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Mary Emerick lives in northeast Oregon, where she works for the US Forest Service.
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The Geography of Water
By Mary Emerick
UNIVERSITY OF ALASKA PRESSCopyright © 2015 University of Alaska Press
All rights reserved.
When my father left on his hunting trips, my mother and I would come out of our hiding places. We would scamper like mice through the empty lodge, throwing open the windows to erase the smell of men. We would fill up the damp air with our own voices, losing little pieces of our hearts with doomed Janis Joplin, the volume knob turned up past ten. We would surrender like drowning to afternoon sleep in beds that were not our own. We would eat, finally, sitting down like normal people, peaches sliding down our throats, each swallow almost too sweet to bear. We would stretch ourselves big in a world that usually forced us to be small.
Always we were as close as sisters. We shared everything, even the oversized claw-foot tub that my father had shipped on the barge from Seattle. I knew that some would think it was strange, a mother and daughter so close. The clients told us it was so. They shot searching glances at us, as if we were very different from them, living here miles from any other family. Perhaps we were. We had no barometer with which to compare.
But my mother and I were just alike. We even looked alike, the same bright hair and light eyes, no trace of my father's darkness about me. We were twins, almost. Except for one thing: I was stronger than she was. My mother was like a candle, thin and bright. It would not take much to blow her out. "Next year, I'll be eighteen," I told her. "An adult. I could leave." I said this, but I felt cruel. The only way out was by floatplane or boat, how could she ever go?
All season long a parade of puffy men passed through the lodge, hunting clients. They were stiff in new rubber boots and creased Carhartts. They tracked in mud and dribbled Copenhagen on the rugs. They were from cities, places like Dallas and Pittsburgh.
My father served them brandy and courage. He told stories of near death in the mountains and on the sea: bear attacks, sixty-foot falls from slippery ridges, and bivouacs in the fog. The men listened, drinking quickly. They laughed loudly and often to cover up their fear. Muggers, carjackers, they thought they knew. In this world, our world, they were blind. My father was the star they followed.
When they left, my mother and I scrubbed their rooms. We bundled the sweaty sheets and wove sightlessly with our towering burdens down the stairs to the laundry. We mopped and steam cleaned, erasing any trace of them. We sank to the floor after the last one, our skin smelling of lemons. "This is the way it should always be," she said. "Just us, scoured clean." I knew that she did not really mean it. She longed for my father's return.
When my father was home, his smoker's cough punctuated the hours. We could track him by the sound of it. We watched his moods like the weather. If the hunt had gone well, he was liquored up and expansive. "Girls! Where are you?" he bellowed, shedding his layers of rain gear and camouflage. He was charming then, waltzing us across the great room. It was easy to think it would always be this way. If something went wrong, though, a gut shot or another boat anchored in his favorite bay, he stormed through the lodge, brows drawn down. Either way, the air was uneasy, ready to turn at any moment. My mother and I had the scars to prove it.
We compared them, sitting in the claw-foot tub.
"Scar from falling into the kitchen table," she said, lifting a leg out of the bubbly water. "Burn from brushing up against the stove."
"Dislocated shoulder," I countered. "Black eye, twice."
She lifted her hair, a waterfall of gold. "You know I try to protect you. He would never hurt you. It is always by accident."
"I know it." All of my war wounds came from trying to save her, running downstairs barefoot, an innocent bystander caught in the scuffle. Each time, an accident, a mistake. The same excuse for her. She got in the way. He was hungry. Tired. He never meant it.
When I asked, she said that men had anger hidden deep inside, like lava at the earth's hidden heart. Women had to be careful, she said. It was up to us to keep the peace.
Nobody would blame me if I snuck aboard the supply barge the next time it pulled in. But how could I leave her? Even though I threatened to go, I could not imagine it. She would shrink without me, her ribs and spine stretching her skin even tighter than they did now.
I had started to think that she did not want to be saved.
She sighed, rising from the tub. "There are so many good things about him. You will understand when you are older."
But I did not believe her. I was in love with our assistant guide. Sam was older than I was, nearly twenty-five, but like my mother said, you couldn't choose who you loved. The heart wants what it wants, she said. I watched him through the windows as he loaded the skiffs. He was everything my father was not.
I thought that he might know that I loved him, because he talked to me on the dock while he cleaned fish. Blood flowed in a sheet as he filleted halibut. As he worked, he kept an eye on the lodge. "Better go," he warned me. "It's not a good day today." Like us, he charted the way my father's moods ebbed and flowed like the tides of our bay. He called me Buddy, as though we were in this together.
