It's an honor to be included in this collection inspired by
Radiant Voices: 21 Feminist Essays
for Rising Up, edited by carla bergman
Copies available through TouchWood Editions.
Click here to hear Lara tell her story,Bearskin Retold, at the Jack London Bar-- with special thanks to KBOO, 90.7 FM.
Spirit Things will appeal to anyone who’s fallen hard for Alaska and wants to be reminded what they love—and miss—about wilderness, fishing, and those who are drawn to the far North.”
—Holly J. Hughes, author of Hold Fast, Passings, and Sailing by Ravens
The First Wake
The first sound you hear every morning at 4 o’clock is the sound of the skipper putting on his boots. You know this sound because it reminds you that you, yourself, were in such a hurry to get the fuck into your bunk at 1 o’clock this morning (after you got done pitching mixed fish for 3 hours and then fixing that tear in the bag from the snag your skiffman dragged you over the top of and then washing the dishes from dinner) that you forgot to take your own boots off, and so you’ve been sleeping on top of your rank sleeping bag in damp sweatpants and a tank top, with your wet feet moldering inside the godforsaken confines of your Xtra Tuffs.
Then you hear footsteps, and you think to yourself, “Maybe he’s just taking a leak,” and you try to salvage another precious 18 seconds of sleep before your fantasy is shattered. Keep in mind that you have spent your entire luxurious 3 hours of rack time dreaming that you were pitching fish, so in your mind, you really haven’t slept at all. This is why you go back to sleep in the 12 seconds it took the skipper to reach topside. But then there’s the squeal. To start a diesel engine, you first have to turn the key on for several ear splitting seconds as it readies - it goes EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE - and then you get the CHUFF CHUFF CHUFF sound of the engine firing up. This is when the waking game really starts.
The game is pretty simple: the first deckhand out of the sack to pull the anchor wins the bad-ass award. It means you are a superior worker. It means you are the strongest, smartest, most keen-eyed and highest-paid deck monkey of them all. You totally get bragging rights. If you win all the time, you get to guilt other deckhands into doing things for you: “I pulled the pick again. You get to…” pump the bilge by hand, clean out the shitter, plunge...whatever.
It also means that, in your hustle, you trip on the step heading out of the galley because someone forgot to close the lid on the glove cubby. It means that you are staggering out onto the deck in the dark, only to find that you didn’t grab a sweatshirt because you weren’t going to lose the race and eat shit like you did the last three mornings, so now your bleary eyes are being pelted with the rain that has already been whittled into stinging bullets by the time it’s fallen from the sky and been blown sideways by the 35-mile-an-hour winds that picked up since you dropped anchor mere hours ago.
You cling to the railing as you run up the side to the bow, and when the skipper gives the signal, you start the hydraulic winch heaving the cable up, deftly knocking it into place along the spool so that it doesn’t grab or kink on its way out next time. Then the cable turns to chain, and you realize there is so much goddamn kelp on the pick itself that it won’t come all the way up, so you have to scamper back to the gear closet and grab your knife and then run back to the bow so you can lean way out over the edge and hack at the kelp ball, with nothing but slippery seaweed and a slimy chain to hold onto.
Then you finally heave the damn thing onto the mount on the prow and kill the winch, remembering to tie a safety line onto the chain with a quick-release knot. You know how to do this because you are the bad-ass, the superior worker. You are the A-one deck monkey.
And then you haul your now freezing, soaking wet ass back into the galley where you find that someone else has already started the coffee going, and you get to snag 3 more minutes of sleep before you hit the fishing grounds. You take your boots off, change your socks, and hit the rack hard.
The Second Wake
Enter into any channel and you’ll see a sign posted, “5mph - No wake.” The wake is the footprint of the passing boat, the frothing trail it carves behind it, with crests curling off at angles and churned up water between.
When we traveled, I would often spend hours staring back behind us at our wake. Sometimes the wake would glow green with bioluminescent algae in the dusk. Sometimes the seas would be so rough, the wake would get lost as the waves leapt and folded up and in on themselves. If the sea were calm, it left a scar on the surface that would last for as long as I could watch it before it disappeared into the optical tricks of waterlight.
Sometimes I thought of it as slicing the skin of a vast, beautiful animal, and I felt ashamed.
The water tells you that you are alive because it becomes so many other things. The metaphors are endless: the ocean as cornucopia, as we haul an enormous bag of fish over the side. The ocean as a voluptuous woman, when you see its swells and heaves and everything is hips and breasts and asses and tides, pulled about by the moon. The ocean as beast, all-powerful and unable to be reasoned with, smashing everything in its path. The ocean as dangerous magic, prompting superstition and tattoos and rituals for safe passage. The ocean as desert, flat and endless, undrinkable, burning with salt, the sun beating down. As wine. As ink. As horse, bucking, wild.
When the ocean is calm, the surface becomes glassy and reflective. It turns the color of mercury and makes interlocking shapes of gray and black and silver, looping ovals that whorl in and out of each other, like shadows boiling. This is something you cannot see from the shore, because the waves break the surface and destroy the tension and the symmetry. It is beautiful, dark yet full of color.
