Tick walked a circle around the new woman’s cargo. Somebody who knew knots had tied that tarp up—a single trucker’s hitch, no nonsense.
“Whatcha got there?” he asked. Months later, he would think about this time, knowing what he didn’t know back then—that he hadn’t asked the most important question.
These excerpts are from Kathleen Dean Moore’s novel Piano Tide (Counterpoint Press, 2017) and is reprinted here by permission of the author.
Caught between steep, forested slopes and relentless tides, the hapless people of Good River Harbor are caught as well in a struggle between those who hope to make a simple living on the rain-drenched land, and those determined to make a killing. Enter Nora Montgomery who, having “burned her bridges” outside, seeks only a quiet life with her piano and her dog. But when Axel Hagerman dams a salmon stream to export glacier water, Nora and her friends create a transformative act of resistance. Piano Tide is a “savagely funny” call to courage. “When you turn that last page,” BK Loren writes, “you’ll want to stand up for the things we share: this Earth, this life, this wild and enduring hope.”
From the gangway, he had thought she looked like a bird. But close up, her face looked more like a fish. Her eyes were big and sort of bulgy, and they were golden as a quillback rockfish. That caught Tick by surprise, the big gold eyes. Her face was wide, sculpin-like, and open in a nice kind of way, and when she smiled, she blinked reflexively, as if her eyes and her mouth were connected by the plate of her cheeks, as are the eyes and mouth of a cod. Youngish. Maybe 30, maybe 35, although now that Tick was 40, he thought everybody was young.
She had a dog with her, a big one, part German shepherd maybe, maybe some golden retriever. The dog strolled around on the cargo deck, sniffing the backside of every town dog. When the ferry whistle gave a warning blast, the dog galloped back to the woman, panicked as a colt.
The whistle motivated the woman too. She reached over, yanked the rope’s bitter end, and pulled it off the tarp. The tarp thundered as she dragged it to the deck. Under the tarp was an upright piano.
Tick lifted off his baseball cap, smudged the blackflies on his forehead, and settled the cap more firmly on his head. “That looks like a piano,” he said. The new woman laughed, splitting her face with a grin.
“Yep. It’s a piano all right. Can you help me get it to the Green Cove cabin?”
“It takes a good high tide to move a piano,” Tick protested, even though he knew that this tide was high, a sixteen-footer, high enough to bend the sedges, flattening them in a swirl, as if a bear had wallowed there. High enough to hoist the windrow of rock-wrack another yard up the beach. High enough to launch mussel shells like double-end dories. High enough, Tick knew, to float a boat over the intertidal rocks and bring it right up to the rock ledge at the Green Cove cabin.
“Yeah, I could move a piano, if we did it now, at the peak of the tide,” he finally said. “It can be done.” Although he was still a young man, he wasn’t a man to leap to conclusions. He was capable of leaping to action if needed—if, for example, his boat was on fire. But men of the sea are wary of conclusions. “But why?” he asked. It was a reasonable question under the circumstances, but still, in retrospect, not the right one.
“Because this ferry is about to sail off to whatever godforsaken place it goes next, and I don’t want my piano to sail with it, and because I bet you’re the one who can do it.”
The ferry was in fact about to sail off to Bean Point, which was a gloomy godforsaken place in Tick’s opinion, and he knew he could do this.
He walked across the cargo deck and returned with a four-wheel dolly. Couple of turns around piano and post, and Tick had the rope slipping around a piling, and the woman was hanging on to the far end, and Tick had that piano tiptoeing down the ferry ramp like a drunk crossing a log. Then the piano was on the dock, swaying a little. Tick gave the piano a pat and walked down the dock toward the Annie K.
The Annie K was a 26-foot landing craft left over from World War II, a bucket of a boat. With a flat bow that lowers on a winch, landing crafts always leak, but it was dry enough to move a piano, and that is what Tick was going to do. At least the rain had stopped. At least he had the tide on his side. He didn’t want to be dragging a load that size over wet rocks, slipping on the rock-wrack.
Casting off his lines, Tick pointed the boat toward the wharf, where the piano and the woman threw long reflections across the harbor. Everything a tide can lift—cork net-floats, a two-by-four, a bloated rockfish—they were all bobbing round down there on the reflection of the town, boats floating upside down and right side up, kids riding down the dock in orange life jackets, reflected upside down on the water beside a floating beer can and tangled kelp.
The challenge of moving a big object by boat brings in the men, faster even than an ancient halibut laid out gasping on the dock. Seemed like every man in Good River Harbor was striding down the ramp. Every one of them started giving directions, bossing things, even though it didn’t look like anybody needed bossing, least of all the piano woman. She stood aside while at least three men waved the Annie K in. Tick pulled the pins that held the bow closed and engaged the winch. Chains clanked through the guides, the old hinges trumpeted, and the apron of the boat lowered, bridging the boat and the dock. With men giving hand signals, they jockeyed the piano around a tight angle and rolled it onto the Annie K. Its sudden weight lowered the bow, and all the reflections bent and rolled. The yellow-coated men shredded into yellow lines that bounced around the breakwall.
