Surviving the Island of Grace

from Chapter Four: “Hurled to the Shark”


This morning, before I leave our loft for breakfast, I do not check the calendar. I know what day it is: July 26–put-out day. This is the day we load our nets from the mending racks on the beach and drop them back into the water. I am grim. I have done this four times by now in this, my first season, which makes me still a nervous greenhorn, since Duncan, his two brothers and his father have been fishing for more than twenty years, yet I know exactly what will happen in the day and night ahead.

Leslie!” Duncan yells back as he starts down to the beach and waiting skiffs. Everyone is ready before me. “Get some candy bars!” I am searching frantically for my life vest, hands on every hook, frisking the extra raingear draped around the porch, feel a familiar sponge, grab it. I push into my mother-in-law’s cabin, into the tiny kitchen, rummage the cupboard till I find the hidden supply--Uno’s, Hersheys and Snickers. I run down the grass yard, onto the sand, leap into the skiff and we are off, the five of us, all looking alike in our raingear, out to skiffs painted red, white, and black. Because of our uniformity, not only our clothes but our gear, the skiffs, the cabins all painted red and white, it feels like an industry, an enterprise so much larger than the facts at hand: a core of three brothers, a father, seven skiffs, and eight nets. For a moment I see us, Weston in the stern running the kicker, eyes squinted in concentration as he maps out the afternoon and evening. Duncan solemn as he watches the water, Wallace, just 17, with the same air as his brothers, and their father, DeWitt, And me, my face no different, not because I am strategizing, as they are---who puts out what nets, in what order, will the NE get worse?---but because I have taken this world on like a face, except it goes deep already. I am one of them, I think, then no, I am not, but I will be, if I can.

That 6 PM minute has enticed us through weeks of scraping and painting skiffs, mending and pulling the hairy weeds out of last year’s nets, dropping anchors. It is all for this, now, Duncan standing in the skiff with the 35 kicker, eyes on his watch, DeWitt and I in the skiff with the nets, poised for his word, and then “Let’s go!” as the second hand hits the twelve and it is official, the opening has begun. I have already tied the net in the skiff onto the line in the water. Duncan gasses the kicker now, and his skiff, like a racehorse out of the gate, charges ahead free until the line to my skiff suddenly goes taut. We freeze for a split second, then my skiff jerks forward behind his, the net playing out with a hiss and tumble behind me over the stern. My job—not by my choice---is to clear the net should it catch or snare as it is pulls out behind us. I nearly cringe as the skiffs lunge yet faster. What if the net tangles? I realize I have absolutely no control over this mess, and then ---a cork snags, the skiff jerks to a stop, begins to swing sideways, the cork creaking threateningly. “Clear the cork!!” Duncan shouts, and I lean over, punch the cork jammed in the corner and the released tension yanks out fathoms of net. We are nearing the shore keg and it snags again, the skiff pulling against the locked net--”Leslie! Get it!” I kick it this time, and then just as we come up to the buoy, Duncan shouts, “Okay, get ready to grab it!” and we are over the skiff sides, leaning out as far we can keep our balance, gripping the running line that holds the net in place while Duncan jumps over and leans his full weight on top of us to tie the net without losing any of the tension. “Hold it, Hold it . ..!” he warns, as DeWitt and I pant over our balled fists; I screw my eyes up tight, count my breaths, and when I hit 18, he says “Got it!” and we relax, let go, stand up and then the next is easier as we spell out the net in the hook. Here Duncan kills the kicker and we pull it by hand. This is fine, this is good, I say to myself, as we pull----the pressure is off here. When we are done, and the net hangs in the water like a curtain, the row of corks blinking in the waves, I feel good.

On to the next net and then two more. We will put out four; Weston and Wallace will put out four.

When the nets are in, then it happens, what all of this is for--the fish. Sometimes , as soon as the net is wet behind us, we see silver lifting it back up out of the water, a furious thrash of anger as three, four, a group of salmon hit together. And we stop, no matter what we’re doing, smile at one another at the instant logic and mathematics of it---yes, a year of ordering supplies, a month of 14 hour work days for this moment, for these salmon behind us and at our feet.