He never called me by my name: Winnie, real name Winchester. I was named after the rifle my father carried. In the evenings he cleaned and oiled it, pushing the white patch through the muzzle until it came out spotless. It was a serious gun, with power behind it. It was a name I was not sure I could live up to.
It rained, mist blanketing the bay down below the tree line. We were cut off from the world when the storms rolled in. "We are our own planet," my mother said. She steeped strong, earthy tea the color of coal. Her face was serene. She loved the ocean as much as she loved me.
We put on our rain bibs and boots and walked the estuary. My mother added up the ways a person could survive out here. "Beach asparagus," she said. "Salmonberries, fat and juicy. Goose tongue." We opened our mouths and let the rain fall down our throats. She had shown me how to start a fire by peeling the dry inner bark of the hemlock. I could fix a kicker, tie a bowline, and gut a deer. "You have to be able to survive," she said. "This is not like any other place. Nobody will save you here."
Anybody who had lived here long enough knew the names of the dead. My father's old guide, the one before Sam, an unsteady man named Roger, his breath a fiery stew of bourbon and cigars, drowned crossing the strait, his skiff found washed up on Harbor Island. The youngest McCarthy, the son of the man who brought us supplies on the barge, was killed in an explosion aboard his long-liner. And Uncle Dean in the pilot's seat of his DeHavilland Beaver, lost on his way back to the lodge to pick up clients, never seen again.
Death smelled like fish. Salmon were running in the creek. They were decaying as they swam, their mouths hooking, eyes milky, the humps on their backs growing pronounced. "Humpies are almost done," I said. "That means only one more bear hunt. Nothing after that until April when the spring hunts start."
"This winter will be better," my mother said like she believed it. But I was old enough to think that nothing would change. Sam would not stick around during the off-season. He headed south to Panama or Peru to pick up a deckhand job for a few months. In the really cold winters, the bay iced over and our boats were held fast at the dock. Planes could not land and the barge would not attempt to break through. It would be only us.
My mother pointed. A humpback whale breached in the bay entrance. The water closed over its sleek tail. Soon the whales we saw would leave for Hawaii to give birth in the tropics. They would not be back until months had gone by.
We turned our backs on the beach and climbed through brushy cypress toward the muskeg. Generations and generations of bears had traveled here, each one stepping in the same footprints. We did the same, setting our feet in the wide depressions.
"Let's go visit James Tucker's grave," I suggested. Our boots sank into the spongy living carpet. I liked muskegs because they were open and straightforward. What you saw was what you got. The rest of the forest was shaded and deep. Huge trees loomed like strangers. Anything could creep up on us there.
We did not know who James Tucker was, but someone loved him once. His marker was a flat silver pane. We found it by chance when we stopped here, my boot striking something hard in the sphagnum moss. We scraped it clean, but all that was engraved was his name.
We made up stories about him. One day he was a bootlegger, ambushed for his case of rum. Another time he was a baby, born in secret to one of the Scottish cannery workers who used to live down the coast when the herring were plentiful.
"James Tucker," I started the game. "I wonder who he was."
My mother thought. "He's someone who wanted what he couldn't have," she said. "He's someone who died from a broken heart."
People had lived here before us. We had found the mossy remains of Tlingit longhouses in the beach fringe, sagging screened pens from fox farms out on the islands, an abandoned cannery squatting in head-high salmonberry a few bays over, pilings marching out into the intertidal zone. Sometimes glass floats, once attached to fishing nets, washed up onto our beach, carried by the Japanese current. Somehow they escaped the teeth of the cliffs and arrived whole.
People would live here after us, too.
We looked out over the wide, wide sea.
"The next landfall is Japan," my mother said.
"Could I swim there?" I asked. It's a question I asked her once as a little girl, and she still liked to hear it. This story was part of the sinew that bound us together.
"You'd float on your back," she began. "Your hair would turn to kelp, your eyes to abalone. Your bones would curve and your skin would become slippery. They say that all the whales in the ocean sing the same song. This time you would understand the words. You'd learn all the secrets the whales have to tell."
"And then what would happen?"
"And then I'd find you," she said. "I would dive into the water, holding on to your back. We would swim through the ocean, blowing bubbles. You wouldn't be afraid, because I would never leave you." She reached for my hand. "Say your part. Say it."
"I won't leave you. I already said. I promised."
"I know," she said. Her eyes brightened. "We've got nine more days until the hunt is over. Let's row out past the islands, way out where the puffins are. We'll anchor in the deep water and pull up our crab pots. The hunt will go fine, and things will be better, the very best they've ever been."
I wanted to believe her, I really did. But it was getting harder and harder. I saw more now than I used to, a sullen undercurrent in our lives previously hidden.
