishing that I can think of. She doesn’t join in. She’s very focused on the task at hand: finding the best spot on the river for catching salmon. Every now and then, she stops at the river’s edge and scouts the landscape, hands on her hip, head cocked to the side like she’s listening to something I can’t hear. Mind you, she only learned to cast a fishing line a day ago, so I can’t imagine what intuition she’s working with.
Selena and I met on our first day of college, nearly ten years ago; we lived two doors down from each other in Stearns dormitory. Although we met in person on a hot afternoon in late August, I had already studied Selena’s Facebook profile before getting to school—we’d been given the names of everyone living on our floor. In her profile picture, her face was obscured by a long sheath of shiny black hair with a single blue streak. Although I often dreamt of dying my hair red, it’s something I never dared try. At our first dorm meeting, when our resident counselor asked us to bring an object that was meaningful to us, Selena brought a cup full of concert ticket stubs. I can’t remember what I brought, but I do remember being seriously intimidated by this too-cool chick with her blue hair and excessively-pierced earlobes.
After a half hour of climbing over fallen logs and leaping across weed-choked streams, we come to a bend in the river that Selena deems “the perfect spot.” I peer into the water as she ties her lure on the line. Just a few feet from the bank, there are dozens of large salmon shimmying against the current, noses pointed north.
They’re on the mission of a lifetime: to return to the place where they were born and do the last feat of their life—spawn. These fish have been running in these rivers for hundreds of years, some of them traveling up to a thousand miles to lay their eggs and then die. The connection between the salmon and the forest is undeniable. Here, when they say “there’s salmon in the trees,” they mean that literally.
As the water rushes towards the ocean, the salmon stay the course. Some of them will be reduced to war-scarred corpses by the end, losing all of their scales in the arduous battle upstream, but as long as their heart is still beating, they won’t give up. I stare into the fray, mesmerized by the amazing display of sheer willpower.
“Get ready to document this,” Selena says as I position myself on a sunny rock nearby.
“Oh, don’t worry, I have my camera at the ready,” I say, pulling my book out of my backpack.
“And be sure you have the bear spray handy, in case a big one comes along and tries to steal my salmon!”
I roll my eyes. “You have to catch one first, Selena.”
She sticks her tongue out at me and casts her first line of the day. Over and over again, Selena casts and reels in her line, hoping for a bite. Meanwhile, my mind empties as I fall under the spell of silence and solitude.
In the first few days of college, when everyone was sniffing each other out, Selena and I were equal parts guarded and intrigued by the other. We shuffled around campus in big groups of freshman, on the prowl for parties, alcohol, and hot boys to flirt with. Selena fell in with a group of “cool” upperclassman right away. I was envious of the ease with which she maneuvered social situations, and I was completely taken aback when she pulled me into that world with her. It was something I didn’t expect of her, this girl who was fashionable to a fault, culturally savvy, and smart as a whip. I watched with amazement as she talked foreign politics one second and underground indie bands the next. I, on the other hand, was awkward, inexperienced, and grateful for a friend.
“They’re taunting me!” she yells out after an hour. “I can see them all right in front of me. They check out my lure and then swim away. What’s that about?”
“They’re onto you,” I say, rising on my elbows to check out the scene.
“Maybe they’re just not hungry right now,” she continues. “Or maybe the tide is not right. What did they say was the best time again? Do you remember? Was it high or low tide?”
“I don’t know, Selens,” I say, turning back to my book.
A few minutes later, she puts down her pole. “I’m going in.”
I sit straight up. “You’re going to try to catch one with your bare hands?”
“No, no,” she says, pulling off her pants. “I just need a better view. I’m going to wade over to that rock over there.” I look where she is pointing. The rock is about five feet away and mostly submerged in water.
“Are you sure that’s a good idea? I want to remind you that this is glacial melt, in case you’ve forgotten.”
“I know, I know. I’ll be fine. It’s sunny out!” I watch as she calculates the fastest route to the rock, grabs her fishing pole and goes for it.
“Arghhhhhhhh!” she hollers as the water laps her knees.
“Is it cold?” I ask, pulling out my camera. With each step, the water comes up higher on her body. When she finally makes it to the rock, the water is resting past her belly button and she’s holding her pole above her head. She spots me standing on the riverbank, camera in hand.
“Put that thing away!” she says with a scowl.
“You said you wanted me to document the experience!”
She circles the rock, trying to find the best way to climb on. She finally chooses a side and latches her hands as high on the rock as she can. She looks like a starfish wearing cowboy underwear. I snap a photo. She kicks and wriggles to gain purchase on the rock, but it’s slippery with algae. Selena falls back into the water with a splash. She looks back at me and makes a whining sound. I switch off my camera.
“Come on, Selena,” I say, making my voice bright and cheery. “You almost had it.” She tries once more, and this time, she makes it. “That was very graceful,” I call out from the shore.
