I was only nineteen when I first saw the tumbling falls of the upper Skagit from behind some huckleberry bushes that grew along a river path that I’d stumbled on while picnicking. Having just moved from the dusty pines of the Yakima where Peregrine falcons nest in the volcanic cliffs, I was still absorbing the lush mossy green of the west slope.
I’d recently heard of the “Magic Skagit” and was curious to know how it differed from the middle Columbia where I grew up.
Walking on in silence, I overheard a soft, solemn, baritone song mixing in the wind with the sounds of water and muted footsteps. Turning my head toward it, I glimpsed a lone man gently dancing and singing aside the rock promontory above the falls, completely enthralled in the moment of being.
Startled by this unexpected encounter to which the Indian I watched was unaware, I found myself unable to move for fear I might disturb the sacred poetry he was offering in his native tongue, and was only jarred into making a stealthy retreat after witnessing the splendid leap of a steelhead trout as long as my arm into the dip net swung swiftly under its belly by the dancer who’d swept the long pole handle from the ground in a seemingly effortless fancydance spin.
Today, in my fifties, I remember that mirror into my childhood when I watched the Yakama dip salmon from platforms on the Columbia, and wonder if my memories include the great Celilo on the gorge where the buffalo and the salmon peoples met to trade stories and goods. I know I was there.
[ Mirror Dance is from Life as Festival, a collection of short stories by Jay Taber. ]