Mr. Albom, our teacher, said good stories rarely start with someone dying, but since this is a true story about a death, I guess that's where the story has to start. Maybe Mr. Albom wouldn't think this is a good story. Here's what happened: it was raining, there was no wind. No one had seen Grandpa for days. For a couple days we didn't think anything about him not showing up in town, but by the fourth morning we were a little worried. Still no response when we tried hailing him on the VHF radio. Sometimes the weather could be blamed for radio interference. Sometimes he left it off to save juice in his bank of batteries that fed the cabin. Maybe he just hadn't been in the mood to come to town, or maybe a cold was keeping him in. But Friday afternoon, when Mom left the post office, where she was the sole worker and Postmistress, we got in our aluminum skiff and rode out to Grandpa's cabin, clad in old rain gear and rubber boots.
Mom and I lived in town along with most of the other folks in our soggy, moss-covered corner of Southeast Alaska. Grandpa and his black lab, Haines, lived about a 30-minute skiff ride from town in a little cove they had all to themselves. Ever since Grandma died, he'd been coming into town more and more often. Lonely, I guess. Three or four mornings a week, Grandpa and Haines would walk down to his little dock. They'd climb into his skiff and fire up the old 25 horse kicker, untie the dock lines, and roar through the narrows. Out in the channel they'd turn north and wind through rocks and islets until town appeared, huddled at the base of a mountain along the waterline.
Grandpa usually came in early in the morning and sat with some of the locals at one of the three tables in the general store, which also housed the post office and a restaurant, of sorts. It was the community hub, where most people bumped into one another eventually. There wasn't even a hundred of us living there, and we were a tightknit group. The ferry showed up twice a week in summer, and just once every 10 days in winter, so we were rather isolated. Which was fine with most of us. James and Corrine, the other two kids in my grade, had moved there from a big city, and they loved looking for anemones and crabs and sea urchins at low tide and going out with their mom to drop the crab or shrimp pot in the bay. They loved counting bald eagles, especially when they set a new record. They loved finding berry-filled piles of bear scat by Silver Stream, named for the salmon that clog it for a few weeks each summer, madly trying to reach the little lake up in the woods where they spawn.
Grandpa often took his time heading home in the afternoons, trawling for salmon or rockfish, maybe lingcod. When it was just him and me, he'd usually puff a pipe, but he never did it around Mom. Back home, he'd check his crab pots on the way to the dock unless he'd caught enough fish. He loved the water and the territory, and he loved making his slow way through it, watching the wildlife and the seasons, watching the light change, watching the weather and clouds.
The entrance to his cove is a narrows that runs pretty fast when the tide boils up currents, and the water there looks and behaves more like a river than ocean. Seals congregate in those tide rips to feast on the fish that get stirred up, it's like a buffet for them. Sometimes orcas turn up too, hunting seals. Grandpa's cabin was built on stilts on the rocks right on the edge of the bay, up high and overhanging the water, so that at high tide the water comes close to his porch, and at low tide the rocks are far enough down that if you tried to jump to them from the deck you'd probably bust an ankle. Sometimes we jigged for rockfish right from the deck. At night we'd sit out there and Gramp's would point out constellations and tell me stories. I know he made some of them up, or maybe borrowed them from the natives. His favorite constellation was The Fisher, a big brown bear with a salmon in its mouth.
When Mom and I reached the cabin there was no sign of him. Haines and the boat were gone. The stove was cold. The sink was dry. Maybe he was out beachcombing somewhere or fishing, maybe even hunting blacktail deer. Maybe he was walking game trails on one of the islands just for fun. We waited until sunset, distracting ourselves with several games of checkers. When he was still gone at dusk, we knew something was wrong. We left a note telling him to contact us immediately if he got home and then raced back to town, trying to beat the darkness, and spread the word.
Almost everyone turned out to help search. The fishermen divided the area into sectors and each took one to scour. The local air-taxi pilot, Bruce, volunteered his time and floatplane and people pooled money for fuel, and he spent a few days flying a grid over the area with Charlie Temples, an eagle-eyed native guy, looking. Word went out to the Coast Guard, the ferry captains, the neighboring villages up and down the coast, and the logging camps, plus Juneau printed an article in The Empire.
Haines turned up four days into the search, alone on a beach 20 miles away from Grandpa's cabin. Deer hunters found him, said he was cold and sad. When that dog saw Mom and me he was so excited, yelping and barking and whining, wagging his tale and then sticking it between his legs and then wagging it some more and looking around, like he expected Grandpa to show up. But he didn't show, and the search fizzled out after the seventh day.