The piano secured, the dog and gear totes loaded, the new woman aboard, Tick backed out the boat, and the Annie K headed for the Green Cove cabin. As he left, he saw the kids and the men and the dogs all headed northwest too, pounding up the boardwalk, then bouncing down the ramp to the trail to the cove. Tick was going to need them, and in Good River Harbor, where men were needed, they would go.
He turned on his depth-sounder and steered wide around Green Point. He was a careful man with a boat and not one to be taking chances. As he tipped up his cap, his eyes rested on the woman who stood beside her piano on the foredeck. With one boot braced on the bow, she leaned forward into the wind.
That woman doesn’t look like a fish or a bird, Tick decided. She looks like George Washington crossing the Delaware. “Row, men, row, damn the ice floes.” He considered the similarity. Yep, they could be identical twins, if Washington had worn a yellow slicker, and if George Washington had a strand of dark hair stuck to his cheek by blowing rain.
He poked his head out of the wheelhouse and yelled into the weather. “I’m Tick McIver. Actually Christopher, but nobody could handle a word that big, so they called me… just… Tick. Not because I stick to things like a tick. But things stick to me. Even bad luck follows me around like a grinning… dog.”
His speech ended in a mutter and he bent over the wheel, his neck flushing.
“I’m Nora,” said George Washington. Tick did not speak for the rest of the trip.
Out at Nora’s cabin, there was a great deal of dragging around of sheets of plywood. There was a great deal of throwing straps around trees to hold the winch. There was a great deal of cranking. Kids in boots, soggy dogs, men with beards. One may make fun, but these people are very, very good at this sort of thing, and they would get the job done with no delay, no crushed fingers, and not that many beers.
“Up she goes, easy, easy.”
When the piano rolled off the boat on that grand and momentous piano tide, the assembled town cheered. When it rolled up the ramp onto the porch of the cabin, they cheered again. Then somebody figured out the piano wouldn’t fit through the front door. All the discussion and laughter then, the men measuring with the span of their hands, dogs barking at the uproar. Being practical people, the men began calculating how much trouble it would be to pry out the doorframe and chain saw a bigger opening.
But Nora just shoved the piano up under the porch roof, tight against the wall, and toweled it down, pulled a case of beer out of a tote, and threw a welcoming party for herself and her dog. Standing at the piano, because she had no chair, Nora picked out a semblance of “Amazing Grace.” It was awful. She winced and grimaced and even the piano seemed to shudder. Hard to know why a person who couldn’t play the piano any better than that would haul it all the way out to the bush, but who knows and nobody cared.
Tick put a can of beer in each pocket and headed back to the harbor, shoving the Annie K away from the beach with an oar. On a falling tide, you can’t hold a boat on shore. The tide will drop right out from under you, grounding you, and there you will sit on the mud for about ten hours, looking stupid.
• • •
In the morning, sunlit yellow fog sagged on the roofs of Good River Harbor and invisible ravens clonked and muttered from the hidden spars. Tick McIver sat on the step of his house on the boardwalk, drinking a second cup of coffee and squinting up at Nora Montgomery, just arrived on the ferry with an upright piano and her dog Chum.
“Hey Tick,” she said, smiling and blinking at Tick. “Pretty day.”
Chum sniffed at Tick’s socks.
“It’s really pretty until you look at those mountainsides that have been cut to mud,” she said. But that’s all she said, which was good, because he’d been one of the guys who hauled the choker up and down the mountain, yarding out the logs, and of course that’s not pretty, the stickers and the sweat. She didn’t like the mud, she should have tried dodging trees in that muck.
“Who’s the boss of the logging outfit here?”
“That would be Axel Hagerman, CEO of Good River Products, Inc. Office right there. Axel’ll be coming along pretty soon, eight o’clock sharp.”
Later, he might have wished he hadn’t said that, but it wasn’t like Axel was some kind of secret agent, and at the time, he was just being nice to somebody new in town. There is never anything wrong with being nice.
Sure enough, pretty soon along came the president of Good River Products, carrying a workman’s lunch box in one hand and a briefcase in the other. That was in fact Axel Hagerman. Axel was a polyp of a man—small, soft, white, roundish now, but capable of many shapes. Just a fuzz of pale hair on his head, hardly more than a baby. He covered his body with the snappiest nautical blues. Navy blue polyester pants, navy blue bowling jacket with the GR Products logo. Under his jacket, his shirt collar was white—white of all things, in Good River Harbor.
As soon as Axel hit the turn to his office, the new woman jumped to her feet, ran after him, and started in talking. Tick hunched down so he could see between the railings of his porch.
“You’re Axel Hagerman, head of Good River Products,” she said, as if he didn’t already know.
“President and CEO,” Axel said and stuck out his hand. Tick didn’t think there was anything wrong with that. All the same, he felt the hair prick up on his neck.
She shook his hand, not up and down, but sort of side to side, like his arm was a tiller.
“Nora Montgomery,” she said.
