Waiting for Dick to Die
The little town of Cordova lay on the slope above the harbor. It and what else Mitchell saw during his daily flights was his catechism, as familiar as an often heard story with shifty nuances that always began and ended with the landing strip next to Lake Eyak, or, if he were flying a float plane, the lake itself, the notch between mountains, and the town. On this evening, he and Lizzie took off from the strip in the Cessna 180, rose over the woods, passed through the notch, and above Cordova’s wind-blasted buildings. Next was the harbor, chock-full of fishing boats, and then Hawkins Island. Lizzie sat straight next to Mitchell with her hands on her lap and her crinkly hair spraying out from under a many-colored watch cap. Overhead were broken clouds, beneath lay the water, and in between the Cessna penetrated the cobalt-blue sky of the ever-lengthening twilight, going the thirty-five miles toward the Entrance to Prince William Sound where the salmon upon which the Cordovans absolutely depended had brought their homeward journey to an abrupt halt, as if they’d run into a wall.
Mitchell and his mother, Doris, were partners in a flying service. Lizzie, a biologist, worked for Alaska Fish and Game. Despite the worries over the fish, Mitchell was glad to have the contract for taking Lizzie out on her twice-a-day spotting flights. Her presence made him alert to his pleasure and to all the bright in the world, yet he was wary of this feeling, too, because he was from this place while Lizzie was a sojourner. He needed to remember that she was on her way somewhere else, a person of her quality. She was twenty-five, and he twenty-nine. He’d considered that they were like killer whales in their innocence. They lacked a common past, the future was indeterminate, and yet, having discovered the ancient craving between them, they’d seized the moment for him to breach his resident pod and she her transient one in order to join.
After they passed over the intermediate islands, the Cessna shuddered through the air bumps along the length of Hinchinbrook, one of the two big barrier islands that separate the Sound from the Gulf of Alaska. Hinchinbrook is a mountainous body of land, savagely weathered on the Gulf side but incised with safe harbors on its lee, including Port Etches just inside the Entrance, which in turn opens to a wide haven for sea birds and small boats, Constantine Harbor, named two centuries ago for a Russian Archduke. The Entrance itself, its dark tongue of water deep and broad enough for supertankers to navigate on their passage to and from the terminal at Valdez, lies between outcroppings at the extremes of Hinchinbrook and the second big island, Montague. Mitchell considered the Entrance a vaginal opening from the Gulf to the fecundity in detail of the Sound, which at this time of year—April—became an exuberant dance of airborne spores, marine plankton blooms, all manner of migrations, sexual contention, breeding, voracious feeding, birthing, and death. He dropped the Cessna over Port Etches, slipped out above the Entrance, and started in on the loops low to the water, while Lizzie searched with her binoculars for the fish that had come this far on schedule from their North Pacific gyre. Mitchell spied glitterings with his naked eye as the hatchery run of pink salmon rose just enough in the near shore for the play of their bodies to transfigure as a delicate chop in the swells. The fish had been here for five days, swimming in circles.
On the last loop, Mitchell banked hard to give Lizzie a good look. She could calculate in her head, transpose what she saw in the loops into grids, interface it with the two-year-old release data, subtract the estimates for the wild runs, and boil it all down into numbers of hatchery-run pinks. But mainly she was looking for signs that some of the pinks might be breaking for the Sound. She set the binoculars down, glanced over, and shrugged: The conduct of the some forty million fish remained mystifying.
Mitchell turned the plane back toward the hump of Hinchinbrook. Two sea lions, engorged with salmon, had hauled out on the marker buoy at the Entrance to bask in the sun. Over Port Etches, Mitchell throttled down and swung over Nuchek, almost a small island within the embrace of the open jaw Port Etches cut in Hinchinbrook, yet linked to the big island by a sand spit. Behind Nuchek lay Constantine Harbor. There had been settlements here in the old days: a Native encampment, years later a fortification to protect Russia’s interest in the fur trade, later yet a fox farm. Mitchell’s father, Luther, had died in a crash on the mountain slope above. The dark of the deep water gave way to luminous aquamarine in the shallows, and then to pale sand, olive-colored wrack, volcanic cobble, and spruce woods going up the precipitous slopes to the ice. A few bald eagles fed along the shore, and a couple score soared high above the estuary and the gulls that swept here and there like tatters. More eagles roosted in the trees along the edge of the woods. It was a sight from the air, the white crests gleaming dots atop the dark bodies parked like posts on the limbs, hundreds of them.
“There’s more. They’re still migrating in,” Mitchell said through the intercom.
“I’ll say,” Lizzie’s voice crackled back. She had the binoculars up. As Mitchell swung around, the sun sparked off the buckles on the binocular strap, her thumb ring, emerald nose stud, and the line of ear studs visible under her hair. “Over a thousand. They have really made a comeback.”
“Dick says they’ve hexed the pinks,” Mitchell said.
“Dick’s got a screw loose.”
Lizzie’s year in town was long enough for her to have formed an antipathy for Dick, but in Mitchell’s view not nearly long enough yet to appreciate the depths of how right she was. It was Dick, years ago, who’d operated the fox farm. It had been to him that Mitchell’s father was delivering meat to feed the foxes when he crashed. And then, following the Prudhoe Bay strike, Dick had cashed in a share he’d had in an offshore oil lease and maneuvered his way into becoming Cordova’s financial Tantalus, a finger on every switch. Yesterday he’d sat down to float his theories on the stalled salmon run while Mitchell was having breakfast in the Shy, a restaurant adjoining the inn that Dick and his wife owned.
Lizzie set the binoculars down and with high irony said, “A pragmatist like him? What could he mean by that?”
“He wants something.”
“Doesn’t he always?”
