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Peer Work

Home  >  Peer Work
Leaving Land Behind
By Toby Sullivan
Genre: Non-fiction Level: College
Year: 2001 Category: UAA/ADN Creative Writing Contest

I could tell you what being at sea looked like, the view across the water on a sunny day, of an empty world beyond the sight of land, or a distant horizontal white line of frozen coastline, when land was close enough to see. The skidding clouds, the waves echoing each other, the mast ticking back and forth as the boat rolled, like a metronome clocked down to some kind of essential proto-rhythm, all of that was part of what we saw and understood. When we were beating it out in a storm a hundred miles from the lee of any kind of shelter in the middle of the Bering Sea the motion became amplified and distorted, a massive download of experience that was so overwhelming it drove everything else from our minds. The horizon then became an abstract idea hidden by heaving mountains of water for all but the few moments when you crested a wave and could see across the backs of thousands of its brothers, and it read like the jagged line of a seismograph, or the teeth of a saw. But even when it was calm, when we were sliding across the Gulf of Alaska on the flat calm ocean of a long and brilliant summer day, there was always that ceaseless motion, that underlying rhythmic core of the experience. And even on utterly windless days, when the surface of the ocean was like a polished table top, with the volcanoes of the Aleutians reflected on it like some frozen, spiky version of the grassy bank of a millpond, nothing was for certain. Even when it seemed the boat was perfectly stable and your life on it was a sure thing, you knew in the back off your mind that there was a softness to the edges of that stability, that what you were seeing was a temporary illusion, and that if the boat turned, or someone swung the crane across the deck, the boat would drop a shoulder and heel over a few degrees, and remind you that the world was liquid, that everything could change in a moment.

****

We were always taking pictures of each other holding up King Crabs and wolf eels, or pink mountains far away on a some painfully beautiful morning. But the prints always came back with something essential missing, as if the thing we had meant to catch had ducked away just before the shutter snapped. We took videos too, and they at least showed the waves rising, the water surging across the deck, demonstrated that the world we lived in was moving, that it was always moving, a dimension the photographs could never show. But even video couldn't quite fit it all in. "If I just had the right lens" a friend of mine once said, but we both knew no lens would ever be quite wide enough to show the thing we knew but could not explain.

A series of pictures ran in a magazine once, shots of some crab boat in the middle of the Bering Sea in February, with the rails and the rigging sheathed with six inches of ice. The men on deck were dwarfed by black waves looming just off the bow, their orange raingear in high contrast against the water, and all of it was achingly familiar, and true as far as it went. But the part that was missing, the thing the camera couldn't catch, was how our fingers got so cold from being on deck all day in ten degree weather that they burned for hours while we lay in our bunks trying to sleep afterwards. Or the burned out adrenalized feeling we got from standing in the wheelhouse all night in a storm, the back of our eyes reverberating from hours of staring at thirty foot waves coming up out of the darkness, the curling lips shimmering white in the irradiated purple light of the sodium vapor decklights.

I have a picture of us hanging onto the chart table with both hands to keep from being thrown across the wheelhouse on some wild night trying to get into the shelter behind the north side of Unimak Island. We are grinning madly at the camera, our eyes red in the flash, the green glow of the radar screen and the orange dial lights from the radios and lorans behind us. It looks exactly right as far as it goes, but just looking at the picture you cannot hear the wind screaming through the rigging above us so loud we had to shout to hear each other above it. You cannot feel the shudder of the hull slamming into the waves, or smell the stench of diesel smoke back-drafting up out of the engine room as the wind jams it back down into the stack. And definitely the picture does not show the scratching thought that really, this might not be very cool at all, that right now the last wave of our lives was forming up out there in the wind -- the seventh son of the seventh son. Our own personal last wave, the wave that would come through the windows and sweep us all away in a million tons of water as black and hard as basalt, leave us smashed, bleeding and sinking in a swirling white trail of foam.

