By Tamie Parker Song
Featured Art: Flowers of a Hundred Worlds (Momoyogusa): Ivy (Tsuta) by Kamisaka Sekka 神坂 雪佳
Our house is a toilet full of shit and fistfuls of toilet paper, long past flushing. It is the bones of kitchen cups smashed with cigarettes. It is the way we don’t turn on the lights anymore. The way we do not light the fire. It is dead flies in the windows; a pantry with food cans several years old. The house used to be Mom, music on the record player; hair cuts in the kitchen, blueberry pancakes for breakfast, light. Now it is cupboards we keep opening, hoping. Then fishing grabs for us, pulls us under, and we stop even opening the cupboards.
We are commercial salmon fishermen on an island in Alaska seventy miles by plane or boat from the nearest town. Only our family lives on this island, and the crew who works for us, and even though everyone is watching me no one is watching out for me. I have been fishing my whole life, the only girl on an all-male crew. I am fifteen.
Dad eats tubs of frosting and bowls of raw cake batter. He wears the same clothes for six weeks at a time and does not bathe. Mom has stopped coming to the island, and Dad can’t or won’t cook, so I start eating with the crew. DeWitt eats with us sometimes, and sometimes with Dad. DeWitt fishes almost exclusively with Dad, while I trade around and fish with different crew. I try not to think about leaving DeWitt at home. He is only thirteen. But something in my body is trying to pull itself away.
Arlin, one of the crewmembers, is a man whose father is a preacher in barely there South Dakotan towns. At twenty-two years old, he is a man whose high school aspirations leaned toward rodeo, some token dream. Mostly what he does is drive semi-trucks. His teeth are pearl-colored and he rarely brushes them. He has stringy blond hair cut into a mullet and light blue eyes. His Wranglers have a back-pocket chew ring. He does not expect or offer or look for connection. When I sing in the skiff, fishing with him, he looks at me dully, not even with lust.
Like Mom, Timber is not here either this summer. He was here last summer, a lanky, redheaded crewmember, twenty-years-old. Arlin knows that I let Timber onto my body last season, so Arlin figures now it’s his turn. He catches me in the skiff and behind the warehouse. I do not resist. I am jumping from the sunburned trampoline at my uncle’s house on the neighboring island, into the soaking air of Uyak Bay. My uncle and his family are this island’s only inhabitants. The air is clean. Whales exhale mist into this huge bay. I feel the trampoline flex under my feet, push me skyward. My four-year-old cousins are here jumping with me, taut little packages of joy. DeWitt is here too, laughing and pushing against me for space. We are being children again. One of my cousins, shy, giggles quietly, bounce bounce bounce. The other cousin is bossy, screaming with life. Eeeeee! Bounce! Eeeeee!
Crewmembers stand around the trampoline. We don’t get a day off the whole summer, but today we get a few minutes of play. Mike is laughing at the way my cousins are giggling. Chet quietly smirks. Arlin just stands there, meaty hands loose on the metal springs, looking at me.
Mike kicks off his work boots and climbs up.
“Can I join you?” he asks.
“Sure!” we say. Bounce! Boing! With his heavy weight counterbalancing us, we all bounce higher. I gulp at the height. Mike bends his knees, springs into the air backwards, and lands on his feet. I am scared, but I want to try it too.
“Watch out!” I call to my cousins, then launch up and try to turn myself over in the air. I realize that I’m not high enough, or sure enough. Uyak Bay wavers and flips. The back of my neck hits the trampoline, bounces, my body piles into itself.
“Aaaa!” I cry, and go still. The kids’ giggling skids to quiet. I will wonder for years if this is a moment I chose. Did I choose to not bounce high enough, not flip fast enough? Was everything that came afterwards, in other words, somehow my fault?
Then my uncle, my father’s brother, is beside me demanding to know what happened, and I am crying, and the men are carrying me. Arlin and Mike aren’t gentle lifting me, and because my uncle, their boss, is here they aren’t slow, but they are strong. They carry me up the hill, into the house. My uncle grabs the VHF, tries to call Dad down at our island, but Dad does not answer. My uncle’s wife sits with me while I lie still on the couch. Then she gets up and makes lunch and everyone ignores me and I sleep. I wake to Dad stomping into the house in his hip boots and rain gear. His cotton gloves are still on, gray from all the weeks we’ve been fishing, and he is out of breath.
“How long has she been lying here like this?! Why didn’t anyone wake me up?” Dad’s voice is loud. His gloves drip.
