~This essay was previously published in Fourth Genre (2014).
A chill settles on the empty crab boxes stacked around the storage room, a chill that doesn’t so much descend as rise up from the sea below the crab fishery, up through the planks of the pier on which the fishery stands, through the cement first floor where the crab tubs hold their incarcerated. A chill that climbs the wet stairs to the storage room door, doesn’t bother to knock, comes right in, carrying with it the smell of crab and diesel and brine, to find me here, where I sit, at a makeshift desk with pen in hand, the pad of paper before me turning to pulp in all this wetness, the page on top a damp, blank screen.
Which stays empty. Why go to the small, tight window of the page when a bigger page beckons, a large picture window right above the desk that looks out on a harbor? Why sit when you can stand and watch crab boats ferry in and out, see them head to sea empty, riding high above the harbor’s surface with their barnacled keels showing, their pants hitched up high, then watch their return in the evening, the waddling procession after a heavy meal of cod or halibut or salmon, their belt lines well below the water. If I stand I can see the Lucy or the Intrepid or the Irene B pull up to the dock right outside, see the dock’s rusty crane swing out over a boat. The roped basket at the end of the cable’s hook swings down empty like an empty string bag you take to market, only to come up full to bursting with crabs, their red arms gesturing this way and that, with so much to say.
Out past the breakwater, at the horizon, a straight blue line of sea bisects the white sky’s blank sheet. Waves scribble their cursive below the line, filling up that page. A reminder. I am supposed to be writing, working, yet have no precedent for this type of work. There’s nothing in my DNA. This isn’t the work of my father, the life-and-death life of a fishing boat captain on the wicked Bering Sea. Nor the work of my mother, her youth spent standing on her feet all day, packing tuna, before child labor laws gave the cannery owners a conscience.
People ask how I found this place. I tell them I walked out onto the pier one day and simply asked the owner of the fishery, a man named Steve, if there was any place around here where I could write. See, I told him. I grew up around boats. The smell of brine is perfume to me. The smell of twine, of diesel, perfume! I know how to lay it on thick, how to bullshit, having learned this on the docks when I was young. I know how to swear, how to say you motherfucking piece of shit with conviction.
I told Steve I had this half-baked theory: if I were near the sea again, on a dock again, maybe I’d be able to tap into that salty vein of memory, could recall tales I heard listening to the fishermen on the docks. What if, like them, you awoke each morning and looked forward to the day’s prospects, the shining possibilities of luck and work and weather? What if you could look forward to the adventure, no matter the consequences, threw caution to the wind; believed there would be wind? And all you needed to succeed? A boat. You needed a boat.
But now that I’ve gained the perch? How to get past the window in front of me. How to get from this chair onto that sea. How to get to that life from this life. That’s the dilemma.
A knock at the door. The door I keep closed to keep out Steve’s one worker, a giant of a man named of Kangaroo. I don’t know how he got that name but know not to ask. Kangaroo, latter-day hippie, modern-day redneck, in his faded overalls and tie-dyed shirt. He never knocks, just blasts in, yells, Hey, sweetie, whatcha doin? Though there isn’t an ounce of sweetness in his voice, not one tiny granule of sugar.
From the moment I set up shop here, I could tell he didn’t want me around. A woman on a man’s pier? Unattached? What the fuck is she putting down? I overheard him ask Steve one day. What kind of subversive, womany shit?
Another knock. It can’t be him.
I open the door. Standing there is a woman, maybe in her mid-30’s, average height, not tall, not short, with curly brown hair, a wary smile. She’s wearing workingman’s jeans, a down jacket, fleece hoodie, and a navy knit cap pulled down low on her forehead. Dressed as if she’s ready to face the elements.
She introduces herself, says she’s a fishwife, but looking at her not the kind I remember, like my mother, the wife left on the shore to keen and moan on stormy nights with her ear next to the scratchy ship-to-shore radio to try and make out her husband’s voice among the other bullshitters.
She says that she and her husband own a boat, a little 43-footer called the Barbara Ann. They fish the sea together; she’s right there next to him, pulling in the nets, steering through the rough. She’d heard there was a woman writer on the pier, and See, she says, I have these stories to tell. Then admits that what I’m doing is what she’s always really wanted to do: to write.