And missing too is the other end of the experience spectrum, the basic animal joy at simply being alive and present in the world as the sun came up out of the sea after a long night. The smell and heat of cups of the first fresh coffee since midnight in our hands, a full load under the hatches, a good forecast for traveling, all of that was part of our lives too. So little of any of that came across in any of the pictures we took, the emptiness and exhaustion of countless freezing hours on deck before dawn, or the redemptive scent of bacon and eggs and coffee at sunrise. The good the bad, the horrific and the sublime, none of that ever got recorded in a way we could bring home and show to people on a screen after dinner. And even the stories we told, that other, older way to explain our lives at sea to people on land, to our girlfriends on the phone from the dock in Dutch Harbor, as wild and exaggerated and true as they were, were like trying to describe the taste of a lemon, or what sex felt like, to people from another planet.

****

Things happened that seemed too bizarre and too horrible to be true. People would just smile and nod their heads politely when I told them about the helicopter rescue where the pilot had to fly into the wind at eighty knots to keep station above the four men floating in the water below him, after their boat had sunk 150 miles off Yakutat. How he had to fly up and down in thirty foot dips at the same time to get the basket down to them, because they were rising and falling on thirty foot waves. All of this at three in the morning, in snow so heavy the crewchief could only see the floodlit deck below him intermittently through the snow squalls.

They got two guys up with the basket in two hoists, but when the third guy came up they couldn't get the basket to swing into the helicopter. It kept hanging up on something on the lip of the door, and the chief and the medic kept pulling hard, and then real hard, before it swung in. But as they did, they watched in horror as the last man dropped off the bottom of the basket and fell a hundred feet into the water. They lowered the basket to him but he was unconscious or too broken to climb in. They were redlining on fuel, and it was 80 miles to the beach and the pilot had to call it. They left with the waves breaking over the red hood of the survival suit down there in the water, the arms outstretched, the white face staring up. The air station in Sitka sent another helo out at daylight, but everyone knew what they'd find, which was nothing but wind and snow and water. They flew a grid pattern all morning and then headed back, light on fuel, nobody talking, as they stared out at the water below them.

****

Seven hundred miles west of Dutch Harbor, 1,400 miles from Anchorage, almost at the end of the long arc of the Aleutian chain which divided the Pacific Ocean from the Bering Sea, was the island of Kiska, and the harbor it enclosed. Kiska was closer to Asia than to the North American continent, but during the two winters I fished in the western Aleutians, we often anchored up there during storms. The Japanese had captured Kiska in June of 1942, in the northern prong of the same offensive that tried to take Midway, and they immediately begun building a massive base around its deep natural harbor. A few weeks later they took Attu, the last island in the Chain two hundred miles further west of Kiska, and they held both islands until the next summer. Kiska and Attu were as remote as the moon, but by forming an island chain linking Asia with America they were intensely strategic. They were also the only American soil occupied by foreign troops since the British captured Washington in the War of 1812, and during the fall and winter of 1942 and 1943, the Americans flew hundreds of B-24 bombing missions against them from bases near Dutch Harbor. Flying 1,500 miles round trip, through some of the worst weather in the world, the Americans lost far more planes and crews to storms and fog than to Japanese anti-aircraft fire, but they flew almost every day, and dropped 7 million tons of bombs. They sank dozens of Japanese troop ships in Kiska Harbor. In May 1943, the Americans and Canadians invaded Attu. The Japanese had been cut off from re-supply for months by a naval blockade, and in the end, hopelessly outnumbered and thousands of miles from home, they charged the Allied lines with banzai attacks and died for the Emperor. Of the nearly 2,400 Japanese troops defending the island, only twenty nine survived.

