The River Mouth
Copyright 1994, Lia Matera.
"The River Mouth" first appeared in The Mysterious West, edited by Tony Hillerman.
It was reprinted in A Moment on the Edge: 100 Years of Crime Stories by Women, edited by Elizabeth George.
It may not be reproduced, copied or distributed for commercial or non-commercial use.
To reach the mouth of the Klamath River, you head west off 101 just south of the Oregon border. You hike through an old Yurok meeting ground, an overgrown glade with signs asking you to respect native spirits and stay out of the cooking pits and split-log amphitheater. The trail ends at a sand cliff. From there, you can watch the Klamath rage into the sea, battering the tide. Waves break in every direction, foam blowing off like rising ghosts. Sea lions by the dozens bob in the swells, feeding on eels flushed out of the river.
My boyfriend and I made our way down to the wet-clay beach. The sky was every shade of gray, and the Pacific looked like mercury. We were alone except for five Yurok in rubber boots and checkered flannel fishing in the surf. We watched them flick stiff whips of sharpened wire mounted on pick handles. When the tips lashed out of the waves, they had eels impaled on them. With a rodeo wind-up, they flipped the speared fish over their shoulders into pockets they’d dug in the sand. We passed shallow pits seething with creatures that looked like short, mean-faced snakes.
We continued for maybe a quarter mile beyond the river mouth. We climbed some small sharp rocks to get to a tall, flat one midway between the shore and the cliff. From there, we could see the fishermen, but not have our conversation carry down to them.
Our topic of the day (we go to the beach to hash things out) was if we wanted to get married. Because it was a big intimidating topic, we’d driven almost four hundred miles to find the right beach. We’d had to spend the night in a tacky motel, but this was the perfect spot, no question.
Patrick uncorked the champagne--we had two bottles, it was likely to be a long talk. I set out the canned salmon and crackers on paper plates on the old blue blanket. I kicked off my shoes so I could cross my legs. I watched Pat pour, wondering where we’d end up on the marriage thing.
When he handed me the paper cup of bubbles, I tapped it against his. "To marriage or not."
"To I do or I don’t," he agreed.
The air smelled like cold beach, like wet sky and slick rocks and storms coming. At home, the beach stinks like fish and shored seaweed buzzing with little flies. If there are sunbathers on blankets, you can smell their beer and coconut oil.
"So, Pat?" I looked him over, trying to imagine being married to him. He was a freckly, baby-faced Scot with strange hair and hardly any meat on him. Whereas I was a black-haired mutt who tended to blimp out in the winter and get it back under control in the summer. But the diets were getting harder, and I knew fat women couldn’t be choosers. I was thinking it was time to lock in. And worrying that was an unworthy motive. "Maybe we’re fine the way we are now."
Right away he frowned.
"I just mean, it’s okay with me the way it is."
"Because you were married to Mr. Perfect and how could I ever take his place?"
"Hardy-har." Mr. Perfect meaning my ex-husband had plenty of money and good clothes. Pat had neither, right now. He just got laid off and there were a thousand other software engineers answering every ad he did.
"I guess he wasn’t an ‘in-your-face child,’" Pat added.
Ah-ha. Here we had last night’s fight.
"With Mr. Perfect you didn’t even have arguments. He knew when to stop."
Me and Pat fight on long drives. I say things. I don’t necessarily mean them. It was too soon to call the caterer, I guess.
I held out my paper cup for more. "All I meant was he had more experience dealing with--"
"Oh, it goes without saying!" He poured refills so fast they bubbled over. "I’m a mere infant! About as cleanly as a teenager and as advanced in my political analysis as a college freshman."
"What is this, a retrospective old fights? Okay, so it takes some adjustment living with a person. I’ve said things in crabby moments. On the drive up--"
"Crabby moments? You? No, you’re an artist,"--you could have wrung the scorn out of the word and still had it drip sarcasm--"reality’s just more complicated for you."
I felt my eyes narrow. "I hate that, Patrick."
"Oh, she’s calling me Patrick."
Usually I got formal when I got mad. "I’m not in the best mood when I write. If you could just learn to leave me alone then." Like I said in the car.