Mitchell grunted, thinking—Don’t we all? He guided the plane over Hinchinbrook into the shuddering air, veering north just enough to get a glimpse of the wreckage of his father’s old Stinson on the slope. Even after all these years it stood out, the wings and fuselage a lemon color against the foliage and melting-away snow, a pale, ready-made cross shape filled with animal bones. Whenever he came this way, Mitchell dipped a wing in homage. He did that, and Lizzie reached out to touch his knee, not, Mitchell judged, because she thought he required sympathy—she should have guessed he was well past needing such—but out of respect for his observance of ceremony.
She liked ceremony. Mitchell really liked her, her braininess, her high, smooth brow and cheekbones, her angular legs beneath the corduroys, and the neat columns she made in her notebook, which she was doing now, busily writing against the bump of the plane. She considered the notes, a record of the observed—how many fish, what species, how many eagles, how many otters, how many seals, where seen, and exactly when, doing what, and under what conditions—to be a ceremonial activity too. Some of the information she would transfer to the templates for Fish and Game. Everything else she kept. She’d said she was investigating the patterns of things, and from beneath the patterns the reasons rising like spirits.
Mitchell steadied the heading for home. The engine’s governor surged as they passed through the vacuum pockets. “Still think it’s water temperature?” he asked.
“Mostly.” She touched his knee again.
Because of Cordova’s reliance on fish, it required its science. The agencies employed fishery biologists like Lizzie. Lab boats took temperature readings, water samples, and test catches. The record estimates of this hatchery run at first had ignited excitement, but now it was all collapsing into a darkness of heart that made the three thousand or so souls of the town fraction off into their tribalisms: the cannery workers, the Native people, the scientists here, the fishing people there, agency people, merchants, school teachers. Mitchell knew the tension ignited into fury in some of the kitchens at night. Drinking. Domestic violence. It was feared that the run would be overripe by the time it came in from the Gulf. The fish were already underweight. They’d stopped eating as salmon do when they spawn, implanting their anal plugs. Their internal clocks were ticking fiendishly ahead of their actual position in the water. Something was wrong.
Lizzie’s theory was that it was the weather, a rise in thermal energy that drove the warm currents north. But she would always add that the whole of it was a tangle: maybe too many fry released, too much pressure on food sources, sublethal toxics, or the fact that the fish—Oncorhynchus gorbuscha—were hatchery pinks in the first place, made to be harvested by the millions on their run back to the colonies of their birth, the hatcheries, where each year sperm was squeezed out of select males to be buttered over millions upon millions of extracted eggs that were incubated in aluminum trays arranged as drawers in huge cases along corridors in the temperature controlled warehouses mounted in bays and inlets. The pinks were designed to take their year at sea, and then offer themselves up en masse to be canned. Yet all it took to throw them off, Lizzie would say, was a tweak, like a wolf coming upon a herd of Holsteins. Mitchell liked Lizzie’s scientific repose, and how as she cavorted with geophysical grids, predation systems, distant effects, and sought what she called the mind of the world, she could end up with a word like “tweak.” Loving took a similar course with her.
Cordova came into view, the houses snuggled into the hill. The inhabitants studied the reports from science, turning them over and over and squinting at them from every direction. The fishing people were scientists, too, in one fashion or another. They had to be, but the reports, passed by word-of-mouth and prodded along the way, could find their own feet and chase down the forking paths, ending up as terrifying phantasms in the bush, like bears. Mitchell well knew that sometimes a tweak was all it took to break a mind loose of its moorings.
“This isn’t good,” he said.
“Big trouble,” Lizzie said.
They passed over town and through the gap between mountain peaks blazing white. Mitchell picked out the strip alongside the lake. As they flew above the trees, the flying shed up on the bank became visible, as did Lizzie’s red Honda and Mitchell’s Chevy pickup. Their relationship had achieved the stage where sometimes they stayed together at her cabin near the Copper River, and less often in his town apartment. What might follow this juncture they had not addressed. Mitchell knew words wouldn’t handle it, really. Signals might. It took signals of willingness from the body to know.
As he pitched the plane downwards, Lizzie leaned forward. She seemed to be made of light, like a streak of the aurora. Unafraid, she loved landings—the drop, the grab of the tires, and the way things changed from quick air to sudden, slow earth. Upon touching down, Mitchell turned the Cessna and taxied to the tie-downs by the shed, parking next to the DeHavilland Beaver. Lizzie reached into the back compartment for her bag, put each of her things in its place and zipped the bag shut.
Mitchell could tell: Not tonight.
Early the next morning, Mitchell sat in the Shy, waiting in the corner for Lizzie and getting his ballast for another full day: the first spotting flight, the second one in the evening, and in between mail deliveries. The place was packed and throbbing with anxious talk. Some of the people were from out of town, but most Mitchell knew—the skippers and crews, and a scattering of scientists. Through the window at his side, he could see down to the harbor. Crazy Larry was there, picking through the trash bins, and all along the docks more fishermen worked around the boats. The full fleet was here, nets at the ready, fuel tanks topped off, supplies laid in, everything poised for action. The confabulation of the bow pickers’ and seiners’ stacks and masts rocked gently, and an overflow of tenders lay anchored near the breakwater. Beyond that the morning fog haloed the hump of Hawkins Island. Mitchell envisioned what would soon be the trajectory of his and Lizzie’s morning: past Hawkins Island the open water of the Sound, Mummy Island, the Egg Islands, Hinchinbrook, the Entrance, and the Gulf where the pinks milled around in circles.
Turning back to the room, he saw Dick coming his way among the tables, greeting customers and filling their coffee cups from a canister. Conversations would ebb as he approached. As he passed, they leapt up again so that his course was marked as if by muffled detonations. Dick was politicking and by his presence keeping his help on alert. There was money to be made in times of trouble.
