An old woman should pay attention. Why, just this morning she’d thrown two crabs back because their shells were soft; thrown them right where it was too shallow and one landed on a rock and cracked its shell. Bad. A waste, and anyway, what right did she have? Pay attention, Bekah.
But lately it seemed she was always thinking about something. Not to say thinking, just something brushing by. Not a picture exactly–more like a distant melody seen from the corner of her eye. Always afterward there was warmth; a feeling of knowing something…sun like an arrow in her back…the creaking of a porch swing…a muttering of voices in the dark. But no, not like that, either. Just something come asunder from the music and the time. Was she losing her mind? Was this how it ended? Or was she just making up some excuse for not paying attention any more?
She knew where those rocks were just outside the cove on the east side of the island; hadn’t she been reading them for fifty years? So what was she thinking about when she did it? Really, she was getting too old.
Last year she’d given up the drift net. No way to have that heavy thing running out over the stern of the skiff if you weren’t going to concentrate. Catch your arm or foot, next thing you’re right in there with the salmon. She’d felt her concentration going even before she began to have those strange glimpses.
Her daughter wanted her to move off island, go into town where she could keep an eye on her. “What if something happens, Mother?” Annie kept saying.
“Like what?” Bekah growled away the possibilities, but she knew. That little corner of her mind that noticed things, that kept watch over the angle of the axe blade, the angle of the downfall, the angle of light through curds of storm when she was still seven miles down the inlet–that little piece of mind kept haring off after some false scent, leaving her to misjudgments she’d never fallen to before.
Now, as she crossed the shallows over the rocks at the entrance to the cove, she could see the crab there on its back, its claws stirred by the water. In a rush of remorse she circled back, grabbed an oar and pushed the crab off the shelf, watching as it slowly spiraled out of sight. She stowed the oar back under the seat and headed toward shore. With the engine cut, she swung a leg over the side as the skiff bumped along the gravel, threw a couple of half-hitches over the stump, and settled the grocery bags easily onto the child-worn angle of her hip. She scrambled up the rocks, the seaweed snapping like tiny balloons under her feet, and into the woods along the path, dodging at last around the fringed trunk of the cedar which guarded the logs she called home.
Slowly, it seemed, she hung up her rain gear, put the food into the screened cooling cupboard, held a match to the lamp wick, stirred up the stove fire, filled the kettle and set it on the back for tea. As she waited, she stood at the window and looked down at the water to the west. On this side of the island, green velvet shrouded the rocks right down to the water where the tide covered and uncovered roots of trees which clung to the steep bank. Gradually the trees would be gathered by spring tides as the earth relinquished them to the moon.
The sky had disappeared and clouds tumbled down the slopes across the inlet. As she watched, the ranks of spruce were steadiy reduced, until only the border guard was visible; then they too were lost and the clouds began to gobble up the dark water. She was just turning to reach for the kettle when an abrupt motion, where no motion should be, caught her eye. She stared at the place, and in a moment saw it again. Something was swimming out there. She picked up the binoculars, scattering sand from the sill, and stared out. A deer was swimming there, its ears and flared nostrils clearly visible through the glasses.
The water was wild in the wind now and the tide ebbing hard. She wondered if the deer had just miscalculated the distance, or misjudged the tide. Did animals calculate tides? She couldn’t be sure–it seemed they must know, the way they knew dusk to feed, August for salmon, up the mountain in hunting season.
She looked at the deer again. It was losing ground; she could see that the current would carry it north of the tip of the island, where there were crosscurrents and rips.
She stood at the window, a flurry of images and emotions taking her–the dead crab, the hissing kettle, the longing to pursue the chips of light across her mind, the icy desperation of the deer. She drummed the sill with her fingers, sighed, and began to drag on her still-dripping rain gear, fumbling with the overall straps and letting the jacket flap loose as the panic of the deer began to grow upon her.
