The North-East ridge of the valley is topped by a cone-shaped hill surrounded by second growth Madrone and Tan-Oak, and by funeral mounds left by the Indians.
This knoll of red acid soil was left to John Slate by his father. Slate was thirty; his fishing boat, the "Mariusha" had foundered, not at sea, but in the bankruptcy courts. His boat gone, Slate suddenly lacked direction, and he moved into the small logging cabin that faced the Western ridge.
Slate was an active man; he could never have predicted that he would spend a summer in absolutely useless inactivity. He parked his camper at the peak of the hill, in front of the ancient, dilapidated cabin, and in that red dust he sat every day in a broken Captain's chair. For entire days he sank into a passive lethargy. He looked at the heat waves that danced over the land, at the dust that rose in the valley with the passing of vehicles, and sometimes he looked Northwest toward Cape Mendocino, toward the place where his boat had operated and where, so many years before, his father had taught him to fish. His mind wandered over the years. His strange passivity was producing a kind of hallucinatory ambiance: images that would have, in his active life, gone by as a flash on the screen of his memory, now assumed the duration and intricate detail of an old movie.
One morning he turned on the radio and he got the marine forecast: there was some bad weather in front of Cape Mendocino.
"Like always," he thought aloud. And the words evoked a memory of the Cape of many years ago and he was on the deck of his father's fishing boat, ten miles in front of the cape on a September day he was to remember in detail for the rest of his life.
This cape, to his fourteen-year-old way of seeing, resembled a great Silurian monster dragging its tail from the lead gray
waters, lumbering North to menace Humbolt Bay and Eureka. He remembered the scenario from a Japanese horror film made in the fifties.
Ten miles South of the Cape is another point of land called Punta Gorda. Together these two points of land form a trap for storms and bad weather from the Northwest. To the men fishing small boats out of Eureka, the Cape is indeed considered beast-like, and unavoidable danger if one is to get South and fish the Tolo Banks in front of Shelter Cove. John Slate could remember hearing the tales of the wrecks that lie moldering, a few fathoms below on the reefs that spread out from Gorda like spiny fingers.
From his adolescence on, as he fished with his father, John saw the shape of the beast constantly; it was the backdrop for
On this memorable day in 1968; they were in 60 fathoms, a few miles in front of the cape. John was learning to work in the gaff hatch with Sonny, his Father. John was a wiry child, tightly packed, taut, sullen. He had coal black hair and a very white, hatchet shaped face. He was taciturn and usually thought of as surly, as if, in his silence, he was standing in judgment of his elders.
The "Sharon", Sonny Slate's boat, was a 38 foot Salmon troller. She was made in 1926, built in Port Orford, Oregon from the Cedar logs which take their name from that town, and which are now hard to find. In these years she was painted white with trim of brick red. Like some bar-room hussy, she was pretty but disheveled; patches of paint blistered off and great streaks of rust running from the stays to the waterline.
The sun was still hidden behind the flat, cut-out monster that rose out of a white mist lying to the East. The boat wallowed between the troughs of huge swells that came evenly like hills of gray glass. The wind had been coming up steadily. They worked in the rhythmic roll of the boat as it dipped between the glassy hills. The Sharon vibrated through the timbers, the auto pilot, steering the boat, hunted the course. Now and then an errant wave, out of sequence, would shoot its green froth over the bow and past the deck house. The early part of the morning passed this way in the pearlescent light filtering down past the Cape.
In mid-morning, Johns' father, on the other side of the hatch, took off his white schoonerman's cap and replaced it with a wool watch cap. The old man smiled from his side of the hatch and shouted: "When you gotta take off your halibut hat, you know it's blowing 25." John nodded and looked out across the Sharon's wake: the ocean rose there like a great mountain of dull green, flecked here and there with the first white patches of hissing foam.