The Americans waited until August to invade Kiska, expecting a similar battle, but instead when they came ashore they found the island deserted. Five thousand Japanese troops had boarded transports and managed to disappear into a dense fog, a frequent occurrence in the Aleutian summer. It was one of the great withdrawals in military history. While the American destroyers chased phantom flocks of birds on their radar screens, the fleet of Japanese ships slipped through the blockade and sailed home to Japan.

***

There was a video we used to watch, taken in the wheelhouse of some boat out west during a storm, a tape that got passed around the crab fleet in the Bering Sea for awhile. The first time I saw it I was sitting at the galley table while we waited out a blow, anchored up in Kiska Harbor. The masts of Japanese transport ships still stuck up out of the water along the west shore, where their wharves had been, sunk by the B-24's. Hundreds of Imperial troops were still down there, surprised in their sleep, or caught in daylight, all now drowned and forgotten, and we were always talking about going down to the wrecks, getting souvenirs, or just looking. But Kiska was a haunted place, awful and lonely even in daylight, and at night it was only worse, our twenty-watt mastlight the only light in a bay full of dead soldiers, immense and treeless mountains rising up into the mist around the bay that made it an appropriate place to watch a video like that, a video from the wheelhouse of a boat whose name we never knew. It was short, under five minutes, but on a certain level it described perfectly everything we knew about the Bering Sea but never found a good way to explain. It was a view of a wet nightmare through windows covered with wind whipped spray, the anodized grey steel of the anchor winch in front of the wheelhouse, the black bow rails, the white lipped edges of the waves, all blurred and indistinct, as streams of water across the windows smeared the view entirely for seconds at a time. The only sound was a high keening wail, the sound of the wind sucking at the corners of the wheelhouse, pulling on the antennas, with the odd comment from one of the men in the wheelhouse, or a squawk from the radios. Then there was one last shout from someone, and a quick visual snap as the bow dipped and the last great wave came over the rail and through the window. The tape ends there, with a screen full of silent and patternless video noise, and the part that came after, a wheelhouse full of water, electronics blown, steering and engine controls shorted out, none of any of that long list of bad possibilities is recorded or revealed. And though the tape is evidence that they made it, you can only guess at how far from land they were, or what they had to do to get back from that, bolting plywood over the windows, hand steering, relying solely on a compass for navigation, dealing with injuries, who knew. It was like a last dispatch from The Lost Patrol, out on the far edge of the galaxy, and we used to love showing that to the green guys. "Hey Jerry," we'd say, "How's your reflexes? Think you could duck in time?" But when the green guys asked, and they always asked, like we had wondered ourselves at first, what happened to the boat, did everybody live, which boat was it, what year did that happen? we'd laugh and tell them to forget it, they were missing the point. Because they were looking for hard details, the "facts," a way to understand something that was essentially primal, beyond names, dates and insurance reports. Maybe those existed somewhere, on land, in a civilization we had left behind, but they were details that had nothing to do with the true reality of the video for us-just the wave itself, caught in the brief and ineffable moment of its power, the blank screen afterwards, and the fact, the only fact that mattered, that there were no witnesses except the men themselves, and that only by surviving was this video even in existence as a record of the event. The men themselves could have been any crew, on any boat, in any year since men first sailed in ships. That they had lived to bring their cryptic story back, that they had brushed up against the edge of the thing we all knew surrounded us, and that it might just as easily gone the other way, with just another missing vessel alert from the Coast Guard, was what was true and significant to us.

****

In the early winter of 1998 a boat named the Dominion was fishing on the west side of Kodiak Island during the winter pollock season. They had just hauled a bag with 60,000 pounds of fish up onto the deck, and were pumping enough refrigerated sea water out of the tank to make room for the pollock. They started spilling the fish out of the bag into the tank, but they pumped too much water out too quickly and the water in the tank went slack, suddenly had what we called "free surface," and sloshed to one side of the tank, heeling the boat over. The bag of fish on deck spilled across the downhill side of the deck and the boat kept going, rolled completely over, and they were upside down in less than fifteen seconds. The deckhands walked up the deck, stepped over the rail onto the side of the boat and then up onto the keel like walking on a rolling barrel. They didn't even get wet.