I don’t tell her that what she’s doing is what I’ve always wanted to do; captain a boat, test will and fate. Be out there in all that blue.
She’s slight, without the noticeable heft and muscle of a first mate or crewmember or even a crew’s cook for that matter. I can’t picture her lifting a crate of fish or a shovel of ice from the hatch. But her face gives it away. That face has seen some duty on the seas. I can see her standing in her hip boots and slicker, hands gripping the rail, winds streaming off the bow, getting a maritime facial. Salt spray will scrub off any dead skin, and with it, any façade. Her face is clear, guileless. I know she isn’t bullshitting, that what she’s about to tell me next is true.
I pull up a chair for her, start by asking a few questions. Nothing too personal. “What’s it like now, the fishing life?” She has no trouble launching in. The seas are fished out, she says. With the quotas and limits on the size of each catch, the small fisherman can’t make it. The few remaining are having to sell their boats.
“We’re a dying breed,” she says. “But what can we do? This is what we’ve always done. It’s in our blood.”
As it is in my blood, I want to say.
“And, you know,” she adds. “That isn’t even the worst of it. There are always the elements to contend with. Weather that can change in an instant, storms you don’t see coming. You can be out there and think you have a few more days, a few more hours, one more set, one more haul. You know you’re cheating death, but why the hell not? You’ve cheated it so many times before.”
“Has the Barbara Ann ever cheated it?” I ask.
She shivers, as if the chill has risen up again, and just like that she’s gone, the light in her eyes gone. As if she’s fallen in a hole, dropped down through the second floor, through the crab tubs below, through the dock, past the pilings, and into the sea. As if the question caused her to remember something she thought she’d tucked away in the dark corner of the hull or in the back of the captain’s bunk. A memory that was supposed to stay put.
When she finds her voice again she says, “The boat did survive an early scare. The guy who sold her to us almost didn’t. It happened before we bought her. Did you ever hear about the Columbus Day storm of 1962?”
I think back. I was a kid living in the Northwest, maybe nine, ten years old. I remember years of rain, constant grayness. But no colossal storm stands out.
She says she has a riddle for me.
“Do you know the difference between a fairy tale and a sea story?” she asks. When I shake my head no she says,
“One begins, ‘Once upon a time.’ The other begins, ‘This is no shit.’”
Tuna. Big, fat schools of tuna. That was what was running off the California coast in the fall of 1962. In larger numbers than anyone had ever seen.
The fleet fishing off the Northern coast was after that haul. Each boat alone, unto itself, yet each reliant on the others in the fleet. If you heard something good you kept it to yourself. If you heard something bad you shared it. You got on the horn.
A weather report came in on the wire. A monster storm was heading their way.
Word was the storm was coming in from the tropics, headed for the Northwest, gathering steam on its quick train ride up the coast of Oregon. It would hit northern Cal first with projected wind strengths that were off the charts.
The captain of the Barbara Ann took little notice. Nothing he hadn’t heard before. Listen to every bad weather report and you’re screwed before the day begins. Use that as a reason to not go out and you’ll never go out. You might as well be an insurance agent.
And anyway, he reasoned, the boat had withstood worse.
“I could see his point,” she says. She and her husband had withstood worse, high winds and higher waves. Their marriage had withstood stormy patches. And what is a fisherman if not someone who tests his or her luck, who cheats fate and forgets that fate may come back later, angry, red-eyed, ready to even the score.
But, as fate would have it. Isn’t that what they say?
No one knew exactly when the fishermen stopped hearing the gulls’ cries, when the sound of the wind superseded the birds’ cautionary report.
There wasn’t time to turn around, to notice the shift in color on the horizon, the sky’s blue turning to a darker blue, then gray, then black. The captain of the Barbara Ann let out a slim breath that became a breeze that became a wind that stirred the first wave. A shiver on the water, a shiver down the spine. Time to button up, raise the collar. He yells to a crewmate, Hey, buddy. Grab a slicker, would you? Maybe it’s time to go inside. But there wasn’t time to go inside.
