by Leonie Charlton
We pull over into the cutting above the river. Sandy leans across me to open the glove box, I flinch. If he notices he doesn’t say. He takes out two pairs of polarised sunglasses and passes me one. ‘So you can see into the water,’ he says, putting on the other pair, pushing the lenses up over his forehead, pressing them down into the clamour of fair curls. Netting salmon is the last thing I thought I’d be doing today. We’re here to finish off what Sandy had started with Innes a couple of weeks back, before his closest friend had left Argyll for Africa. Half a dozen hens and two cock fish are already in the tanks up at The Lodge. Now we just need to get two more males for the 1:1 ratio.
In fourteen years of marriage I’ve never taken anything to do with the salmon hatchery, it was always a Sandy and Innes’ thing. The last few years it’s fallen by the wayside - stricter government regulations, lack of spare cash, time. Then the pair of them had got into it again this year. ‘Fuck it, Alona’, Sandy had said to me, ‘we’ll just catch a few fish, keep it under the radar, no need to tell the Fisheries Board.’ He’d told me that he’d counted seven salmon in the Three Pines Pool, they were just starting to pair up, ‘if we’re quick we’ll get it together,’ he’d added. And they had got it together, bar the two cock fish, which is why I’m here, standing in for Innes. The thought of him clamps my gut. I turn quickly to the slow-moving river. First time in a fortnight that the levels are low enough for netting fish, Sandy’s been waiting for this. He asked me to help today, his smile face-wide like old times, before back pain had put all that weather on him. How could I say no, all hooked up on guilt like I was.
We’ve come to The Lady’s Pool because it’s the closest to the holding tanks, we’ll get away with moving the fish without oxygen. Sandy turns off the engine. I open the pickup door, water slaps hard against the sides of the container in the back. It’s the brightest kind of November day, in a cloudless sky twin contrails are thinning towards another continent. I put my sunglasses on, enjoy the sudden shy of light, the way the hennaed hills drop two shades, the tracery of birch branches darkening to dead blood. No leaves now. The scarcity of winter. Scarcity, that’s what this is all about. Why we’re here, to do the salmon a wee turn. Unlike the seasons they’re not coming back, officially an endangered species now. Innes reckons they’re fucked, but you have to try.
Sandy hands me a pair of waders,‘you okay to take the net across the river, think I’d struggle over the stones.’ Vulnerability in his voice shuts the air from my chest. I nod and bend down to unlace my boots. Push my feet into the waders, am wafted with the smell of fust and time-worn PVC. Tuck my shirt into my jeans, tighten the belt. Nothing to eat today, barely anything yesterday. I’ve hardly eaten since I left Innes at the airport, I don’t feel hungry at all. Is this how the spawning salmon feel when their gullets close over? I hoik the straps over my shoulders. The sun is dropping fast, spreading gold over the pool that is smooth and curved as a scapula bone. The air cuts cold. I put my hat on as we walk down to the river over a mulch of crisp birch leaves, our steps the only sound in this silent afternoon.
Sandy teases the gill net out of the bag. ‘What a bourach,’ he says, cupping spillages of monofilament in his hands, ‘it’ll sort itself out in the water.’ He passes me the blue BT rope that’s attached to one end, ‘just start to make your way across the pool with it, take your time.’ My heart is beating bird-fast. I haven’t done this before, I know what we’re doing is illegal, but I trust Sandy. As long as we’re careful, netting the fish like this is a lot less traumatic than being caught on rod and line. I step down into the river, icy water grips the backs of my calves, drags the fabric of the waders downstream. I’m surprised by this shove of current against the backs of my knees.
My steps falter as I feel my way over algae-licked stones. ‘Keep the net at a forty-degree angle, stay ahead of it if you can, Alona.’ The fingers in my right hand are already slow and dumb with cold. The weight of the net aches across the river between Sandy and I, like the longing which won’t leave me. Then I catch it, coming off the pulse of the river, Innes’ smell - peat and Drum tobacco and pine. That sudden scent knocks me off kilter and I’m going down, put my hand out to steady myself. My palm skites across a slippery bolder, fingernails wedge against another. When I straighten up my left arm is wet to the shoulder. Blood spills magenta from cuticles.
‘You okay Alona?’
‘You can start to bring her in now, like a purse, nice and steady, take in the bottom of the pool…I’m not sure the fish are here today.’
I’m helium-light as I step into shallower water. ‘There’s a fish!’ Just as he says it the rope jolts in my hand. ‘Two…three!’ I bring the net round carefully towards Sandy who’s already in the river, knife held open. Adrenaline thunders between my ears. ‘Watch yourself, keep away from the net, you don’t want to get caught up in it.’ I see the fish now, black under the water, barely moving.
‘They okay?’ I ask.
‘Yes…fine, they just roll over when they hit the net, but we need to be quick…’ He takes hold of one, cuts where the monofilament presses tight, grips the fish above the tail and lifts, just a single thread holding fast behind its gills now, another cut, and then I see the thick pale welt blooming over its back. Nylon is unforgiving. Breath snags in my dry throat. The fish’s hooked lower jaw opens and closes, its body blazes tartan. Sandy drops it into the landing net in the river behind him. Goes for the next fish. ‘Ya beauty, another male, we’re in the flow, some luck!’ He slides it in alongside the first one, water seizures between the two fish.
‘Get the net out of the way Alona and I’ll let this one go…no need to be greedy.’ Sandy is lifting up the third fish, one hand around the wrist above her tail, the other cupping her moon-white underside. He lowers her to the water, she arcs between his hands. He waits while I drag the rest of the net up onto the bank. When I look back, Sandy has the fish pointed upstream. A charge surges between them, fusing fish and man. Sandy looks poised and strong. Then she’s gone, whipping to the top of the pool where a lick of breeze spins the pink last light into the river. She took something vital away with her; when Sandy straightens, his body is stiff, his face already drained to the familiar dull of pain. I push my sunglasses up, looking for the lost colour.
Back at the pickup the fish have dissolved into the watery darkness of the container. I imagine them hunkering down side by side, a single hidden force. Trapped. Waiting. Wondering. Sadness folds me even though I know they’ll be safely back in the river in a few weeks’ time. By then their milt will have been stripped and used to fertilise the females’ eggs. Nothing natural about this. Tears trail hot stings down my face. Sandy pushes shut the tailgate, passes me up the landing net, ‘just hold it over in case they flip out when we move.’ Then he says my name so quietly I have to look at him to check if he really said it. He’s looking directly up at me, his eyes lucent with the very last of the day. ‘Alona,’ he says my name again, ‘don’t worry, Innes will be back soon enough. He’s like these fish, he’s got a helluva nose for home.’ Then he turns and walks to the front of the pickup. Beyond the hammer-tangle of my heartbeat I hear a dry sound, the familiar impact of antler on antler, two stags jostling somewhere out there in the darkening. My mouth fills with water. I put one hand on the frame of the net and spread my feet wide, readying to take the strain. I tap twice on the cab roof, our code for ‘go’.↑