But if it is early in June, or late in August, or in any low year, there may not be much to marvel over. The net may soak for hours and days without a fish, blank. Duncan told me about this, about the early years, how few fish they caught. His family worked off every summer here, and sometimes left four months of work with a slip from the cannery that would pay off their living expenses, but not much more. The risks never lessened over the years. I see that this is a fishery built on faith. There is so little control over so much. Setnetters are not hunter-gatherers who stalk and chase their prey, not even farmers who till and plant and tend what rises. The nets are plunked out here in hope leavened with experience, strung out into the ocean, yet tied to shore, like some kind of giant arm motioning “here, swim in here.” There is no way to urge or chase them in. We can only wait for the salmon that choose this place at this depth on the days that the nets are there, and then hope for their blunder into the meshes, and that their blunder gills them fast enough that they hold against the currents and riptides until we come to pull them into the skiffs. But when I have been picking for many hours, so that my back aches and my hands are stiff, they are the enemy, and I don’t care if the nets stay blank. But then when I am rested, and Duncan and I look at college bills, when we estimate our living expenses, I know those fish, every one is sent. If God knows the fall of each sparrow, then He knows the path of every salmon. Sometimes I remember this.

After the fourth net, five hours since we started, we declare it dinnertime, pulling out the candy bars and pop. We sit there, the three of us, our skiff tied to the net, slapping the water gently. This is the only break we will have tonight. Duncan and I are sitting together as we eat, our rubberized and reptilian legs pressing against each other on the seat. Duncan leans over and gives me a kiss, leaving a wet spot on my face where his nose dripped. He’s got a couple of scales on his cheek, and a smudge of fish blood on his forehead. I’ve got something dried on my jawline; my gloves are a blend of blood and gurry. I’m not feeling romantic. He’s yelled at me three times already this put-out. I know later he’ll explain that a job’s got to be done no matter who it is, wife or crew or anyone. Then I’ll complain that he treats me like a crewman and he’ll say, Well, you are. Then I’ll say no, I’m your wife and you can’t step in and out of marriage just because you’re climbing in and out of a skiff, and so it will go. I did not expect the skiff to be run democratically, but neither did I expect such a pronounced hierarchy. I’m not sure what to do about this, how to establish in this geography the kind of balance and equity we have in the other.

We were drawn to each other not by physical prowess or my potential as a fish-picker, but among other things, by a mutual love of philosophy and theology. After meeting in college on a road trip to Maine, we began a dialogue of impassioned notes and letters when apart and discussions when together about the nature of God, about the puzzles of predestination and election, about man’s free will or is it only free moral agency? How far does God’s sovereignty extend? How can God hold us responsible if in fact He is the primary and sufficient cause of all events? How does evil fit into God’s plan, or is evil outside of it? These questions were life and death to me. Though I had considered some of them before, at 18, I now understood their enormity and could not proceed with anything until I found some answers. Duncan, the fisherman from Alaska, who was also class president, cared as deeply as I did about these concerns. We talked, wrote notes, studied philosophy together, took classes together, prayed together. The bond ran deep. Where was all of this now? Our most abstract question was likely to be “How many reds do you think this skiff’ll pack?”

Finally, the nets are judged done for the night. Weston and Wallace come up beside us in their skiff, both looking tired, but wearing the same expression I see on Duncan. They do not even glance at me as they decide the mechanics of who will take what skiff to the tender to deliver, and I am hoping they will not need me. I won’t ask to go ashore, though. “You can go in,” Duncan finally says to me in my ear. “I know it was a tough one, but you did great. You really worked hard. Thanks, Leslie.”

