"Do you have any fish?" the woman on the telephone asked me. I felt irritated. It seemed like I was always getting phone calls from people asking things of me. People wanted to borrow tools, which often didn't get returned. Money. Babysitting. Now fish.
I pictured the two fish I had in my freezer. It was the end of winter. Spring thaw was just around the corner. I thought of the river and how, year after year, the fish generously travel up the silty glacier water, and offer themselves to the people, the bears, the eagles. I thought of the shallow branch of the river that kindly curved toward my home. I envisioned the splashing of the waters as the king salmon thrust themselves over the rocks, toward the mouth of the creek that dumps into the river. A wave of love washed through me.
"Come over," I told the woman on the phone. With a heart full of grace, and a smile on my face, I gave her the last of my fish. Later that day, I went to the river, to the place where the water was open, and I made offerings to the salmon people. I prayed that their journey be well. I thanked them for their beautiful bodies, full of nutrients. I felt shame as I thought of how generously the earth gives, and how I had become stingy with my time and resources. I let the shame pour out of me and travel down the river. I vowed to be more generous, more open and flowing. More like the river.
That summer, when the ice moved out and the salmon moved in, I approached the fish differently. It was not just a natural resource that I worked to preserve for the winter. They had become a symbol of generosity. Simplicity. Love. I was mindful of my mood as I processed the fish that I got from a neighbor's wheel. I allowed awe a place at the outdoor butchering table, and my hands touched the fish with gratitude. They were no longer just a food source. They were like family.
That year, and the following three years, I received generous gifts of fish from people. One man brought me a large cooler full of fish, already gutted. He was the husband of a woman who despised me. I looked at the orange and red flesh of the salmon, and I thought my heart would burst with joy. In my mind I pictured my enemy, and I extended my overflowing love to her. The river excludes no one.
The salmon taught me about grace. They taught me about generosity. They taught me humility. The Ahtna people, who had relations with the salmon long before me, have a story that stands out in my mind. It is more of an unwritten law. They say that one should always bathe before touching the first salmon of the season. It is an act of respect. I don't think it is necessarily about body cleanliness though. Maybe it's like the Christian baptism, or the Jewish bath, that is more about spiritual cleanliness. I was called to the altar by a woman on the line, where I was baptized by glacier water and salmon slime. It set me right.
Chantelle Pence lives in Chistochina with her husband and three sons, where she works as a consultant (Copper River Consulting) and plays as a writer. Pence's family was among the last settlers on the homestead in Slana. She is currently writing a book about rural Alaskan issues, from the perspective of a "Homestead Girl."