Who called whom? When did the first call go out on ship-to-shore to the others: a captain’s bravado—it’s a doozy, cousin Lucy. The wind’s first low rumble now a deep low roar. Who could hear the ship-to-shore above that sound? Who could hear a husband yelling at his wife, a young wife with a baby in her arms?
They were in it together. On one of the boats, a young husband, a young wife, a new baby. What were they thinking? That the boat would serve as a big bassinet, a rocking horse, a cradle?
A baby in her arms. She was on deck holding a baby. The sea rocked, rock-a-bye baby, bye-bye. A wave reached up, slammed into the side of the boat. Get inside, he yelled. Get the fuck inside. But there wasn’t time. She reached for an outrigger pole, one of the poles that arced out over the water, held the hook lines for the tuna. Grab hold, he yelled. Another wave hit. Then another. She was holding onto the baby. With her other hand she reached and grabbed hold of the pole.
Who was crying? The wind was crying. The gulls were crying. She was crying, holding onto the baby.
The winds whipped up. That’s what they say. Winds whip, lash, beat. But the fishermen weren’t whipped yet. Tested but not whipped.
The boats were tossed, this way and that, this way and that. On one, a captain cursing the wind. On another, a man with a bucket, baling fast. On one, a husband, a wife, and a babe in arms. The boats were tossed like matchsticks, like a child’s toy flung up into the air. See how the toys are thrown, see how they shatter. See how the toys disappear.
Thoughts can be tossed this way and that, buffeted by the winds. Why does this story sound so familiar, a ship’s bell ringing warning? The sound of that wind, that sound, I can hear it now though the day outside is clear, the harbor waters as placid as a pond. The sky in the room darkens like the skies that afternoon. Clouds form from paper torn. We tore construction paper into ragged ovals to make white clouds on a clear blue sky.
Columbus Day. Mrs. Kincaid’s third-grade class. The art project that day: make a picture to honor the discovery of the new world. She hands out colored construction paper; yellow for the corn and the big yellow buckle of the pilgrim’s shoes. Brown for the wild turkeys and the hulls of the Nina, the Pinta, the Santa Maria. White paper for the masts and the clouds above. Outside the classroom window the sky darkens. The rain begins. It’s coming down in buckets, Mrs. Kincaid says. Grab a bucket, some kid says and we all laugh. Sheet after sheet, the rain comes down, heavier now, turns the playground into a pond, a lake, a sea.
Later, at home, the air is charged, electric. My two older sisters in a twirl, getting ready for the high school homecoming Game, the big football event at the
hometown stadium. Yellow mums pinned to their car coats. Purple pompoms ready to wave. Oh, the cheering they’ll do! Rah! they’ll shout. Rah! Rah! Rah! they’ll cheer.
Is someone knocking at the front door? No, it’s just a branch hitting the picture window. Outside, the wind ramps up another notch. Sheets on the clothesline whip around, begin to fly. No time to get them now, my mother says.
First only the tops of trees sway, just the tip of the blue spruce that shot up after my mother poured fish fertilizer at the base. That tree shot up like a child, she once said. The branches move in unison, bowing, dipping, raising up. Nothing is still. Telephone wires jump rope, faster now, faster now, Double Dutch! Leaves fly by, paper flies by. There, in the backyard, the white birch, our tallest tree, its branches like long thin arms reaching up, waving, waving wildly to me. Hello! Hello! Wave as the scenery goes by, wave to the people on shore. Wave a final adieu.
They say the timber went sideways. That trees flattened into floorboards. That pine needles were driven through the boards like nails. They say a hat was blown off, a porch was blown off, a roof was blown off like a hat off a head and flew away. Whatever was in the rafters flew away; a nest under the eaves disappeared. What was in the nest disappeared. A roof landed in a tree, on a car, in the road, provided shelter. The wind speed barometer spun and spun, so fast it spun off its axis. We spin off our axis. We all fall down.
And the boats off the north shore of California? Child’s play. Pick-up sticks. Tossed as coins are tossed, as cards are tossed into the wind. A boat, visible at the top of a curl, slips out of sight. The captain is under his bunk, shaking, a bottle nearby. He is deep in his cups, deep in the cups of the sea.
They were in it together.
