The waves come in waves. They come in translucent-green, fanned-out rays. They pour in rhythmic heaves toward the beach between us and the lagoon. They come in differently to this, our shallow harbor. They come in, exposed and transparent. They pound toward the crescent-moon-shaped beach on the spit’s other side, shushing those pebbles, wearing them smooth.
Every time the Alaska Department of Fish & Game opens the water to commercial salmon fishing on this northwestern side of Kodiak Island, we commence with our ceremony, as much a tradition of body and mind as any spiritual practice—beginning here at the hook end of the net, clipping the metal snap to the ring at the opening, bowing beneath the running-line, tying the first two-on-two knot, moving in scripted fashion down the spine of the net to the shore-end, bending and reaching and holding until we heave out the end ring of the lead line, the armfuls of mesh, the last stretch of the cork line, and then we say amen. Except we do not say amen. It has never been a sacred ceremony. We do not come to the moment of putting out nets as one comes to a holy moment. We arrive with the expectation of frantic pulling and angry yelling; our bodies obey the tradition of knotted guts and pounding hearts. That is our ritual.
We put the nets out, and then Fish & Game closes the water, and we take them up. A friend said to me recently that pulling up nets sounds like a chore and a prayer. He is a poet, he can say these things. And I said yes, it is a prayer of the body and a chore of the mind, but I do not pray on take-up, not even with my body, unless exertion itself is a kind of supplication.
I know this land and sea like I know my own body, but a posture of reverence, toward either the land or each other, is so foreign in our fishing family and on our islands that it is only now that I am 33 that it occurs to me as a possibility, despite growing up with psalms of awe and God worrying over sparrows.
Our nets, like our lives, are tied to shore. We are set netters, living on Bear Island, a tiny island that we own, we its sole inhabitants. We fish during the day in open, aluminum skiffs. “We” are my father, a dozen hired male crew members, and me. My uncles and cousins live nearby and fish with us too; my family has been fishing this way for 50 years. To meet the legal definition of set netting, our nets have to be tied with thick line or chain to the rocks that, at least at low tide, are above water. Out in the water, the net is held in place by buoys, anchors, and line, the anchors like tent stakes pulling against each other to hold the net in place, the line connecting the anchors like tent poles that make up a tent frame. The lines and anchors are always in the water, but we can only tie on our nets when Fish & Game open the water to fishing. The process of tying on our nets is called “put-out.” When Fish & Game closes the water to fishing, we “take up” and pile them back into our skiffs.
Farthest out in the water, each net reaches around in a diamond shape we call a hook. The hook is where most of the fish are caught. The rest of the net is a straight line, perpendicular to shore. To keep the net from arcing wildly in strong tides, we attach several anchors, along the length of the running line. The anchors run up to buoys, and these are called sways.
Today is put-out day and I’m in my uncle Duncan’s skiff with two new crew members.
The waves surge in bright blisters, they come in flickers, in gasps, they come like the sweep of a broom. The waves come in memories or the memories come in waves; there are memories on these waves, though they’re new every time. The waves sweep the wide way an arm dismisses, they come like the aftershocks of abandonment, like the way hope gets burned.
To know you can read a man’s body in a second, to know the loudness of a storm doesn’t mean incapacity because you could have worked without words anyway, to know the way you feel the skiff’s floor in your feet, feel the balance in your hips and shoulders—he’s feeling it too—you’re correcting together, moving gas cans, lifting poles, handing a screwdriver (silently, though he didn’t ask), hooking a snap, holding the tension, taking up slack. You’ll pull past exhaustion for each other: you know that, and it is a refuge and a prayer inside the larger circumstance of being trapped in my uncle Duncan’s skiff during take-up. That is what I want, what the new crew members John and Jaap do not seem to have, and so I do not trust them to move with me in a way that will keep us safe.
Greg, for example, who used to be crew and is still a dear friend, Greg would defy my uncle Duncan in any instant if it meant my life, or even safety, or even, really, comfort. Greg, whose love is greater than his fear. If the dance between bodies in a skiff is not one of hospitality I don’t know what it is, but I would not have known it without Greg. But Greg is not here. Jaap and John are; it is with them that I will take up Duncan’s share of nets.