Everyone called him Grandpa, not just me, his only grandson. Everyone loved him. We held a memorial service at the school, and everyone in town went, even a few dogs made themselves comfortable. Butch, one of Grandpa's coffee buddies, spoke a few kind words, interrupted himself by choking up, and then sat down. Mom was having a tough go of it, and people kept bringing us halibut and casserole, bread and soup, salmonberry pie, all kinds of stuff.
Two days after the search ended Jim Sheridan found the body. Jim's a purse seiner and an old pal of Grandpa's. He helped build Grandpa's cabin, and he always saved some of his bycatch for Haines. Between Grandpa spoiling him and Jim giving him fish, that dog ate well. I guess Grandpa, and then me and Mom, were the closest thing to family Jim had; he'd immigrated to Alaska from Germany when he was 18, working canneries and then fish boats for years before finally buying his own seiner and putting together a good life as a fisherman. He spent most of his spare money and time traveling around the state climbing mountains. He had had one wife, one divorce.
Jim made sure Mom and I never went too long without eating salmon and halibut too. I think he was in love with my mom, but she didn't seem interested, as far as I could tell. One man was enough, and after her and Dad split she just didn't seem interested. But she had Jim over for dinner pretty often, sometimes they'd cook it together, and whenever something around the house needed fixing, it was assumed that he'd help out. Jim took me out on the boat with him sometimes, and almost every fall we'd find an excuse to go camping or deer hunting. He taught me how to barbecue fish and he went to all the school plays. He'd bring home round glass Japanese fishing floats for us that he found on the outer coast, little blue or green orbs that bob all the way across the Pacific without breaking. He taught me how to prepare a crab for cooking, holding the legs in my hands, popping the top of the shell off on the edge of the boat or a dock. The innards still work even after the upper shell is torn off, the gills glugging away right up until you twist the two halves come apart, shake the guts out and rinse them in the water, leaving just the meaty legs and hips to steam. One time he came back to town, called the school on the radio and had all 10 of us and Mr. Albom climb aboard his boat, the Candlefish, and he took us out to Keg Bay to watch the brown bears feeding on a late run of king salmon right on shore at the mouth of the creek. Best day of school ever.
Jim found Grandpa on a rocky beach over 50 miles from town. It was a relatively exposed area, and the skiff was nowhere in sight. The currents had swept the body down there, much farther south than where Haines had been found, and far beyond the search radius. Nothing looked suspicious. Accidents happened. We lived in a remote area where people have boats and floatplanes instead of cars, ferries instead of buses or trains or roads, a place where currents and tides replaced traffic and life jackets or dry suits replaced seat belts, and help was often a long way off.
The outgoing tide had laid Grandpa down in the mud, and because the tides had been shrinking since then, he had stayed put. It was anyone's guess what had happened, exactly, but plenty could go wrong on the water, especially for people traveling alone. The sea claimed at least a few every year, and somehow, it chose Grandpa. Dying on the ocean is better than dying of a disease, Jim said later, awkwardly trying to comfort us. He said Grandpa was probably as happy as he could be right up to the end.
Jim said it was the bright orange life vest that caught his eye as he was passing the bight down on that island where Grandpa had washed up, and he took a closer look with binoculars and realized what he'd found. He anchored his boat and took a skiff to shore. Jim knew that it would be a few days before the tide would reach as high as Grandpa was stranded, but as a caution against storms that might shove the water up that high, he tied a line to the life vest and tethered Grandpa to a big tree so that he couldn't go anywhere, he covered the body with a brown tarp and weighted the corners down with rocks to keep it concealed and protected from birds and other scavengers. Maybe he talked to him while he worked, maybe he told him it was good to see him and that he'd miss him and that he would be back for him.
Jim didn't get back to town until the next morning. It was early on Saturday, and raining, a cool early June day. Mom was sitting on the floor in the main room surrounded by stacks of photographs that had accumulated over the years in a box, organizing them into piles that she said she would finally put in an album. Haines was lying near her feet, and I was sitting at the kitchen table trying to teach myself how to tie flies. Jim opened the front door without knocking and came inside. The screen door swung shut behind him, but he left the main door ajar, and the salt air flowed into the house, the familiar smell of the ocean, fishy and briny, and so did the sound of the rain drumming the wooden porch and the naked earth beyond. We both looked up at him, and Haines made one sharp bark and started thumping his tail loudly on the rug-covered plywood floor. Jim's face kept me and Mom both quiet, the strange absence of his usual smile, the way he pulled his wool cap off his head and wrung it in his hand. Mom was holding a photograph, I couldn't see what it was, and I sat with a pair of needle-nose pliers in one hand and an ugly attempt at a woolly bugger in the other, a fly-fishing book on the table in front of me.