I used to wonder whether that beauty is meant to mesmerize, to make death painless. Sometimes I would stare out onto the surface of the ocean and wonder if that was what was happening to me: I was being lulled into a false sense of contentment by the surface so that I wouldn’t mind when the sea one day would swallow me whole.
The Third Wake
I don’t think my culture deals very well with death. We mourn but we don’t allow passion. We honor but we often forget to celebrate. When I grieve, I want to scream aloud. I want to be sick on the ground and to tear off my clothes and to puncture my arm with my own teeth and with sticks and pieces of broken glass. I want to find pictures of the deceased and wear them face down under my clothes, next to my skin, until the photograph crumples and frays and the colors bleed all over me and bits of paper stick in my flesh.
I want to jump up and down and shout their names over and over again and have everyone else who loved them jump up and down and shout their names so that the ground will shake and the air will move and our voices will float off into space forever and an alien a million years from now will catch it all in a jar and listen to the vibrations and hear their names repeated through some foreign sense.
I want to laugh about every stupid thing they ever did and retell the story again and again. I want to keep every secret they ever told and at the same time write it out on a wall with a spray can in letters four feet high. I want to celebrate them and say thank you and thank you and thank you.
But usually we don’t. We listen in shock; we remain strong; we cry a little; we choke on our pain; we dress up for a service; we wait to go numb.
Sometimes. And sometimes, we have a wake.
The last time I saw Gary Edwards wasn’t in Kodiak at all. It was in Seattle, Washington, at the train station. We’d had plans to spend the weekend at a pension neither of us could afford, to go to art museums and drink brandy and draw each other in the bathtub for a couple of days, but a storm delayed his plane in Philly where he was no doubt doing the same with another “friend,” and so I spent the weekend alone.
I was just heading home to Portland when I got his breathless call. He’d gotten into the airport, and was flying to the station in a cab to say goodbye. We hugged and laughed for 2 minutes on the platform; he kept touching my ears and taking photographs from the hip, and then I was on the train and he was laughing again, waving dramatically and shouting, “Au revoir, au revoir Lara Lee!”
Except that I would never see him again.
Gary’s boat, the Big Valley, went down in the Pribilofs on January 15, 2005. I got the phone call the next day, and I remember my father’s voice saying, “I have some very terrible news.” His voice broke, and I only waited to hear which boat had sunk. I remember saying “NO NO NO NO NO NO NONONONONO” and then hanging up the phone.
I spent the next few days glued to the internet, watching the headlines:
“Coast Guard continues search for missing crew.”
“No sign of crabbers missing at sea.”
“Search for missing crewmen suspended.”
“Sole survivor of Big Valley tragedy conscious and recovering after extended time in the water.”
“Times announced for pair of Big Valley services.” ...
I went back to Kodiak for the last time to attend. It was such a big deal that they held it in the high school auditorium to accommodate the mass of the gathering - friends and family of all of those lost, and Cache Seele - the miracle who survived. People spoke and shared stories and then shared food, but the whole ordeal felt too full of pain, too awkward. An opportunistic state representative showed up and took the mic and somehow managed to turn it into a plug for the soldiers in Iraq, and was booed from the stage.
A woman who had survived a shipwreck of her own tried to comfort me: “It doesn’t hurt, you know. Drowning. It’s warm and you just go to sleep.”
People said to me, “It’s how he would have wanted it, to go down with his ship.” Bullshit. Gary hated fishing. He had two phone lines just to avoid creditors, and most of his debt was in his boat. Where most crab boats boast cocaine and cans of spam and hustler centerfolds, the Big Valley had an espresso machine, antique lithoprints on the walls, and coffee table books of Picasso and Matisse strewn around the galley. Gary wanted to die in Paris with a sketchbook and a nude model in his lap, not making what he swore was his “last trip” to the Pribs. That whole glory of the sea and the romance of the storm is a load of crap. It’s cold, and it’s huge, and they never find your body, so the people who love you have to let you go in other ways. And so we did.
Friends of Gary’s - and he had so many, many friends, all of whom would call him their “best” - made their way to the only place any of us wanted to be, his home, part museum, part cultural center, part pleasure den. His captain’s bed and drawings everywhere. Sculpture garden, a banja made from a wheelhouse, art made from stones and glass.
We sat together for hours, telling stories, drinking, smoking...we built a bonfire in the yard higher than two of us on each other’s shoulders. The ground was a slippery mass of frozen mud. Moe played the fiddle and someone else beat on the bottom of a plastic bucket, and people sang, and they stomped, and I had brought fire chains and spun flames around and around, and the fire burned higher and higher and the sparks whirled and we howled and we danced and loved them all: Gary and Josias and Aaron and Carlos and Danny.
That is a wake - to stand in the dark in a circle of people who love and to see clearly how a person has touched you, to wake up to their presence in your life, to their impact on others, and on the world. To let them burn through you so that that presence is awakened within you and you see how we are not in and of ourselves but life moves through us together.
And we say thank you and thank you and thank you.