Working alongside other authors in the Sooke Writers’ Collective, Jim has published short stories and poems in five anthologies.
His short story RUNNING WITH SALMON was a finalist for the Federation of BC Writers best short story and was performed by actor Derek Peach in the podcast Stores Less Spoken.
Click expand to read "Running with Salmon"
Running with Salmon
Of all the salmon spawns Dermit Miles witnessed over his seventy-three years, this one appeared the smallest. He should know. Born on the rugged edge of Vancouver Island’s wild west shore, Dermit had fished these parts all his life, thirty-six years on commercial boats. Days off he spent fly-fishing, teasing steelhead and cutthroat trout from the Sooke river. But every autumn came the special time of the spawn. On Mondays he left his gear at home and walked Charters Creek with his best friend Monty, watching the salmon run. Cheering for the fish to make it.
Except this year something seemed terribly wrong. Usually the clear rushing waters teemed with silvery red-tinged torpedoes, pooling in cascading steps that spilled down from the hills through the rainforest. Trees so tall you felt like a hobbit wandering Middle Earth. But this summer had been the driest Dermit could remember and now the water was low. The rushing white streams skirted exposed rocks and the normally lush undergrowth was almost crisp. Jurassic ferns curled brown-at-the-edges and Avatar moss draped the trees in dusty emerald tatters.
Maybe it was global warming,
Maybe this year the rains wouldn’t come at all.
Monty looked up at Dermit. “You’re awfully quiet, Mit.” Squat and dressed in worn hiking clothes, Monty looked like a homeless vagrant, an old widower without fashion sense. Dermit knew they both did. Monty eyed him narrowly. “Missing Charmaine?”
“Always.” Dermit surveyed the creek. Dead soldiers rotted in the shallows and on the sand bars, mouths wide, eyes pecked out by birds. Their black stares were morbid and haunting. In a deeper pool nearby a salmon circled and raced, flinging his tail and leaping into the shallows, beating at the rocks and making a mad skitter across the coarse gravel to deeper water. This one had promise!
“I think I spotted my first-round draft pick,” Dermit said, although he knew he was premature picking this salmon. You could become invested too early. The next obstacle was a waterfall, requiring a leap of several body lengths, and more formidable challenges waited beyond.
As Monty set off along the bank to inspect the fish, Dermit felt relief to not speak more of Charmaine. You can’t capture a ghost with words.
Monty moved slower since his stroke, labouring with a shuffle and a limp as he followed the riverbank, yet Dermit suspected that his friend could still beat him in a two-man race ahead of a bear. As kids Monty often teased his slowness. They fought only once, in grade three, coming eyeball to eyeball over the merits of bucktailing for coho versus cut plug mooching for chinook. Red-faced and egged-on by the schoolyard crowd wanting a dust-up between Jiggerbug and Sasquatch, they traded punches. Monty was quicker, landing more, Dermit the heavier shots. Until it dawned on them they were fighting the only other guy that knew what he was talking about. After a trip to the principal’s office, sporting a shiner and a fat lip, they became best friends and fishing buddies ever after.
Dermit fumbled with his phone to find pictures of last fall’s spawn. One year into his “smart” experience and the thing still made him feel like an idiot. His arthritic fishing fingers, bent from decades pulling gear out of the Juan de Fuca Strait, were too big to hit the right keys. He managed to find his pictures, pausing at the one of Charmaine as a teenager. His sister-in-law texted it to him months ago, the only one of Charmaine on his phone. She grinned widely, dimples displayed, wearing that beautiful silver moon necklace that she wore the night they met. Monty hovered, squinting at the small display as Dermit scrolled.
Monty adjusted his faded fishing derby cap, from the year his winning fish was only two ounces more than Dermit’s catch. “There’s Marla Jay again. From last year’s derby. You have quite a few with her.” She had impressed them, landing a thirty-six-pound spring.
Dermit located the shots from Charters Creek. Deep pools of thrashing salmon. Marla was in several of these pictures too. Funny, but he scarcely remembered her there. They knew Marla from school days. She married and moved away, but came back a few years ago. Marla sent Dermit a card when Charmaine died.
“Lots of salmon,” said Dermit. “Almost a year ago to the day.”
“Bragging? I can’t remember yesterday.” Monty bent and massaged his knee. “But I do remember Patty. Some days I miss Patty more than I miss drinking.”
“That’s saying a lot,” Dermit said.
Monty chuckled. “Marla Jay likes you, Mit.”
Dermit started off for the next pool. “My fish is going to make another run.”
The salmon rocketed to the waterfall and leapt, a sleek rainbow streak, muscled body arching in the air, mouth open and wanting, and splashed onto the top of the ledge. The tail thrashed, splattering, but the water, the relentless water; Dermit’s fish tipped backwards, flopping back into the pool and the stream took it tumbling into the faster current, bumping and scraping across the rocks of the shallows to be flushed into deeper water. It drifted sideways, then sank, a silver slash disappearing into the darker deep. Monty and Dermit waited until the body popped up downstream, stomach showing, and was swept around the bend.
“Not sure I’m ready for romance, Mont,” Dermit said.
Monty laboured to climb the riverbank, painfully heaving his leg over a log. “You’re alive, ain’tcha?”
Dermit grunted. Shook his head. He paused in the shade under a Douglas-fir that towered out of sight. “Marla and I have been friends for longer than either of us can remember.”
Monty shrugged. “Things change.”
They followed the water for a while, but it was clear the run this year was stunted.