A friend of mine was the hired skipper on there that winter, standing in the wheelhouse, looking out a window at the back deck when it happened. There was no outside door in the wheelhouse and when the boat rolled it went so quickly he didn't have time to climb down the ladder to the galley and run out on deck. He found himself paddling in thirty-eight degree water in a corner behind his captain's chair with the boat upside down above him, the wheelhouse floor overhead, in an airspace just big enough to get his head out of the water. There was plenty of light coming in through the windows below him so he could see what he was doing, but when he tried to swim down and open them they were wedged shut. He came back to the corner, got some air and tried swimming up the stairs and into the galley but ran out of air again partway through and came back up into the wheelhouse. The air was going bad fast in the little pocket he was breathing from and he knew he had maybe one more try in him. He made it through the galley, pulled the floating refrigerator out of the way, and swam out the door and up to the surface. The other guys pulled him out and gave him some of their dry clothes to put on. It was January and cold, maybe twenty degrees, but it was flat calm, it was daytime, and there were two other boats fishing less than a mile away. They came over, and one of the boats came right up alongside the overturned hull, and they all just stepped across and were handed mugs of hot coffee.

My friend told me that story in his kitchen in Kodiak one afternoon about three months later. We sat on stools with our elbows on the tiled counter, drinking Coronas, looking out the window at the rain falling in the trees. From where we sat we could see out across Monashka Bay, see a squall moving into the bay from Marmot Island. His wife and kids sat out in the living room watching TV, the sounds of a game show coming in over the sound of the surf on the beach below the house. Though you'd never know it by the rain and by the ice still in the driveway, spring was coming, but they were moving back to New York; they'd be gone when summer came. "She freaked pretty bad over the whole deal," he said. "I'm not sure what I'm going to do in New York, but her mother's there, and her sisters. She wishes she never even knew about that part of it, about being trapped under the boat, and having to swim out like that." All I could do was take a hit on my beer and look out the window and nod my head. I could think of another way, the only other way it could have gone for her to never have had to listen to a story about her husband swimming out of a submerged wheelhouse with his last breath. But of course that possibility was the one she couldn't stop thinking about, the reason for the cardboard shipping boxes piled in the middle of the floor.

Somebody on one of the boats that came to the rescue of the Dominion had taken a picture of the crew just before they were taken off the overturned hull. They are standing on the keel like birds lined up on a floating log, and they ran it on the cover of National Fisherman. The picture has a very casual look to it, as if the men standing there are workers, painters maybe, taking a break. Inside there is a little blurb explaining it but from the picture alone there is very little to suggest what the odds might be of the weather being that nice, or of the other boats being that close by to take the picture in the first place, or indeed of what may have just happened at all.

****

In the early winter of 1980 I was working on the Irene H., fishing King Crab. We had been fishing hard since the January start of tanner crab season, working in the shipyard all summer, and started King Crab in September. We came into town only long enough to unload the crab and get food, fuel, and bait. In mid-November we did a trip that started in good weather and ended in a fifty knot gale, green water sweeping the deck while we tried to work, the skipper trying to drive up on the buoys in a twenty-five foot sea. We were close enough to full to call it a load, so he called the cannery on the sideband and made an appointment to unload the next morning. We left the grounds at noon and ran back up the east side, the ocean off to starboard grey and landless all the way to Seattle. To port the frozen mountains of the island were blurry in the snow squalls, and then it got dark and all there was to see were the broken white walls of the waves coming at us in the halo of the sodium lights. It blew northeast in our face all the way to town and it was miserable. All we could do was buck into it, the seas lifting and dropping the bow for the 18 gut-wrenching hours it took to make the turn at Cape Chiniak. Except for our two-hour wheel watches, we slept, with our knees locked against the bin boards in our bunks to keep from rolling out, too tired to dream.