His pale brows pinched as he flaked salmon onto crackers. I made a show of shading my eyes and watching a Yurok woman walk toward us. When she got to the bottom of our rock, she called up, "Got a glass for me?"
Usually we were antisocial, which is why we did our drinking at the beach instead of in bars. But the conversation wasn’t going the greatest. A diversion, a few minutes to chill--why not?
"Sure," I said.
Pat hit me with the angry bull look, face lowered, brows down, nostrils flared. As she clattered up the rocks, he muttered, "I thought we came here to be alone."
"Hi there," she said, reaching the top. She was slim, maybe forty, with long brown hair and a semi-flat nose and darkish skin just light enough to show some freckles. She had a great smile, but bad teeth. She wore a black hat almost like a cowboy’s but not as Western. She sat on a wet part of the rock to spare our blanket whatever funk was on her jeans (as if we cared).
"Picnic, huh? Great spot."
I answered, "Yeah," because Pat was sitting in pissy silence.
She drank some champagne. "Not many people know about this beach. You expecting other folks?"
"No, we’re pretty far from home."
"This is off the beaten path, all right." She glanced over her shoulder, waving at her friends.
"We had to hike through Yurok land to get here," I admitted. "Almost elven, and that wonderful little amphitheater." I felt embarrassed, didn’t know how to assure her we hadn’t been disrespectful. I’d had to relieve myself behind a bush, but we didn’t do war cries or anything insensitive. "I hope it isn’t private property. I hope this beach isn’t private."
"Nah. That’d be a crime against nature, wouldn’t it?" She grinned. "There’s a trailer park up the other way. That is private property. But as long as out go out the way you came in, no problem."
"Thanks, that’s good to know. We heard about this beach on our last trip north, but we didn’t have a chance to check it out. We didn’t expect all the seals or anything."
"Best time of year; eels come upriver to spawn in the ocean. Swim twenty-five hundred miles, some of them," she explained. "It's a holy spot for the Yurok, the river mouth." A break in the clouds angled light under her hat brim, showing leathery lines around her eyes. "This place is all about mouths, really. In the river, the eel is the king mouth. He hides, he waits, he strikes fast. But time comes when he's gotta heed that urge. And he swims right into the jaws of the sea lion. Yup." She motioned behind her. "Here and now, this is the eel’s judgment day."
Pat was giving me crabby little get-rid-of-her looks. I ignored him. Okay, we had a lot to talk about. But what are the odds of a real-McCoy Yurok explaining the significance of a beach?
She lay on her side on the blanket, holding out her paper cup for a refill and popping some salmon into her mouth. "Salmon means renewal," she said. "Carrying on the life cycle, all that. You should try the salmon jerky from the rancheria."
Pat hesitated before refilling her cup. I let him fill mine, too.
"King mouth of the river, that’s the eel," she repeated. "Of course, the Eel River’s named after him. But it’s the Klamath that’s his castle. They’ll stay alive out of water longer than any other fish I know. You see them flash that ugly gray-green in the surf, and thwack, you get them on your whipstick and flip them onto the pile. You do that a while, you know, and get maybe fifteen, and when you go back to put them in your bucket, maybe eight of the little monsters have managed to jump out of the pit and crawl along the sand. You see how far some of them got and you have to think they stayed alive a good half hour out of the water. Now how’s that possible?"
I lay on my side, too, sipping champagne, listening, watching the gorgeous spectacle behind her in the distance: seals bobbing and diving, the river crashing into the sea, waves colliding like hands clapping. Her Yurok buddies weren’t fishing anymore, they were talking. One gestured toward our rock. I kind of hoped they’d join us. Except Pat would really get cranky then.
Maybe I did go too far on the drive up. But I wished he’d let it go.
"So it’s not much of a surprise, huh?" the woman continued. "That they’re king of the river. They’re mean and tough, they got teeth like nails. If they were bigger, man, sharks wouldn’t stand a chance, never mind seals." She squinted at me, sipping. "Because the cussed things can hide right in the open. Their silt-barf color, they can sit right in front of a rock, forget behind it. They can look like part of the scenery. And you swim by feeling safe and cautious, whoever you are--maybe some fancy fish swum downriver--and munch! You’re eel food. But the river ends somewhere, you know what I mean? Every river has its mouth. There’s always that bigger mouth out there waiting for you to wash in, no matter how sly and bad you are at home. You heed those urges and leave your territory, and you're dinner."