John went back to work putting out gear; taking the end of a coiled leader from a box, hooking the snap onto a fresh Herring that had a long shank hook threaded through its guts. Then he would throw the bait over, peering into the gathering spray to see that the bait was "swimming" properly. When the leader had almost payed out through his chilled fingers, he would turn to the steel salmon wire which was also paying slowly out, and he would hook the line snap onto the wire. He tried to time it so he could snap on the leader just at the right moment to start a new one. The old man never had to stop the salmon wire that payed out through the hydraulic wench. His movement was continuous and steady and he never wasted a motion
They worked without speaking in the whistling silence, and they rarely looked up. In the cabin the auto pilot continually hunted, altering the course to keep a tack the old man had set, a course that ran straight over a reef 44 fathoms below. Theyhad out 40 fathoms of gear. When Sonny had a break, he would clamber out of the hatch and make his way on the shifting deck to the cabin, and he would check the fathometer, making sure no high spots were coming up to snag the weight on the end of the salmon wire. Sonny had a bad hip, and it was a struggle for him to get out of the pit, but he always made the trip himself for two reasons: one, only he could interpret the fuzzy marks on his ancient fathometer: two, in the cabin was his bottle of Port.
Sonny did his work efficiently and easily; he was still the best small boat skipper on the coast. The momentum of his work was mechanical, even when he was partially drunk. Yet the other fishermen did not drink at sea. All of John's relatives, his older friends, said Sonny should moderate his drinking, take one or two drinks and quit, like normal people. The boy had spent his adolescence in a labyrinth of sensations, ideas, judgments, confused emotions. His mother died when he was seven, killed in a car accident while Sonny was at sea. John was sent to live with an Aunt.
Even at seven, the boy knew something was going askew in his family; the old man had always been kind to him, giving him the kind of attention he could bestow so well, that schooling of the woods and rivers that the old man knew so much about. But his family life was against a back-drop of noisy arguments about Sonny's drinking, which his parents took no pains to conceal from the child. The scenes went on and on; the endless promises, accusations, pleas for sobriety on Sonny's part. But the fact that the scene had to be repeated endlessly was proof that the promises were worthless, that change was impossible for these people.
All of this sank out of sight when Irene was killed. The boy lapsed into the numb, unknowing blight of his consciousness; he didn't know what death was; when his aunts told him their version of it, he visualized an imprisonment in a box under the earth; he imagined his mother involved in some Houdini-like feat of escape; at the same time, he knew he did not have the gist of it. His consciousness was searching nightly for some evasive maneuver. He had been farmed out to his aunt Sheila and he was cared for by his 16 year old cousin, Rena. The electric energy of his life, which had been short-circuited by his sudden immersion in death, was now flowing through the wires; he fell, as much as a seven year old can fall,in love with Rena.
His father hovered in the background; on his weekly visits with the boy he seemed aged and befuddled. In a few short months, his appearance deteriorated, he seemed so much older all of a sudden, to young John. His hair became gray, what of it that didn't fall out. He didn't drink in these months, although John didn't know this until years later. When Sonny started to become functional, he took John hunting, and steel head fishing on the Eel River, and the months grew into years without Irene. As the boy related to his father, they couldn't pick up where they had left off. There was a "Thing" between them now, a thing that intruded into the space of their affections, a thing that started the movement of John's surly withdrawal from emotional exposure: it was the lurking idea that somehow the broken promises and alcoholic evasions of his father were connected to Irene's death. It was a vision that no rationality could penetrate. It wound and threaded its way through the boy's childhood and adolescence.
By the time they worked together on the Sharon, that emotional vision had crystallized into some solid ideas that John held about his childhood. The idea that something so stupidly inanimate as wine could have overpowered his father's will, was shattering. In John's mind there existed no link between his father's compulsiveness and disease. He experienced the events of those years as a kind of moral leprosy encroaching upon his family, with his father as the willing carrier. If he had been able to see his father as involved in a struggle, even a losing one, making decisions, making a wrong turn, losing the way.... he could have forgiven. Instead he saw his father, in the face of calamities, going to the store for another bottle of port. If there was a struggle it was invisible to him, and he began to store a multitude of resentments.
It was mid-morning; the sun was well over the edge of the cape; the wind had come up a little. When Sonny was in the cabin, the boy worked more slowly, not chained to the rhythm of his father's work. He was taking shakers off the line; small, under-sized Salmon. The "Sharon" had run through a patch of them, and the shakers were eating all of their carefully prepared baits. The fish were like small, slivery rockets; as the line came up the boy tried his best to take them off the line without injury; he took each leader, pulled it in, until he could lean over the rail and hook the point of the gaff in the curve of the fishhook protruding from the jaw of the fish, then he raised the fish, holding the leader in his left hand and the gaff in his right, and shook the fish; if the fish is lucky it fell off, and the boy often felt a flash of joy as he saw its silvery streaking life bound across the wake and disappear.
