This evening my daughter and I went to watch for salmon spawning in the little river near our house. The water ran shallow over algae-brown cobbles. Where the cobbles were bluish and bare from rubbing, that was where to look for salmon. Approaching, we could hear them flapping and splashing in sudden bursts. Their fins rose out of the water as they flipped and chased each other upstream, downstream, fighting or flirting I do not know. Some just swam forward. My daughter squirmed so I set her down on the path to crawl. The forward-swimming salmon swam onward, the pace of a steady stroll, and left us behind with the flirting ones.

Oh, my blood sings when I hear them flapping. Their slick dark muscled length slipping through water, roiling and sliding around each other’s bodies, quickening and slowing, water flowing over every inch smooth and holy: if this sounds sexy, well, it is. I feel it in the bowl of my belly and in my breath. It shivers over me, powerful and alive as creation.

I have a baby, the one who is crawling through the dirt ripping up cottonwood leaves and probably eating pillbugs. The one who attentively watches the salmon churn up the pool she splashed in all summer. I have a baby. I know the salmon’s dog-headed yearning, their slippery certainty, but I have a baby and my breathless driven joy diverged somewhere. There is milk and milk and milk. My husband and I touch like leaves.

See, I can’t have sex like I used to have sex. I used to have sex cutely. Like a girl. I’m not that girl now. I have a belly as runneled as river bank sand after a storm. I have the fierceness of a mother. I’ve been to depths I didn’t used to know. I’m a fucking boss, a dark slapping flip of muscle. I’m going where I’m going, not stopping or going astray. Don’t tickle me like some minnow.

The day darkens, the water silvering, and the salmon keep swimming and churning, matte black, slapping and damp. Last time they knew this river, they were little things and the water held them. Now their backs ridge out in the shallows. Ocean predators swimming up a creek.

Orcas, sometimes known as gods, live on salmon. Orcas, when not known as gods, starve from lack of salmon.

Sometimes I feel broken. Sometimes I feel strong. I don’t like the touch I used to like. Or something has been broken, some trust or delight. My marriage, possibly, or something in me. Maybe it’s all hormonal. Maybe I’m angry, afraid. Maybe I need a different lover. The thought makes me sick.

I pick up my daughter, hoping to catch up with the forward swimmers, but I see no fins. Maybe they were quicker than we are; maybe the water is deeper or they hide along the bank. My daughter is the size of a salmon – thicker, a bit shorter, with longer limbs and shorter snout, slightly less slippery, sunnier, also quite stubborn and strong. And I think how for all salmon’s drive to spawn before they die, they do die and they don’t get to parent. Their babies are raised by the river. Water, as I tell my daughter, is the milk of the earth. And the salmon are raised by it. It sounds both lucky and lonely.

We stop in a place I like, where a Pacific ninebark bush makes a little shelter. My daughter gnaws rocks, while I watch the water. For me, her birth involved surgery and a brush with death, and now that she is alive I am afraid to die. I want to live for a long, long time, being her mother. Not to mention, I just like life. Sex, which I also like, might mean birth, which might mean death – this has always been true, but now I feel it. Do salmon, like people, dread the death we all swim towards?

I want to ask my husband be here with me, now, in this strangeness and newness and rawness, now, please, because we’re going to die. But he wants things to feel like they used to feel. He wants things to feel good. My weirdness angers him. Hurts him.

Salmon cannot spawn if they are overfished, if their rivers are badly dammed, if they go hungry in a too-empty sea. Their fry need clear, cold rivers with shade and logs, pools and quick shallows. Salmon make the forest healthy, but they need healthy rivers to do so.

I’ve seen salmon runs so big you could smell the river before seeing it. I’ve made love so good I won’t tell you a thing about it. And I’ve heard stories that make everything I’ve seen and done seem domestic and latter-day. These are gods we’re talking about when we don’t forget it.

The dozen fish in the river tonight are only a scattered reenactment of the great salmonid rites, and when I touch my husband’s hand on my way to nurse the baby it is only a slight gesture, but these are what is. And you could say it is all broken and you wouldn’t be lying, but in the universe and all its galaxies all tragedies are very small. Also, there lives the dearest freshness deep down things, says Hopkins. That you know is also true.

I watch and watch, then one huge black fish trucks past in the dusk.

We turn for home. The river is dark. But I can hear the salmon thwacking the water close to the river bank. I feel the sound in my belly. I know it in myself. Today it might be only orange glinting roe in gravel, but given a clear stream, someday it will return, enormous, carnivorous, roiling.