2010 Short Story Contest Winner
by Daniel Degnan
One by one I grab the salmon as they wriggle, spit, hiss – some with fins ripped off from their struggle in the net, some disemboweled by crabs. I stick the knife behind their gills, pull it forward through their throats, toss them to the other side of the hull. I’m calf-deep in salmon when I start, but have only bled forty fish when I slip and fall against the edge of the skiff, still clutching a creature in its death throes. Its blood pours over my gloved hands. Its mouth opens and closes mechanically. Its cold eye stares out to sea.
“It’s much easier with three people,” Meg says. She releases the last length of net and it splashes overboard. “We tried putting a lawn chair in the boat so Dad could help, but it slowed us down even more.”
With its hull covered in salmon, the vessel barely has room for the oar, machete, and two gas tanks.
“When will your brother get back from hunting?”
“Soon, I hope,” Meg says, taking the knife from me. She slices and tosses the fish as methodically as she dealt poker hands the day we met at Stanford. I played perfectly – crunched probabilities, measured bets, redirected risk. “Better lucky than smart,” I grumbled when she flipped her winning pocket pair. She bet me dinner on one more hand.
The skiff bobs in the blue sea while Meg bleeds the fish. I sit back on the bow platform to catch my breath. The sheer granite cliffs and lush green hills slide past the distant gray-and-white peaks of the mainland. Meg starts the engine with a pull of the cord. We push our way towards the refrigeration boat across the bay, weighed down by our catch. Fish flop across each other at our shins.
“Not a bad first pick,” she yells over the engine’s groan. “What do you think of Kodiak?”
Meg’s rolled the sleeves and pants of her orange rain gear, but the fabric still drapes over her slender body. She pulls back her hood and unbuttons her jacket, which blows behind her like a cape. The sun glistens off her yellow hair, pink cheeks, moist skin. She’s vibrant against the backdrop of sapphire sea and emerald hills.
“Gorgeous,” I say with a wink. “Though more effort than I imagined.”
She plows into a wave, splashing me. Saltwater drips down my face.
“We’re just getting started,” she says with a wink.
I smile, remembering she used that same phrase at the outset of several of the adventures she convinced me to join: biking Death Valley, kayaking Half Moon Bay, snow-shoeing Alta Peak.
The skiff rises and falls as we approach a cove surrounded by soaring rock cliffs stained white and yellow with seagull excrement. Hundreds of the screeching birds perch in every available nook, scores more circle or hang in the wind drifts. Meg cuts the engine and we float towards the refrigeration barge. She rushes to the bow and ties us to it. Then she hops into the vessel, checks the console, and removes the plywood coverings of three large bins still half-full from a recent pick.
“Doctor,” she jokes, “use that big brain of yours to keep the reds in the left bin, silvers in the center, pinks in the right.” The fish are all silver with dark gray backs. Other than their various sizes, they might as well be identical.
“How did your father react when you told him about your job in San Francisco,” I say, keeping my stance wide to compensate for the rocking of the boat. “About moving in together.”
Meg hops back into the stern of our skiff. She squats down, grabs a salmon in each hand, and lifts with her legs to launch them, two at a time, occasionally crossing them in midair. Each precise toss, timed to the rocking of both boats, just clears the rim of the appropriate bin.
“You haven’t told him,” I say.
She tosses a salmon at my chest. I catch it, dropping the one I’m holding.
“It’s not that easy,” she says. “My father depends on me out here. He and Matt can’t afford to winter in Homer without a strong season.”
“I thought we agreed Matt would get a winter job so they could hire one or two hands next summer. Hell, once I graduate we could even help them out with a little money.”
“That’s a silver,” she says, nodding to the fish in my arms. I toss it into the bin and grab another.
“You think your Dad will have a problem with us moving in together, don’t you?” My forearm and back muscles already ache. “Or maybe you have a problem with it.”
“You’ve never depended on anyone, anything,” she says. “And you’ve never had anyone depend on you.”
She hurls the fish double-time now, briefly clearing a bloody circle around her feet before more fish slide into it. The wind blows her hood back onto her head, masking her eyes, but it hardly matters - she barely looks where she’s throwing. Mechanical movements, concealed features, curves lost in the blanket of wet-weather gear – I could forget that this is the same woman who ran naked into the Santa Cruz Bay to get me to brave its icy waters. She removes her hood, wipes the sweat from her forehead, matted with blond hair, and I’m reminded.
“I’m depending on you,” I say. “Besides, you know me. When I want something, I solve for it. And what I want is for you, this one time, to get what you want.”
What I really want is Meg’s spontaneity in my life: the off-trail hikes, midnight excursions, impromptu costume parties.
“Hold that,” Meg says stepping towards me. She points to the giant striped salmon at my chest – it’s easily twice the size of even the larger salmon, maybe fifteen pounds. Its silver scales shine iridescent. She’s careful to place her feet firmly on the hull as she paces through the fish. “It’s a king salmon, and a nice looking one at that.” She pulls the knife from her belt. “I must have missed it.”
I hold the fish as she slices its throat and spreads the wound apart. She wipes the initial gush of blood aside and peers at the meat within. “It’s a white meat king,” she says. “A delicacy!”
A large wave strikes the boat from the side, causing it to rock violently. I drop the fish into the pile and in an effort to steady myself grab the nearest object – her knife.
“Shit!” I say. A pulse of adrenaline surges through me. With two sets of gloves between the blade and my hand, I suspect it wouldn’t have broken the skin. But the pain lingers.
“Did it get you bad?” Meg says, putting the knife back into her belt.
She helps me remove my jacket then the armband. I yank off the wool and rubber gloves. My palm fills with blood. Meg rips off her own gloves and throws them to the hull.
“Let me see,” she says, grabbing my hand.
The cut is about two inches long but doesn’t appear very deep. She wipes the blood away, careful not to touch the wound.
“Is it a white meat?” I ask.
She lifts my hand to her face for a kiss.
“A delicacy,” she says.
I grab her hood with my other hand and pull her to me. I taste my blood on her lips. We kick the fish from between us and press our bodies together. She pulls open my jacket, the buttons snapping in quick succession. We undo the clasps of each other’s orange overalls and they drop into the salmon. We unbutton each other’s shirts. Cool air blows across my chest, sensitizing my skin to the warmth of her hands. With one hand bloodied and another covered in fish and jellyfish goo, I’m forced to trace her body, salty from sweat and sea, only with my mouth. Her hand slips to my pants and I shift to make it easier, but it’s clumsy with a hull slippery in fish-guts, our overalls at our knees, the rocking of the boat. She falls backward into the salmon, with me on top of her.
“Gross!” she yells, and we laugh.
We walk up the grey crescent beach littered with tangled piles of nets, oil drums, small creatures’ bleached skeletons. We pass a ramshackle greenhouse and a tottering swing set manufactured from tall logs. Beyond the beach, stairs made of split tree trunks lead up to the deck of a simple plywood cabin with only two sides covered in shingles. Beyond that there is nothing but green and yellow hills rolling up to a white-capped mountain.
The crack of a gunshot from deep in those hills echoes off the mountains across the bay. A bald eagle launches from its perch atop an evergreen.
“Matt,” Meg says, more to herself. She scans the hills, as if out of concern.
“Is he OK?”
Meg shakes her head. “He’s fine.”