I slide out of the skiff, trudge through the black night water up to the beach and the long hill up to Duncan’s parents’ house. The lights are on. How glorious, like a star! Duncan’s mother has hot soup on the stove and grilled sandwiches waiting. I am so grateful as I spoon the soup with numb hands. In five minutes I am done, back outside, walking down to the old warehouse on the beach, to our loft. The wind has not abated any, and though it is sucking sound in the opposite direction, I can hear the skiffs straining under their loads, still going in the dark, just arriving at the tender. I have no energy left to pity them; indeed I do not, for haven’t they grown up with this? Doesn’t Duncan profess love for this? And is there anything these three brothers cannot do? Then up the ladder and into the tiny room. It is cold in there without heat, about 45 degrees, and the tin roof is banging, and something else is whistling with the wind but I don’t care. I notice as I pull off my sweatshirt that I have fish scales stuck to my arms. I leave them there, climb under the three sleeping bags and sleep. It is 1 a.m.

One morning, near the end of July, it happened, the run of pink salmon forecast by Fish and Game came running, and so did we. Fifteen million were forecast, and when we stumbled up the hill for breakfast, Duncan looked out in his usual visual check of the nets visible from shore, then, “Hey, where’s the hook of the third? We’ve either got a shark in it or its sunk with fish!” It was sunk with fish. And the derby began. We had fished and caught healthy amounts of salmon up until then, enough to keep us tired and reasonably sure of making our tuition payments that next year, but we hadn’t made enough for rent and living expenses. I had hoped for the flood of fish along with everyone else, but now, as my heart fluttered and my stomach turned, as though I were about to go on stage, I wondered, if we haven’ t been catching many fish yet, what will it be like when we do? And then the answer: what I thought I knew about hard work became a romper room memory. There were pink salmon swarming all over Kodiak Island, filling the seiners’ nets, sinking ours, the ones that got away choking the spawning streams. We stood in our skiffs in salmon up to our ankles, then our calves, then our knees, walking on them, falling on them as we still bent to pull the net in for more. Three weeks of days and nights nearly indistinguishable from one another, eating and sleeping around the fish, lunch twelve hours after breakfast, my hands so sore and bleeding in the deep cracks between my fingers I tape them before putting on the cotton gloves, a shoulder that hyper extended with any stress at all, Duncan and his brothers’ arms going dead-numb at night, their hands locking with carpal tunnel, the dreams---Duncan pulling the covers off me hand over hand shouting “coil the line!” Mine--that the net snares my foot while putting out the nets and I go down, drowning over and over because of the fish, the overflow that runneth from our cups, our fish overfloweth, our cups run away, the fish, the fish...

When the season was over, in mid-September, we flew from our island back to Kodiak. The first Sunday back in town, I stood beside Duncan in church, singing hymns, my eyes closed and face uplifted. After four months at fishcamp, the congregational voices washed over me like milk. At the end of the service, a family friend strode across the aisle to greet us.

“Duncan! Leslie! How did your season go?” he boomed, his hand extended to Duncan. I knew he was a business executive for a local native corporation. We had been invited over to his house once for a potluck, where I had heard his latest fishing stories--—he fished a short subsistence net one day each summer to stock his freezer.

“Oh, we got a few fish,” Duncan smiled, a bit wanly. We were both still shell shocked.

“A few fish, I bet!” he grinned knowingly. Then he turned to me. “Leslie, you pick any fish?”

“A few,” I said, in the same killer understatement, too tired to care about accuracy or making a good impression.

“Did you? Well, let’s see your hands! You know, you can tell a lot by someone’s hands,” he says, smiling a wink at Duncan.

I held my right hand out, palm up, looking away. He placed one hand beneath to steady it, with the other he pulled lightly on my fingers then brushed his fingertips over what was left of the skin. His smile dimmed. “Yeah, I guess you did pick a few.”

“She picked more than that,” Duncan said, putting his arm around my shoulder proudly and squeezing.

I smiled blandly at them both, unsure of what to say, only knowing that I had survived, that there were now eight other months before me to return to college and live a different life, and choosing then to believe that though the seasons would circle around again and chase me back to those waters, that island every summer for the rest of my life, surely I would live, again.