So that was her name, or at least what she said. Her ponytail bobbed up and down when she said it, and she reached around to grab her hair. The way she yanked, it looked like she was trying to stop a runaway horse. That probably would be a good idea, Tick was thinking.
“I’ve just come in on the ferry,” she said. “Got a good view of the logging operation in the old growth this side of the Fairweather Narrows. That outfit is logging too close to the creek.” She looked Axel in the eye and he looked at her, and it was like two people bonked heads, you could almost hear it.
“Tick says it’s Good River Products running that show,” she said, “and maybe you know something about that, being the President and CEO.”
Oh god. Tick slumped down behind his railing and buried his face in his hands. Why didn’t she keep him out of it?
Axel didn’t say anything, but the hems of his pants lifted off the tops of his shoes.
“There’s a pink salmon run in that stream,” she said.
Tick crawled toward his door. He didn’t want to see what was going to happen next. Nora raised her voice and lit into Axel again.
“You want fish, you’ve got to keep deep shade on that water.”
Bucked up against his door, Tick groaned. Just on and on, she was explaining it like a professor, like she thought Axel would want to know. She should have had a blackboard, and she could have drawn a bunch of fish floating belly-up with their tongues hanging out and big Xs across their eyes. And she could have pointed at them with a long stick, for emphasis.
Her voice was calm but it was loud enough to wake the moldering salmon. Tick wished she would shut up. Those aren’t the kinds of things you say to a man like Axel.
But Axel just stood there. He stood there in his office clothes, looking at her. The man seemed surprised, and who wouldn’t be, yelled at by a woman in town just one week—a week—and they had probably not even said hello more than three times. Crazy, she was saying these things to him—the big, the only, employer in town, living here all his life. That’s what Tick would have told her. But Axel didn’t say a thing. Not a word.
He turned around, walked down the gangway into his tool shed, pulled out a chainsaw with a 48-inch bar. He grabbed a wedge and maul and his ear protectors, and walked up the boardwalk and down the ramp to the Green Cove trail toward Nora’s cabin. Nora sort of jumped along after him, still lecturing about fish. Tick snuck along behind, tree to tree, to see what would happen next. Nora’s dog Chum ran ahead, wagging his tail. That was a dumb dog, if he couldn’t sniff the air and know that trouble was coming.
Axel stood there in the forest not ten feet from Nora’s cabin and looked all around. That was old stuff in there, 300-year-old spruces and hemlocks. He was eyeballing them, moving around, looking at them with a professional’s gaze, tipping his head back to assess the overstory. He picked out a hemlock that must have been three feet across, a couple hundred years old. Carefully, he put his ear-cup hearing protectors on over his cap and adjusted them just right.
“What do you think you are doing? Get away from my cabin.”
Good thing Axel couldn’t hear Nora anymore, yammering in a voice that got higher and higher. He leaned over and ripped the chainsaw’s cord. The motor started on the first pull. That says a lot about a man, when his chainsaw starts on the first pull.
Chum took one look at Nora’s face and stiffened up. He started growling, way low. Nora grabbed him by the collar. Axel revved a couple of times and pressed the bar against the tree. Blue smoke and wood chips flew out. Nora trotted in circles round the hemlock.
The chainsaw roared in response.
“That’s not your tree. Stop right now.”
“That’s a felony. Don’t do that. You have no right. What’s the matter with you?”
Tick groaned. But Axel acted like he hadn’t heard her, which of course, he hadn’t, and he just kept working. Chum lunged and barked. The chainsaw snarled. In no time, Axel had carved a notch a third of the way through the trunk.
Chum threw himself forward with so much force, he would have dislocated the shoulder of a lesser woman.
There was nothing for Nora to do but run around shouting. The last time Tick had ever seen anybody act like that, it was a mother merganser, and an eagle was rocketing down, talons open. It snatched one chick off the water, then came back for another one and the next one, until they were all gone and the mother merganser was circling an empty space on the bay, whistling soft.
All this time, Axel didn’t say a word. He just did his work. Once the notch was cut, he walked around the tree and made a cut halfway through the trunk a few inches above the notch.
Finally he turned around and, courteous as a gentleman, he said to Nora, “If I were you, I would back off.”
She shouted, “Like hell!”
But she dragged the dog back a few yards. Axel drove the wedge into the cut, smacked it one good one and that tree swayed on its base, then slowly tipped. It shivered, cracked its length. Picking up speed, it whomped through the air and slammed onto Nora’s trail with a thud that set her piano humming.
Axel shut off the engine.
The two of them stood there in the sudden quiet, listening to the piano’s trembling chord. They stood there in a gentle rain of pollen and hemlock needles.
Then Axel brushed the sawdust off his good pants, took off his ear protectors and his cap, swiped his hand over his high forehead, replaced the cap, straightened his jacket, picked up his chainsaw, and walked up the trail toward his office.
Kathleen Dean Moore is a philosopher, climate activist, and writer. She is author or co-editor of a dozen books in celebration and defense of the wild, reeling world. Piano Tide, winner of the Willa Cather Award for Contemporary Fiction, is her first novel.