The light is incredibly clear today.
For the past few days the sky was almost blotted out with snow, but today the sun’s rays penetrate deep down into the sea. The sea’s stormy indigo is ribboning out across its surface, like ink dissolving in water. After that it grows docile, a wild animal newly tamed, until there even seems something refreshing about its occasional stirring cries.
The salmon have been granted some spare time. During such times they have to build themselves up by consuming large amounts of highly nutritious food. Once they’re swimming upriver, on the way to the spawning grounds, it doesn’t matter how many delicious things they might see – they absolutely mustn’t eat them, not then. Instead, they must store up energy reserves in advance.
Silver Salmon is quite particular when it comes to food, and he has a special soft spot for prawns. That savoury prawn taste never fails to make his mouth water. All the same, he doesn’t gorge himself. It’s a wise fish who doesn’t let his eyes grow bigger than his belly, Silver Salmon thinks. Salmon have salmon-sized appetites, just like whales have whale sized appetites. If salmon had whale-sized appetites… well, then there wouldn’t even be salmon any more. A whale wouldn’t be a whale if it had a salmon-sized appetite. Salmon are salmon only as long as they live a life appropriate to salmon.
Once his stomach is full, Silver Salmon cautiously pokes his head out of the water. His action causes the sea to open a window in itself, revealing a hidden part of the world. But it’s also extremely dangerous. In this world, after all, the number of enemies always outweighs the number of friends.
Silver Salmon felt his heart swell with joy at the sight of this new world, lying beyond the boundaries of the ocean. The scent of that cold wind in his nostrils – the pure, fresh taste of air outside the water – was a delicious, dizzying sensation.”
It’s been a long time since this part of the world has known such a heavy snowfall, and the ground has been transformed into an endless expanse of dazzling silver. The shoal is now in the vicinity of Alaska, a frozen realm of snow and ice. Silver Salmon can’t help but be moved when he sees how the snow-covered ground mirrors the colour of his own body. Two silvers, separate yet one. Everyone feels a sense of affinity when they encounter something that reminds them of themselves. But this can also be an extremely dangerous thought; for fish, whose home is the water, the ground is the greatest enemy of all, one with which they can never be reconciled.
But Silver Salmon felt his heart swell with joy at the sight of this new world, lying beyond the boundaries of the ocean. The scent of that cold wind in his nostrils – the pure, fresh taste of air outside the water – was a delicious, dizzying sensation. Why can’t salmon live out of the water? he asks the other Silver Salmon, the one inside him. He gets no reply. Sometimes I think the water is a prison. Still nothing. All of a sudden there’s something there, a huge shadow swooping down over Silver Salmon’s head.
“Quick,” someone screams, “get out of the way!”
It all happens in an instant.
Silver Salmon stares about him, flinching at the smarting pain along his belly. A handful of shredded salmon scales are floating in the water, and he can scent the metallic tang of blood. He hastily twists himself this way and that, checking to see where the injury is. Strangely enough, he appears to be unharmed, though the smell of blood is gradually getting stronger. If a group of sharks picks up the scent, there will be trouble.
“Are you OK?” A clear, delicate voice, like a single drop of water trembling on the tip of a fin. Another salmon. Silver Salmon calms himself down and examines the newcomer. “Are you OK?” She is an ordinary salmon, with a pale belly and dark blue back just like all the others. But a light was sparkling in her eyes like the stars in the clear night sky.
Silver Salmon knew this because sometimes as night was falling, and without Big-Mouth Salmon knowing, he had poked his face up out of the water and watched those myriad points of light wink on, gradually lighting up the blackness. More stars, perhaps, than there were drops of water in the ocean, each boasting its own unique light, were strung together to form the Milky Way, a pale splash against the black. How did those stars seem to Silver Salmon as he gazed up with wondering eyes? Had they been the sky’s own eyes, a friendly gaze looking down?
“My name is Clear-Eyed Salmon.”
While Silver Salmon had been daydreaming, she had been watching him carefully, from a distance, in case there was any danger. “A bear swiped at you with its big paw. You had drifted almost to the water’s edge, you know. You looked as though you were lost in your own thoughts. I shouted out as soon as I saw the bear lift up its paw, and pushed you out of the way with my fin. Are you all right? You’re not hurt?”
As she was anxiously asking after his health, Clear-Eyed Salmon seemed oblivious to the fact that her own dorsal fin had been ripped to shreds, and was now flapping listlessly. And wasn’t that a thin trail of blood flowing from the wound? Silver Salmon groans involuntarily. Clear-Eyed Salmon had spotted the danger early, and put herself in harm’s way in order to save Silver Salmon from the bear.
“Why did you do that for me? Why were you watching me in the first place?”
“I’ve been watching you ever since your silver scales meant you started swimming alone.”
Silver Salmon doesn’t know whether he ought to feel grateful or sorry. What can you say to someone who saved your life without even a moment’s thought for their own safety? Should he tell her that he will never forget the favour? Should he offer to help her from now on, stick to her side at all times, trail her like a shadow?
Could I really give my life for another salmon? This was something that Silver Salmon had asked himself before. But different words burst out of his mouth, before he’d had time to think about them.
“You must be in terrible pain!” As soon as he’d said this he realized it didn’t sound much like an expression of thanks. If only he could pick the words up and stuff them back in!
“I’m not hurt.”
“But your dorsal fin is still bleeding!”
Clear-Eyed Salmon seems to be feigning nonchalance, deliberately flicking here and there through the water as if to prove she isn’t hurt. Suddenly she turns to Silver Salmon.
“If you’re not hurt, then neither am I.”
“What does that mean?”
Clear-Eyed Salmon doesn’t answer with words. Instead, she gazes steadily at Silver Salmon.
The light in her eyes is even more crystal clear than before. Her lips move as though mouthing words, then all of a sudden she turns and swims away, disappearing into the shoal. The scent of her trailing blood lingers in the water for some time.
Silver Salmon mulls over Clear-Eyed Salmon’s words. If you’re not hurt, then neither am I. He can’t get them out of his head. Have they already made a place for themselves deep inside him, setting up a home inside his heart?
From The Salmon Who Dared to Leap Higher, translated by Deborah Smith.
Ahn Do-hyun is a bestselling, award-winning Korean poet. He was born in 1961 in Yeocheon and graduated in Korean Literature from Wonkwang University in Iksan. The Salmon Who Dared to Leap Higher, his first work to be translated into English, is published by Pan as a Paperback Original, priced £7.99. Read more.
Deborah Smith’s translations from the Korean include Han Kang’s The Vegetarian (Portobello Books, 2015) and Human Acts (Portobello Books, 2016) and Bae Suah’s The Essayist’s Desk (Open Letter, 2016) and The Low Hills of Seoul (Deep Vellum, 2016). She is currently working on two further books by Bae Suah and one by Kim Sagwa, alongside finishing a PhD in Korean Literature at SOAS, and recently founded @TiltedAxisPress, a not-for-profit publisher focusing on translations from Asia and Africa @londonkoreanist