When we came into the channel between Woody Island and Long Island the skipper got us up to get the tie up lines ready and the hatches unbolted for the unloaders. We crawled out of our bunks and stood in the galley drinking those little juice containers, "suck boxes" we called them, or drinking coffee, our eyes burning with fatigue, our hands stiff end numb from tendinitis, not talking. It always felt so good to fall asleep, lying with your warm sleeping bag pulled up under your nose, savoring the effortless fall into soft unconsciousness, but it was agony to wake up. It was as if we aged fifty years while we slept and were old men with fucked up knees and worn out shoulders when we woke. Twenty-four years old and even blinking hurt, our eyelids scratchy, the galley light way too intense, and none of us could look at each other's faces for a full ten minutes after we got up, too absorbed in our own half consciousness and physical misery to connect with anything beyond the cups in our hands. When we passed the green can at the entrance to the channel we put on our boots and jackets and gloves and went out on deck.

It was early in the morning and still dark as we came down the channel into town. The docks were deserted and snow blew off the eaves of the buildings on the waterfront and swirled around in the deck lights as we got the lines ready to tie up to the cannery pilings. The deckboards and the hatches were covered in snow in the few minutes we had been in calm water, and dozens of little grey seabirds were huddled up under the pot rack and staggering around on deck, attracted to the lights out of the snowy darkness, leaving little footprints in the snow. Sometimes thousands of them came aboard, disoriented and blinded by the gear lights on the mast and crashed into the cable rigging and the booms and even into the lights themselves. Sometimes we even used them for crab bait, ten to a hook, like feathery shishkebobs, but this time there weren't very many, and they looked OK, and we scooped them up in our gloves and tossed them back into the water as we went by the ferry dock, and they swam away into the darkness.

The unloading took all day. I finished my engine room chores, helped the other guys fix a burnt out sodium bulb up on the mast and then in a small miracle found I had an hour to myself before the boat took off again. It had been weeks since I'd been ashore, three months since I'd had a day off. I went across the street to the B&B Bar and sat on a barstool in the warm room, watching the girl moving behind the bar, listening to Willy Nelson on the jukebox, nursing a beer, feeling a hundred years old.

In the mirror over the bar I suddenly caught a flash of a guy with his sweatshirt hood pulled up over his halibut cap walk past the street window and up to the door, as if he were coming in. There was a pause, but the door didn't open, and then the guy crossed in front of the window again, headed back down the street the way he'd come, and I saw a red beard peeping out around the side of the hood. For a second, still looking in the mirror, seeing a left profile under the cap, I thought it was Jim Miller, the skipper on the George W., something about the red beard and the white cap, but I knew that couldn't be right.

The George W., a fifty-eight foot trawler, had disappeared the winter before. They were dragging for cod in the Shelikof and something happened and the boat went down. A liferaft with the two deckhands was found drifting 20 miles off the south end of Kodiak Island, many miles south of where they had been working, but there was a hard northwest wind that week we knew had blown the raft far from where it had been launched. It was very cold and something had gone wrong with the canopy and it had failed to inflate, and even with their survival suits on the two crewmen had frozen to death Iying on top of it, exposed to the wind. The body of the skipper was never found, nor was the boat, though if you follow the bottom curve along that edge just right you can still see it down there, an irregular red smudge on the orange bottom of the depth sounder screen, a sudden hard spot on the soft sand of glacially deposited moraine fifty fathoms down, where Uyak Bay opens up into Shelikof Strait.

It's possible that they hung up part of their net on the bottom and it flipped them over, or had a slack tank with a load of fish on deck, or any one of the infinite universe of possible things that can go wrong at sea, but there is no way to know for sure anything other than it happened before they could put out a call on the radio. They were gone and it was a mystery without witnesses.

