On my eighth birthday, my parents had taken me to the Baltimore Zoo where an episode left me skeptical about people all my life. The crowd gathered around a monkey cage, the late morning sun warming us just enough to take the chill out of the spring air. Three Continue reading
Grandpa’s tires slide on the slick pavement and he barely stops at the intersection. His white-knuckled grip on the steering wheel tightens. He mutters to himself and stares ahead, burning holes in the station wagon’s windshield. The radio is off and the night hums. Continue reading
My husband, Prince Manfred ‘Manny’ Susswig of Bavaria was late. I’d already occupied my usual season spot in Seat 1, Row 9, Section 107 inside Madison Square Garden to watch our Knicks battle the Indiana Pacers that late winter Tuesday night last year. I was on my second beer and had nibbled on a sausage and pepper hero. As home side forward Steve Novak drained a three, I felt a tap on my right shoulder and spun around. He’d arrived. Continue reading
“You’re not wearing your father’s watch?”
“It’s being cleaned. Anyway, you know I leave it home when I travel.” Ted unfolded the brochure. “How does this sound? Spring skiing in Gstaad; schuss fresh powder under a crystal blue sky.”
Dolores wrinkled her face. “My knee’s still sore.” Continue reading
An April Saturday morning on Milwaukee’s lower east side. The emerging yellow-green leaves dance delicately in the wind. Yellow tulips boldly grace lawns. City neighbors proudly tend their backyard victory gardens. Vintage is in vogue when it comes to 1950s sundresses and heirloom tomatoes. Continue reading
It’s hard to say exactly how I ended up in this dreadful situation, although I could easily put all the blame on the Thomas-Cook train schedule. If they had made their timetables a little easier to read, and their columns more evenly aligned, I may have never ended up on this midnight train to Athens. Yet here I was, sandwiched in among all the dissolute of Southern Europe in a third-class train compartment Continue reading
When I returned to the railroad tracks today, someone had moved the chair. It’s one of those armless, black-vinyl and chromed-steel models, which you would recognize from every waiting room, library, or government office you ever entered during the 80s. Continue reading
The only one Shelly had told was her mistress, because she had been the only one to notice the birthmark moving across her face. “First, I thought it was just riding the low waves of your face,” she had told her, “but now it’s taken flight like a bird for the south.”
“That silly, huh?” Shelly felt embarrassed for the first time in awhile, tempted to cover the penciled-in beauty mark. After the sixth day, she had forgotten she was redrawing it in different spots.
“Not silly,” her lover told her. “Sad.”
“Have you ever been told you’re a needle prick in a unfelt world? He used to say I was the only pinch keeping him awake.”
Her lover’s downcast head shook.
“I miss it.”
“I could call you that.” Her lover lightly pinched Shelly’s arm. “My pinch.”
She felt the fingers pressing into her skin, which were sacks larger than she expected her biceps to carry at any age. Then she flinched.
“I’m sorry, I was trying to be light,” her lover recoiled.
Shelly sat in silence, knotting the bed sheets with her cold feet and sweaty hands. “That’s it,” she thought aloud.
“Hmm?” Her lover rolled back over.
“Light,” she said with scientific discovery. Her lover smiled.
But as Shelly tossed the word around in her head, she wasn’t thinking about the one who noticed her mole, called her beautiful, or kissed her fleshy arms. Nor did she acknowledge the husband who once endeared her as a sharp nip of pain.
Instead, she noticed her image in the brass of her antiqued lamp: the newest placement of her drawn mole reflecting back. It was then she realized—whether in the light of day or low-lit lamplight—that regardless of who slept next to her, she looked the same.
By the time I was full-grown, I had eleven parents and legal guardians in four counties. Of all those folks, I remember Mee-Maw Lopez best. She had a Roman nose and an ass as wide as the Arkansas River. When Real Daddy ran off with the Navy and never came back, and Mee-Maw’s only child and daughter, my real momma, was struck and killed by a speeding ambulance, Mee-Maw Lopez took me to live with her in a little town outside Dardanelle, called Booger Hollow, Arkansas.
