The wind had blown hard and empty out of the Arctic for too long. But when the marine radio crackled to life with a forecast of better weather, I switched it off. No point in getting hopeful. The winter had been the strangest one I could remember, alternating between violent windstorms and hard frosts that crusted Huna Island in a brittle sheath of ice, and any promise of change seemed only a distraction from the daily effort of just getting through it.
I picked up my watercolor brush again, loaded with Cadmium yellow, and dabbed it into the sun of a desert illustration for the new book. But the color was a lie, the brightness of it spreading cheerfully across the carefully rendered scene: the cartoon dog Pierre, the palm trees, the distant pyramids. Cadmiums were like that—always expanding too much, too fast, obscuring everything underneath with thick slabs of color that might have been false laughter. I tossed the brush onto the palette.
The noise woke the real Pierre, asleep on a pillow nearby. He raised his head and gave a soft woof, then rested his chin back on his paws and sighed. A piece of spruce hissed and popped in the woodstove, but I could still see my breath despite the fire. I glanced out the sliding glass door at the front but could see nothing through the layers of condensation and frost that netted its panes, so I cleared away a small circle in the glass, using the side of my sleeve. Two of the three boats moored out on the cove puffed a steady stream of smoke from their stovepipes, but Pops’ houseboat—the junk-pile of castaway lumber, tarps, and curiously welded scrap that somehow managed to avoid sinking year after year—lay silent in the icy water, its stovepipe still crusted white with frost. I checked the thermometer: -6 degrees Celsius, and it was after ten in the morning. Pops should’ve been up hours ago.
I shrugged into a parka, mittens, and rubber boots before wrestling the door open on its sticky track. I needed to replace it, of course, like nearly every other part of the house, but good used doors were hard to come by on the island, and I’d be damned if I was going to give in and buy a new one on the mainland. The money from the first book had been good enough, but I had no faith that there’d be more, especially if I didn’t get my shit together. I struggled to slide it closed again, worried that Pierre would follow me, but the old boy had too much sense for that, and his eyes, tracking my movements, said as much. I crunched down to the shore where my canoe lay overturned above the tideline.
A gash of dark pebbles drew itself where I dragged the boat through the frosty gravel toward the water.
I needed to calm down, but my imagination teemed with scenes of what I might find: Pops could be sick with a fever, dead of hypothermia, or had maybe fallen on an icy deck.
Breathe in. Breathe out.
Once the breathing sped up, the white splinters would soon follow, cracking across my vision like ice on puddled mud. Panic always did this to me, ever since I was a kid. But the episodes had grown worse lately, and I wondered if I’d need to get help if I couldn’t pull it together on my own. In my haste, I had forgotten the rip near the top of my boot and stepped too deeply while pushing off from the shore. Icy teeth of sea water poured in, biting my ankle bone.
Slow down, Chel. You won’t do him any good if you kill yourself first.
The cold pierced my bones before I’d gone ten meters offshore, and I glanced back at the house with regret, toward the only sign of human occupation on the cove, save for the three boats. The cabin’s downstairs studio windows glowed with a comfort completely missing in the icy task before me. The bank of freezing fog that had been hovering at the mouth of the cove all morning now rolled across the water and threatened to cut me off from the boats if I didn’t hurry. Seabiscuit’s schooner—a well-built and tidy craft—shone a light in one of the windows, and Longbone’s place—a boxy contraption built of a converted shipping container welded to oversized pontoons—also showed signs of life, but already the boats had grayed and were dissolving into the mist like ghost ships. Pops’ houseboat, moored closer to the southern arm of the cove, glistened in a casing of ice, each line and rope crystallized into strands like lampwork glass. The craft listed to one side, off-balance because of a large heap of firewood piled on the deck, and the rails bristled with frosted gaff hooks, nets, crab traps, and various bits of recovered flotsam the old man held dear.
All was silence but the sound of my own breathing and the dripping of water when I lifted the paddle. There were times, when paddling through the fog like this, that I had the sensation of drifting, dissolute, evaporating into the fog just as easily as the shore behind me and the boats ahead. But then my foot—the one in the water-filled boot—throbbed with cold, and I whispered a curse. Pain: a harsh proof of my continued solidity. I pulled alongside Pops’ boat and tied up, reluctant to make any noise. The name, painted as a joke years ago, flowed along the bow in graceful, molding cursive: Shepherd’s Derelict. I crept aboard and made my way with care across the slippery deck, then stood outside for just a moment more and mouthed a silent prayer to whatever wayward gods ruled Pops’ pantheon.
The ice around the door cracked away with a shove, and I leaned harder into the boards with my shoulder to force them through the poorly formed frame. The air in the cabin, as I had feared, was no warmer than the outside, and breath clouded in front of my face. The place smelled wrong, the usual scents of old books and coffee grounds replaced with something like a distant seal carcass overlaid with a dust of frost. Pops’ pipe sat untended near the big chair by the stove. My boots clumped hollowly on the floorboards, and I paused, reluctant to make that final discovery, wondering if today would be the day.