I sat there in the B&B, warm and drowsy with the beer I'd drunk, wondering what I'd seen in the mirror, a stranger with a red beard and a white hat who'd hesitated at the door of the bar, and then decided to go back down the street to the boat harbor, or something else. A lot of people I knew believed in ghosts, and had theories of how the dead walked among us, how they never really went away. I heard a guy in King Cove explain it all to me one night, how the dead and the missing had just undergone a kind of phase change that made them here/not here at the same time. Ghosts to him were visible manifestations of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle carried to some weird, but logical and explainable, extreme. But I knew without being told that one way or another the dead were as much a part of us now as they had ever been when they were alive. And in a way I knew, more deeply the older I got, that the glimpses of long dead men I saw turning corners around buildings in broad daylight, or standing bright and forever young before me when the room was dark or my eyes were shut, were really them, not just my memory of them. And I knew too they were with me for keeps, that they weren't going anywhere, they were permanent visitors inside my head from all those last trips they'd never come back from.

So much of what was out there on the sea, in all of its fine texture, was essentially describable in its sensual details, but what it meant remained untranslatable, and the stories and the pictures of our lives there were coming across like myths, or fairy tales, true, but in ways the facts did not begin to describe. I used to have these tapes I'd play in the wheelhouse sometimes, late at night on wheelwatch, of Joseph Campbell telling Bill Moyers about myth, and experience, about universal consciousness. One story he told was about the lotus in Buddha's navel, the lotus we all think is the world, sitting on the great expanse of Buddha's belly. We all think that the Buddha himself is the Godhead, and that we can sometimes glimpse him from our earthly vantage point, and that if we look and pray hard enough we might see all of him. But the Buddha himself floats on his back on a great sea, depthless, stretching to infinity in all directions. And it is this sea, of which we can see nothing, which is beyond our imagination, which the Buddha himself can only feel wetly against his back, that is the true reality. And all of the things that happened to us out there in the Bering Sea, in the Gulf of Alaska, beyond the sight of land, all of our true stories, were really only allegory for the great indescribable, the thing which is but cannot be seen. In a way we all knew that, knew that luck and ghosts and stories without endings were the real story, and we could tell people what we knew and hope they understood, but in the end it didn't matter, we were merely witnesses to something we didn't understand ourselves.

I came out of the bar and stood in the parking lot in front of the cannery looking at the sky, trying to tell if it was going to blow hard enough to keep us in town, wishing hard that it would. All the accumulated debris of longing for warmth and the company of people other than the other guys on the boat came floating up out of the little box deep down inside where we all kept those pieces of emotion that had no place in the working environment at sea. My knees and wrists still hurt, I could have used a long nap up in my apartment in Aleutian Homes, and the thought of going out there again so soon was almost more than I was willing to take. For a minute I debated just walking away, telling the skipper he could fire me if he wanted, but I needed a trip off, I was toast. Instead I just stood there breathing, knowing I was in it till the season was over. I needed the money, and besides, anybody who might have wanted the job was either already on a boat, injured, or not worth taking out.

The boom box that had been playing Bob Marley inside the plant all day was evidently off, and all I could hear were the freezer units on the backs of the vans roaring, and a forklift going across the parking lot, rattling over the crushed rock and puddles, carrying a pile of box material. Steam from the top of the plant, and from all the other canneries along Cannery Row blew past, and the air was full of the smell of boiled crab and diesel smoke, and dumpsters full of garbage. I went up the stairs into the office and called my girlfriend in Oregon, but she wasn't home, and while the winches squealed on the deck overhead I listened to the phone ringing there in her kitchen for a long time. I thought of calling my folks in Connecticut, but it was late there, and everything I wanted to say was somehow too heavy to lay on them, and I hardly knew how to explain it myself, how exquisitely beautiful this life sometimes felt like, and yet how tired I was, and how it felt like the list of all the boats that had sunk since the winter before, starting with the George W., was forming a bizarre statistical series that led logically and ineluctably, and personally, to the Irene H.