They went along this way, the old man in the deck house, the boy sometimes working, sometimes falling into a reverie as he watched the wake bubbling up behind the stern of the "Sharon". It takes a while for forty fathoms of gear to come in, and he watched, along with the kelp and the other flotsam that boils up in the wake, the myriad images that had made up the stream of his young life. He saw his father, on the banks of the Eel, when John was seven: John is catching his first silvery Steelhead, the old man is infected with the electricity of his own enthusiasm. He saw the starkly inhuman landscape that he visited on the ridge tops of the Cape, hills going on in stark emptiness, only dotted occasionally by the dwarfed, blasted trees and the outcroppings of granite, dark monoliths standing like broken teeth in the hills with hair of grasses. Saw his mother in her Audrey Hepburn costume, her eyes animated and her face flushed, as she told the boy about the art show she had seen in the city.
She had seen the Van Gogh paintings, and she was entranced with them. They had in them the same dark and windy nights and starry skies and swirling trees that she herself liked to paint. Thinking of this image of his mother, he now thinks of the incongruity of her life; a beautiful flashy woman married to a balding man with diesel stains on his clothes. He sees his school yard: the grammar school with white stucco buildings and the faceless windows. The oyster shells that crunched under his shoes. The smell of tuna fish seeping through the side of his lunch pail. The larger than life, pig-like face of Emmet Snark, the bush league bully that terrorized John for weeks before the confrontation.
John swung and missed; Snark said, laughing, "Boy if he ever connects..." at that moment, John connected: all the energy pent up in his wiry frame was distilled there and Snark's front teeth were immediately history. When Snark realized there was so much blood, he dissolved into the siren-like wail of a bully's disaster. John was smaller, in fourth grade, than any of his peers. Even after the Snark debacle, the bullies still hadn't gotten the message that John's size had nothing to do with it. Underneath his dwarfed frame and his surliness lay something that was not to be fucked with by bullies.
Faces in the wake: once again, the faceless blur: the undefined person that was killed in the wreck with his mother. Who was it? A hitchhiker? A friend? Someone trying to swipe her car? In the years that had elapsed, John had quit asking, but the shadowy figure in his imagination would not go away. Then, yet another face: a little wizened monkey of a man, red faced and spry, who said he was Leo Conley, a cousin of Irene. He was at the funeral; he appeared at the boy's elbow when he was at the casket, "Johnny, remember me? I ain't seen you since you was a leetle thang. Leetle. Lahk this.... I come all the way from Chicago cause of your pore mother.... good leetle soul. She's dancing in paradise now..." After this sibilant monologue, from which the boy quailed, the little simian creature sidled over to John's aunts and cousins. He told an off-color joke, then he pumped his elbow up and down and let out a loud farting sound. He hopped about like a toad. The ladies all turned red and slid away. There were no men there at the time. After the funeral he disappeared. He was never seen again by anyone in the family.
At the casket: his mother lying there, she did not breathe. She was like a waxen flower. Nothing moved. Her mouth was pressed together, and he thought: "She's angry..." Her hands, folded on her breast. Hands that had wanted to be left alone to paint and nothing else, but the world always found something for them to do, raise a child, wash clothes, do chores, cook...now in death, folded wing-like on her breast as if she were flying into herself. In the foam at the boat's stern; hands, eyes, breasts, faces, tumbling one over the other...
It was past mid morning and the sun had crested the ridge. As the boy put gear into the water, the wind blew it out of his hands. He wondered about the weather and why Sonny didn't stack every- thing on the deck and go in. After a while the old man came out of the deck house and got into the pit. He started running his side of the gear, humming a tune to himself. The boy turned to him: "Dad, don't you think the weather is coming up? I got nothing on here but shakers. They ate up all those baits we made up last night."
Sonny pulled in his gear reflectively. He rid his line of a few shakers and took off a rock cod, which he threw into the fish bin, where it began to rattle its life away.