He arrived at Mitchell’s corner and eased into the chair opposite. Aggravating as it was, Mitchell was accustomed to Dick’s spells of familiarity. He guessed that in Dick’s eyes their history gave them a relationship, though how Dick had managed to compose this in his mind remained a forbidding territory so far as Mitchell was concerned. He pulled in his feet to make room. Dick wore a moleskin shirt and gray Gore-Tex jacket with an American flag pin in its lapel. “I’ve been thinking,” he said, tipping his head to the right, as was his habit. He spoke out of that side of his mouth, too. Mitchell had long thought it a good trick, the way Dick’s rubbery lips could arch into a sneer and at the same time loose the mellifluous-sounding words, dropping them as if to the floor where whoever was listening had to bend over to sort them out. “What I’d like,” he said, “is if you’d let me off at Constantine on one of your spotting flights.”
“Oh?” Mitchell said. He placed a hunk of biscuit and gravy in his mouth, and squeezed it against his molars. Dick was looking pretty good, everything considered, including his heart condition and the defibrillator stitched into his chest. He had a little efflorescence on his cheeks, and more padding than he needed, thickening his face, which was smooth as latex all the way up to his bald head. “To stay over?”
Not deigning to answer, Dick stared at Mitchell. His eyes, the organs for his machinating brain, were like icy darts, heat seekers poised behind the steel-rimmed glasses. Then he hunched forward on his elbows and with great deliberation filled Mitchell’s cup from the canister and one for himself.
Mitchell figured this must be a short excursion, though Dick also had his habit of vanishing for weeks at a time, to where was anybody’s guess: by airline to Anchorage and maybe down to Juneau to hatch a new scheme, or to Washington, D.C. to hatch yet another, or maybe to Seattle to add new pages to his medical history. Maybe he’d slipped back into town and was in hiding, speculating with death under his wife’s surveillance in the bungalow they’d built on the far side of the inn. At other times, such as now, he seemed omnipresent, while Lynne, his wife, a one-time English teacher who never left home so far as anyone knew, was always as fugitive as a spider. Lately, word had spread about Dick breaking off a holding company from the oil services outfit he owned. He had seed money from Houston, it was rumored, a Korean developer for the coal fields east of town, a tie to an L.A.-based timber shipping company, and an option to harvest National Forest land alongside the access road to the coal fields that Alaska’s Congressional Delegation was pressuring the Interior Department to build. To Mitchell it all seemed a little fanciful, and yet, knowing Dick, not impossible.
Dick had used his oil lease money to start up the oil services company, invest in the Sound’s hatchery system, and build the Shy. After the Exxon Valdez spill and the fishery crashes, he’d picked up the titles to half the Cordova fleet, refinancing the boats by leveraging a favorable interest rate for himself through the bank. He had tried to pass this off as public-spiritedness, but people were still forking out dollops of cash to him. Some had fallen into arrears. He’d kept squeezing and started repossessing boats, and now people had the mining and logging scheme to worry about: the prospect of more ruined spawning streams and strays from the log rafts that could tear out a boat prop, or worse. Snagged upon the prongs of their resentment and need, Cordovans nonetheless filled the Shy every morning for the best breakfast in town. Mitchell was here, too. It was another good trick.
With his elbows still on the table, Dick added cream and sugar to his coffee, and ticked his spoon around in the cup. He looked at Mitchell from under his eyebrows.
“I’d have to see if a float plane’s available,” Mitchell said.
“When do you leave?” Dick gestured to his rear with his head. “Listen. Folks are worried. What’s Lizzie saying?”
“El Niño. The Gulf Stream’s too warm.” Mitchell sawed off a piece of sausage, loaded it onto his fork along with a hunk of biscuit, and shoved it all into his mouth.
Mitchell looked out the window as he chewed. Crazy Larry toiled toward the Shy with his cart full of recyclables. Often, Larry’s routine was to come into the Shy to sing to the clientele, and Mitchell figured he would today. Larry kept a shack at the town dump out by the river where he sorted whatever might be redeemed. The liberty granted Larry was one of the things Mitchell loved best about his town. He loved Larry, too, for the liberty he took in his turn with the intimacy of other people’s junk.
Mitchell turned back, thinking that predation was where Dick’s mind would naturally go. “Maybe toxins.”
“That’s bull. We’re as clean as a whistle.”
Bull, yourself, Mitchell thought. Whistle up your own shiny ass. “Or too many fish released in the first place,” he said. “Maybe weak food sources.”
Dick leveled a finger at Mitchell. “She’s not sure, is she?”
Mitchell’s scalp prickled. “Do you want her to say she’s sure when she isn’t?”
“It’s dangerous not being sure.” Dick kept poking the air as he went on. Mitchell stared, fascinated by the surreal aspect Dick took on. It was as if he had a mechano inside and a little man turning its crank. The harder the little man cranked the more Dick’s voltage rose, brightening the points in his eyes. “It’s our hatchery system,” he said. “The raw material’s out there swimming in circles, for Christ’s sake.”
“I guess the raw material has an idea of its own,” Mitchell replied.
There was a crash in the kitchen from dishes being dropped, a swell of voices, and shouts of laughter. Dick came to attention, turning to look. When he turned back, he raised his eyebrows as if to say: See? The critters are restive. One table over, Jake, a Native fisherman with whom Mitchell had played high school basketball, caught his eye and made a face, mocking Dick’s glower. Mitchell smiled faintly while Dick added more sugar to his coffee.
Then Crazy Larry appeared in the entryway in his soiled overalls and drenched sweatshirt, gripping one of his plastic bags by the throat. He removed the cap from his head, revealing his whorled mop of hair. He was a big man with timid eyes. “Irene,” he said, causing people to hush. He started in on the only song Mitchell had ever heard him sing in the mornings—“Goodnight Irene.” He had a sweet tenor voice, which he filled with emotion. When he got to the line—I’m going to jump in the river and drown—it touched Mitchell to his depth, so mournful were the words. People joined in softly with the chorus, trying to stay with Larry’s off-kilter rhythm:
Goodnight Irene, goodnight,
Goodnight Irene, goodnight Irene.
I’ll see you in my dreams.