We climb the stairs onto the deck. The floorboards, where they are still intact, warp under our weight. Meg steps indirectly towards a screen door at the side of the house. I wait, then tread quickly in her footsteps. In the center of the main room, two beat-up couches are positioned around an oil-drum stove that sits in a bed of beach rocks. Above it hang sweatshirts stained with salt and blood. A propane-powered kitchen lines one wall, with mismatched dishware and cooking supplies. Above a door in the back of the room, a long loft holds a pile of blankets and two sets of couch cushions duct-taped together.
Meg’s father, Jack, ducks under the doorway. Beneath a thick orange and white beard, his skin is red and wrinkled, especially near his eyes, which seem locked in a permanent squint. He limps to the couch, falling forward into each step as if hoping the next footfall will catch him. The whole cabin creaks and shifts under his heavy gait.
“We had a pretty good pick,” I say, guessing Meg won’t mention the knife incident. Jack thought we weren’t arriving until next week, so when the seaplane reached the beach this morning, he wasn’t sure who it could be. He saw me step off the pontoon in my synthetic sleeveless fleece, the price tag still on my boots, and assumed I was with the Fish and Game Commission. Meg told me that when I was out of earshot, he joked, “Let’s hope you don’t need him to lift an anchor.”
“Four-hundred fifty pinks, forty silvers, twenty reds, and one white-meat king,” Meg says, holding up the prize. “Billy wasn’t half bad.” She nods at me and even though I know she’s lying, a feel a tinge of self-satisfaction when Jack nods his approval.
Meg kicks off her boots and slides on her makeshift slippers – older boots cut down to fronts and soles. She grabs a frying pan and spices from the shelves.
“Ugly weather’s coming. Fog. Maybe rain.” Jack drops onto the couch and massages his knees.
“Summers in San Francisco the fog rolls in thick as smoke,” I say, nodding to the thin aluminum chimney rising from the oil-drum stove. “It’s one of the reasons I was happy to get away.” I collapse on the couch opposite Jack. The cushions sink beneath me and a puff of dust rises into the sunlight. I smell fish and sweat and men. A spider so big I can see fangs scampers from the armrest. I shift away, pull my back off the cushions.
Around the room, boards hammered unevenly into the exposed wall beams support whalebones, eagle feathers, a rack of rifles and shotguns. Above the entranceway, a page from a magazine hangs loosely from a nail: “If you shoot the wolves to save the moose, and then you shoot the moose, you’re either out of your mind or in Alaska.”
“Your legs bothering you?” Meg says. She mixes brown sugar into honey.
“They’re fine,” Jacks says, but he grimaces with each rub.
“Can I ask what happened?” I say. Meg pauses her mixing. Jack stops rubbing his knees. “I mean with your legs.”
“They’re fine,” he repeats. He stands up, towering over me in my sunken seat. Hidden beneath his scraggly beard, a scar extends from his left ear to chin. I don’t ask about that.
The screen door slams like a gunshot, jolting me from my sleep. A man about my age storms into the room. He has a rifle on one shoulder and a knapsack on the other. He wears a skullcap and fingerless gloves, and his clothes are caked in mud. Each step leaves a wet imprint on the floor. With a shift of his shoulder he swings the gun into his hands in front of me.
“Who’s this?” he asks.
“Dammit, Matt,” Meg says. “Take off your boots.”
“This is Billy,” Jack says. “Remember? Your sister’s boyfriend is spending the summer.”
Matt places his rifle in the rack. He puts his hand in mine. There is no eye contact, no grip, no shake: a dead fish. His fingers are brownish-yellow – filth, cigarette stains, or both. He’s missing at least three teeth and the others barely hang on. He bears no resemblance to the great hunter Meg often described, the boy who protected her by wrestling away a sled dog when he was eight, who cleared twice as many salmon as any other set-netter in ’99, who shot a grizzly twice in the skull as it stormed this cabin.
“So you’re the boss,” I say. I slap him on the shoulder and he flinches.
“What’s for dinner?” he says, retreating to the other couch.
“Rosemary-rubbed venison with green apple mustard,” Meg says. “Assuming you shot something.”
“No deer,” he says, then chuckles.
“King salmon sounds great,” Jack says.
Meg prepares it in the honey glaze, but it doesn’t need it. The creamy white flesh is soft as butter. I even gobble down the skin when she tells me it’s healthy. I eat white rice with soy sauce and banana bread still hot and corn that, even though it’s from a can, tastes like it was harvested out back.
Matt doesn’t touch the fish. He walks to a table in the far corner of the room with a plateful of rice and corn and a giant mug of black coffee.
“For dessert, I’ll have the tiramisu,” I joke. I resist the urge to stretch.
“Once you clean up these dishes, the three of us will head out for the late pick,” Meg says. “Then we’ll set up our beds.”
“Billy stays in the guesthouse,” Jack says.
“Not my room,” Matt says.
“I’m happy to sleep on the couch,” I say. I don’t plan to sleep with the spiders. A celibate summer was not what I had in mind, and with boat sex seemingly out of the question, the offer affords me my only chance of sneaking up to bunk with Meg.
“You’ll be more comfortable in the guesthouse,” Jack says.
Meg mouths, “Sorry.” She warned me sleeping apart was a possibility, not because her father was traditional, just that he had hang-ups. She takes my plate and clears the other dishes as compensation.
“Matt, you share the loft with your sister.”
“God dammit,” Matt yells, ripping the skullcap off his head and crushing it in his fist. “You always take his side.”
His outburst doesn’t faze Meg, who concentrates on the plates in the soapy sink.
“Whose side?” Jack says, straining against the arms of the chair to rise to his feet. “The guesthouse is for guests. Maybe if you spent a bit more time in the cabin I’d know what you were up to for a change.”
Matt tosses his skullcap towards the gun rack. “You two will have to do the pick yourselves. I need to clear my room.”
Meg and I push out to sea for the second time that night, a wet wind in our faces. Fog has rolled in, turning the bright greens and blues to subdued grays. The sun is merely a milky-white swathe in the western sky. Behind us, the cabin disappears into the fading hillside.
Meg drops the engine into neutral and we glide towards the basketball-sized red buoy. The strain of lifting it and the attached lines into the boat spreads pain like tiny needles across my lower back. I can’t see it beneath the glove, but I’m sure my scab has cracked open. I imagine gangrene, my evacuation by helicopter. The afternoon was grueling enough without fatigue, heavy air, thoughts of amputation.
“Matt’s not what I pictured,” I say. I drag the lines between two vertical aluminum posts fastened a foot apart at the front of the bow. Meg puts the motor back into gear and the boat crawls forward until she stops it to feed the lines through identical vertical posts at the stern. Then she pulls forward again until gold-colored monofilament netting five fathoms deep bunches between these posts and runs the full boat-length. The first fish plops onto the small raised bow platform. It arches its body to one side, then the other. A steady stream of salmon caught within the netting pulls through the front posts. They pound the aluminum platform with metallic thuds.
“He’s my brother.” Meg rifles through the mess of monofilament, arriving where a fish seems hopelessly stuck in a Gordian knot of golden netting. The thin line is wrapped beneath the fish’s gills, around its small beak of a nose; it cuts into the flesh behind its fins. She twists twine and fish, unraveling the mess in seconds, dropping the fish to the hull. Then moves to the next. The easy ones she simply shakes loose. The slightly tangled ones she attacks two at a time. The tough ones she rips free by brute force, often severing a fin or part of a tail.
“You never mentioned shirking work, rudeness. You never mentioned dental hygiene.”
“What am I supposed to say? My brother is dirty? That he can be a dick?”