Mee-Maw’s second husband, Pee-Paw Balz, was long dead, but that didn’t keep his ghost from spying on us from his ash vase on the mantel. Mean folks said it was Mee-Maw Lopez who killed him, by sitting on his face. But the truth was much worse than that. Mee-Maw said it was Pee-Paw’s uppity-ness that did him under. He was up on the roof of the house, sweeping (can you believe it?) when a shingle come loose. Pee-Paw tumbled off, fell two stories, and landed on the broom. Mee-Maw said the broomstick went in his ass and came out his eye. That was how come she had him burnt up instead of putting him underground. She said nothing less than two thousand degrees a flame could cure a corpse of a wound like that. It was just a shame, she said, that all the flames in the world couldn’t cure her memory of finding Pee-Paw like that on the lawn that morning. Still, Mee-Maw dragged Pee-Paw Balz inside and covered him with a white sheet before she walked next door to tell the Sheriff. Everybody in Booger Hollow knew the Sheriff was a wife-beater, but Mee-Maw let it slide, because so far as she knew, he never told anyone the details about how Pee-Paw met his maker.
“Now, a story as tragic as Pee-Paw Balz’ could only happen in the south,” she said, while greasing up an iron skillet for a pone of sweet bread. Mee-Maw told me how she’d once gone to Little Rock–“The Big City,” she called it. While she was there, she saw a movie about the Elephant Man. “The only way that man’s life coulda been any more tragic,” she said, “was if he’d a moved to Tuscaloosa.”
I’d never been to Tuscaloosa, and wondered if it was anything like Booger Hollow, where Mee-Maw brought me to live when I was just a toddler. We had a sign on the edge of town that said “Welcome to Booger Hollow, Arkansas. Population: Thirteen Souls (and One Coon Dog).” Mee-Maw sold reproduction postcards of the sign at the store she took over when Pee-Paw passed on. It was the sign, in part, that kept her in business. We weren’t exactly a tourist destination, but we were a stopover for folks who were going someplace better. People would drop in on their way to float the Buffalo River, or to watch the shows up in Branson. Most of them would buy a postcard, but some, who Mee-Maw called “Goddamned penny-pinchers,” would photograph the sign in order to save fifty cents.
Mee-Maw Lopez was a full-blood, blonde-haired, blue-eyed Puerto Rican, who spoke almost perfect English. Every night, before she closed up, Mee-Maw let me pick out a single piece of candy. Sometimes I’d hem and haw, making like I couldn’t decide between two pieces. I secretly hoped she’d get tired of waiting and tell me I could have both. But Mee-Maw Lopez never got tired. She said, “Boy you got to shoes. You cain’t have both.” If I climbed up on the furniture, she’d say, “Shildren ain’t monkeys, quit climbin on that share.” Her trouble pronouncing CH words was about the only indication a person might have that she was a direct descendant of foreigners–at least until Pee-Paw died and she took back her maiden name. While she was married to Pee-Paw, her last name and her lineage were kept secret, on account of the fact that Pee-Paw Balz was up for election as the assistant vice-secretary of the treasury for the local chapter of the KKK. When Mee-Maw told me how she pretended to be white so the man she loved could join the Klan, she said, “The world’s full of contradictions.”
Pee-Paw didn’t win the election in the end, because he never liked Hitler. This came as a surprise to most of the men in the Klan, but the way Pee-Paw saw it, Hitler had two strikes against him. For one thing, he was a German, and therefore a foreigner. Then there was the matter of Hitler’s slick black boots and his obsession with creating an entire race of gorgeous blonde men. Pee-Paw’s opponent stood up for the shrimp with the bizarre moustache, but Pee-Paw wouldn’t back down on having figured Hitler for queer.
Mee-Maw had an entirely different take on the Second-World-War. She likened the big war to Pee-Paw’s death. She said both were the direct result of uppity-ness. Mee-Maw said it was European intellectuals and artsy types that caused the war. She said Hitler wanted to go to a fancy art college. She said, if he’da been accepted, the war never woulda happened. All that woulda come to pass, was that there’d be another terrible artist running around in the world, and that’d be nothing new. “But Hitler was rejected by some snobby art types,” she said. “And just look what happened.”
Pee-Paw just had to have a spotless roof. And that Euro-trash wouldn’t suffer some no talent little shit in their hallowed halls. Uppity-ness, as Mee-Maw preached it, was not a thing to be tolerated. She even begged the minister to write a sermon on the subject. He kept on saying he surely would. Then one day it was discovered that he’d come up missing, along with the tithes of nearly every person in a four-mile range. When Mee-Maw broke the news to me, she was full of fear. She said I was impressionable on account of my age. She was scared I’d spurn the whole Lord for something just one of his fallen angels had done. But I always listened to Mee-Maw–more so than to the minister–so I understood the world and its people to be full of contradictions.
