“Who could write or speak about this? Who would believe it? Until finally I did it, what I’m doing now—I walked away.”
I can’t believe the size of this king salmon. It’s three feet long and probably forty-five pounds, as thick as my waist. It shines on my kitchen table with the glint of the sun through the window. I know what I’m going to do with it: I’m going to smoke it. There’s no better smoked fish than king salmon.
Over the next hour I strip it all out, notching the thick flesh to better absorb the flavors, then lay the meaty chunks into the white tub, already tasting its smoky-sweet goodness. When I am done, nearly an hour later, I call the two younger boys.
“Abraham! Micah! Come here, please!”
I yell three more times before they come. Their friend Caleb is with them for the week, a rare treat. The three come running.
“Hey boys, grab the carcass in the box there and toss it over the cliff. But not the box. Put that in the burn pile.”
“Sure, Mom!” And they are off, impatient to fulfill the chore and get back to their play.
Five minutes later, they storm into the kitchen, laughing, poking one another, and hand me the basin, now empty, and race off.
“Thanks, boys!” I smile at them, with the basin in my hands. Then suddenly I look at the empty basin, and then down at the box at my feet with the carcass in it. My eyes go wide, my face flames. Disbelief erupts into shouts.
“Boys! Boys, come here!”
They hear my tone and scramble back, eyes questioning. I hold out the empty basin and then signal to the box.
All three of them freeze, their faces flush.
I try to control my voice and speak slowly: “You dumped the salmon over the cliff instead of the carcass.” Then I give up all pretense of control. “Do you know how long I worked on that fish? How could you mistake the meat for the guts and the carcass?” With every word my voice gets louder.
Micah and Abraham are old enough to know any kind of defense is useless. They stand there hanging their heads, awaiting their fate.
That was six years ago. Ever since then, whenever I strip out a king salmon I am back in that moment, but my face no longer burns. I smile usually. I’m there now, working on two salmon at the kitchen table, preparing to brine them for the smoker. This batch is for Elisha and Isaac. They’re leaving August 25, in just a few days. The summer is nearly gone. Part of the life of this house will go with them.
Sometimes loss and departure seem the summation of my life out here. That same week that the boys threw the salmon over the cliff, they mistook a box of all my research materials for a box of garbage. Into the fire it went, books and papers and notes, all I had amassed over a couple of years for a new book I was working on.
Must we always be called to relinquishment? I think of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “One Art”: “The art of losing isn’t hard to master; / so many things seem filled with the intent / to be lost that their loss is no disaster.”
Years before that, when Duncan’s fishing boat went down, I lost my wedding ring, all my childhood journals and poems, every piece of paper that I held valuable and was trying to keep—sunk to the bottom of the sea somewhere out there in the Shelikof Strait. I am well practiced in this art. Who isn’t? I have not lost dreams, because I never learned to dream, but I’ve lost people. I’ve lost love. I lost my father, who could not say, “I love you, Leslie,” not even once. I’ve lost family members through estrangement, beloved friends through distance and disease. And early this summer, just before I left for fish camp, I lost someone who was like a mother to me. She wouldn’t let me come to see her. I didn’t get to say good-bye before she died. I’ve kept myself busy and distracted these summer months, but some days my grief nearly sweeps me away. Today is one of those days. And soon, I will lose my children.
Last night, around midnight, I went down to say good night to one of my sons. We talked a long time. About how hard it is to grow up working for your parents. How hard it is to keep doing what you’ve done since a small child. How lonely he is here on this island without his friends. Yes, he loves us and is glad to be with us, but he longs to leave and make his own way out in the world.
I know, I know. I shook my head in understanding. I know how hard it was working for my parents, too, rebuilding old houses throughout our childhood. I know how tangled the roles get in every family business, how the children can feel like employees rather than sons and daughters. How, when we’re working, our worth feels measured by our productivity. How so many of the words spoken between you and your parents are commands, and it does not matter how hard or impossible the work before you, it must get done. I know, too, about isolation from friends and the rest of the world. We all feel it.
I turn back to the salmon now and carefully place the last layer of fish on top. The basin is full now. I move it to the refrigerator on the porch, where it will sit until morning. I need to work in the studio, but I cannot write today. I feel a whirlpool of panic and melancholy sweeping me under.
I lift a sweatshirt off a hook by the door and walk halfway down the gravel path. Three skiffs are out on the water, loading ice from the iceboat for the afternoon pick. I’m already traveling through decades, across islands, a continent, while on it goes, the orange rain-geared soldiers marching down the hill, stepping wearily into skiffs and roaring out onto the nets. Come hell or empty nets or high water or any other thing, the fishing goes on as if nothing else matters. Yes, this is the constancy of need and the persistence of love, but it is slavery, too. Maybe that more than anything.
I feel a familiar vertigo. I am desperate to leave, but there’s no way off this rock. All I can do is walk. I decide to visit the eaglets, to see if they’re still in the nest. I set my face to the meadow and the only passable trail on this jungle of an island. I lurch down the graveled trail and turn toward the studio, the house that Duncan built for me a few years ago, where I do all my writing and where the writing workshop happens. I carefully chose this spot, tucking the white two-story building into birch trees overlooking the inside of the bay. I didn’t want to face the outside waters, the Shelikof Strait. I see and remember too much on those dark waters.
What were we doing in those early days? We pitched our whole lives to following and catching creatures themselves headed for death. Part of me died too along the way. I had a miscarriage in the skiff one terrible day—and after going ashore to clean up and change, I went back out, back out into the boat to work into the dark. Because the men asked me to; they needed me and I could not say no, though a life had just been lost. It felt like my own life that night. Then the nights of driving a nearly swamped skiff around the island in the pitch dark near a reef I couldn’t see; the week I took Duncan’s place in the skiff, my breasts leaking milk while I battled the fall storms; the days of fishing until I could no longer stand but I wasn’t allowed to sit, and we were crazy, all of us, arms going numb at night, hands unable to hold a cup, jumping from a pitching skiff onto a rock, the fierce shouting, my own voice lost, my pen stilled, my eyes long past tears.
Who could write or speak about this? Who would believe it? Until finally I did it, what I’m doing now—I walked away. Without a boat or a plane, there was no escape from this island, except at the lowest tide, when a spit of land emerged, connecting to a larger island. It was all wilderness, but there was a driftwood shack four miles down that beach, too decrepit for habitation. But not for a runaway. With a gun over my shoulder for bears, a backpack with food, a sleeping bag, and matches for a fire, I left the island, never wanting to return.