Apart from the cold stove and the odor, all seemed in order: Pops’ philosophy books were piled everywhere—Kant and Descartes tumbled in furtive embrace—mixed with clippings from the island paper and odd bits of tools or scrap or fishing line.
“Pops?” I called out. “It’s Chel, Pops. You OK?”
Startling the old man was never a good idea.
I pulled my coat tighter around my shoulders and took a few more steps toward the back room.
“Pops?” A little louder this time.
I held my breath, the silence stretching to the snapping point.
Then I heard it—a muffled snort from the back of the cabin. I let out a burst of breath.
He was alive.
An oilcloth curtain hung from a slack hemp rope and served as door between the two rooms. I parted this to peek inside but pulled my head back. The smell in the front room was odd, but the bedroom was worse. Had he lost continence? Had something died in there? Covering my nose, I peered inside again. A puddle of water had frozen to the floor where it seeped from a black garbage bag. Strewn about on the boards were objects that had obviously washed up from somewhere: a barnacle-covered Bowie knife, a chunk of old life preserver. Whether these things or something else created the stench, I couldn’t say. I reassured myself with the white clouds that puffed from the old man’s stubbly chin, the shift of a knobby elbow, then backed out again to regroup. This was not like him at all. He surrounded himself with clutter, sure, but never filth. Not since he’d been sober, anyway. My impulse was to rush in and get him sorted, but I knew his dignity would never allow it. Instead, I made a fire and, as I watched the flame catch on a few wadded-up bits of The Island Times, I wondered what could be wrong. When, at last, the fire crackled in the stove, I tried again to wake him.
“Pops!” I yelled this time. “Pops, it’s Chel! You getting up today?”
Rustling and a thump from the other side of the wall.
He wobbled in the passage between the rooms, as tall and bent as a driftwood branch. His cheeks were gaunt above several days’ stubble, and his hair stood out in white shocks on his head.
“Chel?” He wheezed a bit when he breathed. “What’re you doing here, baby girl? Aren’t you supposed to be on the mainland?” His eyes darted about as if searching for something and, not finding it, relaxed. He stepped from the doorway, taking great care to close any gaps in the oilcloth curtain. He looked like hell. He seemed to favor his right arm, keeping it tucked against his body while using the left.
“No, Pops. I leave tomorrow. Some kind of awards shindig and a meeting with those Hollywood guys that Billie set up.”
“Heh. Hollywood. What a hellhole.” He shuffled to the small propane burner and set a kettle on, drawing water from the tap on a large blue rain barrel. “But then, the whole You-nited States of Goddamn America can kiss my skinny ass.”
This line of commentary was ubiquitous as breath for the old man, and I just nodded, feeding larger wood into the fire, wondering what in the world I was going to do with him if mornings like this grew regular. Pops was dressed in the usual dark blue coveralls, but they were crusted with something the color of old kelp and wafted the foul odor I’d smelled in the back room; he’d obviously not changed for days. When was the last time he had bathed? I hadn’t spoken with him in days, I realized, and I chastised myself for not noticing the passage of time, too mired in my own drama, the missed deadline. Too willing to hide my head in the sand where he was concerned. He padded to his chair and eased himself down gingerly, reaching for his pipe with the left hand.
“What happened to your hair?” He asked.
I tried to straighten my hair—an old nervous habit—but it had been cropped off for the upcoming business trip. On the advice of Lucy Edenshaw, Huna Island’s only hairdresser (and full-time alpaca farmer) bangs I’d hidden behind for most of my twenty-eight years were now gone, along with the thick black ponytail, replaced by a short cut that Lucy claimed would frame my face better. Lucy liked it, but I felt like Mowgli the wolf boy in drag.
I didn’t answer him, countering with a question of my own. “What’d you do to your arm, eh?”
“Ah, you know, messin’ round in boats . . .” He filled his pipe with difficulty, using the fingers of his right hand only to hold the pouch open. “That’s no business for a civilized man.”
“Here, let me see.” I rose from the fire and moved to lift his sleeve, but he jerked away.
“Goddammit, Chel, I’m fine. Don’t fuss at me.”
Pressing him on it would be unproductive. I’d learned that much, at least, from our decades together, but I’d keep a closer eye on him in the future. “All right,” I said. “I won’t fuss if you’ll take better care of yourself.” I gave him a sort of sideways hug, an awkward one because he was sitting, and because the stench of him threatened to make me gag, and because hugs weren’t generally what we did. And there it was—just beyond that funky smell, and definite incontinence, I picked up that slight, medicinal waft of alcohol on his breath. My thoughts buzzed, flew in drunken circles. I busied myself getting out a chipped cup—Old sailors never die. They just get a little dinghy.—and setting it next to the percolator, that being the farthest I could remove myself from the smell in the small cabin.
Davy Jones. Davy Jones. Davy Jones.
How would I manage him if he was drinking again?