The thing about Mee-Maw’s ass was that she couldn’t help it. The rest of her was pretty much normal, but her buttocks and her thighs were giant-sized. For a woman of her considerable age, she was otherwise put together nice with her big hair, pretty eyes, and southern charm. If a man saw her behind the counter of her very own store, he’d think her a prime target for remarriage. After all, her land was bought and paid for. But when that same man saw Mee-Maw come out from behind the counter and could see her fully, he just couldn’t help but stare–and not in a good way.
Mee-Maw couldn’t help the size of her ass, but that’s not to say she didn’t eat. She cooked everything from scratch, with eggs, whole cream, and real butter, lard, bacon grease, and ham hocks. Sometimes after a big meal, Mee-Maw would rub her pooching belly and sigh, “I’m fuller than a big gray dog tick.” Those were the days before things got tough. When Mee-Maw found out she had cancer in her brain, she sat herself down and tried to reason with it. She said, “Cancer, You’re barkin up the wrong tree.” Mee-Maw had never touched tobacco, tanned, rode in an airplane, owned a microwave, or sat too close to the TV.
When all her hair come out from the treatment, she took desperate action. She marched into the store, tore open a pack of Lucky Strikes, and commenced chain-smoking. Once, I found her outside smoking and cursing the night sky. She cried and said maybe the satellites had all her life, zapped her with radiation. But in the end, the doctors said it might have been a lot of things: the pesticides the Jenkins crop dusted onto their soy bean field up the road, chemicals and hormones in meat, or dioxin in the water supply.
One thing that happened when Mee-Maw Lopez beat her cancer into remission was that she stopped smoking. Something else that happened was that she’d only drink bottled water, and before long, she heard about a new trend in an article in Reader’s Digest, and she became a strict vegetarian.
Being vegetarian was hard on Mee-Maw. She’d lived almost sixty years on southern food. “Giving up meat ain’t in our genes,” she said, one day while frying up a whole plateful of hushpuppies, which came out mostly burnt because she was used to cooking them in lard but had to switch to vegetable oil.
I was nine years old when Mee-Maw Lopez celebrated her cancer’s demise. Between the treatment, and her new vegetarian diet, Mee-Maw Lopez’s body starved itself, and her figure shrunk down until it was only relatively large in the back. Mee-Maw had a new appreciation for life, and a new body to match. Her hair even tried to come back. It was still short, and she kept it covered with a bandana, but it was there. It too had been reborn.
It was around this time that a gentleman came calling. His name was Mr. Preston Clarence. He had blue-black skin and a pepper-gray beard. He’d long been a customer of Mee-Maw’s and he’d always come in wearing a funny hat. Mee-Maw never noticed before, but after her change in diet, she picked up on the fact that when Mr. Preston Clarence did his shopping, he didn’t buy a lick of meat. They struck up a conversation, and she strutted out from behind the counter to show him the new vegetarian chili she’d added to the inventory.
After the wedding, Grandma confided in me that Mr. Preston Clarence had previously assumed she was uptight for a minority, maybe even a bit uppity. “Can you believe it?” She said, laughing. “Uppity?” But Mr. Preston Clarence hadn’t failed to notice her new pleasantly plump figure, her short hair tied up in a bandana, or her tolerance of his funny hat, his vegetarian diet, and the unpopular yet obscure religion which required both. He saw too, how the spark of life had come back into her eyes with a vengeance after her suffering. Finally, he appreciated the fact that the recent events of her life had caused her to loosen up on her philosophies so as to tolerate new ideas. And this last item was ultimately, what brought him down on one knee.
Mr. Preston Clarence shortly became my Pa-Paw Preston: number five on my list of parents and caregivers. He kept his house, because he had a big organic vegetable garden there and said there was no room for that kind of thing at our place. But he came to live with Mee-Maw Lopez and me. From the moment he arrived, our lives were happier, less lonely. Pa-Paw Preston painted the store and the house bright blue. He worked slow, and he worked early in the morning when the summer heat wasn’t so deadly. Of course, Mee-Maw worried herself half to death when he was up on the ladder, scraping and painting the second story. She feared she’d find him dead on the lawn, having fallen off the ladder like her last husband fell off the roof.