“We tried to call you,” my uncle’s wife is saying, but Dad sweeps past her, tracking sand and water onto her floor.
“No!” Dad stops her. “Oh no. No! I’m calling Harvey. We need to call Harvey right now.” So they call Harvey, the bush pilot Dad has known since they were both in first grade. He flies a Widgeon that has floats to land in the bay, and then wheels to power right up onto the beach from the water. Dad uses his brother’s radiophone to call.
We have a radiophone on our island too. Every week or two I use it to call Mom. Anyone with a radiophone in Uyak Bay can hear what we say, so we can’t say much. We talk in a code that doesn’t mean anything except that we’re signaling to each other: still here.
“We caught a camel in the net, Mom,” I’ll say.
“I’ve been re-organizing my jewelry alphabetically,” she’ll reply. Hearing her voice, I’ll cry, but when it’s my turn to talk I’ll swallow and make my voice cheerful. Grandma is in the next room. My uncles, on their own islands, are listening to everything we say. Maybe the content of what we say to each other does not matter. Maybe it does not even matter whether the tone of our voices is true.
“Honey, the plane is landing,” Dad says. “We’re going to carry you down to the beach so you don’t move your back and neck.” They’ve found an old door— they’ll carry me down on that. No one will come with me into the hospital on the plane. After all, today is a fishing day and everything in our lives—everything—gets subjugated to fishing.
The men scoop my body, lay me on the door.
“Okay, lift,” my uncle orders. One man on each corner of the door, they lift. I feel the heft of my own body, the corpus of me, a load, a sack of bones and blood-flooded muscle, easily spilled. My body is work to carry, work to carry out.
They lay me on the aluminum floor of the plane.
“We’ll give you a call when we land,” Harvey assures Dad, and then he pulls the heavy door shut, turns the latch to lock it. He moves his legs around me, buckles himself into the pilot’s chair, starts the engines, revs them high to get traction on this beach, and wheels into the water. The plane’s belly sits low; floats on the wings keep it up. I hold onto the metal legs of the chairs to keep my body from sliding around. We taxi out into the channel and turn. My backbone tracks the rivets; I shiver. Then we’re speeding along the water, skating, faster and faster. I feel metal against water, the plane shake; feel my body a passive thing. The Widgeon gets lift, my body tilts and angles, and we’re borne into the air.
When we land in the town of Kodiak, seventy miles away as the crow flies, it takes the paramedics an hour to strap me onto a backboard and get me out of the plane. Civilization feels like light and disconnection both, these clean, polished paramedics, the scrubbed, at-the-ready ambulance. At the hospital I am examined and x-rayed and pronounced not to be broken.
“Whiplash,” says the doctor, and gives me a white plastic neck brace. “She can go back out to fish camp, but she shouldn’t fish.” A few hours later, I’m back at the island.
Dad helps me walk to the house, to my room, but I see immediately that this will not work. No one else is allowed in our house besides us; how will I mend if I’m here where it’s dirty and cold? I tell Dad I will stay in the warehouse, so the cook can bring me food. Dad doesn’t disagree.
Now that I live in the warehouse, Arlin has easy access. I hear him come up the stairs, turn the doorknob. He undresses me, tugs at my breasts, digs his fingers into me, brings my hands to his body, his body to my mouth. He is a Christian— we are all Christians—and we have been taught that as long as he doesn’t have intercourse with me, he can do whatever he wants. I hate him. I hate his hands, his mute eyes, his dumb, dead penis.
The room where I stay in the warehouse has big windows looking out to the smokehouse, the carpenter shop, and up into Uyak Bay. I have my own propane heater that I turn on high. Arlin comes in, quiet. It is not the kind of quiet that indicates consideration or intentionality or restraint. It’s a quiet that means he’ll get what he’s coming for. I accept this. Dad wants me to fish. My neck isn’t broken; why can’t I fish? I take painkillers, cut out magazine pictures of beautiful people to paste on the walls. I start to fish again, working until past midnight, no such thing as a day off, miles of net stretched out in bows by tide that has to pour ten or fifteen or twenty vertical feet of water in to the bay and then rip it out again, twice a day. Waves higher than the boat, anchor lines tight as a drum, knots, salmon, men.
I don’t need the neck brace anymore but I stay in the warehouse anyway. I stay for the rest of the summer. Arlin comes to my room every night. I move from the bunk bed to a mattress on the floor so he has room.