Pat was tapping the bottom of my foot with his. Tapping tapping urgently like I should do something.
That’s when I made up my mind: Forget marriage. He was too young. Didn’t want to hear this Yurok woman talk, and was tapping on me like, make her go away, Mom. I had kids, two of them, and they were grown now and out of the house. And not much later, their dad went, too (though I didn’t miss him, and I did miss the kids, at least sometimes). And I didn’t need someone fifteen years younger than me always putting the responsibility on me. I paid most of the bills, got the food together (didn’t cook, but knew my delis), picked up around the house, told Pat what he should read because engineers don’t know squat about literature or history; and every time someone needed getting rid of or something social had to be handled or even just a business letter had to be written, it was tap-tap-tap, oh, Maggie, could you please… ?
I reached behind me and shoved Pat’s foot away. If he wanted to be antisocial, he could think of a way to make the woman leave himself. We had plenty of time to talk just the two of us. I didn’t want her to go yet.
"Got any more?" the Yurok asked.
I pulled the second bottle out of our beat-up backpack and opened it, trying not to look at Pat, knowing he’d have that hermity scowl now big-time.
"You picnic like this pretty often?" she asked.
"Yeah, we always keep stuff in the trunk--wine, canned salmon, crackers. Gives us the option." That was the other side of it: Pat was fun, and he let me have control. If I said, let’s go, he said okay. That means everything if you spent twenty years with a stick-in-the-mud.
"You come here a lot?" she asked.
"No, this was a special trip."
"It was supposed to be," Pat fussed.
I hastily added, "Our beaches down around Santa Cruz and Monterey are nice, but we’ve been to them a thousand times."
"Mmm." She let me refill her cup. I had more, too. Pat didn’t seem to be drinking.
"Now the sea lion is a strange one," she said. "There’s little it won’t eat, and not much it won’t do to survive, but it has no guile. It swims along, do-de-do, and has a bite whenever it can. It doesn’t hide or trick. It’s lazy. If it can find a place to gorge, it’ll do that and forget about hunting. It doesn’t seem to have the hunting instinct. It just wants to eat and swim and jolly around. Mate. Be playful." She broke another piece of salmon off, holding it in fingers with silt and sand under the nails. "Whereas an eel is always lurking, even when it’s just eaten. It never just cavorts. Its always thinking ahead like a miser worrying how to get more."
"Until it leaves home and washes into the sea lion’s mouth." I concluded the thought for her.
"What the eel needs"--she sat up--"is a way to say Hell No. Here it is, the smarter, stealthier creature. And what does nature do but use its own instinct against it? Favor some fat lazy thing that’s not even a fish, it’s a mammal that lives in the water, that doesn’t really belong and yet has food poured down its gullet just for being in the right place." She pointed at the sea lion heads bobbing in the waves. "Look at them. This is their welfare cafeteria. They do nothing but open their mouths."
Pat put in, "You could say you’re like the seals. You’re out there with those steel-pronged things spearing eels."
I wanted to hit him. It seemed a rude thing to say.
"The Yurok are like the eels." She removed her hat. Her dark hair, flattened on top, began to blow in the wind coming off the water. "The Yurok were king because the Yurok knew how to blend in. The Yurok thought always of food for tomorrow because Yurok nightmares were full of yesterday’s starvation. The Yurok were part of the dark bottom of history’s river, silent and ready. And yet they got swept out into the bigger mouths that waited without deserving."
She leaped to her feet. She looked majestic, her hair blowing against a background of gray-white clouds, her arms and chin raised to the heavens. "This is where the ancient river meets the thing that is so much bigger, the thing the eel can’t bear to understand because the knowledge is too bitter."
Behind me, Pat whispered, "This is weird. Look at her friends."
On the beach, the Yurok men raised their arms, too. They stood just like the woman, maybe imitating her to tease her, maybe just coincidence.
"Where the ancient river meets the thing that is much bigger, and the eel can’t understand because the knowledge is too bitter," she repeated to the sky.