She was holding onto the baby. She grabbed hold of the pole. The boat dipped sideways, over on its side. Over she went, she was over, they were over the side, in the sea, she was holding on, she and the baby, they were in, now out, now in, dunked into the sea, again and again. The pole bent like a tree branch. Like a branch in the wind. The pole bent but did not break. Tell me again about this life on the sea. How a back bends and bends and does not break.
Waves break the bow. Maybe there was the sound of wind rush, like a hush, like when someone quiets a baby, a sound that moves past then repeats as the boat falls into another wave. Each wave rhymes with the next, there’s no off note, no tuneless voice, as the boat sails toward the edge of the world, to the drop off, to the big surprise.
She is weeping. I reach for her hand. She draws it back. Maybe she’s right to. Do I have it in me to go there with her? Do I have it in me to set sail again?
The trunk of the birch tree in the backyard shakes, begins to bend. Not much thicker than an arm, it will break soon. It will break.
My sisters twirl in front of the mirror. My mother worries a pot of soup on the stove. I run outside, find a pile of two-by-fours by the neighbor’s fence. I grab two boards, run, prop the boards against the tree, the way you’d prop a chair against a door to keep someone from getting in.
But the wind had already gotten in; the memory has already gotten in. What was it my grandmother said about the kerchief she always wore to protect against the wind? The devil wind will get in and make you crazy, she said. It will come in without knocking, will wend its way through your ear, and once in will scramble all your thoughts, the thoughts that you try so hard to keep straight. It will make you suspicious and crazy and you’ll never be the same again.
I turn to run inside, then take one look back at the tree. The long branches of the birch are bending now, bending into the grass, bending like long poles bending into the green sea. The leaves can’t hold on, she can’t hold on, the branches are stripped bare.
Inside the house the electricity snaps out. The radio goes dead.
No one says it. No one says a word. No one says what we are all thinking, the fleet of us, my mother, my sisters and I.
Somewhere. Out there. He’s out there. Our father. He’s somewhere out there on the sea.
She is weeping. I am weeping. I reach out to my mother. I offer my hand. Grab hold, I want to say, grab hold.
What about the baby? I ask. Did the baby survive?
Yes, she says. But I’m not sure the mother did.
What about the tree? She asks. Did the tree live?
Yes, I said, but my father didn’t. Years later he died at sea. On a windless day.
After she leaves the chill rises up again. I turn on a space heater, crank it up. Outside the sky is still clear, cloudless. But the air inside this space is roiled, as if storms buffet the window, the room. When will it stop? When will the laughing gulls return? When will the winds die down?
There’s no knowing. We are always caught off guard. I am always caught off guard. The winds are buffeted by whatever pushes them, as I am buffeted with whatever rises up, barely submerged; Memory, memory. The catch I’ve been waiting for.
There it is, the pen, within reach, the pole within reach, the story within reach. Just out of reach.
THE STORY BEHIND THE ESSAY
I’d just returned from a month long writers’ residency and was looking for a place to replicate that experience of complete quiet and focus. Having grown up in a fishing family I knew I wanted to find a spot near the sea so I could continue work on a sea-driven collection. In a coastal town, not far from where I live, was a pier with a harbor to a local fleet of fishing boats. I asked a man who owned a crab fishery at the end of the pier if he knew of any places I could rent and he gave me this offer: I could use the upstairs room in his fishery, a room full of crab boxes and fishing gear, that looked out over the harbor. I felt beyond fortunate to find him and the place and then found out there was a beyond beyond fortunate. One day, while I was trying to write something, a fisherwoman knocked on the door of the room. She’d heard that a writer was working there and wanted to tell me a story of a boat she and her husband owned that had survived the gigantic sea storm of 1962. Her retelling of that storm triggered my memory of being a child in the Northwest during that storm and my feeble attempt to save a birch tree in our back yard. The piece took off from there, weaving present day experience with this memory and then went on to dive to what lay submerged beneath the memory.
ABOUT TONI MIROSEVICH
Toni Mirosevich’s stories have appeared recently in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Pleiades, Hunger Mountain and elsewhere. She is the author of six books of poetry and prose, including PINK HARVEST (First Series in Creative Nonfiction Award). Currently she teaches creative writing at San Francisco State University. www.tonimirosevich.com