“Hi,” I say, when he comes in one night. He warms his hands over the heater, silent. I watch him, and then I have an idea. I stand up from the mattress, naked except for panties, stand beside him.
“I was wondering if we could pray together,” I say, shrugging.
“Pray?” he asks, slurs, like he’s drunk on fishing, like he can’t ever quite wake up. “Sure, I guess,” he says, and so I take his hand. Maybe if we pray, I will feel like I matter to him. His hand is limp in mine. All of him is limp except that one insistent lump at his crotch.
“Dear God,” I start. But then I don’t know what to say.
We lie down. Arlin comes against my belly and the semen pools in the cradle my hipbones make. He sleeps. Night comes. I wake up to pee, stuff my feet into sneakers, walk tip-toe-like, my heels over the backs of the shoes. A few paces beyond the stairs, I notice how quiet and still it is. I stop in the dew-soaked grass and look up at the stars, infinite and perfect and clean. I inhale deeply, listen to the waves shush the shore, rolling quietly into themselves. Night is another country. I look over and see that Grandpa is standing on his porch, watching me. Grandpa stays awake late most nights, listening to the marine radio; he must see Arlin come and go from my room sometimes. He must guess what is happening. He sees me but does not say anything. Wrapping my arms around me, I hurry away to the outhouse.
It will be twenty years before I read stories about things that happen to other girls in the Alaskan wilderness—their whole families aware, even whole villages knowing, no one doing anything. It will be even longer before I realize, with the slow gradualness of an Alaskan winter dawn, that the stories of those girls are not tragic stories that happened to other people. They are my story, my trapped body, my skin.
Right now though, right now I believe I am the only girl this is happening to, and I believe there is something I am doing to cause it, though I cannot figure out what it is. Right now I know no other way than Dad telling me to go put on a bikini, he wants to see me in a bikini; and my uncle commanding me to lean way out of the skiff to pop corks up from under the net’s surface, pushing against my back as I lean, leaning his whole body against mine. Already half a dozen men have reached under my clothes. I have not yet met a man who asks permission before he touches me.
I’m in Arlin’s skiff, and DeWitt is in Dad’s. It is one in the morning. We are still fishing, for no reason at all, except that Dad and his brother will not say stop. Our bodies are lead, consumed by powerlessness, by dark, by so many days working into the hours we could have slept. Finally, when it is almost two a.m., we all drive our boats through dark so thick I swallow it and it suffuses me. We drive to the tender, the boat that takes our fish to the cannery, pitch fish into the brailer under floodlights. Travis is working on the tender and I catch his eye for a minute. He is a boy my own age, a phenomenon I can barely remember or fathom.
It isn’t even a matter of exhaustion anymore. Picking fish, pitching fish, tying clove hitches and anchor hitches and bowlines, pulling lines and mesh, flipping corks—it’s all just momentum, the body flung out and continuing. My arms are strong, my back is strong, my muscles are strained and bruised and they hurt, but pain is expected, everyone expects my pain, it is embedded in the fishing, in my body, undifferentiated, indistinguishable. Skiffs have no doors. I do not have enough faith to walk on water. What the men thrust out has no place to go except in.
After delivering our fish, all six skiffs drive back to the island so late at night it is morning, six dark arrows, mad birds with outboards V’d in formation, hellbent on home. Five skiffs moor up, tying the knots by feel, and Dad picks us up in the sixth skiff. No one says a word. On shore, Grandpa has a floodlight out, shining straight at us as we pull up to the running line rock. It allows him to see us so he thinks it helps, but all it does is blind us. We tie the line, slide our feet along the rocks under the water because we are walking entirely by feel, trudge up the beach, pull out of our rain gear, silent, eat.
In my room in the warehouse, after supper, someone knocks on the door. No one who comes here ever knocks, so I’m surprised. I open the door and it’s my little brother. DeWitt. He never comes to my room. I see that he’s been crying for a long time.
I go to him. What’s wrong?
“Dad wouldn’t stop fishing!” he sobs. “He went back to the Inside Net, even though it was already dark. There aren’t even fish in the nets at night! He just wouldn’t stop. I was so mad at him and he figured out that I was mad and he went crazy, Tamie.” I look at him, I see his face clearly. Somehow we need to get out.
“He was screaming at me. Screaming and then hitting the kicker and the totes with picking poles.” Picking poles are the size and heft of a baseball bat. DeWitt hands me his permit card.