“Thanks for the fire.” Pops nodded at the stove. “Now that is a luxury, waking up to a warm house.” His eyes crinkled around the corners. “Careful, Chel, or I might get used to it in my old age, and wouldn’t that be a pisser for you?” But then something seemed to disturb his thoughts, and he frowned. “What’s the occasion?”
“Well, Pops . . . ” I tried but could not manage to keep the worry out of my tone. “It’s nearly eleven. And freezing. You weren’t up, no fire in the stove, and I came out to make sure you’re okay.”
He relaxed again and lit the pipe. “Heh, thought you’d find your old man dead as a stick, eh?” This amused him. “Sorry, baby girl. You’re stuck with me a bit longer.” The pipe smoke curled through the room like the incense of blessing, wiping away the decay. He offered no explanation, though, as to why he would have abandoned a lifetime of five a.m. reveilles, not that I needed an explanation, once I’d smelled the booze.
“Chel, I . . .” He paused and cleared his throat. “Thanks.”
“Well, I’m glad you’re okay.” I turned toward the door. I needed to talk to Biscuit. He’d know what to do. Confronting Pops head on, alone, would be a disaster. “I’ve got to get back to work. How about if you and the boys come over later? Say four? I’ll have bread and split pea on the stove.”
His face cracked into a smile. “I’ll round up the fellas.”
“How about you round up your laundry too, and we can wash it while you’re over? Get you a shower.”
“Ooo-weee! Stove-lighting service and machine-wash laundry. Who’d a thought ol’ Hardly Shepherd would end up at the Waldorf Astoria of the North?”
“See you later then.” I turned to the door, but then, hand on the knob, I turned back to him. “Pops?”
“Whatever’s going on with you, I . . . Look, I need you to be OK.” I held his gaze. “Do you understand?”
He looked back at me for a moment, his watery green eyes on mine, but then he dropped his head. “I understand.”
Out on the deck, I paused, taking grateful breaths of the icy clean air. What was I going to do if he was drinking again? And why, after all these years? The fog had thickened, and everything beyond a radius of two meters dissolved into a uniform blanket of silent pale gray. I took a compass reading before setting out toward shore. Though all the boats were moored closer to the top of the cove than the mouth, I knew from hard experience not to navigate based on the houseboat’s orientation; it would be easy enough to paddle out of the cove and into the chop and shipping traffic from Vancouver. I rounded the bow of Pops’ boat and nearly broadsided a skiff that coalesced out of the fog.
Longbone, whose back had been turned to me, startled and reversed the oars, causing the water to churn as he spun about. The old man nodded from under a blue fisherman’s cap, set far back on his head, and his wide mouth—so like that of a frog—broke open into an embarrassed grin. He was, paradoxically, anything but long, his tiny frame seeming hardly substantial enough to work the oars, and the terrible burn scars that netted his face above the white beard mottled red and white from the effort.
“How’s the take this morning?” I glanced in the bottom of his boat, expecting the usual bin of wriggling crabs, but it wasn’t there. Something heavy—I judged by the low line of the skiff in the water—dripped from under a tightly-wrapped black tarp. I looked back up at him, but his guileless blue eyes gave away no secrets. I had only rarely—and mostly in single words uttered during moments of crises—heard Longbone speak, and I tended to forget that he could.
Pops said he’d gone silent during the war, after the incident that had burned his face, but that he’d been a real cutup before all that, before Vietnam, when they were young.
“Dinner at my place, Bone? Three o’clock?” He nodded vigorously and gave the thumbs-up signal. “Good. We’ll see you there. Let Biscuit know.” I continued paddling into the gray, but hearing a thump, turned in time to see the mist-shrouded silhouette of Longbone hauling something heavy onto Pops’ deck.
What were they up to?
I’d long suspected that the steady supply of crab, fish, and mussels that Longbone lived on and sometimes sold on the sly came to him outside the bounds of any legal fishing, and I wondered if he’d pulled Pops into one of his schemes. Their anarchist tendencies seemed to be increasing rather than mellowing with age, adding to the heavy sediment of worry I already felt for the old men.
When I reached my own beach, I dragged the boat above the waterline and turned it over, eager to warm myself by the fire, but my attention was caught by a dull red pebble, framed by frozen gravel. I plucked it from the setting, wiped the frost on my coat, and held it up to the light. Though weathered and scratched, it was perfectly round and transparent red. Not a pebble: a child’s marble. A vague memory of having lost something just like this tugged under my ribs, but then a seagull squawked from the roof of the house, and I looked up—that damn tree is going to be a problem—and put the thing in my coat pocket. Above the house, a monstrous old fir had been partly undercut during a storm and now tilted seaward, its newly exposed roots grasping like arthritic toes into the thin air above my roof. I’d need a crew, and machinery, and a whole lot of expertise to get that tree moved without crushing everything I owned. I cursed under my breath at the expense and hassle of it all, hoping it could wait until I returned home from the city.