"Well," he said, wiping his hands across his face and looking at the great waves looming up behind the "Sharon", "We're coming up on 3150 in a few minutes. There's a high spot there, and we gotta change depths anyhow. So we'll turn, and shallow up, and start cutting in. If we don't find large fish by the next time you run the gear, we'll stack'em. You look about froze. You want to go in the deck house?" The boy shook his head and he kept running the gear.
His father ran through his gear, put it back out, and scrambled out of the pit for another trip to the deck house. It was casual, like all the others. The boy, in the gaff hatch, was looking down, counting the baits left. He felt the side of the boat go down, and he looked up. He saw above him a wall of water, no sky, and he had a second to think: "a freak wave," before the mass landed on top of him, knocking him to the batten boards. He was awash in a sea of brine, spilled bait, tangled gear. Then he got up. He saw the deckhouse, still closed, and he knew his father had gone over, with all his gear on, and his boots.
He jumped to the deck, and he saw his father in the wake, saw him wallow toward the rear float line, saw him reach and miss it as the boat tracked on. John turned and ran, sliding, toward the deck house. The old man could go down in seconds if he couldn't get his gear off in the water. John flung himself into the deck house and he took the wheel. The boat took a long time to go around. He kept his eye on the compass the whole time. The original course had been 32O degrees North; when it came around to 160 South, he righted the wheel and set the pilot back in gear. He ran back onto the deck and grabbed a life ring and a gaff, the long-handled one with a thong for the wrist. He ran to the bow and he leaned forward, holding onto the stays, looking into the oncoming sea.
Some green water broke over the bow. The boat rolled and seized at the sea with its engine. Time seemed stretched out and drawn into the whistling wind. Then he saw a yellow thing; it was his father's rain jacket. He ran in and shut down the throttle, throwing out the pilot, and he steered the boat so the old man would sweep against the port bow.
He ran back on deck. When he got within throwing distance, he started shouting to the old man, telling him to "catch it, catch it..."
He threw the ring, but it passed over the waterlogged figure, who was just under the surface. His arms were moving feebly. John hooked his feet under a stanchion, leaned over and gaffed the old man under the right arm-pit, through the rain gear, trying to catch no flesh. Without the leather thong at his wrist, the jolt would have pulled the gaff out of his hand. He pulled up with all his strength. The old man rose, waving his sodden arms. John pulled him up against the chain that held the steel paravane from the salmon pole.
The old man's eyes rolled in his head. He reached over and grabbed the chain. The boy was sobbing. "Dad, can you hold on while I put her out of gear?"
"Yeah, I can."
As the "Sharon" floundered in the trough of the cold leaden sea, with the wind whistling through the lines and stays, his father came on board with a gaff hook hanging in his shoulder. In the cabin, John covered him with blankets, then, peeling them back, he took a filet knife and cut away the old man's rain gear. The gaff point had entered from the back, mostly cutting clothes, but ripping, in the pectoral muscle, a large cut like a knife would. The flesh there had the whiteness of a freshly shelled oyster. The pink, watery blood was much less than the boy expected. "The cold," he thought.
John turned the boat toward Humbolt Bay and he revved the engine. "What channel is the Coast Guard on?" he asked his father.
"Coast Guard's ass," said the old man, "Just drive in, that's all."
"What channel, Dad."
"You always were a stubborn whelp. What about all the gear? You're still draggin' all the gear behind you. You gonna drag that into the river with you?"
"That's why I want the Coast Guard. They can take you off and I can straighten out the gear." The old man looked at John then, and the boy saw, in that look, all the caring that life had not diminished and saw the place from which came survival and this place that was the theater for the struggle the boy had never been able to perceive.
After the call to the Coast Guard, John turned to the old man, who looked better, the color not completely gone from his face now. Then another perception; a thing that would hold in his memory for the rest of his life; the blanket-covered old man looked out at him from his crumpled position on the bottom bunk. He had a weak smile on his face. John suddenly thought his father had winked at him, but when he looked again at his father's eyes, he saw there a light, and the light spread until it engulfed his face. John turned toward the port hole, thinking some strange light must be entering there, but the sun, in a Westering mist, was on the other side of the boat. The bunk, except for the unearthly light, was darkened.