Jim tugged his rubber boots off with his heels and walked to the couch, stepping carefully around the mess of photographs and touching my mother's head lightly as he passed. His mouth was buried in a thick, dark beard peppered with grey, his eyes set back from prominent brows. He was trying to say something but was stammering a little, he didn't know how to approach whatever it was he had to say. I knew it was about Grandpa, but I didn't expect the news he was carrying. All he said was "I found him." Mom stared at the picture she held, avoiding eye contact.
"Down south, almost the end of Chapter Island, on the beach. Drowned." Somewhere nearby, a raven croaked its hoarse call. "I didn't find the boat. He had on his life vest. ..." He looked at my mother. "Anne," he said. "I left him there, I covered him. I thought you oughta come to him. I thought ... He's at peace, there, and the town's said goodbye already. I don't know, I ..." He quit. Mom was crying. My face was burning, my breath was quivering, but I wouldn't cry. "Why don't the two of you put some things together, and I'll take you to him. No need to spread the word, let's just go on our own for now."
We passed the entrance to Grandpa's cove on the way south. Haines knew exactly where we were and sat erect, looking toward the familiar entrance, ears and eyebrows perked, nose twitching. None of us spoke, we let the drone of the seiner's diesel engine provide an excuse for silence.
Jim steered us down long, narrow channels, tall green mountains rising sheer on both sides of us, a forest denser than the Amazonian jungle, I imagined. Large trees grew right down to the water, and a flat, black line, devoid of vegetation except for dark green seaweeds, marked the high tide zone, the whole forest as precisely skirted as a trimmed hedge. Bears lived up there in that forest, fattening up on berries and roots and salmon and perhaps the occasional deer in the summer. Even wolves lived in the most pristine areas, and I'd heard their howls while I lay in a tent on sea kayaking trips with Mom, or after dinner on Jim's boat as we slowly circled around the anchor, sitting outside drinking mint tea or hot chocolate and telling stories and regarding the stars, bright in the black sky.
It wasn't raining there, but the sky was black and roiling, ready to break open, and the water, under the overcast sky, was almost black too. The dark green of the mountains was punctuated by the occasional white speck of an eagle head, and I spotted a few harbor seals poking their heads out of the water. Cormorants and gulls and ravens flew by and other seabirds I couldn't name. We rounded the tip of a massive island. An immature eagle, not quite wearing the white head and tail feathers of a mature bird, was perched on the red navigation light cemented to the rocks and powered by the solar panels, a guide for boats trying to navigate through the treacherous waters at night.
* * *
Jim rowed us ashore in the inflatable Zodiac, leaving the Candlefish at anchor. Grandpa was concealed under the tarp and hemlock branches. Haines bounded straight to him and sniffed around, nudging him with his nose, whining and finally laying down beside him. I didn't know what to expect. I thought of every dead animal I'd seen before, stray dogs shot and dumped outside of town, and spawned-out salmon rotting in the streams and rivers, even eagles poached for their feathers and left on the beach, maggoty deer gut piles left by hunters.
Jim removed the tarp, and we regarded what had been my grandfather. I guess there's no need to mention that 10 days hadn't really treated him well. I felt queasy and Mom's face went white. This was not the same as finding a dead bird or fish. But it was important to see him, to witness his absence, to finish the story of his disappearance. Here he was, gone. Jim knew that, that's why he'd brought us here, instead of "protecting" us from seeing Grandpa this way. This was our chance to say our goodbyes. Jim understood things better than most people, and he must have known that in the end we'd be better off for this.
As far as the rest of the world was concerned, as far as the folks in town knew, and all the searchers, and even the troopers back in Juneau, as far as Grandpa's coffee buddies knew, as far as Bruce and Charlie Temples were concerned, Grandpa was gone and would never be found. As far as Jim and Mom and I were concerned, that beach and the ocean, that island and those trees in that forest, those currents and its fish and tides and orcas were more a part of Grandpa than any cemetery or hole in the ground could ever be, and it was this place where he'd reached the end of the road. No reason to remove him from the context, beautiful and natural, of his death.
Jim left us with Grandpa and began gathering dead wood from the forest and old driftwood piled by storms far up the beach. He paddled back out to the Candlefish to fetch what good firewood and kindling he had brought along, split the summer before and left to weather for a year at his cabin. He began building a pyre far down the beach in the intertidal zone, stacking dry wood and kindling into a well-ventilated base and piling up more wood nearby to later add to the fire. Mom and I were both crying now, not even pretending not to, not sobbing, just crying.
Jim stood behind us for a few minutes until Mom looked at him. "What are we doing?" she asked, looking down at the wood, looking at the water stained by a light wind. She knew what he was suggesting, and he said, "We'll do whatever you think is the thing to do. We can take him back to town, we can do the normal thing. Or we can call the Troopers and have them bring him home. Or we can let him go here, ourselves, and that will be the end of it."