She slung the binoculars around her neck, jogged down the path, and flung the line off the stump, one leg over the side of the skiff and one poling off the gravel. Another shove with the oar and she was in deep, the engine catching on the first turn. As soon as she’d crossed the shelf she shoved the throttle forward hard.
The southeasterly had picked up so the skiff flew on the crests as she went north and around the tip toward the west. There, where the currents crossed, oily green and black craters formed, the rising wind was building standing waves, and the skiff yawed and twisted. She pulled the throttle back to steady the skiff and give her a chance to locate the deer, if it had managed to stay afloat.
The light was going rapidly now. The clouds had consumed the land and disintegrated into fine snow. As the bow of the skiff was lifted and flung to starboard, she could make out a blacker spot in the almost black water. She eased the throttle forward so the skiff again made noisy progress slamming the cross rough of waves and eddies.
She began to wonder what she was going to do, anyway. She supposed she must have had some dim thought of towing this creature to shallow water, where it would drag itself out and trot away into the woods. Now that she was almost upon it, she knew that would be impossible. For one thing, there were no shallows on this side of the island. For another, it was apparent from her glimpse through the binoculars that the deer was no longer swimming, but was being swirled like the skiff, no doubt exhausted, perhaps dead already and only buoyed off the bottom by the restless water.
She pulled the throttle back so the engine barely held the skiff against the current, then groped under the seat for the life preservers. She took a length of dock line, doubled one end around a life preserver and cleated the other end on the gunwale. Then she put the other life preserver around her own neck and got out the old grappling hook.
In a moment the deer was beside her, its head barely above the surface, ears flattened, legs flung wide and helpless. As the body thunked against the planks, she hung over and grabbed an ear. The ear twitched and the head jerked as she slid the life preserver around the neck and under a foreleg, securing it with clumsy fingers. She pulled the line up short and cleated it again to the gunwale, then slid down on the seat to catch her breath and consider the next move.
The deer was a small doe of the very small breed which inhabited the islands, really no larger than a large dog. She thought the best thing would be to try to drag it into the skiff. The wind had wreaked such havoc now that if she tried to tow the deer, the waves bearing down on them would drown it. Even now, the skiff was being driven back; she had to advance the throttle again to hold it against the mounting wind.
She hung over the side and grabbed the deer under the forelegs. The huge marbled eye rolled wildly, but the fight was gone. She dragged the deer up the side and lurched backward across the full beam width of the skiff, the deer plunging over the gunwales with an ominous crackling of thin legs.
Every wooden rib in the skiff seemed to have found its match in her own bones, and she lay panting with the heavy, unresisting body on top of her. When the pain from the wooden angles probing her back overcame exhaustion, she struggled from under the doe, shoving the quivering body to the floor, where it slowly curled upon itself. As she looked down at it, huddled inside its orange life preserver, she shook her head at her own folly. First one I’ll shoot next season, no doubt, she thought. Still, that was different. Panic and despair she couldn’t stand. Too vivid, she thought. Too close.
As these thoughts tumbled about she became aware of the thunder of the wind, then of the sterterous breathing of the doe, then of the silence which allowed her to hear these sounds. The drumming engine was still. Already the skiff was rolling in the troughs, yawing in the rips, and speeding to the north. The checklist unrolled effortlessly: throttle, gears, gas line attached to tank, gas–far enough. She’d meant to fill the tank when she came in this afternoon. Why hadn’t she? The crab. She’d been upset by the crab, by her lapse of attention. Oh yes, that was it. She hadn’t paid attention.
Fear swelled her veins hot. Then, as she cooled, she saw with great clarity–a scene edged in light. Across the black water, through the snow, to the dissonance of the wind, swirled an old woman and a deer dressed in bright orange life preservers. Die absurd. If He existed she hoped He had a sense of humor. But no. Not yet! Pay attention, Bekah.
Something made a hole in the wind. The snow fell straight for a moment. Through the gauze she saw a time-carved tower of rock on the big island to the east. As the hole in the wind crossed behind the skiff, she looked back and saw a plume of smoke above her own island from her own stove. Then the snow swept sideways in the wind and left only the skiff and the deer in sight. But she had her bearings.