“If you had, I might have recommended a Caribbean cruise.”
“He’s a great hunter and a better fisherman. He doesn’t like change.”
“This summer was supposed to be a glorified campout, a break before my dissertation. I’m doing the work of two men.”
“I’m doing the work of two men.” She looks at my first salmon, still hopelessly lost in the net. If anything, I’ve entangled it more. “Make that three. What’s the financial term for a drain on productivity? A liability?”
Meg snaps more salmon to the hull, working her way to where six fish convulse in the net beside me. I could correct her definition, tell her the real liabilities are napping in the cabin, but for two months I’ve got only her.
“So productive optimization is why you tried to stab me to death?” I say, holding up my wounded hand in a peace offering.
She untangles the fish I’ve been struggling with. She pulls a hand out of the net and clasps mine. “You grabbed the knife on purpose to get into my Grundens.” She tugs the straps of her overalls.
“You make it sound so sexy.” I kiss her cheek.
She steps back to the engine and drives the boat up another length. “I’ll talk to my dad tomorrow. He’ll make sure Matt doesn’t dodge anymore picks.”
By the third boat-length of net, salmon cover the hull. Permeating the boat, along with the thickening mist, is the ominous stench of dying fish, and worse, jellyfish. They come through the posts thick and slimy as bloody snot and slowly get ripped apart as they fall through the bunched net, dripping their mucous-y poison everywhere.
I shiver, wet with sweat, drizzle, and ocean-spray. I struggle to keep my balance as the boat rocks and the slick sludge of jelly-goo and salmon guts sloshes back and forth across the hull. I break after every two to three fish to breathe in the stagnant air. I search out the horizon, but the dense fog conceals it.
Meg remains fixated on the nets, continuing her methodic search and release. I press on. Releasing a terribly entangled salmon, I splash a small chunk of jellyfish just below my eye. It lodges itself there, stinging me as if a lit match had been pressed to my cheek. My gear is soaked in the same goop that burns my face. My hands especially, have been sloshing through the sickly jelly and the cheap white wool gloves are now pink with the thick slime. Helplessness exacerbates the irritation, intensifies the burn.
We bury ourselves deeper in dead and dying salmon. A difficult case frustrates me and I wrench the poor creature out of the net, ripping one side of his face off. I stare at the skinless head as it gasps for air through exposed gills. A fish out of water, I think, throwing it gasping and bleeding into the pile. I need oxygen. I need orientation. But fresh air and the horizon are nonexistent. I vomit over the boat’s edge.
“I’m OK,” I say before I finish. I want to wipe my mouth, but my gloves are covered in guts, blood, poison. Even the sleeves of my wet-weather jacket are splattered with jellyfish.
Meg makes her way over to me. She pulls a threadbare, discolored rag from inside her jacket and dabs my lips.
“No, you’re not,” she says, seating me against the railing.
I hate being a burden, but I hate being on this boat even more. I don’t stop her when she lifts a post at the bow, then the stern, and the net, still full of fish, drops back into the sea. She puts the engine in gear and turns the boat around.
The swathe of light that was the sun has faded into the drab gray sky by the time we reach shore. My nausea dissipates as soon as my feet touch ground. I reach the guesthouse and collapse onto Matt’s bed without removing my sweatshirt, soaked in spite of the raingear. I pass out to the steady rhythm of someone splitting wood and the distant drone of the skiff’s engine, returning to sea.
The sun pierces my Plexi-glass window after only a few hours. I roll around to escape the glare, but light soon fills the guesthouse. I rise out of bed in spite of the cold tightness of my muscles and joints. I probe the room for something to cover the window and stumble into a five-gallon paint bucket filled with cigarette butts. Maps, some hand drawn, are nailed to the walls of the cabin. A detailed topographical one depicting the Kupreanof peninsula with an “X” at our cabin’s location has notes scrawled across it. They categorize the soil in each square mile region by color and the vegetation it supports, but the colors are not earth tones and the plants are not indigenous – pink earth promotes squash and watermelon; yellow, celery and apple.
I find a hammer and nail one of Matt’s dirty sheets across the window, but it does little to block the light. I’m barely asleep again when the door opens.
“Coffee’s ready,” Meg says. She stands in the doorway wearing the same plaid shirt and grey cargo pants as yesterday. “I’m making pancakes.”
“Are we out of salmon?”
We duck under branches and step over mud puddles on our way back to the cabin. Inside the kitchen, Meg’s as at home flipping flapjacks as she is bleeding salmon. When she won that poker bet, I complained about my limited stipend and tried to weasel her into a meal at the cafeteria. She showed up at the grad dorm with two paper bags full of groceries. Even with the limited ingredients and shoddy equipment of the communal kitchen, she prepared the most delicious Cornish hens with thick garlic mashed potatoes, followed by blueberry pie topped with fresh whipped cream. I assumed she learned from a great mentor, but watching her work her way around the broken cabinets, flickering flames, fractured measuring cups, I know it was necessity.
Matt shuffles a deck of cards in the loft. Jack sleeps on the couch, his chest moving heavily. Meg drops a pan in the sink and his head snaps to. He sits up and scans the room, alert.
“Meg tells me you’re a college man, Billy.”
“He’s a doctoral candidate,” Meg says. She hands us each a plate stacked high with pancakes drenched in maple syrup and butter.
“Once I defend my thesis” I say, “I’ll finally get a job.”
“And what’s that,” Jack says.
“One of my teachers runs an investment fund.” I don’t want to brag about the six-figure quant job Professor Rota promised me. It’s not like Jack would understand anyway.
“No, no,” he says. “What’s the thesis?”
I consider giving him my dissertation title: Quantifying Pragmatic Options: A Generalized Approach From a Decision Analytic Perspective. “I use math to help people make choices.”
“Math?” he says, chomping on a heaping bite of pancakes. “Everything you need to decide is right here.” He pats his gut. “Did Meg ever tell you how I ended up here?”
“That’s not a nice story, Dad.”
“This lady told me she was on the pill. Then she tells me she’s not ready for a baby anyway, least of all the bastard child of a mechanic. Next thing I know, the Honorable Judge Red Pumps tells me that even though I had no say in her having the kid, I had every obligation to pay for it. I said, ‘If it’s a portion of my salary you want, take it. A portion of zero is zero. And if it’s fathering you want, good luck trying to find me.’ Don’t put me in a situation where I have no choice. I’ll make one.”
“You did have a choice,” Meg says. “You didn’t need to sleep with her. Besides, that’s not the end of the story.”
Matt rushes down the ladder, jumping halfway. He’s got the deck of cards and a notebook in his hand.
“You’re good with math?” he says. “I look for patterns in the cards.” He opens the notebook. The results of hundreds of card flips are meticulously detailed on each line of graph paper, with symbols and notes besides each toss. “After the three of spades, I always get a queen or a red card.”
Assuming no knowledge of the cards already thrown, I calculate the odds of it happening once at fifty-five percent, twice, thirty percent, three times, less than seventeen. More than three times, the likelihood falls off a cliff. “Let me see your notes.”
The first column begins with numbers and crude symbols that correspond to actual cards. But halfway down the numbers are replaced by random misspelled words: presidents’ names, animals, ingredients. Further down the words and numbers transform to intricate sketches of animals and vegetables. I look for some type of code but guess it’s gibberish.
I point to a string of symbols – spiked images connected around a broken circle. “What’s that mean?”
“Fire,” he says. “You know, when you get cards of the same suit.”
