The boy didn’t want to be on this stupid field trip. He disliked his new school and especially his classmates who hid his backpack that morning so he couldn’t eat his lunch. His stomach squealed as he sat on a golden hay bale outside the nature preserve’s interpretive center. Above, the cottonwood trees shed fluff. His eyes itched. He sneezed.

He looked up into the cottonwood trees and wished he were a bird so he could fly far, far away from there.

The docent, dressed in a khaki shirt and leather field boots, squatted beside a pile of dirt the size of a black bear. She tapped its back. “Do you know what this is?” she asked the fourth graders from Prairie Elementary.

They shook their heads. No, they didn’t.

She stroked the pile, slowly, tactfully, as if a bear’s skin twitched under her palm. “This mound of dirt represents the Capay Valley’s watershed. Inside its walls, I’ve buried bones and shells. Artifacts that tell tales of our region’s earliest years.”

The docent lowered her voice, and the children leaned forward. “Imagine a time before roads and cars, orchards and farms, levees and dams.” She kneaded the mound, working her fingers into the dirt. “Water roared out of the Coastal Mountains. Tule grew twelve-feet tall. Herds of elk and pronghorn, a hundred-thousand creatures, roamed.

The children tried to imagine this.

“As days shortened, sockeye salmon left the Pacific Ocean and swam inland, bringing life to our valley. They fed the native peoples. The black bears. The bald eagles. The raven.” She pulled a bone from the pile and held it out for the children to see. “Even their decomposing flesh and bones provided nutrients to our water, nourishing other fish, algae, insects, and eventually, come late winter, small salmon fry.”

The children slid off their bales and crept closer.

“The story of the salmon is the story of the web of life.”

She pointed to the boy who sat alone on his bale. “Would you like to reach into our watershed and find a tale to tell?”

No, he didn’t. He looked up into the cottonwood trees and wished he were a bird so he could fly far, far away from there.

“Come, come.” The docent reached out her hand. “I’ll help you.”

The boy knew if he refused it would only get worse. His mother would be called. The school counselor consulted.

His classmates snickered as he stumbled forward, and the docent reminded the children to be respectful.

She instructed the boy to kneel and reach into the pile of dirt. “Tell us what you feel,” she said. “Close your eyes and imagine. Is it the shell of a turtle? A walnut? The skull of a mink?”

He curled his fingers into a fist. He didn’t want to touch anything.

“Wiggle your fingers,” she said. “Wiggle, wiggle, search around.”

Something spiny pricked the boy’s thumb.

“What is it?” the docent asked. “What do your fingers tell you?”

“He’s stupid,” one of the children said. “He doesn’t talk.”

At first only the top of the boy’s thumb hurt, and then a numbness spread under his fingernail and down to the knuckle. Within a few heartbeats, although it felt much longer, his arm was useless, as if it didn’t exist at all.

“He’s turning a weird color,” a girl yelled. “His neck is all red.”

The boy indeed felt flushed. His skin prickled as if cured in salt. His eardrums plugged. An unseen force pressed down on him, flattening his shoulder blades, his spine, his legs against the dirt. “Help,” he cried out.

The children and the docent grabbed onto what parts of him they could, but he was pulled from them and down into the earth as if snagged by a hook.

He was whipped in one direction and then the other. He lost one red sneaker. His yellow shirt was torn. Everything he touched—a turtle shell, a beaver’s tooth, a crayfish claw—disintegrated. The earth caved in on him. He couldn’t breathe.

He thrashed about and dislodged himself from whatever had pulled him under. Untethered, he tumbled head over heels through a dark burrow that emptied him into a void. His ears hurt. His eyes stung. He was falling from the sky.

Below, a forest of spiked treetops pointed at him. He thrashed his legs, trying to outrun his landing, and he fell into a rocky crevice, its walls chiseled from when the river ran high with glacier melt. As he entered the cold churning water, his spine jerked backward. Levitating beneath the water, his ears popped as they adjusted to the pressure. He realized he was not injured, and eventually, the water oxygenated him, giving him new life.

The boy had always felt alone, even in the company of others, but those feelings dissolved as he swam upstream.

He was joined by a multitude of colorful fish. They had green heads and red bodies like the illustrations of sockeye salmon the docent had shown the children earlier. The boy had always felt alone, even in the company of others, but those feelings dissolved as he swam upstream. The bigger salmon fought to take the lead, but the boy, who now had gills and a tail, was content to stay with the others. He learned to swim efficiently against the current, using the turbulence flowing along the curves of his body and tail to propel him forward. He read the patterns of the river, its temperature and vegetation, and stopped to rest with the others when cool rains were needed to revitalize the water.

As the salmon and the boy traveled further and further inland, the river narrowed and steepened. They encountered cascades and falls, and in those vortexes, they found the energy to swim up and over. Whitewater battered them. Black bear waited on the banks to eat them. Still, the boy and the salmon heard in the urgent rippling of the water that they must keep moving toward the source.

Days passed, and the river widened into a shallow pool. The boy and the salmon, exhausted, thrashed through the silt and vegetation. Their iridescent scales were torn and ragged. Their muscles weakened.

When the silt parted to expose polished stones, a blush of color quickened into a deeper red. Salmon eggs—thousand upon thousands, millions upon millions—were laid in gravel nests and blanketed with milt.

The boy understood as he struggled with his last breath that this was not a day of sorrow. He and the other salmon would not be there to guide the young salmon, but the water would nourish them until they began their own journey to the sea.