Ruben's Salmon by Elise Thorburn is the winning story from our 2020 Short Fiction Contest:
The last time I’d been to the research station was in summer of the year I was going into fifth grade. My mother was dead three months by then, and even though the air was thick with summer heat and the incessant electricity of cicadas all I could think about was cold. The coldness of the underground, the cold steel that trimmed her oak coffin, how cold her hands were in the hospital in those last days, as I’d held them and watched her take slow shallow breaths with her eyes closed. So much morphine in her bloodstream that she’d been unable to follow a conversation but had been able to tell me she wanted to see me happy again and she was so sad that she wouldn’t get to. When they put the ventilator in later that day I learned those would be the last words I would hear her say. Regret at missing my happiness. So to add to the weight of my grief I poured on a little bit of guilt, a bit of shame.
My father and I had gone to the research station because he’d gotten a contract there to count the salmon as they made their way up the river. The river drained Long Lake into the Wyclees Lagoon which itself drained into Smith Inlet. It was short, and the fish would swim up it on the way to their spawning grounds. But midway up this first short passage the scientists had erected a fence. It ran the width of the river with a walkway above and grated chain link fencing running all the way down to the river’s bed below. It stopped the fish from getting past. On the walkway, at the middle of the river, there was a large hand crank that when you turned it would pull up a section of the fence, like a garage door rising, and the fish could find their way through. Their homing beacons so attuned, they had been born on this river, had hatched from their soft round red eggs, had wiggled and wriggled from alevin to fry to parr to smolt, until mature enough to make their way out to the sea. They’d spend their lives out there, avoiding seals and orcas and fisher’s nets, and then tasting the electrical currents they’d return to the very site of their birth to lay their own eggs, deposit their own milk, and promptly die. Procreation was the culmination of their life. Perhaps like my mother’s.
My father and I lived in a small cabin alongside the river and the lake it poured out of. We communicated with the scientists at the research station only to hand over samples or to receive further instructions, but they lived in the much larger cabin on the lakeside and connected to the laboratory. They seemed to be busy at work almost all of the time. On occasion they’d don hiking boots, tote walking sticks, and set out on afternoon hikes into the vast mountain wilderness. On rarer occasions they’d light a small fire, lay a grate over top of the coals, and press a split salmon into the metal grill, its pink flesh lightening and flaking as it cooked. But mostly they kept to their work and we kept to ours. I was the only child there, the only one who’d ever been there, and so I was a little like an alien creature to them. They had tried to speak to me, but at that time I didn’t have much to say and neither did my father so they soon gave up on both of us.