“Will you keep this for me?” he asks me. “I’m leaving.” I take the permit card. It is orange and plastic and looks like a credit card. It shows that one of the ten fishing permits our family owns is registered in his name. Each permit allows the family to fish 150 fathoms of net. In order to fish those fathoms, the permit holder has to be physically present. I have one too. He is handing me his birthright, as he understands it.
“What are you going to do?” I ask quietly.
“I want you to keep the permit for me. I’m going to take it with me at the end of the summer,” he says. In his voice I hear such courage, such fear. It dawns on me that he thinks he will be stealing the actual permit, the ultimate act of betrayal. But this card is just a plastic representation of a legal entity. He does not understand this. I hold him and he cries. We almost never speak, let alone touch.
There is no way we can leave this island. They would stop us if we tried to take a skiff. The only phone to call a plane is the radiophone, the phone there is no way to use without everyone hearing. We could walk across the spit to Kodiak Island, but then what? It’s seventy miles across mountain wilderness to town.
Arlin tells me he wants to take a banya with me. We wait until everyone else has taken a turn, until Grandpa has turned off the generator and the whole island is asleep. It is dark and no one is watching but we still enter separately. I walk there on my own two feet. No one ties me up, no one pulls me down the path. But raw violence is only the least subtle way of forcing a woman—a child—to do what you want. I believe the safest I can be is to do what he wants. I believe my family does not care, will not help. I am right.
I go in first, undress in the outer room, go in naked to the hot, dark inner room. Heart hammering, begging. Body numb to my own heart. So many nights with no sleep. I start washing. I know this place by feel. There’s a moon out the window. Then I hear him at the outer door and he’s in, grabbing my hips, my hair, hands on my neck where the whiplash went. He slumps on the bench, leans back, legs spread, stretch marks purpling his belly and butt. I want to be away from here. I sit down gingerly beside him on the bench, heat beading sweat. He half-turns to me, grabs at my breast. His penis thickens, he pulls my head down to it and I turn so I can kneel.
Last summer Dad hired Kicki to be the island’s carpenter. She was kind to me in a way so unfamiliar it was like cold water on my too-hot skin. Sometimes we slept in the same bed and whispered wishes and stories. Easy love, like sisters. Her springy hair like coiled wood shavings. She took out the old, rough benches in the banya and fitted the room with new wood seats sanded beautiful and smooth.
Arlin’s hand at the back of my head. Motions like skiff rocking, motions like fast tide, like surf, like corks bobbing. Up, down. In, out. Tongue that refuses to taste. Where are my hands?
“Is that the best you can do?” That slow, slurred voice. “I saw a video one time of Madonna. She put a whole Coke bottle down her throat.” I push him in deeper, choke. Motions like effort, wet sucking, like something trying to be born. Moon tide window curtain. I choke, but I know I must choke without sound.
In the banya, kneeling on the hot, hard wood, listening to Arlin moan, shoving in my own disgust feeling his roaming fingers trying out handfuls of me, it’s Kicki’s wood that holds me. Kicki’s wood, the hardest thing in the room besides the burning stove and stones, presses back against my knees like stored intent. The bench holds light the way amber holds insects, intact even over centuries. It holds light and keeps holding light and as I kneel the light offers itself to my body and my body accepts the light, and my mind knows nothing about it. The light enters through my knees and shins, through the top of my feet pressed hard on the bench, arrives in my bones like a fossil that will travel backward in time while I travel forward in time, until we meet each other somewhere days or decades on, and it will come to life and when it does everything that is being done to me now tonight in this banya, and everything done days and nights on the water and the island, it will be smashed, undone. The love Kicki stored in this wood has gone quietly into my bones, the last place anyone would think to look. Kicki is a messenger from people I have not yet met, even from a few people not yet born. You are not trapped. Even now, this place and these people cannot reach all the way in. Something, someone, sometime, will guide you out. But I do not know any of this yet and I will not know it for a long time.
Sour semen squirts into my mouth. I run out the inner door, push open the heavy outer door, spit what’s in my mouth into the grass beside the steps.
“Sorry,” Arlin says, when I come back inside. “Sorry about that.”
I wake up in the night and need to use the outhouse. I slip on boots, walk quietly down the warehouse steps. I turn the corner, see Grandpa coming out to turn off the generator. He sees me and says nothing and turns away.
Tamie Parker Song is an essayist and improviser who grew up between Jerusalem, Alaska, and the American Midwest. She currently lives in New York City, where she is pursuing a graduate degree to become a psychotherapist. Her website is tamieparkersong.com.
Originally published in NOR 18: Fall 2015