My cousin Naphtali and I talk about how the crew, if they’re new, don’t have the right instincts. They’re like surgeons sipping tea in the emergency room when a helicopter has just flown in. They hear the chop of the chopper blades and go right on sipping. They don’t know what the sound means.
It is a warm, calm, sunny day, the kind of day you’d have said was perfect for fishing. My stomach is knots, my body’s habit on take-up day, waiting for the emergency. I try to think. Is there an emergency? Do any of us have the right instincts?
I am half right about John and Jaap. Jaap seems to have no instincts, one way or the other. He pulls at rote and seemingly at random, until Duncan tells him to pull somewhere else. He pulls half-heartedly and doesn’t know when to stop, or he will stop without provocation. He stands on the wrong side of the boat, pulls in the wrong direction, unless someone tells him otherwise, and even then we have to tell him twice. The only thing he has in his favor is that Duncan seems to find him understandable and endearing, which assessment a wonder in itself, but this is no time to question wonders in our favor.
About John, though, I am mostly wrong. He isn’t worthless. He throws himself into it like one in fear of drowning. He is everywhere at once. I untie the knots and he is there, his orange rain-geared arm bumping mine, his body at the ready when I have to stretch over the bow, breathing close. What we share, we both understand almost immediately and without saying it, is the desire to keep Duncan at bay. To get the nets in on time, to pick the fish, to leave behind the kelp, these things are not a part of our desire at all, except that they are Duncan’s desire, and so we make them our wholehearted wish. We want nothing on Earth so much as to pick fish and untie knots with all the nimbleness and speed of a seasoned woman crocheting.
Everything I do, John thanks me. I help him pull web, he thanks me; I untie a knot, he thanks me. In all my time fishing, I have never been thanked as much, so I take notice. Then it occurs to me: his gratitude is a consequence of his terror. And it occurs to me again: it is a warm, calm, sunny day. There will be no external emergency. There is no storm, no onslaught of fish. And yet, John is terrified. I look at Duncan. I think about how much he loves fishing, this place, his children. I think about how sometimes we create around ourselves the circumstances in which we will not be able to receive what we long for the most.
When we are close to the hook on the first net we take up, Duncan leans over the boat and shouts, “Oh no! Stop pulling! Stop, stop!” The tone you’d use for a whale coming at you, or a hole in the boat.
Calmly—determined to remain calm—I ask, “What is it?”
“A bag of kelp,” he says, his voice tense. John and I look at each other over Duncan’s back. A bag of kelp in the net is as much an emergency as a quiet rain is an emergency. Fishing, it is the most slight of inconveniences. So we stop pulling, roll out the kelp in seconds, and resume pulling. I think about how this is the kind of thing that precludes knowing when there really is an emergency, which of course increases the danger, because not knowing how to gauge danger is its own danger. This reliance on crisis, and where there is no genuine crisis, the need to make one up.
In the end, we get the nets up easily. There is no strong tide, no wind, no rain, no storm, and almost no fish. We take up the last net, Duncan puts John and me in another skiff, gives us the fish, and sends us to the tender, the larger boat that will take the fish to the cannery.
“Yeah, a lot,” I say.
“One time he got so mad on take-up, he started hitting the motor with a picking pole.”
“Yeah, I know,” I say, “He does that.”
“How do you deal with it?” he asks, his eyes searching mine.
“I don’t,” I say, fumbling, navigating around a reef, steering around our islands. “I mean, my brother and I, we don’t often come back.”
Gloves cold as the night has been, grey with old fish blood and aluminum residue washed out and out. Thirty seconds, maybe less, it takes me to get into full gear. The skin around my breasts contracts when I pull on the still-wet gloves; I put them on quick, don’t think about it, shake my arms out, move on. On the way to the running line rock, I pick up a 40-pound gas can in one hand, lean way over for counter-balance, walk down to the running-line rock. I don’t pause for rest.
The day is hook and sway. A hook is the diamond of a net and it is the metal curve in my hand to hold the corkline in the boat. Two sways: the buoys and anchors holding the net’s midsection, and the sway of my body. Knots, balance, skiff, rails, rain or not-rain, slick spray, wind. Safe inside the balloon of my rain jacket hood. Salt sores on my arms. They tell me drunk is like tired; if that is so I’ll never understand why anyone goes for drunk. Balance, balance, untie.
