What’s the connection between salmon and pesticides? It’s the water.
Early on in my novel writing journey, an editor I met at the Santa Barbara Writers’ Conference sent my manuscript back to me with the comment, “You have a tight little thriller here, if only you’d cut out the romance, the pesticide story, and that stuff about the magical salmon god.”
On a recent snowy vacation in December, I took a trip to Manhattan to attend the Algonquin Pitch – four days pitching to top New York agents and to editors from the last of the big New York publishing houses. My ancient magical nature god of the Pacific Northwest was ridiculed. Not a commercial novel concept! I was advised, once again, to just pitch my novel as a straight thriller. I get it. The few big publishing houses remaining can’t afford to risk their ROI by publishing a weird story by an unknown author. Debut authors need to stick to the formula. The business has to be profitable or it will die.
Alas, I did not write a gratuitous and formulaic thriller. I’ve been chosen to tell a stranger tale. But I believe my story will find a way to be born into the world, somehow. “Times they are a’changing.” (Please help if you can, by leaving a comment and letting me know you’re interested in the story and also sharing this post with your friends.)
Fruit of the Devil takes place in the priceless watershed of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Salmon are a keystone species of that watershed, a watershed now, once again – unbelievably – under threat of being desecrated by oil drilling and fracking.
We need to read and write and share stories that convey the sacredness of our planet. It’s going to take many miracles to save our Earth, and even inspiration from spiritual beings, like ancient nature gods, to help awaken our courage and protect our sacred places. In Fruit of the Devil, Salmon Boy is such an inspiring spiritual being. He has returned to the human world in the form of a Catholic priest of Ohlone heritage to work with at-risk youth in Watsonville, and to help save the salmon and the children from pesticides. An elementary school teacher falls in love with him. If you enjoyed the film The Shape of Water, then Fruit of the Devil might be your kind of story.
I first came across the legend of Salmon Boy in a children’s anthology of Native American stories, when I was teaching fourth grade in the 1980’s. The story stuck with me. Salmon Boy has been attributed to the Haida people, and is associated (at least in my mind) with the remarkable transformational native images of shamanic animals who push back their faces to reveal the human face underneath. I believe versions of the Salmon People legends are known here and there all up and down the Pacific Northwest, in Salmon Nation. I’m no anthropologist; only an artist under the spell of a beautiful, mystical imaginary being. Here’s how the legend of Salmon Boy is re-told in Fruit of the Devil. As always, your comments are welcome.
Chapter 28. Tuesday, September 13, 1998. Prudenciana Elementary
The Legend of Salmon Boy.
“This afternoon, boys and girls, I’m going to play a tape recording of a Native American legend from the Pacific Northwest. As you listen, focus on seeing pictures inside your head of what you hear. When the story ends, you’ll be using watercolors to illustrate your favorite scene.”
Aurora couldn’t remember where this cassette tape had come from. After so many years of teaching, she’d accumulated boxes and boxes of wonderful teaching materials. She especially loved this story and had shared it many times over the years with her students. The hand-written label on the cassette read, “Tape 1. Salmon Boy Story. Narrator: Old Storyteller of the Salmon Clan, Name and Tribe Unknown. Claiming to be from Naadaayi Héen a Tayee, the Village on the River Under the River, an area not locatable on the GPS”. Aurora pressed play.
Long ago in a village on the River near here lived a boy who was taller, stronger, and more handsome than any of the other children. But his heart twisted and hid in the dark. The boy’s mother made him a talisman for healing and protection, a totem powerful in magic. She hung the medicine charm on a leather cord and placed it around his neck.
Other children feared this boy. He played tricks on them and hurt them. The boy was a thief, a liar, and a bully. Instead of honoring the Salmon People with Oma, he poisoned them with bad thoughts.
The Elders taught the villagers that when they took the bodies of the Salmon People from the River to eat, they must return even the smallest bones to the River with Prayer, Ceremony and gratitude. Otherwise, when the Salmon People swam back to their village in Naadaayi Héen a Tayee and changed into their human form, missing their bones, they would be crippled and would suffer terrible pain. The boy never returned Salmon People’s bones to the River.
One day in the Month of First Rain – the season when the River swells and the Salmon People pass by – the village children walked down to the River to swim. Respecting River’s power, all the children swam close to shore.
All except the boy with the twisted heart. He swam out to the middle of the river to show off.