Across the room, Janice, who had lost her husband when he got his legs caught in a gill-netter spool and was spun around and around with his head banging against the deck, had risen to her feet. She was buxom and she teetered as she sang, tears streaming down her face. Several more were standing. Others leaned toward Larry from the edges of the chairs, or swayed with the tune, taking their pleasure in it. The people were like birds in a rookery transported from their raucous chatter to do what, to Mitchell’s knowledge, birds never did…sing in unison…in elaborate polyphonies, yes, but never in unison. From the next table, Jake grinned happily, flashing his teeth. Only Dick remained aloof, the darts of his eyes piercing through the window.
Larry finished, waved, and called out his backwards salutation, “Goodnight, everyone!” He turned to the entryway and went away, dragging his bag behind him.
There goes Larry, Mitchell thought. And here we have Dick. Which is the lunatic?
Mitchell’s mother, Doris, was a pilot, too. She had taught him to fly. His father, once a Navy flyer, had taught her. Mitchell vividly remembered twenty years ago when he was nine and stood with his father out on the wharf while they watched his mother come into the lake. His father was admiring her landing. “Look at that, son,” he’d said. “A thing of beauty. Nose up. Hardly a rooster tail. People are as safe with her as they could hope to be.” Two weeks later, Mitchell’s father was dead.
The opinion was that engine trouble in bad weather had brought the Stinson down. There used to be a landing strip alongside Constantine Harbor and his father had failed to nurse the plane to it. Although Doris had always told Mitchell stories about his father—her memories lending substance to Mitchell’s sketchy ones—she avoided the crash. It was because of the hurt, Mitchell guessed. There was a taboo, and for a long time, Mitchell had wondered if she believed Dick had pressured his father into making the delivery. She had told him that the two men had been compatriots in the old days, each coming to Cordova in the same year and friendly enough much of the time, but not always. It had been Dick who’d radioed for a rescue team, and scaled the slope himself to the wreckage, pulled the body free, and then so that Doris could hire another pilot and a mechanic to keep the business running, he’d advanced her a loan against his use of her services.
Seven years ago, Mitchell was finishing his degree at the university in Fairbanks where he’d taken up Russian studies instead of engineering as he’d intended. Each year, he’d come home to pilot during the summer season. Doris took it upon herself to clear the debt with Dick before Mitchell graduated, and told him about it when he returned, seemingly for good, that June. “As you know, I’ve felt a conflict over Dick for years,” she said.
They were standing in the living room at the window that looked out upon her garden, and past that the Quonset flying shed Mitchell’s father had built, the landing strip alongside the lake, the wharf where the float planes were tied, and the kidney-colored lake itself, filled with fish, its willow-laden shallows frequented by moose and decorated with the elaborate stick nests of sandhill cranes. Doris bent to prune a sucker from a plant in the windowsill. “It wasn’t easy, being beholden to him,” she said. “The other part, running the business, wasn’t either. At the first, just putting a plane in the air was hard.” She smiled. “Now it looks like I’ve got you here to worry over.”
“I’m careful,” Mitchell said, always alert to the weight of her concern.
“I know, and you’d better be.” She studied the bit of plant she had in her fingers and then looked out the window again. “Dick certainly did help us, but it got way too long paying off and being grateful. He came in with his figures. I was willing to accept them, slippery as they were, then he started in trying to chisel out a little more he said I still owed him. I sent him away and called a lawyer. Now, it’s done. We’re clear. I had some papers drawn up for you to look at, too. I’m happy you’re here, but I wanted things set so you’d be free to decide the way you want.”
Mitchell had been alert to the weight of that, too. He loved to fly. He was far from displeased to be coming into the business in his hometown, though in Fairbanks he’d had a romance with a woman from the Ukraine that caused him to embrace an array of previously unimagined possibilities. The relationship had come painfully apart.
“What Dick really wants,” Doris said, “is a free ride forever, like we’re his personal flying service. We serve the town. We’ll serve him, too, but from now on at the going rate.”
This became the moment that triggered Mitchell to pose his question directly: “Do you blame him for Dad’s death?”
Doris’s body gave a little lurch, and then her words grew measured: “I’ve never known exactly what passed between them beforehand. Dick had his fox farm. It was the end of winter. The weather was turning, but Dick was running low on meat to feed the foxes. That’s what your dad was carrying, moose carcasses and bags of fish and meat scraps. Your dad was a romantic, God love him. Sometimes, he took chances. Dick was always an opportunist, though he’s got worse at it. Back then, he’d already loaned us a little money for a dock, so yes, I always suspected your dad was pressured. Before he left, he said Dick was saying that if he didn’t get the meat he’d have to take a loss on the fox pelts. But that’s all I know for sure. At the very best it was the worst kind of pushing coming out of the wrong kind of nature at a bad time, and a lapse in another nature. Do I blame Dick? Sometimes, yes. Many a night I’ve lain awake filled with fury and wishing I’d stopped your dad. But to be honest, no, I don’t really know if it’s fair to blame Dick. It’s better to try not to live a life of blaming.”
In the restaurant, the conversations had picked up, the energy lacing into the radiance Larry had left behind, but beneath it, Mitchell sensed, resided a lingering melancholy. Dick said, “We can’t wait around while others study this thing to death. The town will collapse without the hatchery run. And what do you mean the fish have an idea? Do you think this is a joke?”
Just as Mitchell was considering the emphasis Dick put on others, as if there were space creatures in town, Lizzie appeared. She hung her coat on a peg, waved when she spotted Mitchell, and paused to talk to one of her fellow scientists at a table near the entryway. “I’m not joking. The fish are doing what they have to do.”
“Then make them do something different. What’s science for?”
Mitchell pushed his empty plate in from the table edge, leaned back, stretched out his legs at an angle, and glanced across at Lizzie. He was anxious for her to be here and Dick not to be. “To help us understand?”
Dick’s lips arched eel-like and froze halfway between a smile and a sneer. “Understand so we know what to do. I need to go out there and spend some time with the old soul. I need to see this thing for myself.”