She cupped my chin in hers. "Winnie, you're going to have a brother in the spring."
I caught my breath. Of all the things she could have told me, this is the one I least expected. "How do you know?"
"I can feel him swimming under my skin," she told me. "Tell me you're happy."
She lay back in the muskeg, a yellow-haired elf. Her rain bibs swallowed her up. "This will make all the difference, you'll see. We'll take him everywhere we go. We'll show him how to dig for scallops and which mushrooms are safe to eat. We'll teach him everything there is to know."
"Will we show him the good hiding places?" I whispered. But she did not answer. Her eyes were closed; maybe she had gone to sleep.
Far below us, the ocean tried to eat the rocks that guarded our bay. I looked for the whale but it was gone. Maybe it was deep underwater, singing a haunting melody. I liked to think of it calling to a loose skein of whales that swim south together. They would stay together no matter what, through the changing of the tides, the wind and the rain.
Back in the lodge, we sat long into the night. The rain slapped its way past the eaves, marked the windows, dripped onto the ground. The sound of running water was almost something I could understand; I thought if I tried hard enough I could hear words in it.
She drank wine the color of the blood that stained the docks after the killing. She drank even though she should not, because of the baby. I had never been able to tell her what to do. I could see the wine spreading through her, filling her fingers, her bare toes.
She talked, the wine talked.
"He drains me dry," she said. "He needs so much air, there is none left for me."
I thought of the halibut we pulled from far in the sea, how their whole bodies bellowed with their breath before we clubbed them.
"How do you leave someone like him?" she asked. "He is like a bear, both wonderful and terrible at the same time."
This made sense to me, because over the years my father had grown to resemble the bears he hunted. He was as dark as she was light, eyes with no bottom to them, black hair dense and thickly furred across his chest and head.
There was one difference though. I had been around bears long enough to know that unlike what the clients thought, they were mostly predictable. It was humans who were not. With my father, you never knew which man you were going to get.
Rain had many sounds. Because it could rain up to six feet a year in this forgotten corner of southeast Alaska, we were used to its backdrop. Days with sun felt alien, too bright. The rain held us in its arms — a drawstring, closing us up. The nearest people lived five miles down the coast, in a place called Floathouse Bay. On many days it might as well be fifty miles, it felt that far. I thought that I could live and die here without anyone noticing.
Outside, the light had long since gone out. In September, we were losing precious minutes of the daylight that lasted nearly all night in June. We were sliding into another winter, without clients, without Sam, just the three of us in our iced-in bay. I started to feel a little desperate.
The rain continued. I could feel its steady hum as I lay in bed, adding up one more safe night, like I could stack the deck in our favor. I thought about the baby, a secret for now between my mother and me, a reason she would pick to stay. My brother would be one more anchor to hold us here, one more way we would lose our wings, until the thought of flight was just something we made up one rainy night when the house was silent and there was nothing to hold us back.
The weather changed overnight. The rain had turned to snow up high, frosting the trees, and a north wind blew across the bay, whipping it up into a little chop. A storm was coming; we could feel the drop in pressure, pushing us low and heavy toward the earth. The bears sensed it too. Instead of feeding in the stream they lay low in their day beds, waiting for it to pass.
"They'll cut the hunt short," my mother said, watching.
Because this was private land, not owned by the Forest Service, my father often cabled a line across our bay to keep the tourists out. We saw their boats pass by, wide-bodied white ships with names like Wilderness Adventurer. In years past they sent inflatable zodiacs in, bristling with fly rods, until my father fired shots in the air and they retreated. The only boat that came in now was the barge, dropping off our mail, my schoolwork, and groceries. Floatplanes brought in the clients and their wives. Everyone else knew better.
We pulled on our rain gear and our boots and walked down the ramp to the dock. It was low tide, and all the sea creatures waited for water. Purple sea stars lay sprawled in wet clumps among the rocks, and translucent moon jellies were pulsing bubbles. Clams, buried in the sand, squirted streams of water high into the air. The barnacles crackled and popped. Everything was alive, moving and breathing.
Under the curtain of fog we saw that the bears were back, splashing in the stream, catching humpies. They weren't the big boars; those were wary, easy to spook, and didn't come out until it was nearly dark. The ones out there now were teenagers. They ate in an uneasy truce, occasional charges and growls keeping each other in line. As they ate, they dragged the salmon up into the trees. Later, as the remains rotted, nitrogen seeped into the soil, a life-giving force that kept the trees fat. Bears and trees, locked together in an endless dance.
Excerpted from The Geography of Water by Mary Emerick. Copyright © 2015 University of Alaska Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ALASKA PRESS.
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The Geography of Water