A few hundred yards from here they would come upon the float from Joe Patterson’s crab trap. Joe Patterson was dead now, died last year, but the village people had left the trap there; someone pulled it and rebaited it occasionally when going by. She didn’t. She’d hated Joe Patterson. After her husband died ten years ago, Joe had done everything in his power to get her off that island. Wanted that place the worst way. Offered her a lot of money, but what on earth would she do with a lot of money? Fifty years ago they’d homesteaded that island–what price now? Going market, he’d said. Including hand-notched logs? Including a baby born on the path when she’d waited too long–when she’d chosen a cushion of moss and the sweet ether of spruce over oil-soaked planks in the skiff? Including the graves of three dogs, countless cats, one bald eagle and a homesteader? What is the going market, she’d wondered? He’d been vindictive then, and once she’d pushed him right off the dock over there in town. Drunk as a thrush in the nagoon berries he was, holding out two soft, broken crabs to her when she brought her own in to town, bending over her with his stinking breath as she climbed onto the dock.
“Want some crabs, pretty lady? Nice crabs? Want some, hey, Bekah? Hey, beautiful Bekah?”
She hadn’t even looked back as his bellow and splash brought a straggle of jeering fishermen to his rescue.
She knew exactly where the trap was, could see perfectly how the line and float would be driven straight north, held taut by the ebb tide from the heavy trap far below. She pulled an oar out from under the seats and propped it in the bow. No way to row against this but she might be able to change direction for a moment. No use, though, trying to keep herself off the needle rocks which were the destination of anything carried up the channel. There the waves broke fifty feet–more in this wind. No need to worry about going gentle. There’d be nothing gentle.
She lifted the coil with the grappling hook, secured the end through the bow shackle, then hung over the bow, the coil and hook in her numb hands, straining to see through the snow.
They came on it so fast she almost failed to know it for what it was. Dead on. The current kept everything true. The orange-peel plastic skin of the float was under her fingers for an instant and she could see the color, now faded to yellow-pink, and the worn remains of black lettering. Then it was bumping along the hull of the speeding skiff. She hung from her waist, the gunwale gathering her skin like raw scar tissue. The grappling hook was snaking out, rising and rising, spitting through the crest, sinking and sinking out of sight in the trough. The next crest lifted the pale float above the stern, the next trough swallowed it, and it was gone. The skiff was rising and falling, rising and falling, and there was only the snow and the howling dark.
Then the whip cracked. The line tore through her hands as somewhere in the darkness the hook grasped the float by the throat. She climbed through the air, spun, dropped, crashed to her knees, to her shoulder, to her hands. She clawed at the engine box, then gripped her burned palms together, the pain exquisite reassurance that she lived. Spray sandblasted her face as the waves exploded over the bow they had been lifting only an instant before. For an interminable moment she crouched, waiting to see if all the links would hold: crab trap to line to float to hook to line to shackle. When the line stayed taut she ran her hand along it, feeling the pulse of fifteen fathoms. Then she turned and crawled back to where the doe lay curled in the stern. When she laid a hand on the heaving side she set off a seismic wave of opposition.
“We’ll make it,” she told her. “But we have to concentrate.”
From the locker under the seat she took a garbage bag she kept for crab, made a hole in the closed end with teeth and stiffening fingers, and pulled it over her head. Surprising what a difference it made in the wind. When she spread another one over the doe, the harsh breathing raced for a moment, and then settled back to its former steaming. A warm sound, like her kettle.
Her own breath was coming in painful bursts, but they’d make it now. She knew. The trollers would be coming in soon with all this wind and snow, and somebody would see her. They’d make it because she’d paid attention. She could still do that. But was it time now? Did she want to do it anymore? Or did she want to give herself over to that warmth, the lovely twinkling phosphorescence, the dancing between waking and sleep? Well, she would see. She settled down beside the deer to wait.
© Copyright 2002 Marcia Simpson