Mitchell’s teeth ground…old soul! It was a term he knew from his mother to have been one of his father’s favorites, now residing in Mitchell as a legacy: his father’s sense of the force behind the raw life here, the twining together of the human and wild, and the need to hold fast to the fright and beauty of it all. Dick had just trespassed and he knew it. Mitchell said, “It’ll be two hundred.”
“That’s a little steep for a flight you’re making anyway, son.”
“Two hundred,” Mitchell said. “Drop off and pick you up.”
An hour later, the three set out from the lake in a float plane, the Cessna 206. They went between the mountains, past Cordova and Hawkins Island. Lizzie sat up front with Mitchell. Dick and his gear were in the back. Mitchell hadn’t hooked up Dick to the intercom, but as the plane bumped above Hinchinbrook, his voice cut through the engine noise.
“What’s that?” Mitchell said.
Dick came forward between the two front seats. “The weather’s good.”
It was true. To the northeast, three tiny-appearing tankers were visible at their anchorage. The icy peaks of the Chugach Range on the mainland were alive with light. Beyond the tankers lay Bligh Reef and the narrows the ships would ply on their way to the terminal. In the other direction, far to the southwest, puffy cumulus clouds floated in a line, the edge of the storm arising from the Pacific. The sun blazed upon them. As Mitchell banked southward and hooked around, the light stuttered in a circle upon the plane’s instrument panel, the plated window strippings, and Lizzie’s line of ear studs. Her face was in silhouette amidst the sparklers.
Mitchell came in low over the spit, skimming the bush. He put down in the chunk of water while a flock of Canada geese scooted for the shallows, churning the surface into froth. Up on shore a startled brown bear hightailed it for the woods. Near shore, an otter ducked out of sight. Hundreds of eagles were posted in the trees while others scouted the estuaries. On the wharf, left over from the old days, lay an upside-down skiff, which Mitchell guessed Dick planned to use, since he’d packed an outboard. Mitchell taxied to the wharf. Lizzie opened the door and got up on her knees, reaching to pull Dick’s gear to the doorway. Mitchell squeezed past and stood on a float, handing things over to Dick who’d clambered out and tied the plane on: the outboard, two dry bags, a gun case, a foldout cart to haul the gear to the shack at the edge of the woods, and a wooden crate Dick said to handle carefully. It was heavy.
“Radio and ammo,” Dick added, answering the question no one had asked. “You never know.”
“Tomorrow morning?” Mitchell asked.
“Maybe the evening or next morning.”
“There’s a blow coming.”
“If you’re not here, I’ll know why,” Dick said.
“Watch yourself,” Mitchell said. “Watch out for those bears.”
Dick looked down at his gun case and nudged it with his boot toe.
Mitchell and Lizzie flew over the Gulf where the fish swam in circles, their mystery still secure beneath the chop. Mitchell wondered about how everything must have appeared a little different for them each time they went around, everything shifting in the underwater world as they chased their daily catechisms in the loops…waiting, waiting for what, and asking what questions?
“It’s like there’s been a systemic change,” Lizzie said. “Like there’s a new chemistry and they can’t find their way in it.”
“Maybe it’s a post-fish world. Maybe they’ve decided they’re just going to die out there instead of coming in to be caught.”
Lizzie chuckled. “Easy, now.” As they flew back over Constantine, she hiked up to see out Mitchell’s side, holding his shoulder. They glimpsed Dick’s tiny figure pulling the cart along the dock. “Maybe you should just leave him,” she said.
Mitchell smiled. “I wish.”
While Lizzie was eating her breakfast in the Shy, Jake had come to sit with them, and that had been his suggestion when he heard what Dick was planning: “Just fly the asshole out and leave him there.”
“He has the radio,” Mitchell now said to Lizzie.
The plane bumped over the mountains, dropping, then surging when the wings caught hard air, making Lizzie arch her back with pleasure. Soon, they were past Hinchinbrook and over the water. “Did you see his face?” Lizzie asked.
Mitchell pictured Dick just before they’d left him—his smooth, mask-like skin, his eyes glittering so that Mitchell could almost have sworn he’d heard the manic little man inside, panting desperately as he cranked the mechano, revving up the voltage and making Dick’s ideas run around wildly and smash into each other.
Nine hours later, the two flew out in the 180 for the day’s second spotting flight. There was no need for the float plane, and besides Mitchell had noticed that one of the floats was taking on water. They observed the salmon circling near the islands, and then Mitchell spotted the knife-blade of a dorsal fin poking up, the white and the black of it catching the light, and another one, and then another three scouting the Entrance in a line—killer whales. He nudged Lizzie.
“I see.” She turned, glassing out to the Gulf. “There’s a pod of ten. Transients. They’re going after the fish.”
Mitchell saw three more gliding closer to the Entrance, the bodies and fins like tuxedos. They were herding the fish and whatever else in the methodical way of killer whales about to go on a rampage.
Lizzie set down the binoculars. “The pinks still aren’t breaking up.”
Mitchell arched toward Constantine, passing above the spit, the wharf, the harbor, and ascending over the shack. There was no sign of Dick. The skiff was tethered to the wharf with the outboard on its stern. Thousands of plovers and phalaropes had come to nest, joining the gulls. Enormous flocks spiraled and stitched back in dizzying arcs. Eagles circled above them. The puffins, like little fullbacks, drove through it all in their dogged straight lines toward the sea where they would dive for food. The darkening sky filled with exquisite chaos, confetti spraying everywhere.
Lizzie’s voice suddenly sizzled through the intercom, “Wait!” She twisted in her seat, trying to see down. “Go back!”
He circled and returned, straining to see while Lizzie glassed the spit and beach. He picked out particles dotting the ground and floating in the water amongst the seabirds. There were more on the rocks up between the wharf and shack—reclining dark oblongs with white spots. “What is it?”