“Flush,” I say. “But what’s the significance of the symbol?”
Matt stammers and Meg puts a hand on his shoulder. She takes the pad from me. “We should do the early pick. Are you up for it?”
I’m not sure which one of us she’s asking but I say, “I think so.”
“You know how to bleed?” Matt asks. He giggles as he jokingly thrusts the blade in my direction.
“Sure,” I say with an uncomfortable chuckle. I carefully grasp the knife with my injured hand.
The weather is clear and crisp this morning and I breathe the fresh air deeply. With fewer jellies and three people we make much better time running down the net. Halfway through, Matt tosses a fish overboard. A flash of light glints off its side as it swims away. Meg doesn’t say anything. I wonder if he saw something I didn’t see: a parasite, some other problem. I keep picking and bleeding.
The next time he brings the fish right up to his face, mouths something to it, then throws it overboard.
“What the fuck, Matt,” Meg says.
“It wasn’t right,” he says.
“Don’t start that shit. I’m not busting my ass earning money for you so you can just toss it overboard.”
“Sorry, Meg.” He grabs the rail and faces the open ocean. “That one wasn’t ready.”
Meg’s pained headshake, her exaggerated sigh, are borrowed from me. I’ve given her that reaction a dozen times since we met: that first dinner, when we discussed her plan to get a Master’s in Social Work, and most recently when I argued against her decision to forego the telecommunications marketing job I found her for a low paying psych ward internship. She once told me all the men she met had problems. She liked me because I had solutions. So I was surprised whenever she ignored my advice. But watching Matt look out to sea, helpless and certain, I know now she withheld key information.
Meg won’t look at me. She guides the skiff up another boat-length and idles the motor.
“You run the engine,” she says to Matt, relieving him of his position in the thick of the net.
“Matt’s hearing voices again, Dad.”
“I accidentally dropped a fish overboard,” Matt says.
“Dammit, Matt,” Jack says. He sits in front of the barrel drum stove. He places a log inside and stokes the fire. “I thought we were done with that. If you can’t keep your shit together, you can’t run the site.”
“Who says I want to? Let her run it. Let him.”
“If you don’t run the site, what the hell are you going to do?” Jack says. He points a log at Matt’s face. “You barely have teeth in that head of yours.”
Matt grabs a rifle from the rack.
“Put that back,” Jack says.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Meg says.
“I’m going hunting,” Matt says. He holds the weapon by its stock, gesturing at Meg with it as if it’s an extension of his arm.
“Watch where you point that thing,” Jack says. He uses the log to lift himself up.
“Are you kidding me,” Meg says, throwing her hands up.
She’s more concerned about Matt’s leaving than the rifle’s implied threat - accidental or otherwise. I’m not sure what I plan to do with it, but I grab the meat cleaver off the kitchen counter.
“You talk to me as if I’ve never handled a gun,” Matt yells back at Jack. He puts the barrel under his chin and pushes the trigger with his thumb.
“Stop!” Meg screams.
I cover my eyes with the cleaver’s blade.
“Safety,” Matt says, thumbing the trigger again. He storms out the door, slamming it behind him.
Jack launches the log at the door.
Meg grips her face in pain. “I can’t do it, Dad.” But already she pulls pots and pans out of the kitchen cabinets to prepare lunch.
“I’m sorry, honey,” Jack says, calming himself. “Give him an hour to cool off. Then I’ll go talk to him. He’ll be all right.”
“Not without serious help,” I say. “Did you not see that?” I point the cleaver at the gun rack, then at Matt’s notebook and cards. “He writes in code, sees patterns that don’t exist. He talks to fish. He won’t be all right. Not without professional help.”
“No shit, Doctor,” Meg says, taking a break from rinsing a pot to seethe at me. “You don’t think we’ve seen psychiatrists? Tried medications? Dad’s got Homer Medical on speed dial. We sprinkled Zyprexa on his goddamned pancakes for a year when he refused to take it. This isn’t a puzzle you can solve with decision trees, so keep your diagnoses to yourself.”
“Calm down, Meg” Jack says.
“Funny,” I say pointing the cleaver back at the gun rack, “This is the first I’m hearing any of this. I’m thrilled to be stranded in the middle of nowhere with a rifle-wielding madman.” I regret the last word before I finish uttering it.
“Settle down,” Jack yells. He takes a heavy step towards me.
The cleaver feels heavy, clumsy in my grasp, and Jack’s glare makes me realize that all of a sudden, I’m the madman. I step back and bump into the kitchen counter. Jack reaches out his sinewy arm, takes the cleaver from me gently, but firmly, and places it on the top shelf, out of my reach.
“I’ll deal with Matt,” he says.
“He thinks I stole his room,” I say, trying to defend myself.
“He’s not dangerous,” Meg says, drying the pot. Her mouth contorts as she takes heaving breaths. She bats her eyes and her face turns red.
I’d never seen her cry before. Never saw her vulnerable. I used to assume she played strong to impress me. But she is that strong. Forget the rugged winters, the grueling summers. She’s held this family together despite an absent mother, a disabled father, a crazy brother. She’s performed the roles of fisherman, hunter, chef, and medic, captain and crew. It’s her strength, but even more this inevitable chink in the armor that emboldens me to ensure she sees it can all be better, easier.
“Meg’s not coming back next summer,” I say to Jack. “She got a job in San Francisco. We’re moving in together.”
“I can’t believe you!” Meg cries. The tears stop, anguish morphs to rage. She lifts the pot as if to throw it at me, but holds back. “You prick!”
Jack steps between us, holds out his hands as if refereeing a boxing match. “Billy, go to your room,” he says, shoving me towards the door. “Meg, go to mine. Don’t come out until I tell you.”
I slip out to the guesthouse guilty and frightened as a child. The brother who thinks I stole his place has a gun, the girlfriend who thinks I betrayed her has a knife, and the father - who knows what he thinks - has his callused hands. But I’m still exhausted. I look for something to secure the door shut, slide the bucket of cigarette butts beside it, then remember it opens out. I collapse onto Matt’s bed.
I return to the cabin. Jack’s passed out with a year-old magazine on his chest. I touch his shoulder and whisper, “Can we talk?”
He stirs, gets up. He grabs a bottle of whiskey and two glasses from a kitchen cabinet and motions me towards the door. The sky is cloudless and the sun has had time to warm the air, though the breeze is still crisp and carries the faint scent of pine. I follow Jack towards the edge of the deck but stay back a step - the boards are rotting and there’s no railing. He holds both glasses in the palm of his hand and fills them to the rim.
“Sometimes fin whales breach just two hundred yards from here.” He hands me a glass and with his own, motions past the skiff, the white mooring buoy, the outcropping of rock. “When they raise their heads near the skiff, you realize how small you are. But you chase them anyway. Cheers!” He clinks my glass and gulps his whiskey.
“She did find me,” he says. “Matt’s mother. She moved here from Seattle. We made it work together in Homer. We had Meg. We got this site license. We had some great years I’ll never regret. But she was already tired of Alaska, and me, the day the bear attacked the cabin. She hid, hysterical, up in the loft. Matt grabbed the rifle and ran out to meet it. Sad thing is, that time of year, with all the food in the hills and streams, that bear had no business bothering us. It was sick.” He taps his temple and takes another sip.
“Matt shot it twice as it charged him. It took off up the rocks there.” He points toward the outcropping jutting into the sea. “Matt tracked it to make sure it wouldn’t come back and found it dead on that cliff. Ma radioed for a seaplane that day.” He downs the rest of his glass.