Across the street behind the B&B the mountain rose up, last night's snow melted now in places, or blown off, the brown dead grass from last summer showing through like the old dead skin of an animal with rubbed off fur. The lights in the town up the street started coming on then and in the low late afternoon light it looked like the tired tail end of winter, not the beginning. I heard the main fire up on the boat and saw a puff of black smoke blow past the window of the office and mix with the white steam coming out of the vents on top of the cannery. The girl up on the roof who had been taking weights yelled down that they wanted me, and I waved back to let her know I'd heard.

For a long minute I stood there, looking back across the boat harbor at the lights of town, thinking about the wind, the ocean, the work, the hyper reality of the lives we led beyond the sight of land. I thought about how far all of that was from the lives of the people on land I loved and who loved me back, and then I turned and climbed up the stairs to the deck of the processor and walked across to the ladder that led down to the deck of the Irene. Twenty minutes later we were headed down the channel past the canneries, tying up the lines behind the house and securing the deck for the run to Chirikof.

Looking back at the houses of town as the evening descended over them, I wondered if maybe someone was watching us from up on the hill above the harbor, pausing while they made dinner. Was someone looking down out their kitchen window, watching our mastlight disappear into the gathering darkness of the open sea, wondering if we would be all right? Would they remember that moment in a few weeks as a last sighting before we disappeared with all hands, lost in what the Coast Guard would call "Circumstances unknown?"

****

Years later I read a story by a reporter in Viet Nam. A soldier he met there told him about a squad of rangers that had walked single file up a ridge one night and disappeared. The reporter asked him what happened, were they killed, didn't anyone go searching for them? But the soldier just looked at him strangely and smiled and walked away, shaking his head. It took the reporter years to realize he'd been told everything he needed to know about the incident, that the soldier knew if he didn't get it, well, he didn't really understand the war.

I read that story lying in my bunk one night in Kiska Harbor, with the rusted masts of the Emperor's ships rising from the dark water along the far shore, lost markers for those men who never returned to Japan to tell their wives and mothers and fathers and children what happened to them. I recognized it immediately in a spooky moment of clarity as the ultimate ghost story, for the truth it revealed about witnessing, and remembering, about bringing back, and giving, experience. And I thought about all the sea stories that never made it back from the places where they happened, to the places where people wait to hear them, thousands of stories for thousands of years. And I thought of all the ways those stories can be lost, the last frantic radio call ending in midsentence, the missed cannery schedule, the empty horizon where a boat should be. And I thought of all the stories that are just simply lost in the telling, survivors' stories forgotten as soon as they are told, or forgotten and lost before they are ever told at all. Unless we decide, deliberately, to remember our stories and to tell them, it will be as if they had never happened, or as if we had never returned to tell them.

I could tell you what the sea looked like on certain days, tell you about the things we did there, about the people we knew and carried with us and the ones we left behind when we had to leave. I could tell you all that and hope that some of it might become a part of you, a story that you might remember, a piece of my life now become a part of yours. Because it is all one story anyway, mine, yours, all of us connected by the stories we tell each other, and they are all true sea stories. The nightmare hundred foot waves, the quiet moments in warm houses on the hill above the harbor, the last sight of the women who waited for us there -- the universe breathes within all of us through all of them. And at some point, mariners all, we untie and slip out of the harbor one at a time, light falling at dusk, a single file of mastlights heading out into the oceanic darkness, looking back at the warm yellow lights of the houses along the receding shore, the first drops of cold sea spray beginning to rattle against the wheelhouse windows. Long before we get there we all know the salt blood water of the Gulf of Alaska, of the Bering Sea, of the Shelikof, even Kiska Harbor. We taste it on our lips, feel it seeping through the spaces in our hearts, like water filling the cracks of the bedrock beneath the sea, remembering it, carrying it with us, down, down, down, one last true story, into the center of the world.


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