“Eagles,” Lizzie said.
“My God,” Lizzie said. “It’s the eagles!”
Mitchell made another pass, tacking up along the ridgeline high enough to glimpse the Stinson, pirouetted above it, and eased off on the throttle and swooped low over the harbor, scattering birds again. Now he saw eagle after eagle, body after dark body and the white heads like flecks of quartz strewn on the rocks and sand. On the windward side of the spit floated a sea lion corpse.
“What the hell?” he said.
“Is it him?”
“He’s fucking flipped,” Lizzie said. “Put down!”
“Put it down, can you?”
“No,” Mitchell said, looking and thinking, and looking again to affirm what he knew. “No,” he repeated, looking at the cobbled beach, the little bit of spit with the bush on it, the trees, the water, and the remnant of what once had been a makeshift runway—two flat spots separated by a pile of rubble left by an avalanche. The mere thought of trying, the temptation of taking the chance, and his inheritance of disaster in this place, made him break into a sweat. “Not on your life.”
They flew home, radioing Fish and Game on their way. After landing, they walked around the shed and past the listing float plane. They spotted Doris, contemplating her vegetable plot in the long twilight, strode toward her, and went inside the fence. Doris’s face grew more and more somber as their story unfolded. When they reached the part about the eagles, she slipped the shovel from her shoulder and delicately touched the blade to the ground. “You said you called Fish and Game?”
“That’s right,” Mitchell said.
Doris reached out and grasped Lizzie’s wrist, so the two of them were facing Mitchell, the solid woman with the iron gray hair and the aghast, willowy one. Mitchell felt the force of a bond between them, something about a knowledge they shared and that was left unsaid, something about its being good for him to have found a woman like Lizzie, even if for just a while, something womanly in the conspiracy of their wisdom about how solace could be found in touch and love could still passionately hold its ground in this world of wind. Standing before them, he felt his life whipping like a flag from a mast.
“What the hell does he think he’s doing?” he asked.
“Think?” Doris said.
“It’s not rational,” Lizzie said. “He thinks the eagles are hexing the fish.”
“Hex?” Doris said. “Hex? Dick?” She jammed the shovel into the earth with her boot. “What he believes is that whatever he does is by his God-given right.”
Rage whirled in Mitchell as he considered Dick’s manipulations: maneuvering to be flown out and retrieved, making Mitchell a party to killing, and the depth of the insult in dredging up his father’s love for the “old soul.”
His mother’s voice came out now in a way he’d never heard before, like a grunt of pain out of her belly: “He should be deep-sixed!”
Mitchell had figured on staying with Lizzie in her cabin that night, but instead he worked into the morning on the float plane—hauling it out, pumping out the float, blowing it dry, finding the rip that caused the leak, welding on a patch, and returning the plane to the water. When he went to his boyhood room to catch a few hours sleep, he was beset with wild dreams…swinging from ropes, desperately clinging to a maze of lines in the company of fearsomely adept monkeys. He awoke at dawn to find Lizzie perched on the edge of the bed, stroking his neck and shoulder. Filled with longing, he put his hand on her ribs and tugged. She dipped near, pressing her cheek against his, saying, “Not yet. Not here. Let’s go.”
Past Hawkins Island the fog grew thick. When they reached the edge of the Gulf, which Mitchell marked on the ADF by the signal coming off the buoy, and by the chatter in the wings, he eased the 206 down through the fog and swung toward Constantine Harbor. The fog thinned just enough for them to see an Alaska Fish and Game boat moored at the wharf next to the skiff. Two tiny figures in blaze orange coats walked along the beach away from the shack. Dick was nowhere in sight. Mitchell marked faint spots on the shore, and clusters of gulls fighting over the carrion. He brought down the flaps and slowed for the landing in the waves the wind had kicked up, steadying a course to skim the bush on the spit before setting down.
He saw it emerge all at once, the form arising from the mist with an arm outstretched—blue hat, gloved hand, silver coat—and in the same instant, Lizzie screamed into the intercom. Startled, or at once startled and succumbing to a temptation that pirouetted out of his anger—and later he would ponder the meaning of this—he discovered his foot leaping on the rudder pedal. The plane pitched, and then he felt it, the foreign-sounding thunk as if of something soft and through the fuselage a quiver.
He jerked up the Cessna’s nose, touched down and rode the waves. When he looked over at Lizzie, she was staring straight back with wide-open eyes. “Did you feel that?” he asked.
“Did you hit him?”
Near the wharf, he banked against the wake and brodied in next to the Fish and Game boat. Lizzie swung open the door and jumped to the wharf. Mitchell shut down the engine, clambered out, wrapped a tether around a cleat, and hunkered to look at the fronts of the floats and the spreader bar running between them.
Lizzie was behind him. “See anything?”
He stood up. “Nothing.”
They gazed at each other for a moment, and then the wharf resonated under their boots as they moved to land. The Fish and Game agents were well ahead past the spit, clambering over the cobble toward an arm of the woods, a place where the eagles had been at their most populous in the trees. Looking that direction, Mitchell and Lizzie pulled up to a simultaneous full stop. A hunk of spruce stand reaching to almost touch the water became visible through the mist. It had been demolished, blown into a chaos of trunks and ripped-away limbs.
Mitchell remembered the heft of the wooden box, the weight in it of organized things packed tightly, what Dick had rightly trusted Mitchell in his gullibility would not question. Galled by his error, Mitchell said, “Dynamite.”
They made their way toward the spit, passing eagles by the dozens. The feasting gulls shrieked and wheeled upwards. Mitchell looked at one body and another, the mottled yearlings and the mature with their white tail feathers…bodies riddled with buckshot, the yellow rings around the black pupils of the eyes glazed. Groups of them lay scattered here in the sand and rock, solitary ones there, dangling in the brush, and half submerged below the wrack.