“Some people need the supermarket, electricity, 9-1-1.” He refills his glass and tops mine off, emptying the bottle, which he tosses over the edge. “Me? I don’t understand…I don’t want to understand tax deductions, resumes, insurance premiums. Give me a fishing rod and a gun and get out of my way. Matt doesn’t fit in either place. Meg’s at home in both.”
“I was out of line,” I say.
“That’s between you and Meg. I want her to not worry about Matt and me. If San Francisco is where she wants be, I’m happy for her. For both of you.”
“But she does worry about you. And she won’t be happy unless she knows you and Matt are OK. Can’t you force Matt into a hospital?”
“Not against his will, not unless he’s an imminent threat.”
“He just pointed a gun…” I can’t seem to say it out loud.
“He knows the rules by now, knows what to say.”
“There must be some other way.”
“I’d beg her to go with you if I thought it would help. Matt’s problem is his head. Meg’s is her heart. I can’t change his mind. I wouldn’t change her one bit.”
“Talking about me?” Meg says. The screen door slams behind her.
Jack hands his glass to Meg. “I’ll get a refill,” he says, leaving us on the deck.
“Sorry I went all crazy back there,” I say.
“Me too,” Meg says. “I had an inkling to throw the fishing knife at you.” She pats the holster at her hip.
“It wouldn’t be the first time,” I say, holding up my palm. “I shouldn’t have broken the news to your Dad like that. I thought San Francisco was a done deal.”
“I hoped everything here would have sorted itself out, or at least gotten better. He’s worse than I’ve ever seen.”
“Stick to the plan,” I say. “All the other sites hire fishermen.”
“Matt scares them away before they’ve learned the ropes. It’s more hassle than help.”
“Bring them to San Francisco.”
“It’s sad, really,” she says, sniffing the whiskey and taking a sip. “Cabin fever keeps people from coming here. Matt’s sickness keeps us coming back. My brother will never move. My father will never leave him. They can’t live without me.”
“And you can’t live with them. If your brother doesn’t get help, he’s going to get himself into trouble. Or all of you. You’re just postponing it.”
“Then postponing is what I have to do.” She says it staring off at the water, so matter of fact.
“And what do I do?” I say.
“You’re the expert decision-maker.”
“Exactly. So trust me.” I turn her towards me and hold her tight by the shoulders. “You can’t help here. Even your Dad will tell you that. There’s often not a perfect solution, but there’s always a best decision.”
“Well, whatever that is, it doesn’t need to be made this minute.” She turns from me and I can see she’s holding back tears again. “I brought you here to see a different world.”
“You’ve certainly delivered,” I say.
Meg pulls me to her and hugs me. “Let’s try to enjoy the rest of the summer.”
Jack returns with another bottle and glass and three foldout chairs.
“The fish can wait until tomorrow,” he says. He unscrews the cap and pours.
We sit and drink and watch the skiff rock in the gentle waves as they roll towards shore. The sunlight flickers off each crest like a million brilliant sparks.
I wake to Meg lying in bed next to me. I’d been sleeping so soundly, I have no idea how long she’s been here. She stares at me with a sinister smile. I put my arm around her, nuzzle closer, but she has a different idea. She grabs my arm and slides off the bed. She’s fully dressed in a thick sweatshirt, jeans, and boots. She pulls me after her.
“What?” I say, resisting her efforts. “I’m exhausted.”
“Let's go,” she says. She yanks my arm hard, dragging me off the mattress. She tosses me a sweatshirt. “There’s a hat and gloves in the pocket.”
The night is clear and the sea, flat. I push the skiff back from the rocks and hop in while Meg starts the engine. We glide out into the deep blue darkness, past the cliffs, and on to the sea. The fresh chill air, the drone of the engine, the rhythmic splash of the water soothe me. I close my eyes and forget myself, half-sleeping – we may have cruised for minutes or hours.
Finally the boat turns and Meg cuts the engine. She hops on the bow platform and sits cross-legged, facing forward. I follow her lead. The sea opens up in this direction and its nothing but water for miles. The deep violet overhead gradually brightens to the dipping red sun in the northwest sky. But already that same sun casts its first rays across the northeast.
Meg puts her hands in mine and we snuggle close for warmth. The slow rotation of the skiff reveals sunset, twilight, a purple sky interrupted by the faintest stars, then sunset again. We float until the sun rises and everything shines bright blue-green.
The Fish and Game Commission radios in a three-day fishing hiatus while it assesses quotas. Once the nets are up and we’ve caught a nap, twenty hours of daylight seems like eight too many. We straighten up the grounds. It takes all four of us to roll a tree trunk, worn white and smooth as bone by the sun and surf, to the back edge of the beach. We do some old-fashioned rod-and-reel fishing without success. We read decade old news magazines. I even have time to review my dissertation. I’m editing a section on perceived value when Jack returns from the freshwater spring with a six-pack of cold beer. He hands me one. “What are you working on?”
“My professor surveyed a group of people to determine the dollar value they put on their own life,” I explain. “He asked questions like, ‘Assume that you were about to take a car ride that had a one in ten thousand chance of ending in your death if you didn’t wear your seatbelt, and I offered you one hundred dollars not to wear it, would you take the money?’”
“I’d take that bet,” Matt says from the loft.
“Well in that particular case, the person who takes the money values their life at one million dollars.” I don’t finish with the necessary caveat, “At most.”
“That’s a lot of money,” Matt says.
“I once got a ticket for not wearing my seatbelt,” Jack says. “I took the skiff to Kodiak City – two hours through cold rough seas. Driving my truck from the dock, I got pulled over for swerving. I must have been hypothermic. I’m shivering like crazy and the cop assumes its DTs. He asks me to walk the line – you can imagine how that went.” He smacks his leg and we all laugh. “Anyway, he thought he let me off easy.”
“Do you like to gamble?” Matt asks. He hops down the ladder. He’s got a competitive spark in his eyes. “Let’s play Texas hold em.”
It’s suddenly clear how Meg got so good at cards – during weather delays and Commission enforced downtime, there’s not a whole lot else to do. I put down the thesis and brace myself for some tough competition.
“Winner skips the next three picks,” Matt says, pulling a bucket of beach pebbles from a crossbeam in the wall.
“Have fun fishing without me,” Meg says, dropping a pan into the sink. “But while we’re betting, first one out does the dishes.”
Jack hands out more beers. Meg offers fresh-baked banana bread. Matt distributes the beach rocks. I sit next to him at the corner of the table, keeping Meg across from me. Matt deals. Jack picks up the first hand, but I ascertain little about his and Matt’s playing style. On the next hand I draw pocket kings. Meg and Jack fold after the flop, but I’m able to draw Matt in. The river card gives no possible help, which means he needs pocket aces to beat me – less than half a percent probability. I go all in, pushing my pile of pebbles to the center of the table, feeling a slight surge of adrenaline. I snicker when Matt pushes his pile forward, and cackle when he flips an Ace and a Joker.
“For real?” I say.
“Pair of Aces,” Matt says, scooping up the rocks.
I look around to see if I’m crazy. “You play with Jokers?”
“Why not?” Meg says. “It’s more fun, more unpredictable.”
“Especially when you don’t know they’re in the deck,” I say. “That’s a regular Black Swan, right there.” I point to Matt’s hand. “I’m adding that to my thesis.”
“Black Swan?” Jack says.