A giant whirlpool caught him and spun him around, around, around, around and pulled him down, down, down, and down into the dark deep. He saw stars, then absolute black, devoid of sound or light. A vortex of gleaming blue swirled toward him through the dark. Inside the swirling blue, a far away point of white light opened and closed like a flower. Out of the flower came forth forms, silver, shimmering, and luminous.
Quicksilver Salmon People circled around the boy.
“You will come with us,” they said. And they took the boy to Naadaayi Héen a Tayee, the Village on the River that Runs Underneath This River, where the Salmon People live.
When they arrived at their village, the People climbed out of their salmon skins and stood shining in their human forms.
They were kind to the boy. They gave him a new heart, and a new name. They called him Salmon Boy.
His new heart beat with beauty, strength, and purity. He wept in sorrow for the pain he’d caused in his village UpRiver.
Salmon Boy learned the correct way to Sing, to Dance, and to Pray. He learned to Listen and learned the way of Ceremony. He became an impeccable Hunter, capable of caring for Mother Earth and her children with Respect and Love. He learned to plant, tend, build and mend. He learned to speak and act with integrity and compassion, to use the power of his Words, and of thought itself, never to wound, but only to move Spirit in the direction of Truth, Peace, and Love. He learned to see Light dancing through the golden threads of the Web of Existence that unite all beings in the eternal Oneness outside of Space and Time.
When the Elders saw that he was ready, they led him to the Healers’ Lodge and initiated him into the most Secret Mysteries of the Ancient Ones. Salmon Boy’s heart cracked open and the Source of All was revealed to him. He became a Shaman, a Formless Warrior-Priest.
Many cycles spun on the Wheel.
One day, the Old Ones let it be known it was time to return UpRiver. Salmon Boy and his People dressed in their fish skins and prepared for the Journey. They were not as many nor as mighty as they once had been because the power of Oma, the spirit flowing to them from the people of the village, no longer ran generous and clear.
As Salmon Boy swam past his old village, his mother stood by the shore holding her net. Salmon Boy swam into it.
His mother recognized the copper totem glinting like stars around the fish’s neck and she knew her son. The villagers helped her carry the heavy fish back to her tule hut. She held the fish in her arms and rocked him and wept, prayed and sang, for eight days.
On the first day his mother held him, the head of a man pushed out of the fish’s mouth. On the second day, the fish skin split and peeled back, revealing Salmon Boy’s warrior shoulders. Salmon Boy’s mother rocked him, and wept, prayed and sang. On the eighth day, Salmon Boy knelt barefoot before his mother and father, in the perfect body of a man. He cried salty tears over their hands, kissed their feet, and begged forgiveness.
The People in the Village by the River celebrated Salmon Boy’s Return. He lived with them, as Teacher and Healer, for many Cycles of Salmon Moon as Mother Earth spun around the Sun. He helped the People remember the Old Ways, how to Pray, Sing, Dance, Give Offerings, and return the Blessings of the Water Oma to the Salmon People, making whole and complete the ebb and flow of the sacred. He was belovéd, respected and honored. He initiated the young into ancient secrets.
In the ripeness of time, Salmon Boy dreamed the Call for him to Return to the Lodge at the Center of the Circle within the Circle, to Naadaayi Héen a Tayee, the Village on The River That Flows Underneath The Rivers of This World.
On a clear day in the season when Ceanothus flowers open and the creeks swell, everyone gathered by the river to say goodbye. With tears in their eyes, Salmon Boy and the villagers sang the Salmon People close to shore. The current was swift. A Shadow thrust its spear into Salmon Boy’s heart. He fell into the River and was swept into the center. A whirlpool formed around him, pulling him down, down, down, and down.
When Salmon Boy returned to Naadaayi Héen a Tayee, he found his soulmate, Ña’ táayaa, waiting for him. He remembered when he looked into her eyes that he had loved her forever.
He has journeyed to many worlds, where he is known and belovéd by many names: Salmon Boy, Tehéatla Sagrado, Nur, Nagual, Pstruh, Qakiidax, Taryaqpak, praNItAcaru, and Brother of the Formless Warriors.
Even now, Salmon Boy lives with the People and his beloved Ña’ táayaa in Naadaayi Héen a Tayee. It is said that every few lifetimes, Salmon Boy returns UpRiver to a village by the River near here.”