“Ah, much better,” she says, surveying the salmon-stocked water around her rock. She gets back to work casting and reeling, and I decide to stretch my bones and go for a walk.
As I meander along the muddy riverbank, I take in the quilt of colors around me. The royal blue sky is reflected in the fast-moving stream. Leggy cow parsnips rise up beyond the tallest wildflowers, their fluffy white tops mirroring the clouds overhead. The wind ripples through the grass as if an invisible hand were running through it. In the river, red and silver flashes catch my eye as the salmon—those resilient creatures!—practically crawl their way upstream
Beneath the winking sunshine, I think about all the places Selena and I have traveled together. New York City, Martha’s Vineyard, New Orleans, Chicago. We’ve hitchhiked our way between French villages. We’ve had our fill of paella in Barcelona and eaten our weight in chocolate in Belgium. We’ve hiked in the Berkshires, made questionable decisions in Amsterdam, and fallen on our asses while learning how to snowboard in the Alps. The two of us belong to a larger cluster of about a dozen girlfriends, a sisterhood formed during those potent college years, but while we might not always hear from the other women, Selena and I have never not been in touch. Our friendship seems to grow stronger with every year since graduation.
I look back to make sure I’m not missing anything important, but Selena’s squatting on her rock, pole in hand, gazing solemnly into the rushing water. I think about how this scenario is representative of our lives—specifically, of our romantic lives. Selena is relentless about finding a man. Like with her salmon fishing, she puts herself in the right place at the right time, and throws out lure after lure. She doesn’t lose hope, even if a fish eats her lure whole, or pulls her into the rushing river downstream. Me, I just stand by the wayside, hoping someone will come along and snag me. But regardless of our distinct dating tactics, we’ve both been historically unlucky in love.
It dawns on me that this is probably why we’ve remained close after all these years. While most of our girlfriends have coupled up, we are the eternal single ladies. Love hasn’t completely evaded us, but when romance comes around, it’s usually the kind that requires constant check-ins with each other about our respective love interests. Should I be mad about this? What do you think this means? Can you believe he still hasn’t called me back?
All of a sudden, I hear a splash and a yip coming from upriver. Selena’s in a fighter stance now, both hands clutching her fishing pole as it tries to get away from her. I see a flash of silver splashing in the water near the base of the rock.
“You’ve got this!” I yell, running towards the water’s edge, camera in hand. But the commotion ceases as quickly as it began; one second, she’s reeling in our dinner, and the next she’s holding a limp rod with nothing to show for her struggle.
“Shit!” she exclaims. “It got away!”
“Damn! You were really close.”
“I know! But wasn’t it awesome?” she says, beaming at me. “Did you get any good action shots?”
“No, I didn’t have enough time.”
“That’s okay. I’m about to catch the big one now,” she says with a wink. “I’m really getting the hang of this.” She pulls another lure out of her pocket. “You gotta develop a rapport with these fish. It takes time, but I’m getting it.”
“Whatever you say, Selens.” I put away my camera. “I think I saw some berry bushes over there. I’m going to go see what I can find.”
Selena smiles. “Look at us, Carmella! Just your average hunter-gatherers.”
I let out a loud laugh, one that is born in my belly and erupts at my shaking shoulders. But as I walk downstream, I wonder—what will happen when one of us snags a catch, the guy who doesn’t make us wonder and wait? What will it feel like to play second string to a new best friend? Will our phone calls become obsolete, our friendship perfunctory, rehearsed, unnecessary? The thought of a world without my mischievous best friend steals the lightness from the day, and my body feels heavy as I fill my hat with salmon berries, wild strawberries, and blackberries swollen from summer rain.
A few hours later, Selena will give up on the salmon. We’ll pack up our things and follow the river almost to its mouth, until we arrive at a little wooden bridge. Here, we’ll leave the open grassland of the riverbed behind and turn inward, pushing deep into the last remaining rainforest in North America. The air will be rich with decay, and our heavy steps will be softened by the moss carpeting the forest floor. Tomorrow we will take a ferry out of this land of glaciers and dancing lights, and the day after that, we’ll be on planes back to our real lives.
After a while, we’ll find a huge fallen trunk lying across the path, the perfect place to rest. The wood will be spongy from decomposition and the seat of our pants will darken from the moisture. Around us, the forest will glow with life, a cathedral saturated in Technicolor.
And we will sit together in silence, two friends on a wild adventure, basking in the sunlight that streams in through gaps in the canopy, bouncing off fluorescent lichens dangling from the trees, and landing like lightning bolts on the bright mushroom tops that valiantly push their way up through the muck.
Carmella de los Angeles Guiol lives and plays in South Florida. Her creative work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Toast, The Normal School, Lunch Ticket, Spry, The Fourth River, Cleaver, The Inquisitive Eater, and elsewhere. You can often find her working in the garden or kayaking the Hillsborough River, but you can always find her writing at www.therestlesswriter.com.