“Can I borrow this?” I say to Matt, grabbing his notebook. I flip to a clean page of graph paper. “Most events in life fall into what’s called a normal distribution.” I draw a tall bell curve.
“It looks like a fish in a net,” Matt says.
He seemed so normal a minute ago, I’m surprised at how quickly this new delusion manifests. Matt picks up on my concern. He looks me in the eyes for the first time. He takes the pen from me, turns the page so I see it from his angle, and draws a small circle within the peak of the curve, off-center - the fish’s eye. The gridlines are the net.
I hold the pad up so I can see it better. “Look at that,” I say. “I always thought they called them fat tails because it’s where the curve trailed off. But it’s also the tail of the fish.” I show the diagram to Jack. “Ninety-nine point nine percent of living is experienced here.” I point the pen at the gut of the fish. Then I circle the tips of its tail. “But life happens here: bank runs, sovereign debt crises.”
“Jokers wild,” Meg adds.
“Those don’t sound like life,” Jack says.
“They are if you have a sound investment strategy,” I say, tapping on the fish.
“Too bad you’re out of rocks,” Matt says, laughing.
“Yeah,” Meg says, ganging up on me. “Go scrub the dishes. We have a game to finish.”
I slink off to the sink.
The long days flow together in a rush of activity, broken only by brief nights of sound, but never fully satisfying sleep. We wake, we eat, we pick, we eat, we pick, we eat, we pick, we sleep. By the time the cut on my hand is lost among scrapes, rope burns, and calluses, I’m able to keep up with Meg in the nets. I captain the skiff and pitch salmon into the bins with ninety-five percent accuracy. I’m even put in charge of the weekly rendezvous with the cannery’s barge – Matt’s old job – to unload the refrigeration boat and pick up supplies. They toss me a fifth of tequila the day our haul sets a record.
Matt still dodges the picks and I’m happy for it. Meg and Jack treat him as if nothing is wrong, which is to say they ignore his outbursts, his delusions, his insistence on sleeping with his pistol. But I can’t. I study him as if he’s one of Professor Rota’s term projects. I note his frustration as he clears the beach of clutter: rusted barrels, frayed lines, tattered nets. I time the frequency and duration of his disappearances into the hillside. I analyze his moods when he returns for his vegetarian dinners, muddied and giddy. And while Meg insists he’s safe, I sense desperation, recklessness, violence.
“Have you thought about the patterns in the cards?” he asks one evening.
I’m mixing a cocktail I concocted to celebrate our award-winning haul – salmonberry margaritas.
“Not particularly,” I say. “I’ve been busy fishing.”
Matt laughs uncomfortably.
“You should get back out there and protect your record,” Jack says, clinking my margarita with his. He ruffles my hair, and I’m strangely proud. Meg smiles at the gesture. Matt bristles. He returns to flipping cards for a moment, then tosses them to the floor.
“I’m going hunting,” he says. He grabs the shotgun off the rack.
“In the dark?” Meg says.
“With a shotgun?” Jack says.
“You don’t need me here,” Matt says.
Meg places a hand on his shoulder, calming him.
“It’s not working anymore.” He glances at me as if to signal I’m the reason, but then looks ashamed for suggesting it.
“What’s not working?” Meg asks. But Matt’s already halfway to the door.
“I’ll show you,” he says, “I’ll bring back a deer.”
The sun is warm and the breeze cool. We race through the morning pick in record time and Jack has lunch waiting when we arrive back at the cabin. We eat on the deck as the bald eagle hovers on the wind currents and a fox scampers across the beach. It’s been three days without a sign of Matt, save the occasional echo of a shotgun blast.
Jack takes our dishes and returns carrying two rifles. He places one against the cabin and slides his lawn chair to the edge of the deck. He gestures for me to take a seat.
“Here’s the scope. Here’s the safety. Here’s the cartridge,” he says. He places the butt in the crook of his shoulder. There are two cracks as the shot’s echo reflects crisp and clear across the water. The mooring buoy a hundred yards out dips briefly underwater and pops back up.
I have to brace my left arm on my knee to steady the rifle’s muzzle. I center the crosshairs on the buoy. Another two thunderous cracks and the scope kicks back, catching me above my eye.
“Did I hit it?”
“Were you aiming at the water?” he says with a chuckle.
Meg loads another cartridge and places the rifle back into my hands. She stands behind me, places her hands on my shoulders and whispers in my ear.
“We’re on the beach in Santa Cruz. Remember?”
I remember her naked in the waves, calling me to her. My heart picks up its pace.
“Not that part,” she says, guessing my thoughts. She smacks my head playfully. “The warm sun, the light breeze, the soft sand. We weren’t sure if we were awake or asleep.”
Her soothing words relax me. Her fragrant hair refreshes me. Her gentle touch reassures me. The buoy looks fat in my sight. I pull back on the trigger and watch it sink beneath the water.
Across the green and yellow hills, purple lilacs sway like waves in the breeze, always out of reach. The terrain is tight with brush and thorny thickets. We try to stay on the ridgelines and under the evergreens where the ground is soft and mossy. But it’s slow going, especially with Jack.
“If we see a bear, don’t startle it,” he says. “And don’t run.”
“We’re going to see a bear?” I say.
“Probably not,” Meg says.
“‘Probably’ doesn’t put limbs back on.”
“Bears have poor depth perception,” Jack says, stopping to rub his thighs. “They only see through one eye at a time.” He turns his head from side to side, demonstrating the motion. “The trick is to back away slowly.”
“The real trick,” Meg says, “is to file down the front sight on your rifle. That, and bring along someone slower than you.”
Jack catches me sneaking a glance at his leg. “Why do you file down the sight?” I ask.
“So it won’t hurt as much when the bear shoves it up your ass,” Meg says. “Dad, why don’t you wait for us at the cabin? We’ll be OK.”
We smell the carcasses long before we see them. Two full sized deer, three foxes, a few smaller rodents piled together. Maggots, worms, and all sorts of other critters writhe in the rancid flesh. The fresh body of a fox has the skin torn free from its face where the shotgun blast struck. The larger deer has a strategically shot rifle hole through its neck. Its purple tongue hangs in the dirt.
Meg rushes ahead, pushing her way through the brush. I find her squatting in front of a camouflaged tent.
“He’s not in there,” she says. She pulls out a filthy sleeping bag, a machete, and the cores of some green peppers. I wait until she moves ahead before switching off my rifle’s safety.
The brush opens to reveal a large flat field. The earth has been turned and roughly ploughed. Stretches of fishing net section off and protect neat rows of various types of vegetation. A deer lifts its head above some tomato plants, red juices hanging from its chin as it chews. Meg’s rifle instinctively rises to her shoulder. I place the beast in my sights too.
The deer’s magnified skull collapses in an explosion of tomato, blood, and brain matter. It vanishes from my sight before I register the sound of the blast, which comes from in front of me, not beside me. Matt lifts himself from a prone position within the field. He stands directly in my line of fire, his chest in my crosshairs. He holds his shotgun above his head in a victory stance, his tongue flicking through the hole in his smile. His head is monstrous compared to the buoy I shot earlier. The trigger is cold on my finger.
“It’s time to go home, Matt,” Meg says. She slowly lowers my rifle’s barrel with her hand.
We take turns dragging the buck back to the cabin. Matt grabs his deck of cards and climbs the ladder to his bunk. I join Meg on the deck to help her prepare the deer. She sticks her knife between the bones of the forelegs and twists it, creating two holes. She rams the end of a broomstick through them, lassos a rope around it, and throws the line over an overhanging beam. I help her lift the deer into the air, tying the rope off against the cabin. She places a large blue bucket under it.