I was shocked, I guess, surprised and a little nervous at the whole prospect of burning the body. It didn't seem ghastly, it just seemed so ... final and so far from anything I could have imagined two weeks earlier, walking Grandpa to his skiff after school, throwing a stick for Haines to fetch or coming in to find him sitting in the kitchen with mom, a cup of tea and a jar of honey in front of him on the table, the house full of baking bread smell.
Mom squatted down by the body and carefully unzipped Grandpa's life vest. It wasn't easy to remove, and she used her pocket knife to cut the thing off, destroying the vest, sawing through the fabric and straps with the knife. "Rand, we'll put him on the tarp and pull him down," Jim said, moving around to his head and bending over to lift from below the arms. I gripped the ankles, cold and wet and hard, stinking, and lifted, and we hoisted him onto the brown tarp. Mom's eyes were on the forest, peering past the whole scene into the darkness of the woods, whisps of old man's beard hanging from tree branches, giant ferns protruding from the underbrush. A gang of ravens eyed us from the hemlock and spruce, probably resenting us for moving in on what they'd decided was theirs.
It was midafternoon. The sky was still dark and trying to rain, and the wind was picking up. Waves were prodding the beach, like a kid tugging on an adult's shirt. Mom squatted in the mud, rubbing Haines' head, scratching his ears. I could see her saying things to the dog that I could not hear.
No boats had gone by and though one might show up at any time I had a feeling we were safe, that we could count on privacy. I'd done things before that caused me to worry about being caught, but I had no fear of being discovered that day. Chances are that people on a boat would just look over and just assume we were having a bonfire, a party maybe, seeing the flames and smoke from a quarter mile away as they motored by. Just campers, hunters, maybe, or fishermen, they'd think.
When we lifted the body again, Grandpa's old pipe slipped from his pocket and fell onto the algae-covered mud and barnacled rock. We set him gently on the wood and I picked the pipe up, realizing I'd never before touched it, though I had dozens of memories of the thing. Just seeing it brought back the sweet aroma of the tobacco, the pungent smell I'd caught whiffs of even from a hundred yards away, grandpa sitting on the porch at his cabin, me out in the boat pulling up crabs. The memory was so strong I felt like I actually smelled it. I slipped the pipe into the pocket of my jacket.
Mom was walking toward us, Haines on her heels. Jim picked up a bottle of vodka that he'd brought from the boat and unstoppered it, pouring all of it onto Grandpa and the wood. I was standing on Grandpa's left side, Mom across from me. The three of us, the only family any of us had left, had never really been much on words, not the emotional kind. Jim had lit a small campfire a few feet away from the pyre, and a few large sticks were leaned into the flames, their ends burning.
"Dad, I'm glad we found you out here," Mom said slowly, not crying anymore, but unsure. "We love you, you know that."
I didn't say anything, I couldn't, not with Jim and my Mom there. I guess they felt the same, or maybe not much needed to be said. My own goodbyes would come later, when I was on the water, alone. We kept quiet for a few minutes. Finally Mom stepped over to the campfire and picked up three flaming sticks, like torches, and handed one to both me and Jim. We all looked away from Grandpa, then, to each other, trading looks, realizing our un-aloneness, I guess, and then Mom touched the flame to the kindling, and so did I, and then Jim. The dry wood ignited and fire started to spread, the vodka flaring and fueling the blaze. Once most of the wood had caught we stacked more on top, trying to get the blaze hot and large, and a column of black smoke rose into the sky and tilted with the wind, stretching out to filter through the trees on the island.
We fed that fire for hours, standing on the edge of its sphere of orange light, the gathering darkness at our backs, the clouds blocking the night sky, hypnotized by the flames as only fire can manage, trancing us back to when the world was made of weather and fur and flame and great unknowns.
Eventually it was tough to tell that he was in there at all, and we let the fire diminish. One boat did go by. It was hard to tell in the dark, but it looked like a crabber, heading north from who knows where, and it just trudged by in the distant dark, leaving us to ourselves on the beach. All night the tide crept slowly up the beach until it finally reached the edge of the fire, the first sizzling hush of steam almost startling me.
We waited until the ocean completely extinguished the fire, covering the ashes, floating some of the half-charred wood, eventually concealing the whole scene. The waves and currents and water would carry away much of what was left of the bones and some would sink into the muddy bottom, some might end up on shore somewhere where mice and weasels and squirrels would gnaw them for calcium, bits of toes or fingers might end up mixed in with wave-tumbled, ocean-smoothed shells. Some would stay underwater, foundations for colonies of barnacles or mussels.
It was the middle of the night by the time the ocean had drowned the fire and we packed up to leave. We took the brown tarp and the vodka bottle, the cut up life jacket and the line Jim had used to tie the body to the tree. We carried the inflatable down to the water and paddled out to the Candlefish, which had been meandering around its anchor chain, and in the dark we started back toward home.