Pa-Paw Preston told Mee-Maw she was a princess. He said the food he cooked was so healthy, we’d all live forever and go straight to his idea of heaven if and when we ever died. He made delicious shakes that summer with fresh strawberries from his garden. He even made up a big ol vat of gumbo with extra okra in place of meat, and lots of spices, so it made your stomach hot and heavy like you’d had the real thing. He and Mee-Maw started walking. Mee-Maw said she’d never walked a mile in her life, but before long, Pa-Paw Preston had us walking two-mile loops, clear around Booger Hollow.
Before long, Mee-Maw’s hair was growing, and Pa-Paw Preston’s things had been in our house long enough to require dusting. To encourage my schooling, Pa-Paw took to reading to us from books at night, while Pee-Paw Balz listened from his ash vase. At first I worried that Pee-Paw Balz’ ghost would start a fuss, or one of his old friends from the Klan would come after us after seeing Mee-Maw walking hand in hand with a black man in a funny hat. But Mee-Maw Lopez told me one night, as she tucked me into bed and kissed me, that those old friends of his were in nursing homes now, or else, like at least one man she knew of, married to Mexican women. She said their sons and daughters thought their southern heritage meant slapping a confederate flag sticker on their pick-up, and fishing for bass in a boat that cost more than catching every bass alive could ever pay for. Some of them even let the fish go after they caught them. She said that type had replaced one thing that made no sense, with two things that made no sense.
Pa-Paw Preston even took us to “The Big City.” He had a family reunion at a gigantic park in Little Rock. I’d never seen such a place. The playground looked like a castle, and I imagined Pa-Paw and Mee-Maw living in that castle, the oldest prince and princess in the world. We stayed in a motel with a television and a swimming pool with water so clear you could see the bottom. On the way home, Pa-Paw Preston took us to the super Wal-Mart, where I was stunned by the brightness of the giant space and the walls of things stacked twice as high as a man is tall. Then we went to a super bookstore, where I found a book about the Elephant Man. I’d imagined him as looking exactly like an elephant, until I finally got to see the pictures. Mee-Maw bought me the book. I was looking forward to his tale of suffering, but I was so tuckered from the trip, I slept the whole way back in the car.
We arrived at home just before supper. After eating, I settled into the couch with my book, while Mee-Maw Lopez opened a big white box from the Wal-Mart. When the gadget was finally untangled from all the Styrofoam and cardboard, I could see it was a brand new blender.
“Our old blender is perfectly good,” Pa-Paw pretended to complain, though his eyes were bright as fireflies.
“Hush now,” she said. “It left some pieces big enough to shoke a person.”
“I’ll make us some shakes in the morning,” he said.
“We’re gonna drink them shakes and live forever,” I said.
“Yes we are.” Mee-Maw Lopez smiled, and a twinkle stuck in her eye. “I think I want a little desert. I think I’d like one of those strawberry yogurt shakes right now.”
Mee-Maw and Pa-Paw moved into the kitchen and went to work chopping fresh strawberries and rinsing out the new blender.
I was used to the terrible sound the old blender made, but I knew it meant something sweet was coming. Since Mee-Maw’s health kick, the only way I got candy was to steal it from the store. My mouth watered for the shake when I heard them scooping up the ice. I studied the big glossy pictures of the Elephant Man. He was ugly all right. But he didn’t look much like an elephant. As I read about his life and the way people treated him, and that he was smart and even funny sometimes, I felt a great sadness for him and the tragedy of his life. When I saw him naked, his hips twisted and his shoulders bent under all those tumors, I thought of curing Mee-Maw. I closed my eyes and said a secret prayer to a new God, Pa-Paw Preston’s God, thanking him for curing Mee-Maw’s cancer. I felt momentarily guilty for praying to a new God, and opened my eyes to study Pee-Paw Balz in his ash vase. I realized all in an instant that the haunting I’d been waiting for had never come. Pa-Paw Preston had been with us nearly six months, and nothing bad had happened.
The kitchen went silent, and I figured they were kissing again. Then Pa-Paw Preston said, “The old blender only had two buttons. This one’s got a bunch. Which do you wanna try first, chop, liquefy, blend, or puree?”