The two turned and picked their way through the eel grass and bush of the spit. Sparrows skittered ahead of them. More eagle bodies lay on the ground. A second sea lion had washed into the rocks alongside a seal with a bullet hole in its head. Just beyond, a killer whale floated on its side, pearlescent belly tilted toward them. Mitchell heard Lizzie gasping ahead of him, and a scrabbling sound as if of claw, and heavy wing beats. He shied instinctively from the forms rising, one bird and behind it a second, brushing him with their wind. Their silhouettes went up—tails, wings, beaks with dangling ribbons—that picture etched into the mist yet overpowered by what came next as he twisted sideways—a human head in a pool.
Dick’s eyes were wide, his mouth twisted open. Still sporting the hat, his face was pummeled, the forehead down to the jaw a puzzle of gouges. A couple yards over, his body lay prone in the bush: oozing neck, coat with its flag lapel pin, canvas trousers, feet spread apart. Beside it lay a shotgun. Mitchell straightened and looked down the length of the spit, his breath shuddering. Up further on the beach, the two bright coats orange as flares turned from the wreckage of the woods and marched toward them.
Mitchell and Lizzie flew back and landed, tied the plane to the dock, walked up the hill, and found Doris in the kitchen. “Now what?” Doris said as soon as she saw their faces.
“He’s dead. I killed him.”
Mitchell saw the jolt in her face and then the searching look, going the wrong direction. “Not that way.”
Doris was cooking chowder in an iron pot that she kept picking up and setting down as they told her the story. Mitchell felt barely coherent, filled as he was with visions of blown apart woods, sea lions, seal, killer whales, eagle bodies, eagles rushing at him, Dick’s head, and what seemed strangest of all, the imprint in his body of what had been felt, the twang in the Cessna as it passed over the spit.
“Where is he now?” Doris asked.
“He’s there,” Mitchell said.
“You left him?”
Mitchell drew a blank and rocked back against a counter that faced the stove. Behind him were the windows opening to the garden, the flying shed, the slope to the lake. Lizzie was next to him and offered the obvious explanation in a low voice: “The Fish and Game agents are there. We talked to them. They have police power.”
“Oh,” Doris said. She picked up the pot and set it down on the grate above the gas flame, and stared at it as if startled to find it there. “All right,” she said.
“It’s my fault,” Mitchell said.
“You were reacting to me,” Lizzie said. “I shouted.”
“Oh, for God’s sake, you two, no,” Doris said. “It’s his.” In her face, Mitchell saw the mental search start up, a dark querulousness no doubt dropping into the old wound, but then her familiar decisiveness appeared. “All right,” she repeated. “It’s right for Lynne to hear it from us. But don’t talk to her about eagles. Not about the plane dipping, either. Let that be for now.”
Doris went first. Lizzie and Mitchell followed in the Honda, driving in a stunned silence past the lake dimpled by the first drops of rain and into town. Once at the bungalow, they didn’t get to see Lynne. Instead, they were met by a man Mitchell had never seen before. He wore a black sharkskin suit and white shirt, had coal black hair, and an air of authority. He held the door open and when Doris told him who they were, he said Lynne already knew and that she wasn’t ready for visitors. Past him, Mitchell saw the beige walls and green carpet of the living room, the same colors as the inn and restaurant, and the motel-style furniture, everything dusted and shined probably by the same women who cleaned the rooms of the inn, and hanging on a wall a large print of the generic, totemic art—fish, bears, otters, and eagles all intertwined as they ate each other—all of it just the same. Through an ajar bedroom door, he glimpsed a medical screen on a stand. He was struck by the utter stillness within, and but for a Kleenex box lying on its side on the floor next to a coffee table, the air of an immaculate barren.
The three of them stood huddled under the awning to keep clear of the rain. Lizzie pressed against Mitchell, who couldn’t speak. Doris asked the man to please give Lynne their condolences, to tell her they would visit when she was ready.
The man’s face was set. “Of course,” he said. “It’s good of you.” He then looked straight at Mitchell without expression, his eyes the color of steel, and gestured with his thumb over his shoulder, but at what it was hard to say, since Dick certainly wasn’t in there…at Dick’s aura, maybe, lodged in his invisible wife. “Listen. You need to know that my father was about to die.”
“Oh my,” Doris said. “Are you Charles?”
“Yes,” he said. “I need to go.” He did so, stepping back, nodding, and allowing the door to suck shut.
The three moved along the walk to the street.
“It’s Dick’s son by his first wife,” Doris said. “How could I forget? It was bad for them before he and his mother left, years ago. He was a toddler. It was a mess.”
Mitchell knew nothing about Dick’s first marriage, which seemed strange—something buried in the mind of the town. “When did he get here? And why?”
“I have no idea.” They stood between the bumpers of their cars. Mitchell again saw tidal movement in his mother’s face, the old entangling grief and fury washing against the rock of forbearance. “I’m going home to have my lunch,” she said. “We won’t be flying today.”
“No,” Mitchell said. “We’re going to have a drink.”
Doris smiled wanly, being motherly. There was a soft break of sunlight in her face. “Go easy.”
He and Lizzie walked in the rain up to the main street. It was clear that word of the death had reached the town as well, because of the glances they received from inside the businesses they passed—the bookstore, the fishing cooperative, the hardware and grocery across the street. As they came upon a cluster of people outside the espresso shop, the people made room for them to pass, gazing at them inquiringly. They crossed to Crow’s Tavern where there were more customers than usual for the hour. The rain, the interminable waiting for fish, the strain of it all, the growing sense of disappointment, and now the latest news brought people here. Mitchell and Lizzie stood at the bar with their drinks while friends and acquaintances in the booths along the wall glanced over with gentle expressions, otherwise speaking softly and leaving them alone. The atmosphere had an airy repose as if the storm building outside had already passed over, or as if Mitchell and Lizzie were like Larry, coming in here with their song that took people down into the beneficent quiet in the heart of the berserk.
