21 NOVEMBER 1952, Page 16

Fables of Today—II

The Great Salmon.

By JACQUETTA HAWKES IN a certain country there was a famous salmon-river. Starting from one of those dark mountain tarns whose beds were torn out long since by the roots of glaciers, it followed the usual- course of such a river, • hurling itself down the mountain-side, sweeping through the foot-hills, then moving in stately fashion towards the sea. The salmon-run had begun, a gleaming host of fish forcing their way up against the torrent of the water—force against force. They swam steadily through the slow currents of the coastal plain, where the light was dimmed by particles of mud; then climbed a weir beside a ruined mill.

As they struggled through the shallow slide of the weir, the salmon seemed like flying fish, for the water rose on either side of them in flashing transparent wings. The current grew stronger and more rough, sometimes flowing taut and smooth over rocks, sometimes breaking into foam. Again and again the fish had to leap rocky barriers or flounder through the stony flurries of the river. Among the many small or moderately-sized salmon was one much greater than the rest, dark with the experience of many journeys through the oceans' So high was his cunning, so tremendous the power of his lith and finny tail, that when his companions had to make many little jumps, or even wriggle through the narrow places, this fish could always clear the obstacle with a single leap. Afte these feats, when the lesser kind at last caught up with him, they would find him hanging rapt and motionless, save for the slightest tremor of his fins, in the shadowy depths of a pool. The throng of advancing fish grew fewer as one pair after another decided they had gone far enough and chose their territory. There they would drop to the bottom, plough troughs in the sand and pebbles, and, floating side by side above the trough, the male and female would perform the strange violent ritual of egg-laying and fertilisation, the mingling of pearl-like eggs and swimming clouds of sperm that are the properties for this small underwater drama of creation. At last the vanguard of the fish reached a point where the river ran through the last' hard rock-stratum of the mountain mass in a deep ravine. At the 'upper end it formed a water• fall, for the greater part of its breadth plunging over a rock' face sheer and vertical save for a few sharp projections from which the spray streamed in white horsetails. The cascade, falling through the centuries, had worn a deep basin at its foot. Against the left bank the remaining part of the channel was less precipitous, the rock-stratum having split into a number of steps, each with its miniature waterfall and basin. Most of the fish found this barrier too formidable; some retreated and went up a tributary stream; some. took possession of the gloomy deeps in the ravine. Still, a few were determined to go on, knowing there would be good feeding-Founds in the tree-hung reaches above the fall. They tackled the ascent by the left bank, jumping from step to step, often swept back by the force of the torrent, but nearly all at last leaping triumphantly into the calm waters above. Only the great salmon did not attempt to navigate the stair' way; perhaps he was aware that he was too large to go that way, but it seemed rather that some reckless compulsion made him challenge the main waterfall, whose precipitous face Must be cleared in one leap or not at all. For one evening and night the salmon rested in the pool, balancing himself at the point where the falling column striking down into the depths gently stroked and rocked his splendid body. In the dusk and 'under the light of the moon cattle browsing along the bank heard the curious soft slap of a torn water surface, and saw rings spreading out with enough force to disturb the water- plants round all sides of the pool.

Soon after dawn the salmon came to the top of the water and made two or three powerful turns; then, with a bending of his body like a spring of steel, he leapt into the air, drops of water flashing about him like a cloak of sequins. The soft firm flesh struck the rock two feet below the sliding summit of the waterfall. There was a slight echoless sound of the impact of a yielding surface upon a hard one; then a silver shape a moment since proud and purposeful fell grotesquely back into the pool. Again and again these dreadful leaps were repeated; soon the perfect smoothness of the flanks was smudged with scars, and blood began to ooze between the silver scales. Sound and spectacle were alike horrible; it was anguish to think of a living body crushing itself upon eternal rock, The other fish shuddered a little, darted 'under rocks at every vain essay, their small souls filled with shame at the passion of their greater fellow. Yes, shame and awe came together inside their papery skulls.

The sun was well towards the south before the salmon sank to darkness of deeper water; his last leaps had missed the rim ,by two yards and more. At sunset it began again; the salmon `made two or three more leaps, then seemed to gather all his strength. He swept round the surface of the pool in savage rushes his tail forming little whirlpools at every stroke; then, with a most violent convulsion of his body, hurled himself 'upwards. He achieved the top of the fall; his eyes must have had a glimpse of the peaceful stretch of dark peat-stained ',water gently combed by hanging branches. With his fore fins working furiously against the water at the very point where it bent over the rock, edge, he hung there for several seconds with the water gouting up in a crest above his head. All the smaller fish floated motionless, a little wishing for their cham- pion to succeed, yet even more longing for him to fail—to be • defeated.

They had their way. The effort was too great. The salmon icould not gain any purchase for his tail, and at last the relent- Jess unchanging thrust of the water pushed him back; he slid !down the fall• struck one of the rocky projections and fell back into the pool. The body sank swinging from side to side on a zig-zag descent as though a giant had dropped a spoon into a basin. After a short time it rose to the surface again, floating on its side with the whole of one deep flank with its pale under- Parts exposed to the sky. Either the spike of rock had severed the spinal cord, or the effort had been so great that the heart had burst.

The body floated downstream once more. It caught on ;rocks, was moved on again, twisted round, turned over like the piece of dead wreckage it was. At a bend in the river it Was washed on to a spit of shingle, and in a few hours had been Picked clean by crows and starlings. A curving backbone like a coarse white feather lay on the stones.

Perhaps hardly more than a score of the other salmon had seen the struggles, the final fall of the floating corpse. Yet before long the story had spread up and down the river, and all the fish wondered at the epic. As years went by it spread far and wide among all the salmon-kind, and all the young fish were told it before they had two rings on their scales. The great fish that had challenged the waterfall became the source of awe,. the object of wonder. As generations went by he became gigantic and was credited with golden fins, with eyes that burnt red in the darkness, and the power of sweet singing. So the fish who died became the one immortal.