I heard Mee-Maw Lopez take in a long, sweet breath. She said, “I don’t trust puree, sounds uppity. Let’s try shop.”
They both giggled. Then there was a brief pause, during which I read for the first time that the Elephant Man’s name was the same as mine. They called him Joseph.
A horrible grinding came from the kitchen. It just started to wind up when a loud crack shattered the air—then footsteps stumbling and a heavy thump. I jumped up and ran to the kitchen. Mee-Maw Lopez was sprawled out on the floor, leaning up against the pine cabinets. She and Pa-Paw Preston and the floor and the walls were splattered with strawberries and yogurt. I almost laughed, but Pa-Paw wasn’t laughing. He lunged forward with a dishrag. He moved like he was going to press it to her neck, then he pulled back. Mee-Maw’s eyes were wide. She tried to speak but couldn’t. Through the pink mixture of strawberry and yogurt, a thin line of deep red trailed down her neck and over her chest.
She brought her shaking fingers to her throat and felt the shard of thick glass from the shattered blender protruding there. She pointed at it violently. Pa-Paw grabbed it with his index finger and thumb and tugged slowly until it slid out.
That was when the creek became a river.
Pa-Paw pressed the rag to her neck and screamed at me to get the Sheriff next door. I couldn’t leave. Mee-Maw’s fear kept me glued, until Pa-Paw screamed at me again. Running away from the person I wanted most to cling to, was the hardest thing in the world. I’d run just like that in dreams, with scary things chasing me. My strides were long and lean but slower than spit sliding down a wall. I could almost count the seconds between one foot leaving the ground and the other landing.
The Sheriff’s wife opened the door. I hardly noticed she’d been crying. “Help! Get the Sheriff! Get the Sheriff.”
She collapsed. With her head lowered, she said, “He lef me. The son of a bitch lef me.”
The second I hit the porch of our house I screamed that the Sheriff was gone. I ran for the telephone and dialed 911. When the operator answered, I shouted, “My Mee-Maw. She’s hurt real bad! Come on now. Hurry up.”
Then Pa-Paw was standing in front of me. He moved slow, real slow, taking the phone from me, giving the address, then letting the receiver fall to the floor. “Come on,” he said. Holding my hand, Pa-Paw led me to where he’d laid Mee-Maw Lopez down on the floor, where he’d covered her face with a white cloth napkin and folded her arms across her chest.
I couldn’t have known at the time that Pa-Paw Preston would follow Mee-Maw Lopez to his idea of heaven inside six months, or that I’d be sent to live in “The Big City” with his relatives. I never could have known they’d abandon me too–not for anyone’s idea of heaven, or the Navy this time, but for drugs. Still, there were other things I did know the day we buried Mee-Maw Lopez. I knew the world was full of contradictions, and that health food can kill you. I knew nobody needs a spotless roof, and you should let crummy artists do their thing. I knew when it came to bleeding, you didn’t want to let a creek become a river. I also knew that you only had so many chances to steer your fate, and that if you or someone you loved steered theirs wrong like Pee-Paw Balz, or Mee-Maw Lopez done, lookout! Because no fire alive is gonna burn away your memories. No fire alive is gonna burn away those pictures in your head.
The boat heaved upward, its bow crashing against another large swell, and the icy water from it splashed over the railing dousing Benjamin’s bare hand and the side of his pant leg. He looked up at the pilothouse. Inside was the shadow of the skipper, Dan Smith, a bearded young man wearing a baseball cap.
“Can you see them yet?” Benjamin shouted out.
The young skipper shook his head.
From the elevation of the poop deck, Smith could see the ice field ahead, stretching horizontally in both directions as far as eyes could see, and he could see the opening in it, where the ice-breaker had entered. A deep, black rift etched its way landward through blocks of snow and ice, toward the islands of the Magdalen, a small archipelago in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence where men came to hunt young harp seals.
Benjamin glanced down at the rifle in his hand. He could feel the wood stock snugly against his palm and the cold steel of the trigger against his finger.