Pat was poking me now, hardly bothering to whisper. "I don’t like this. She’s acting crazy."
I smacked him with an absentminded hand behind my back, like a horse swatting off a fly. Maybe this was too much for a software engineer--why had I ever thought I could marry someone as unlyrical as that?--but it was a writer’s dream. It was real-deal Yurok lore. If she quit because of him, I’d push Pat’s unimaginative damn butt right off the rock.
She shook her head from side to side, hair whipping her cheeks. "At the mouth of the river, you learn the truth: Follow your obsessions, and the current carries you into a hundred waiting mouths. But if you lie quiet"--she bent forward so I could see her bright dark eyes--"and think passionately of trapping your prey, if your hunger is a great gnawing within you, immobilizing you until the moment when you become a rocket of appetite to consume what swims near--"
"What do they want?" Pat’s shadow fell across the rock. I turned to see that he was standing now, staring down the beach at the Yurok men.
They’d taken several paces toward us. They seemed to be watching the woman.
She was on a roll, didn’t even notice. "Then you don't ride the river into the idle mouth, the appetite without intelligence, the hunger that happens without knowing itself."
Pat’s anoraked arm reached over me and plucked the paper cup from her hand. "You better leave now."
"What is your problem, Patrick?" I jumped to my feet. Big damn kid, Jesus Christ. Scared by legends, by champagne talk on a beach. "Mellow the hell out."
My words wiped the martial look off his face. A marveling betrayal replaced it. "You think you’re so smart, Maggie, you think you know everything. But you’re really just a sheltered little housewife."
I was too angry to speak. I maybe hadn’t earned much over the years, but I was a writer.
His lips compressed, his eyes squinted, his whole freckled Scot’s face crimped with wronged frustration. "But I guess the Mature One has seen more than a child like myself. I guess it takes an Artist to really know life."
"Oh, for Christ sake!" I spoke the words with both arms and my torso. "Are you such a whitebread baby you can’t hear a little bit of Yurok metaphor without freaking out?"
He turned, began to clamor down the rock. He was muttering. I caught the words Princess and Know Everything, as well as some serious profanity.
I turned to find the Yurok woman sitting on the blanket, her posture unabashedly terrible. I remained standing for a few minutes, watching Patrick jerk along the beach, fists buried in his pockets.
"He doesn’t want my friends to join us," she concluded correctly. From the look of it, he was marching straight over to tell them so.
The men stood waiting. A hundred yards behind them, desperate eels wriggled from their sand pits like the rays of a sun.
I had a vision of roasting eels with the Yuroks, learning their legends as the waves crashed beside us. What a child Pat was. Just because we’d fought a bit in the car.
"I know why he thinks I’m crazy," the woman said.
I sat with a sigh, pulling another paper cup out of the old backpack and refilling it. I handed it to her, feeling like shit. So what if the men wanted to join us for a while? Patrick and I had the rest of the afternoon to fight. Maybe the rest of our lives.
"We came out here to decide if we should get married," I told her. I could feel tears sting my eyes. "But the trouble is, he’s still so young. He’s only seven years older than my oldest daughter. He doesn’t have his career together--he just got laid off. He’s been moping around all month getting in my way. He’s an engineer--I met him when I was researching a sci-fi story. All he knows about politics and literature is what I’ve made him learn." I wiped the tears. "He’s grown a lot in the last year since we’ve been together, but it’s not like being with an equal. I mean, we have a great time unless we start talking about something in particular, and then I have to put up with all these half-baked, college-student kind of ideas. I have to give him articles to read and tell him how to look at things--I mean, yes, he’s smart, obviously, and a quick learner. But fifteen years, you know."
She nibbled a bit more salmon. "Probably he saw the van on the road coming down."
She wrinkled her nose. "No. They’re up in Hoopa on the reservation, what’s left of them. They’re practically extinct."
"We assumed you were Yurok. You’re all so dark. You know how to do that whip-spear thing."
"Yeah, we’re all dark-haired." She rolled her eyes. "But jeez, there’s only five of us. You’re dark-haired. You’re not Yurok." Her expression brightened. "But the whipstick, that’s Yurok, you’re right. Our leader"--she pointed to the not-Yuroks on the beach, I wasn’t sure which one--"made them. We’re having an out-of-culture experience, you could say."
