The Pacific Northwest Forum
Volume 6, Number 3, Pages 7-9
Summer, 1981


by John Keeble

This is the first part of chapter 14 of the novel Yellowfish. The novel is set in Washington, Idaho, British Columbia, Nevada, and California. John Keeble has an excellent talent for landscape description and thriller fiction plots. The copyright is 1980 by John Keeble and this passage is reprinted by permission of Harper and Row, Publishers, Inc. A paperback edition will be issued in September, 1981, by the same publisher. John teaches creative writing at EWU, and is currently writing another novel which will be the second in a cycle (after Yellowfish); this new one is set in Southeastern Oregon. Previous novels by Keeble are Crab Canon and Mine.

Erks sank into his seat on the plane and fell asleep, even before takeoff. The jet rose, bouncing lightly on the air streams, and headed out of the bay to the northeast over the city, over the burnt-brown hills of San Leandro, and over the mouth of the Sacramento. The fresh water, what there was of it, had to get out somewhere. The salmon had to get in. The delta looked big, but in fact the Sacramento's current buckled quickly in the face of the Pacific's eastward tide. The jet rode the upper shell of the chinook inland, rose further into the still, bright cold, and followed the spine of the Coast Range.

It had been warm out in the Pacific. It had been warm in Hawaii. It has been warm on the coast of China, and hot down in Ecuador and Colombia, and China, catching the rolling expansion of air from the equator, enjoyed it and passed it on, deflected the air across the ocean, where it picked up water and blew into the Northwest, where it dropped the water in the form of fog and rain on the coast, and snow in the Cascades, the Columbia Basin, and the Rockies, and blew on, dry, still warm, across Montana and up into Alberta and Saskatchewan. The dry wind was called the chinook. The folks in Havre and Billings called it chinook while those in Spokane and Chewelah called it unseasonal snow. The folks in Spokane and Chewelah wouldn't call it chinook until it stopped snowing, but it was the same wind out of China all along.

The snow was Chinese.
The thaw was Chinese.
The fog back in San Francisco was certainly Chinese.

The wind was called chinook after a tribe, the Chinook, relatives of the Kwakiutl, and, like the Kwakiutl, trade wise, but the word - Chinook - was Chehalis. The Chehalis tribe called the Chinook that - Chinook - and the white traders called them that, too. A squat, coastal people with "cradled" heads, the Chinook were well known to those who came to trade at the mouth of the Columbia because of the tribe's proximity, because of their assiduous interesting bartered goods, and because of the Chinook jargon, a trade language, a lingua franca made up of a dozen tongues, Chinook, Salish, and Nootka, and others, and later Spanish, Russian, and English, and French, but known all up and down the coast for centuries before the time of Columbus, or Drake, or Perez, or Bering, or Peter the Great, or Father Serra, or Captain Cook, before the time of Juan de Fuca's imagination, and still known, still used today in Alaska, changed and yet the same, a flexible instrument, a permeable gland, the jargon: words were added and dropped, invented according to need, and these words were used alongside strange archaisms, old survivors which no linguist can place - Chinese, maybe, Eskimo, Aleutian - the language an organ of route and collection like English, but smaller, more streamlined, quicker on its feet, like the wind itself, the chinook out of the Chinese trade winds which carried heat, and fallout from their 10-megaton model-T bombs, motes and particulates, and distillates of ancient smells from the streets of Shanghai, debris and birds. Certain cormorants, the emperor goose, Baikal teal, and Steller's eider know these winds they migrate on as well as the gray whale and chinook salmon know the current, Kuroshio.

The Chinook people, scourged by disease and whiskey, vanished into the Chehalis people. The jargon survived.

Near the end of the journey, Erks awoke. His body jerked. His gaze addressed the back of a head directly in front of him and it seemed an exceedingly strange thing, the thinning dark hair combed over a bald spot. The jet hummed. It took him a moment to understand where he was.

He looked out the porthole immediately to his left, looked west across the long, luminous, delicate land toward the commanding features, the glaciers, Saint Helens, Adams, and Hood - their bright white humps above everything else, even above the thin, broken veil of cloud. The passengers were still. The noon meal, apparently, had passed him by. To his right an elderly woman dozed. He looked back out the porthole. He knew exactly where he was.

The three glaciers, and, directly below, the dark, authoritative cut in the skin of the earth - the Columbia, the boundary between Oregon and Washington - and just above it the coil of the Snake, told him where he was. And when he craned his neck to peer northwesterly, the two additional crests - Rainier and Baker - told him. He looked back and forth across the several hundred miles of space between Baker and Rainier and the other three, the crests like pearls set on top of the landscape, but, even so diminished by distance, big; he could see how big they were, undeniably so, like the report of a 7-millimeter gun heard from a distance, soft, muffled, but undeniably big. Legends told of the glaciers watching each other, of jealousy, pride, of marital strife among them. Saint Helens, it was said, had moved out on Baker because Baker was always looking at the other mountains. Baker had called her back. She turned away from him. Maybe it was their light, their magic, their gravity which had awakened him.

The three southerly glaciers passed out of sight beneath the wing. Then Rainier and Baker sank slowly behind the Cascade Range as the plane dropped, glided closer to the desert ground. Above Spokane, the crests of those two were still just visible - over on the coast, near the water, 300 miles away - and Erks watched them, amazed, moved by the radiance of ice, and then they vanished. And he looked at the ground, pale brown with a sheen as if airbrushed over glass, and he was moved again by the fact that it was there still, at once inexplicably capable of being affected and yet indifferent, moved by the incredibly fragile spirit of sand and rock. The jet swung and dropped sharply into the basin. Basalt outcroppings, pine stands, buildings, and fields became distinguishable.

His place.