“You’re going to stay with them,” I say.
Meg plunges the knife into the deer’s chest, just under the neck, and pulls it down with both hands. The bones of the ribcage snap in succession. She presses the knife down all the way to the deer’s crotch. As the chest cavity opens, blood pours into the bucket. The deer’s entrails push through and hang below its torso, and again the smell of death hits me like a stiff wind.
“I can’t leave them. I’ll go back with them to Homer after the summer.”
“I worry after the summer will be too late. And Homer will be inadequate. It’s a bad decision.”
She clears the insides with the knife. She places the deer’s heart and liver into a frying pan. She cuts the skin around its neck, and uses the knife to pull at its hide.
“Are you breaking up with me?” she says.
“If you really plan to move to Homer I think you’re breaking up with me.” I pull at the deer’s skin while she cuts it from the flesh with her blade, until the prey hangs without an outside or an inside, its decimated head rolled to one side, its guts stinking in a bucket beneath it.
“You could wait for me. You could come with us.”
“Meg,” I say, grabbing her arm to make sure I have her full attention, “why did you bring me here this summer? What did you expect to happen?”
“I wanted you to meet my family, to see my life. I told you. I thought he would be better.” She puts the organs and a large chunk of flesh in a pan.
“Going to Homer doesn’t solve the problem. It enables it. And in the process it will ruin your life. My life. Our life. I won’t let him drag me down, too.”
“That’s up to you,” she says. She turns towards the kitchen.
I turn her back to me. “Did you bring me here to chase me off?”
“This isn’t about you!” She shakes free and storms into the cabin.
Jack joins me on the deck. We each grab a side of the bucket of guts. Jack stumbles across the beach rocks. We step out into the water and the waves lap against our boots. We put the bucket down next to a large boulder. Jack tosses the entrails and skin fragments on top of it. “For our eagle friend,” he says, nodding toward the evergreen. “Or a nimble fox.” He rinses his hands in the water. Rivulets of blood twist among the stones.
I squat down and dip my own hands, feeling the water’s icy chill. I raise the salty liquid to my lips and feel the scruff on my face. I look down at my reflection, my full beard, and hardly recognize myself. I look worn but strong. I look like a man I would be frightened of.
“The herring run off Anchorage in the winter,” Jack says. “An icy, snowy night a few years back, with visibility less than a few yards, I fell off the boat retrieving the net. I managed to climb back in before anyone noticed, then finished the job. I refused seeing a doctor until it was too late. I lost three toes and suffered nerve damage in my legs. The kids get their stubbornness from me.”
“I can be stubborn too,” I say, stroking the ragged hair on my face.
The cabin fills with the smoke and smells of broiling meat and steaming vegetables. Matt shuffles his cards in the loft. Meg puts the finishing touches on the meal.
I lean on the kitchen counter and speak softly to her. “I need to know something.”
She spoons glaze onto the ribs.
“If things were better here, like you hoped, would you still be moving in with me?”
Matt stops shuffling. Meg nods.
“Do you love me?” I say.
We eat tender chunks of venison steaks marinated in a garlic sauce, broiled ribs in a brown sugar glaze, rice pilaf, corn, peas, salad. Matt takes a healthy heaping of vegetables, a mug of coffee, and isolates himself in the corner. In between bites, he flips his cards and takes notes.
I slice off half of the fried fist-sized heart and sit beside him. He shifts away from me, further into the corner. I shift closer, blocking his escape.
“Some heart?” I say, offering him a bite-sized chunk.
“I don’t eat meat,” he says, focusing on his dealing.
“Why is that?” I say, popping it in my mouth. “It’s not like you love animals.”
“Billy,” Meg says, “leave him alone.”
“We’re just talking,” I say. “How’s your three of spades theory working?”
“It never fails,” he says. “A queen or red card always follows.”
“I’ll bet you it does fail,” I say. “In three tries it will fail. If you win, you get your cabin back for the rest of the summer.”
Jack gets up to get another serving, though his plate is nearly full.
“Sure,” Matt says, shuffling the cards.
“But if I win, you have to agree to fly out of here tomorrow to see a doctor in Homer.”
Meg glares at me. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“It’s a fair bet,” I say. “He says he has a hundred percent chance of winning. I say it’s one in six. Russian Roulette. For all of us. Because if Matt wins, each of us - especially Matt - loses.”
Matt puts down the cards and gets up to leave. I don’t budge.
Jack sits at our table, meat stacked so high on his plate it nearly topples. I make eye contact only briefly and it’s enough to cause a shiver. But he doesn’t stop me.
“You don’t have to take that bet if you don’t want to,” Meg says to Matt. She stands over the table.
“Even if your theory is wrong,” I say to Matt, “which I’m sure it isn’t, you only have to talk to the doctor.” I hold his deck of cards up to him.
Matt grabs the deck from me and sits down.
“What makes you think you’ll have better luck now?” Meg says to me, her tone easing. She pulls a chair up next to Jack.
Matt throws out cards until the three of spades appears on the fifth toss. Matt takes a deep breath and tosses out the queen of clubs. He licks his lips and reshuffles. The second attempt, he flips a joker.
“That counts,” he says. “Jokers are wild.”
“They sure are,” I say, dropping my head in my hands, furious with myself for not remembering. With two jokers in the deck and only one round to go, my odds drop to forty three percent. Better than a fifty-fifty chance of sleeping with the spiders for the next three weeks.
When the three of spades arrives in the last hand, Matt stands to deal the final card. A three of clubs. He collapses into his seat. I pop a chunk of venison into my mouth, vindicated. Jack studies Matt’s reaction.
I pat his shoulder. “You only have to talk to the doctor.”
“It will be OK,” Meg says, reaching across the table to hold his hand. “I’ll go with you.”
“Are you OK?” Jack asks Matt. When Matt nods, Jack walks to the radio. He sets the dial and speaks into the microphone, “Outlet Cape requesting two passenger pick-up at oh-seven-hundred hours.”
“Sleep in your room tonight,” I say. “I’ll take the couch.”
Late that night, with the blood of the deer pulsing in my veins, I climb the ladder into Meg’s loft. The smell of the night’s feast hangs in the air. It mingles with the odor of a generation of summer meals, of fish and game. It mingles with the scent of Meg. Her body is taut from the summer’s efforts. I’m surprised by my own body’s strength, of muscles tightening in unexpected places. I take her in spite of, because of, the grit and grime that cover us.
We wake to the sound of the seaplane’s engine. Meg holds me tight, then climbs down the ladder. Before I make it down, she has stoked the fire and placed a kettle on the stove. I hug her again. She hands me a cup of tea and I feel its warmth pulse through my hands. While Meg prepares breakfast I pull out my dissertation and review it. I’m jotting down some notes when Jack arrives and pours himself some coffee.
“What’s that?” he says, pointing to the corner table.
A tower of cards rests on top of a page from Matt’s notes. In front of the tower five cards are facedown. I flip them: the three of clubs and each of the four queens. I slide the paper out and the tower crumbles. On it, Matt has written, “I meant the three of clubs. Gone hunting. Love, Matt.”
“Good for him,” I say, crumpling the paper and tossing it into the stove’s fire. “Me? I’m done hunting. He can garden all week for all I care.”
“I don’t know what you expected,” Meg says. She puts the fourth dish back on the shelf.