The waves come in vices, in ripples, in confidence, in stride, they come like a woman curving and flicking flamenco, they come like the contractions of birth. They come in undulations, in rhythms, they come unattached. The waves come in bends, they come in riots, they come (simultaneously) subdued. They enter as an appetite, not easily sated. They swarm as a grief not easily freed. They come like hunger, like panic, like the persistence of God. They come as a testament (can I get a witness?) to a mechanistic universe, they arise as evidence of gravity and the moon.
Tme is a tide here, and here the tide comes high. Twenty vertical feet in a day, the tides swell and flush, laying everything bare then laying it all to waste. Only what’s heavy or held down will remain, til the tide goes out again. As with the water, so with Earth’s spin; as if they were two different things. Winter rises, heaving boulders high onto the grass with the winter storms, and when winter recedes whatever wasn’t gripping fast is gone. Deer fall into the wells, starving for water. The outhouse gets washed away. There’s a skiff in the lagoon, still mostly intact because the tide doesn’t reach it. Billy Woods tied the skiff there in 1977, intending to come back the next summer to fish, as he’d always done. But that winter he went down with his boat.
In latitudes closer to Earth’s belly, tides are smaller and you can tie your boat to shore, eat lunch, come back to the boat ready for the next thing. If we did that here, after lunch our boat would either be dry on the rocks, or it would be too far from shore to reach. The tides are huge. So we have running-lines: a triangle of line with pulleys at all three corners. The apex of the triangle reaches several hundred feet out from shore and is moored with a buoy and anchor; the other two corners of the triangle are attached high on shore. In this way we can tie the boat onto the line and then pull it out to the buoy where it will stay while we eat, rest, do shore work.
How a running-line is configured depends on the lay of the beach. Most running-lines in Uyak Bay and elsewhere around Kodiak extend from a smooth beach, so all that’s needed for the beach-end of the running line is two sturdy pieces of driftwood tipped vertical and dug deep into the beach like footers or pilings. Attach pulleys to the driftwood and you’ve got yourself a running-line. But on Bear Island, the calmest harbor is a beach rich in big rocks.
The largest of these rocks, we call the running-line rock, or just the Rock. In it are cemented two metal poles that serve the function of driftwood elsewhere. During fishing, we climb the running-line rock several times a day and tie or untie the complex design of running-line knots meant to keep the rope from sliding back through the pulleys while the boats are on the line. Whereas elsewhere, one two-on-two knot would suffice, here we tie two four-on-fours and two three-on-threes. Our calmest harbor can get storms so severe they’ll slowly swing and drag the skiffs, slamming them back to shore, destroying the outboards, battering the aluminum.
Song birds, so light, perch in wild gooseberry bushes, or in the thick grass that forms the bluff. Their tiny feet clutch the twigs and grass. But they do not venture as far out as the Rock. There isn’t food, and the wind is stronger. This far from tide line, only the heavy birds—eagles, crows—stick it out.
The waves come as a reflection, a revelation, a penance, a storm. They come like disappointment. They come like the future known in eroding stone. They come like children, like death, they come like doubt. They come like disease, like renewal, reminiscence, resistance, release. The waves come like desire, like a split and thrusting heart.
When there’s low cloud cover on the mountains over Seven Mile, above Bill Woods’ old place, a southeast is coming. Like the red at night, sky predicts wind, and low barometric pressure of small tides means the tide of human despondency and sadness rises. Swell is the underwater wind, the way we’re above the sky-roof of the sea, fish like birds swimming through the firmament. Surf the skidding breath of God. Angels falling, waves mark when they hit.
Sometimes I believe ocean is all the god we have. I debate myself: is this god good? Or is she impassive as an animal? Are the waves her roiling, her writhing, itchy as a dragon for some death, some fire? But what animal, what dragon is ever impassive? She—the ocean—God—feels resolute, and I can’t escape the conviction that her brutality is her love, beckoning me to surrender. Batter my heart, and all. But I don’t want to be battered. I just want to walk across this Island with no knots in my belly. I want home to be home.