It was fate, he thought. His father had fought on the side of environmentalism, as did his grandfather before him – both men were committed to the preservation of land and sea, and to the animals and creatures living there. His grandfather had worked for the Reno Gazette-Journal and wrote editorials in an effort to stop the eradication of the Nevada mustang. But in the 1950s, a man’s work was more important then the conservation of a misfit animal, and his articles were eventually banned from publication, as was he. And his father, a mill worker for the Georgia-Pacific Corporation, took up the fight against the dumping of lethal by-products into the many streams and rivers of northern Oregon. He gathered signatures and petitioned national leaders, and was eventually fired for it. And he spent many long years unemployed in an occupation that was, at the time, the only one for a middle-aged mill worker in the Pacific Northwest. Two generations of men before him had taken up the pen for the cause of environmentalism. It was why, Benjamin knew, he now stood on the deck of a ship with a gun in his hand.
As they approached the ice field, Smith eased back on the throttle and brought the engines to a complete idle. He waited for the swells to subside and then throttled ahead into the channel at a slow speed. The mouth of this man-made waterway was more than thirty meters across, evidence of how many times it had been used to access the permanent snowfields beyond. Either side of the channel was lined in by four-foot walls of ice, out from which stretched large, diagonal cracks.
Benjamin kept his eyes keenly ahead as the ship inched its way upstream. As the channel narrowed, it became littered with chunks of floating ice, and he could hear them thunking off the bow. He glanced up at Smith frequently, checking for a sign, but Smith offered no signal yet. Beyond the channel, Smith could only see the sprawling white ice floes stretching out to the grey horizon.
Across the ice, perched at the top of his 55-foot, steel-hulled crabber was the old man Kalic, a burly fifty-something Canadian who had run a sealing company for twenty-five years now. From his high point, he watched his men perform their handiwork, that which they had performed in the same brutal, archaic manner for more than two decades straight.
The whiteness of the ice, which stretched out below him, was stained red now with blood. And the redness formed the image of a tangled web, where many blood-lines led to a central hub, a heap of dead or dying seals; their carcasses dumped there after their pelts had been taken. The young seals were shot or bludgeon to death with hakapiks, a metal-hook-tipped club. Then they were dragged back to the ship, sometimes still conscious. It was a scene of butchery, only to be imagined in a dark dream or witnessed in a horror film.
But for Kalic and his boys, it was work, no different than a butcher in a meat shop or a lineman in a packing shed. It was the work of their fathers, and fore-fathers before them. And the animals, though charming in appearance, were nothing but dollar signs, and mortgage payments, and food on the plates of their children.
“There!” he shouted, pointing a strong arm to a young seal scrambling away from the carnage. He looked down at a young man who was working the pelts with a knife below. “Cratton!” he shouted. “There! He is getting away!”
The young man grabbed his hakapik, dashed after the young seal, and gaffed it repeatedly in the head until it stopped moving. Then he hooked it with the spike at the end of the hakapik and dragged it back to the ship, leaving another blood line in the snow. The seal lay there on the ice floe with blood running from its nose. It was still conscious and gasped for air. Not far away, the Sealer sharpened his knife blade, and as he began slicing its fur from its torso, the young seal began thrashing violently, and he thumped it in the head again with the hakapik until it stopped.
In the distance over the rise of an ice berm, there were three other pups getting away. Kalic shouted to his men, directing them with the long point of his arm. One of the hunters scrambled up to the top of the berm with a rifle and cracked out three shots.
“That’s some fine shooting there, Johnston!” Kalic shouted.
In between directing traffic, Kalic eyed the channel east. They had been pestered in recent weeks by a small group of rebel activists who coined themselves The Abalone Alliance, predominantly because they had come from the West, the Pacific coast, where they had rallied to protect the abalone from the intrusive discharge of a nuclear power plant.
He did not see the ship at first, but heard the familiar sound of a ship’s diesel engine whispering across the ice floes. Then he saw the crown of its crow’s nest moving above the ice toward them. He entered the wheelhouse, and when he emerged, he had a shotgun in one hand, and several rock-salt filled shells in the other. He had grown tired of these young activists, and of their harassing tactics. They had plastered the local towns with anti-sealing posters, callously displaying the carnage and portraying them as butchers. They had posted videos on YouTube, and painted the words ‘Baby Killers’ in bright red on the side of his ship. And they had blocked the channel by dragging huge chunks of ice upstream and jamming them in the narrows, although Kalic’s double-hulled crabber made quick work of it. More recently they resorted to more irritating measures, using a loud speaker to insult their families and threaten to ram their ship against the steel-hull crabber.