“I expected him to keep his end of the bargain,” I say, pointing out the door with my rolled up dissertation. “He lost fair and square.”
“There’s nothing fair about it,” Jack says.
The double-crack of a rifle shot startles us. Meg drops a plate to the floor.
“He’s too close,” she says.
“On the water,” Jack says, stepping towards the door. I follow Meg as she rushes past him.
I chase Meg down the beach, across a mountain stream, and up the rocky outcropping towards the cliff where Matt had tracked the grizzly. Jack lags behind us, maneuvering up the incline with the strength of his arms when he can’t trust his foothold. Above us the bald eagle circles, screeching. Further out, the seaplane approaches, the sound of its engine amplified as it descends towards the water.
Meg’s scream is bestial, primal, full of raw panic and pain. She yells, “Why?” and the response that echoes back across the water is her own twisted shriek. She squats on a grassy mound in a clearing, beside Matt’s body. She places his bloody, broken head in her lap, bends her face to his.
Faceless fish, piles of prey, disemboweled deer. So much wasted flesh. I want Meg to stop screaming but I’m paralyzed in place, my eyes shifting from her rocking body to the approaching plane. I drop my dissertation copy, caked in mud from the climb, into the dirt.
Jack stumbles past me, rushing to Matt’s side. He falls heavily to his knees and administers CPR, but it’s useless. There are no paramedics, no emergency rooms. Meg lifts her head to face me. Her blond hair is matted with blood. Her eyes are blank.
She doesn’t say, “You couldn’t leave him alone?” But it’s in there. I squat down next to her and pull her to me. She pushes away from me, pulls her father up, and they hold each other.
I step to the edge of the cliff. The air is clear and the water is flat and deep crystal blue. The seaplane lands with a splash. My bowels tremble and I remember Jack’s words: it’s not math, it’s gut. I don’t have the stomach for this. The plane glides towards the beach. The pilot steps onto the pontoon and waves to me. The world I came from is a half-hour flight over the ice-capped hills.
Jack grabs the spent cartridge from the grass beside Matt and turns it over in his fingers before slipping it into his pocket. He runs his hands over Matt, tenderly frisking him. He finds a stale biscuit, a knife with a broken tip, and a box of bullets. He tosses the biscuit towards the eagle’s nest, attaches the knife to his belt, and loads a new cartridge into Matt’s rifle. He stands and looks at me but I can’t meet his gaze. I look over the cliff edge to the crashing waves below and am overcome by vertigo. I crouch to the ground, clutch the earth until a fingernail cracks.
“There’s a shovel in the greenhouse,” Jack says to me. “Tell the pilot there’s been a change of plans.”
We take turns digging in silence. I shovel furiously, distracting myself from thoughts that Jack, holding the gun, waits for me to finish digging my own grave. Distracting myself from the sight of Meg, pacing between the cliff, where she walks too close to the edge, and Matt’s corpse, where she scatters flies. Distracting myself from the dreadful fears of isolation, responsibility.
Just as there is no doctor, pronouncement, or certificate, there is no priest, eulogy, or ceremony. Jack lifts Matt’s body as if carrying him to bed and places it into the hole. We refill it. When we’re done, Jack gives us our orders. I collect and chop wood and prepare a bonfire at the far end of shore beside the giant white tree trunk. Meg cooks a feast: salmon and venison with tomatoes and peppers picked from Matt’s garden. There’s even melon for dessert. Jack returns in the skiff with a bucket-full of snowcrabs, the span of their claws longer than my arm. We stab sticks through their shells and hold them in the bonfire like marshmallows. Their legs and claws stretch out, grasping at the turbulent air above the fire. We drink whiskey and when that runs out, beer.
Jack turns Matt’s hunting knife over in his hands.
“You were barely walking when I gave this to Matt,” he says. He speaks to Meg as if I’m not there. “Your mother worried the point was too sharp for her little boy. So he could keep it, he wedged it between the floorboards and snapped off the tip.”
Meg laughs and I follow her lead.
“I remember one of my first fishing excursions with just him, after you bought him his first gun,” Meg says. “He caught a halibut bigger than me. We couldn’t lift it into the boat, so he shot it dead with his pistol and dragged it behind the boat all the way back to the beach.”
“It was delicious.”
They continue telling stories while I continue drinking beer, feeling out of place and unwelcome, as if I’ve invaded some personal religious ritual. They talk about Matt before he got sick – about his fearlessness, his selflessness.
Jack kisses and hugs Meg goodnight. He stumbles off to bed without a word to me. I inch closer to Meg, press my leg against hers softly. She loops her arm through mine and snuggles close. I feel slight, but enormous relief.
“I’m sorry,” I say.
“It’s not your fault,” she says.
I meant it as a condolence, not apology, but I crave the warmth of her body next to mine. I want to pull it into me, but I’m afraid if I squeeze too tight I’ll lose it forever.
“It’s my fault for bringing you here,” she says. “I should have known he’d be too fragile.”
“You were only trying to live your life.”
“I didn’t need to throw it in his face.”
“You did everything you could to protect him. You’re the one who’s selfless and fearless.”
The sun dips below the hills across the bay and the landscape begins to lose its color.
“What now?” I say.
“It’s up to Dad,” she responds too quickly. “But I think we’ll return to Homer to clean up Matt’s things. Then go from there.”
I guess I’m not part of the “we.”
“What about your internship?”
“It can wait.”
“What about us?” Her grasp loosens the slightest bit.
The northwest sky turns gray. The fire crackles as the logs settle into hot embers. They cast shadows across the rocky beach that give the illusion of motion.
“Do you want to come to Homer?” She knows I have to complete my dissertation. But I’m desperate. I call her bluff.
“If it will make you happy.”
I think I see a fox sneaking towards the boulder offshore, but I can’t be certain.
She let’s go of my arm, shakes her head.
“I’m sorry,” she says. She kisses me deeply and I try to hold it, save it, remember it like it’s our first. “Dad radioed for the seaplane to return first thing tomorrow morning.” She pulls away and walks to the cabin.
One by one the stars appear in the south, filling the indigo sky with faint white constellations. The bonfire’s embers are searing hot and glow red and yellow in the gentle breeze. Past their light, little is visible. There’s a splash in the water. Leaves rustle in the breeze. Preceding each lapping wave is the rhythmic metallic clang of the skiff, always out of place.
Returning to Matt’s bed would be sacrilege and Meg’s loft, off limits. There’s the couch, but the spent shells of the snowcrabs, bleached white in the fire, haunt me, making the spiders seem even more vicious, threatening.
The night air is comfortable and already the hidden sun faintly cuts the darkness in the northeast sky. I slide off the tree trunk and lay in the warm rocks beside the fire.
I wake to a sharp biting pinch on my neck. I smack it and feel the hard writhing flesh of an insect between my fingers. A bug the size of my thumbnail – a sand flea or some sort of beetle – squirms in my hand. I toss it into the fire. Three more cling to my shirt. I jump up, swat them to the rocks. I ruffle my hair, yank off my shirt, wipe down my pants. Hundreds more emerge from the rocks. Like tiny jumping crabs, they crawl and leap past my boots. I swat one that wriggles on my thigh and scrape my boots together to clear some others. I circle the fire and watch as they close the perimeter around the embers. And always more and more emerge within the bonfire’s radiant reach, continuing their mad march toward the light, where they bake themselves upon the scorching rocks.
© 2010 Daniel Degnan