I am outraged, and hungry as winter deer. I will open my mouth to sing, or eat. I will let the wind shake the house for me. I will watch the angels breathe or drown. I will watch the knots on the running-line rock hold.
The Shelikof Strait has sent these waves, the volcanic gods that stew and lord over our horizon have sent these waves; for 40 miles they have been unencumbered until we confront them and they assail us. If we stepped from shore into the water, it would overpower us. But that does not mean that we cower. It does not mean that we are afraid. It does not mean that we are not afraid.
It seems the waves are bowing again and again the ocean is bowing. I am sitting in the third generation watching the ocean in a blow. Wind pushes into sea as easily as Grandma used to scoop the dipper into the tin bucket of well water. Grandpa sat listening to the radio, watching the running line rock, the skiffs, our going out fishing, our coming home.
I come to the Rock without poetry. It is morning and the only way that my hands are empty are the way a spirit gets emptied, which is no way the eyes can see. The Rock is crowded with crew, a full tide of orange raingear, untying knots, pulling in the skiff and piling into it with a heavy kind of grace, none of us talking. If you ask anyone, is your spirit empty?, he will raise an eyebrow at you, look at you with tired incredulity, go back to the work. It is morning and we have been fishing for 45 days.
When I say that I come without poetry, I mean only that I come to work. You may say, Let’s talk about Rilke, and I will say, Let’s not. You may say, Let’s talk about T.S. Eliot, who is my favorite poet, but at this moment I cannot imagine what relevance poetry has at all. I just want to work, eat lunch, go to bed. You say, Do you know that one Picasso painting? and I think, Can you just shut up? Lift up that line, help me with this sway.
It is more than the tiredness of so many days fishing. When I am 16, it is skin starvation in the middle of all that human proximity. When I am twenty-three, it is hunger too, the lengths I go to for satisfaction, the hopelessness of feeling what I am willing to give up to get contact. I make my eyes neutral but compliant. Whatever I am asked to do, I will say yes. On my hands are double layers of wet cotton gloves.
It is morning, and I walk to the running line rock with everyone else, and I notice that we are all like stone. Hit us with a hammer and we’ll crack apart, but it will take the fire of Earth’s heart to make us soft. Sometimes I think everyone feels obligated to be testy; it is morning after all. But I know these men, and I know that what they really want is to be held. Actually, what they really want is a good cup of strong coffee. Actually, what they really want is another hour of sleep. What we all really want is rest.
Together, we all pull on the running line, bringing the skiff to the Rock, and together we all climb into it. Dad will drive this skiff to all the other skiffs tied onto moorings further out; two men will get into each skiff, and when everyone is apportioned to his vessel, we will make our way to the nets. Two skiffs to a net, we will fan out to the farthest nets first, then work our way toward the middle, toward each other.
We hunch in the skiff, from the Rock to the moorings, day after day, storm after rain, face to the spray, until kingdom come, and ask any of these men, while we are all together, do you want to be held? and he will mock or pity you. But enter a skiff with one of them, just you and that one, and fish for half a day with that man, dance the functional ballet of fishing, bail when you are not lifting line, clean the skiff when you are traveling, pull out a granola bar and offer him half when there is a pause, and then ask the question. Do you wish, sometimes, that you could be held? He will always answer: yes.
I come to the Rock. I fall into line. I am tired. I am strong. I can tie knots fast, I can carry gas cans down the beach without pausing to rest.
I try to just fall into line, which implies indifference, and I rarely manage indifference. No matter how hard I try to hunch, stare at the skiff bottom like everyone else, I can’t help myself: I keep looking up. I keep trying to understand what is happening. I feel. I stay alert, watching both for danger and the possibility of contact. I watch my father, watch the tension in his face, gauge his mood.
Our boats are empty of fish in the morning. It is the perfect moment. The emptiness satisfies. It is like the smooth inside of wildness, like a pelt or like skin. Morning plays us for fools. Morning says, “It’s a new day, full of possibility.” I think this is why experienced crew always look down. Don’t let the sun—or the boss—see a glint in your eye.
The waves come in light, in heat, in wind. They come in exhaustion, in concentration, in lore. They are hurt, they are bent, they are bright. They are a resurgence, an apology, an uprising, a relief. The waves come and they are more than they are. They come, they come.