For Kalic, the activists were more of a nuisance than a threat. But their activities interrupted work, and some of his men were bothered by it, and by the escalation of it. Each time, it seemed, the activists were ratcheting up their methods, becoming more hostile, and more desperate. And Kalic was determined to put an end to it.
He looked down at the rock-salt filled shells in his hand. He grunted out a deep-throated laugh as he loaded them into the shotgun. This will teach them!
It was their right, nevertheless, Kalic thought. It was the law of the land. It was Canadian law!
The annual seal hunt was a tradition that dated back several centuries. From before the time of Columbus, on through the advent of commercial shipping, young harp seals were taken for their fur, meat and oil. Since the industry’s boom in the mid-fifties, new generations of Sealers lined-up each year, ready to take the catch. For some in isolated communities, it was the only livelihood; the only means of financial survival. The hunt was even sanctioned by the Department of Fisheries and supported by the government; although Kalic would be first to admit they did not always comply with Canada’s animal welfare standards. But if not for him, there would be others, he knew. It was tradition, and commercially successful, and no greenhorn young activists from California were going to change that.
Benjamin’s mind was still on the rifle held in his hand as he looked forward into the narrowing channel.
‘It is a menace,’ he recalled his father saying. ‘Only to be used by men without reason.’
His father detested weapons of all types. They were the takers of life. That which was the greatest treasure of nature, Life, the most coveted of all things on earth, was to be respected and preserved above all costs. And yet the very weapon that his father detested was in fact the instrument that could sustain the sanctity of life here in the ice fields of the Saint Lawrence Gulf, Benjamin thought.
Benjamin imagined the horror he had seen, coming upon the ice where the Sealers had done their work, the bloodied carcasses of hundreds of young harp seals; the pitiful cries of the pups; the repeated thuds of clubs raining down on soft skulls; the Sealers’ laughter echoing across the ice floes. Perhaps a weapon was a menace of irrational men, but it was the only tangible thing the hunters could understand.
You must speak their language,” he said quietly, looking down at the rifle. If you are fighting irrational men of violence, then a menacing weapon is what one must use.
Nevertheless, Benjamin thought to himself, he did not intend to use the rifle to kill; only to fire warning shots over their heads. Of this, he was certain. The weapon he held in his hands would not be used to kill, but to squash the will in others to kill.
The ship’s engines backed off. Benjamin looked up at Smith, who nodded his head and motioned with his hand to get down. Benjamin did so, promptly, taking a position behind the solid steel lip of the bow. As the ship rounded one last bend, Benjamin could see the 55-foot crabber ahead. Up on the master deck, coming around the rail to his side of the ship, was Kalic with an object in his hand. It appeared to be a hakapik.
As they drifted closer, Smith reversed the engines, ceasing their forward momentum. The propellers went quiet and the two ships were finally positioned, a mere thirty yards apart.
From the master deck of the crabber, Kalic shouted out, “Get the hell out of here! Go back home to California!”
All the seal hunters, who were still busy working their pelts on the far side of the ship, stopped and turned their heads.
“Go home!” Kalic’s yelled again. His deep voice echoed across the ice floes.
Benjamin leveled his rifle, taking aim at a place in the sky just above Kalic’s head.
“You suck off,” he yelled back.
“Go away before I have to do something serious!”
You want something serious? Benjamin thought.
“We don’t want any trouble,” Kalic said. “We just want to get along with our work.”
In his mind, Benjamin saw the dead seals again, strewn across the white ice; the bodies of helpless youth slain without mercy. And sighting down the barrel, there at a place in the open sky just above the ship, he pulled the trigger.
The bullet zinged harmlessly over Kalic’s head
Smith looked on nervously from the poop deck.
“Bastards,” Kalic growled. Turning back, he looked in the direction where the bullet whiz past. Then he took two deliberate steps forward, fully against the rail, brought the stock of the shotgun securely against his shoulder, and pulled the trigger.
The shotgun bucked and the salt pellets shattered the glass in the pilothouse just in front of Smith’s face. Smith ducked down and to the side, behind the metal frame of the windshield.
Kalic grinned. Though he knew the rock salt would not cause serious injury, it would cause immense pain, and with this stinging message, he hoped to turn these young activists away.
He quickly aimed and pulled the trigger again. The second shot sent salt pellets scattering around the pilothouse, some of which hit Smith in his leg, tearing into his skin.