Monty frowned. “I think I’ve seen enough for today, Mit.” They turned slowly to follow Charters Creek back.
Dermit suspected it was their shortest walk ever. He said, “This drought makes me nervous, Mont. More nervous than when that old Evinrude of yours died off Sheringham Point.”
Monty grinned, three teeth missing—his smile reminiscent of fiery sunrises on the Pacific, watching killer whales vault from the water and crash with a shower of spray. “You worry too much.”
“Things aren’t right. This place fed Coastal Salish people for centuries, but you wouldn’t know it today.”
The rains hadn’t come.
The next day, Dermit returned to Charters Creek jammed into Marla’s vintage Volkswagen Beetle, painted multi-coloured hippie floral. Always a flower girl, she wore a wide-brimmed rain hat covered in a pattern of interlocking yellow daisies.
Marla led him along the creek. In a clearing lay three half-eaten salmon. They scanned for bears. Dermit knew that in 99% of bear encounters, the human never sees the bear. Here, the foliage was dense. Marla stooped, examining a patch of dirt in the dead leaves. Tracks with rounded toes. “A cougar,” she said. They eyed the shadows. Dermit recalled the time as a child looking into the truck box of Mr. Kemper’s rusty pickup, filled with dead cougars. All shot, staring, none had eyes pecked out. There was a bounty then.
Dermit couldn’t imagine Marla shooting anything.
Marla caught Dermit staring at her and smiled. She turned and led him to the stream. “We are old, so we shouldn’t go slow. Look at that one, belly swollen with eggs. So strong, so powerful, but she’ll be dead next week.”
“Or sooner.” Dermit contemplated the deadly shallows that came next. “This year there’s less fish. It’s the draught.”
“They’re pooling in Sooke basin. Waiting for the rains.”
“But things are changing. Could this be it?”
“They’ll come.” Marla seemed confident.
“How can you be so sure?”
He looked at her and discovered that he believed her. More, trusted her. He couldn’t explain it, but here it was. Maybe Monty was right.”
“Marla.” Dermit reached with his fishing fingers and touched her spotted hand. “Is this a date?”
She rose up on tiptoes to kiss his whiskered cheek. “Our first.”
Dermit teetered, almost toppling over. When she smiled, he covered his with a feigned cough. They continued walking but hadn’t wandered more than a hundred yards when Marla stopped. Unsteady, she put a hand to her neck and sighed. “Let’s have a proper date next weekend. My place. Dinner. I’ll make apple pie.”
Back at the parking lot, Marla winced as she got into the driver’s seat. “We’re not too old,” she said.
On Saturday, Dermit prepared nervously. He scrubbed his hands red trying to lift the engine oil from the deep lines in his palms. He splashed his face with a cologne he got as a birthday gift from his nephew years ago. In his dented pickup on the way he feared he smelled less like flowers, more like paint thinner.
At Marla’s tidy green and white home lights were strung along the sidewalk past her garden to the porch. On the door a wreath of daisies. Dermit checked that the silver moon necklace in its tiny original gift box was safely in his pocket and then knocked. He paused, then stepped inside when she didn’t answer. Joni Mitchell sang something about clouds. Apple pie smelled delightful. The table was laid out with silverware, its centrepiece showcasing sunflowers and a mix of dahlias and daisies. Marla sat in the kitchen, her back to him.
Dermit said, “I have something to give you.”
On Monday, Dermit and Monty trudged with tentative steps along the mud of Charters Creek. Marla had been right. The rains came. The creek swelled. It was just like last year, schools of flashing silver fish racing forward, sleek and relentless, vaulting the little waterfalls and splashing forward on their ancient quest.
The forest glistened, glowing. Water cascaded in little drops through the leaves, a trilling drumbeat as they bounced on the creek surface. The salmon moved forward. Always.
Monty coughed, words a struggle. “The funeral, Wednesday. It’ll be tough.”
Dermit watched another salmon make its run. A bold takeoff and a loud splash into the higher pool. There was no joy in this for him.
He looked at Monty and his friend stared back. Monty’s lip quivered. “This one’ll make it, Mit.”
Dermit spat on the riverbank. “Does anyone ever make it? If it ain’t the rushing water, it’s the god-damn cougars. If it ain’t cancer, it’s a broken heart.” He wiped at his face. “Marla,” he started, but his voice was about to break and he stopped.
Monty shifted one foot to the other. He opened his mouth to speak but no words came. Dermit realized his old buddy felt worse than he did. Dermit stooped, hands to knees, to inspect the rushing water. “You know what, Mont? I don’t agree with the doctors.”
“Most days I don’t agree with anyone,” Monty said.
Dermit straightened. He defiantly shook a finger at the sky. “Marla had a good heart.”
Monty shuffled closer and their eyes met. Dermit lifted his arms, ready to hug his friend, but Monty abruptly pulled off his cap to adjust it and Dermit coughed roughly into his arm.
“Look at that one!” Monty shouted, as a female salmon cleared the waterfall, a silver streak of strength and pure determination. “Now, that’s my first-round pick!”
They followed her slowly upstream, taking turns to point and cheer, as the cool rain misted the living creek.
NEWCOMERS … a nonfiction short with poems that appears in:
Write from Sooke Sooke Writers’ Collective Anthology Four
Stories Less Spoken
LUCKY SOOKE … the value of nature in our technological age
Lucky Number Seven Sooke Writers’ Collective Anthology Seven
MONSTERS SHAKE OUT EIGHTBALL
Pieces of Eight Sooke Writers’ Collective Anthology Eight
To purchase copies of any anthology, visit