Patrick had reached the group now, was standing with his shoulders up around his ears and his hands still buried in his pockets.
"How did you all get so good at it?"
"Good at it?" She laughed. "The surf’s absolutely crawling with eels. If we were good at it, we’d have hundreds of them."
"What’s the group?"
Patrick’s hands were out of his pockets now. He held them out in front of him as he began backing away from the four men.
"You didn’t see the van, really?"
"Maybe Pat did. I was reading the map." I rose to my knees, watching him. Patrick was still backing away, picking up speed. Up here, showing fear of a ranting woman, he’d seemed ridiculous. Down on the beach, with four long-haired men advancing toward him, his fear arguably had some basis. What had they said to him?
"The van scares people." She nodded. "The slogans we painted on it."
"Who are you?" I asked her, eyes still locked on Patrick.
"I was going to say before your fiancé huffed out: What about the sea lions? They get fat with no effort, just feasting on the self-enslaved, black-souled little eels. Do they get away with it?"
The sky was beginning to darken. The sea was pencil-lead gray now with a bright silver band along the horizon. Patrick was running toward us across the beach.
Two of the men started after him.
I tried to rise to my feet, but the woman clamped her hand around my ankle.
"No," she said. "The sea lions aren’t happy very long. They’re just one more fat morsel in the food chain. Off shore there are sharks, plenty of them, the mightiest food processors of all. This is their favorite spot for sea lion sushi."
"What are they doing? What do your friends want?" My voice was as shrill as the wind whistling between the rocks.
"The Yurok were the eels, kings of the river, stealthy and quick and hungry. But the obsessions of history washed them into the jaws of white men, who played and gorged in the surf." She nodded. "The ancient river meets the thing that is much bigger, the thing the eel can’t bear to understand because the knowledge is too bitter."
She’d said that more than once, almost the same way. Maybe that’s what scared Pat. Her words were like a litany, an incantation, some kind of cultish chant. And the men below had mirrored her gestures.
I knocked her hand off my ankle and started backward off the rock. All she’d done was talk about predation. She’d learned we were alone and not expecting company, and she’d signaled to the men on the beach. Now they were chasing Patrick.
Afraid to realize what it meant, too rattled to put my shoes back on, I stepped into a slick crevice. I slid, losing my balance. I fell, racketing over the brutal jags and edges of the smaller rocks we’d used as a stairway. I could hear Patrick scream my name. I felt a lightning burn of pain in my ribs, hip, knee. I could feel the hot spread of blood under my shirt.
I tried to catch my breath, to stand up. The woman was picking her way carefully down to where I lay.
"There’s another kind of hunter, Maggie." I could hear the grin in her voice. "Not the eel who waits and strikes. Not the seal who finds plenty and feeds. But the shark." She stopped, silhouette poised on the rock stair. "Who thinks of nothing but finding food, who doesn’t just hide like the eel or wait like the sea lion but who quests and searches voraciously, looking for another--"
Patrick screamed, but not my name this time.
"Looking for a straggler." Again she raised her arms and her chin to the heavens, letting her dark hair fly around her. Patrick was right, she did look crazy.
She jumped down. Patrick screamed again. We screamed together, finally in agreement.
I heard a sudden blast and knew it must be gunfire. I watched the woman land in a straddling crouch, her hair in wild tendrils like eels wriggling from their pits.
Oh, Patrick. Let me turn back the clock and say I’m sorry.
I looked up at the woman thinking, Too late, too late. I rode the river right into your jaws.
Another shot. Did it hit Pat?
A voice from the sand cliff boomed, "Get away!"
The woman looked up and laughed. She raised her arms again, throwing back her head.
A third blast sent her scrambling off the small rocks, kicking up footprints in the sand as she ran away. She waved her arms as if to say good-bye.
I sat painfully forward--I’d cracked a rib, broken some skin, I could feel it. Nevertheless, I twisted to look up the face of the cliff.
In the blowing grass above me, a stocky man with long black hair fired a rifle into the air.
A real Yurok, Pat and I learned later.