Smith dropped to the floor with a yelp, grasping his leg.
From below, Benjamin could hear all the action.
“You okay?” he yelled out. But there was no answer, only groaning, and when he looked up at the pilothouse, he could not see Smith, only the shattered glass of the pilot’s windshield.
Benjamin immediately lifted his rifle back over the bow’s bridge and took aim again, a more sincere aim this time with the barrel pointing directly at Kalic’s large frame. At the same time, Kalic swung his shotgun around toward the bow of their ship to where Benjamin had fired the original shot. Benjamin pulled the trigger first. Though the shot narrowly missed, it caused Kalic to readjust, and Benjamin pulled the trigger again. This time, the large, burly Kalic crumbled to the deck, grasping his chest in his hand.
Kalic’s shotgun discharged skyward. He fell backward and dropped harmlessly to the deck. Two hunters close to the ship leaped aboard and scrambled up the iron ladder. They found Kalic flat on his back halfway out the doorway of the wheelhouse. There was blood on his chest and his eyes were lifeless.
“You’ve killed him, you bastards!” one of the hunters yelled out.
The other picked up the shotgun and emptied the three remaining shells in the direction of their ship.
Benjamin lay flat in the bow, cuddled against the cold steel. He could hear the three shotgun blasts ricocheting on the upper deck. Then he heard another rifle ring out, a different sound, and heard the ping of a bullet careening off the metal near him.
“You Bastards! You killed him!”
Another shot rang out and another bullet dug deep into the metal hull of their ship. Then there were multiple shots, from both land and sea, pummeling the ship from all angels.
Up in the pilothouse, Smith pulled himself to his feet, limped over to the wheel, and dropped the gear-shift into reverse. Keeping his head low, he throttled it down. As the boat picked up momentum, jettisoning in reverse, he could hear it, and feel it, the stern slamming against the ice-walls of the channel. He could not swing the boat around without risking a further barrage of bullets. Nor did he have the advantage of sight. Using the bottom of the wheel, with head down, he had to steer it, the best that he could, trying to find open water.
At twenty yards, and forty yards, and sixty, the bullets whizzed past. At last, at a distance of one hundred yards where the channel widened sufficiently, Smith was able to swing the bow around. He pointed the ship straight out the channel and throttled it all the way down. A few more shots rang out from the Sealers, but eventually they were out of range and out of sight.
Benjamin remained flat on the foredeck, prone with the rifle beneath him. It was still clinched in his hands. He could feel himself breathing hard and shaking. The adrenaline rush from the whole thing was still peaking through his veins.
“Wow! That was something!” he heard Smith yell down from the bridge.
Benjamin turned and looked up at Smith. Behind the broken glass of the pilothouse, beneath the ball-cap, he could see Smith’s face smiling.
“I think you killed that old bastard,” Smith shouted.
Benjamin stood up, still holding the rifle in his hand. He looked down at it and realized his hand was trembling.
“Are you okay?” Smith asked.
“Yes,” Benjamin replied, not sure of it.
“I think he was shooting salt rock,” Smith said, looking down at the blood on his leg. “Did you hear what I said? I think you killed that old goat.”
Benjamin stared up at the pilothouse without answering. In all his life, he could not imagine himself killing someone. It was sacrilegious, contrary to the teachings of his father and grandfather. It was a betrayal of one’s beliefs; an outcome not part of the plan. He looked down at the rifle – the menacing instrument used by men without reason. The barrel and chamber casing was still warm from its discharge, and although his grasp had unconsciously loosened, it felt awkwardly comfortable in his hand. A chill passed over his body.
What have you done? he thought. How could you fire that shot?
“Yeah, I really think you got him,” Smith shouted down gleefully from the pilothouse. “I think you got him in the chest!”
Benjamin looked up, his restless brain quiet for a moment. It was a betrayal, all right; a betrayal of all that his father stood for.
As the ship made its way out the main channel into the open waters of the Gulf, Benjamin remained on the foredeck, feeling the rhythmic thumps of the swells against the bow. They thumped loudly, as did his heart. I have killed a man, he thought. He looked out across the Gulf to the southwest. The dim northern lights faded. He bowed his head and watched the dark water rushing toward the bow. It was fate, he thought, the fate of his fathers.