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They swam like creatures of a single mind, their eyes inclined upward together, finding a point in common somewhere above the surface of the river. In perfect synchrony, they turned in the morning light, their motion confident and curious in equal measure, yet as indecipherable as the secret language of a storm. Their skin stretched taut beneath a coating of glassy scales as thin as frost; it rippled with muscle, tiny and perfect, as its web of nerves channeled sign and signal from the water. As long as they had existed as a species, the salmon had read the water, matching hints of seasons and patterns they had no need to comprehend in order to reach their destination.
For tens of thousands of years, the salmon had decoded their river's songs and stirrings. They had inhaled its breath. Down the long canyon between its banks, time was told and foretold, and from great distances upstream it was possible for each fingertip-sized brain to hear the faraway voice of the ocean. In the same way, and two years hence as fully grown chinooks and sockeyes, they would sense the river's call from thousands of miles out to sea. The water gave them everything. In their lives they would take much and eventually give it all back. At this moment their offerings were speckles of color, jeweled signatures adorning each slender body like the daggers of a genie.
Yet this water told them nothing. In precise formation the baby salmon probed for direction, seeking the current only to end up in the place where they had begun. All around them nourishment was hanging in translucent spirals off a floating mass in the center of the water, casting a faint, inert shadow below. The bits of torn flesh were reassuring. Salmon were born in water filled with the floating, shredded remains of parents who spawned and died, exhausted and broken from the effort. The pungent gravy of putrefaction and rot was, for these infants, a life force that had ushered them into the world. But they understood that the body floating amongst them was not of their lineage. They fed anyway.
Through their skin they could hear the steady humming of machines pumping and circulating the water. This place matched nothing they were bred to understand. Only bits and pieces of their river could be deciphered from this water through the blood-gorged muslin of their gills and the nerves of their skin. The hatchlings swam forward, wary of predators, feeding gently off the body that bled slowly into the water around them. They puzzled together. Like tightly wound springs they were eager to take expected cues and hurl themselves back the way their long dead parents had come. But there were no cues, only the gnawing hunger as they circled; each time they encountered the walls of the tank they were surprised.
Located about an hour's drive east of Portland and an equal distance west of Francine Smohalla's home along the Columbia River, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers salmon hatchery was her responsibility and her passion. It was nestled next to the Bonneville Dam complex, thirteen dams away from Mica Dam upstream in Canada and the last dam on the Columbia before the river made its final turn to the Pacific. Francine walked by the six tanks without a glance, and locating a panel on the wall, she tripped the automatic dimmers that manufactured daylight for two hundred thousand hatchlings. Out the open window she could see the river from where she stood.
Francine pretended that the baby salmon she took care of at the hatchery were family. She pretended when she packed her bag lunch every day that it was for someone besides her, that she would hand it to him on his way to some office and spend the day waiting for his return. Each afternoon when she ate lunch, she pretended that it had been packed not by her, but by someone that she would be going home to. It almost worked. Her emptiness remained at bay for as long as it took to pack and then eat each day. But since looking after someone and being looked after were conditions she had never known in her own life, she couldn't tell for sure how much she yearned for them, and the emptiness always returned.
Bonneville was the largest of five federal dams between here and the Snake River junction. Its hatchery was the largest of four on the river. It adjoined the Bonneville locks, and Francine could watch the ships and barges from all over the world as she worked. The vast concrete arch of the dam stretched like a bridge to the Oregon side of the river. The halogen lights of the powerhouse cast arcs of white over the precipice, reflecting off clouds of spray rising up from the turbine penstocks. The wind teased Bonneville's clouds into wisps and ringlets. The whole effect was of a boiling cauldron, another spectacle credited to the unseasonably heavy rain. Like every other dam on the Columbia, Bonneville was at high water, and she was the last gatekeeper draining the interior of a continent into the Pacific Ocean.
Bonneville allowed more than water through its various gates. Unlike the Grand Coulee Dam upstream, Bonneville had not completely sealed the river to migrating fish and commerce. It was a busy outpost and had actually been built with salmon in mind. Besides the hatchery there was a fish ladder, a series of concrete steps up which salmon could swim much more easily than they could jump the old falls that used to churn the river during ancient times. The craggy, treacherous falls that had bedeviled the white settlers for hundreds of years and were named for ancient characters in the creation myths of the river's Indians had also been the salmon's path into the interior. With the building of the dams, those falls had all been replaced, leveled into ladders, or more precisely riverine escalators more suited to the modern age.
From the Hardcover edition.