They had just the one drink and as they were leaving, Jake appeared from the shadows at the far end of the bar. He put his hand on Mitchell’s arm, whispering, “It’s an excess of citizenship. I didn’t say decapitate the fucker.”
Mitchell rode with Lizzie out of town to her cabin. After firing up the wood stove, they moved out on the deck and watched the tall spruce trees across the roadway bending under the wind that whirled from the river delta. A lone cow moose appeared in the road and sidled into the barrow ditch. The pale light sketched a sheen on her haunches as she crashed into a willow stand. Her radiance hung like a trailing aura, glimmering after the noise and animal shape had vanished.
“She has her bed and a calf in there, I bet,” Lizzie said.
“Wouldn’t want to mess with her,” Mitchell said.
“You’d get stomped.”
At their backs, the windows shuddered as if the cabin were struggling to breathe. Rain poured from the roof’s valleys to the gutters, and to the ground. A raven perched on top of a snag, mimicking the sound of water running off the metal. Mitchell and Lizzie went inside and sat in front of the stove on the bearskin rug Lizzie had bought. They sipped more whiskey and listened to the raven’s pyrotechnics. Right about now, Mitchell supposed, the Fish and Game agents would be pulling into harbor with the remains. The head, he and Lizzie had decided, must have been severed from the body by the spreader bar between the plane’s floats. They guessed Dick had taken cover on the spit and was trying to let them know where he was, perhaps wildly hoping they would spirit him away from the agents.
As to the rest of it, Mitchell speculated that if the fishery failed, if numbers of people went bankrupt and his leases went bad, if the hatchery took a loss, then maybe Dick—or Lynne, or Charles, his son!—would be left with a train wreck. Maybe Dick had truly believed the eagles, sea lions, seals, and killer whales were keeping the fish back from the Entrance—those salmon, the half-indigenous, half-manufactured creatures defying their handlers.
“Did you see that suit?” Mitchell said.
“The son’s? That was one nasty-looking, expensive suit.”
“The hell. Where did he come from?”
“Listen,” Lizzie said. “It could be that Dick meant what he said about the old soul. Maybe that’s what he really wanted to find, if he was dying.”
Her voice had a searching quality. Mitchell admired how in her hopefulness she kept looking at things from around the edges, seeking her transcendent reasons, yet still daring to roll things over to reveal their undersides.
“I don’t think so.”
The room had warmed. Mitchell pulled off his damp sweater and socks, stretched out his legs, and rested his feet on top of the bear head that was locked in a snarl toward the crackling stove. It struck him as odd that the bear head was still attached to flattened skin. He wondered if Dick’s head was rolling around in the bottom of a body bag and if the mortician would sew it onto the neck. He leaned back on his hands, considering yet once again what his father had meant by “old soul”—the hazard in it, the hardness, the good, the wonderful, the smartness, and the requirement not to try to be a master in the world. So it would seem as his mother had passed the idea to him, she who still loved the romantic voluptuary she had lost.
“If it were, then mindless brutality was all he could make of the old soul. It’s the only way he knew of carrying on a conversation. At the end of the day he stuck to his position, the metaphysic of the absolute terrorist, which was exactly nothing more or less than what he’d always been.”
“Oh, God,” Lizzie said. “The bleak view.”
An exotic of the light, she had journeyed here from faraway cities—Berkeley and San Diego. Often enough, she made Mitchell yearn to steal away to wherever she was going. He might study more Russian and be changed, instead of living on here with his short-run flying machines and all-night repairs, though he knew she shared his love of air, the edgy magic of putting cumbersome things aloft.
She had changed into her brown sweats, which accentuated her tawny skin. The studs on her ear and nose glimmered. Her unruly hair had been freed of its cap. She stroked the instep of his foot with her big toe. “You mean for him the only way he could get free of his evil was to go into the center of it?”
Mitchell sipped his whiskey and gazed at the railing that bordered her loft, the lair where she kept her futon, candles, oils, her field manuals, copiously written notebooks, and things with which she’d adorned the walls—old Japanese floats, urchin husks, starfish, whale teeth, feathers, fish skeletons. Up there lay the site of their pleasure. Outside it rained harder. Water trickled into the gutters, conjuring a metallic risible punctuated with percussive drops. The raven kept up its clowning while the stove sucked air in synchrony with what the wind was doing to the sky above.
“No.” He spoke softly, but felt as though he were raging. “I don’t believe he let his evil go. He went deeper to embrace it. I don’t see redemption. What I see is the deranged sentimentalism of the nihilist with which I was made to participate.”
“I don’t like that,” she said. “It’s a bad spirit. Get him out of you.”
He knew Lizzie was right.
“I’m sorry about the run,” she said. “The pinks will be overripe and way underweight when they come in. They’re burning off their meat. It’s possible the catch will have to be dumped.”
It was a further sadness for Mitchell to consider that his town would be filled with such trouble, and he feared for what would hold sway between its twin aspects of grace and fracturing.
Lizzie looked out the window to the rain, the raven on its snag, and wildly swaying trees beyond the line of the eaves. “I do really love this place.”
Mitchell straightened and slipped his hand under her waistband, seeking the bouquet of purple and red wildflowers tattooed on her buttock.
“One thing I’ve learned from science is that even the simplest things get complicated,” Lizzie said, tapping his ankle with her toes. “The world is still way ahead of our power to read it. You have to try to hold onto what’s complicated and still find your way back to what’s simple. Things do give themselves up for mysterious reasons.”
It was just the two of them on the bearskin, shored against the storm. Mitchell felt the silk of the rug under his palms, and Lizzie’s touch as she leaned her tenderness into him and placed her hand inside his thigh. When he closed his eyes, his head reeled. He saw the savaged head in the muck, and heard the shriek of birds, the air suddenly beaten by wings, eagles wheeling away with ribbons of flesh dangling from their beaks, the recompense they’d ripped away. Etched against the silver mist, they vanished into their world.
“Hey,” Lizzie said. “I’m offering myself to you.”