This takes place aboard the Valhalla II – a sixty-foot salmon and tuna troller based in Newport, Oregon. Phil is the captain, and there are just the two of us aboard, about two hundred miles offshore.
A couple of weeks into the fishing trip, I’m filthy and Phil allows that I can take a shower. I’m certain this is a bow to my femininity, but I gladly take advantage. Salt air, perspiration and fish blood are dried in my hair. My pants and the light denim jacket I wear are covered in fish blood and so full of eviscera they’re stiff to the touch. Having no laundry or shower on board means day after day in the same smelly coating. I feel like I’m dressed in a poorly tanned muskrat skin, like I’ve bathed in a swamp.
I leave a couple of pots of water on the engine all day to get them hot. When fishing is done for the day, I mix them with cold water in one of those garden watering cans made of green plastic. Phil goes to the wheelhouse, promising to stare straight ahead while I go to the back deck and drizzle the warm water over myself.
The water doesn’t wash over me as much as it dribbles. The slime of the past week slides down my skin to the deck along with crust and fish scales. In total, I use about three gallons of water. I lather up and rinse as quickly as I can in the chilly night air, dry off and put clean sweats on. Clean is relative out here, meaning only that I haven’t fished in them. I return to the cabin and wash my hair in the sink, a new woman.
In these late days of August, mist appears in the mornings and evenings. Sometimes it’s fog, thick and heavy like a veil of white tulle piled softly over the sea. This evening the smoky vapors curl and snuggle up against the surface of the water, hugging the low swell. Other than these pockets of white, our visibility is excellent. It’s a perfect summer evening.
We’re sitting down at the galley table, Phil and me, having dinner. Phil sits facing starboard and I’m next to the door, facing forward. His hat’s off to eat. Tonight he’s cooked a pork roast with broiled potatoes and frozen mixed vegetables – the kind with the lima beans tossed in with green beans and peas and those perfectly cubed carrots. As we do every night, we have sliced Franz bread with butter, alongside a salad of iceberg lettuce and tomato, with a choice of Kraft Thousand Island or Russian dressing. Phil likes pork and cooks it often. At first, I wouldn’t eat it – the smell of it sent me to the edge of the boat, my insides wailing. Tonight, I manage to nibble at the rim of the meat, but mostly eat the vegetables and potatoes. I have to eat something. In these two weeks I’ve lost fifteen pounds, and my pants are starting to fall off. You’d think I’d mention something to Phil. If I would, he’d likely cook something else. But in cowardice masked as politeness, I say nothing.
Every few minutes one of us gets up and checks the ocean around us. My turn. I go up to the wheelhouse and look for anything coming our way. We’re at trolling speed, close to eight knots, or around nine miles per hour. I look for other boats or anything drifting in the water that might do the ship harm. Could be something clearly visible like painted wood. It could be something almost invisible like a dead head – a waterlogged tree that’s submerged, leaving only a bludgeon on the surface. I check the back deck for the same, and peek out to see if we have a taut line from a fish bite. All seems well, and I return to the table.
“How many fish do we have in the port bin?” He asks as I sit down.
I consider for a moment, and count out loud. “Well, I started using it yesterday, and put about two hundred fish in. I added eighty today, so a total of… two-eighty. The brine seems to be holding up. I think we’ll be okay.”
Right. Here I am, fourteen days into this work, and already an expert. I’m embarrassed at my presumption.
“Well, that sounds about right.” he says. “Let’s leave them be for tonight. We’ll start using another starboard bin tomorrow.”
I’m relieved. It’s totally creepy to go down in the hold and rearrange dead tuna. ‘Bug eyes,’ we call them. They stare vacantly, yet somehow accusingly. Hundreds and hundreds of fish I’ve killed, all in one dark place. Just them and me.
Plus, I’m tired. I want to eat, get the evening bite done, throw any new fish in the hold and wrap things up. I still have at least two hours of work left, and rearranging fish would add at least another hour to that.
We have a moment of comfortable peace, like two old friends enjoying the quiet at the end of the day. I feel like I belong here, as if I’m part of the conversation. A part of the decisions, like my opinion matters. I like it. A lot.
In less than the time it takes to inhale half a breath, the ship lurches. My ribs are forced into the table and my head jerks forward. At the same time, there’s the sound of wood splintering. With no time to register, we both jump from the table and somehow maneuver around each other – my instincts take me to the deck and Phil’s long experience drives him to the wheelhouse.
We’ve been hit by another boat. Her bow leans impossibly into our broken rigging. Caught up in the trolling poles and lines, she can’t right herself. I move quickly toward our outriggers, but am at a complete loss over what to do. Phil is now on the forward deck, having come out the side door from the wheelhouse. I don’t know whether either boat is sinking. My ping-pong brain returns, bouncing from the boat and what to do and where to be, to where the one and only survival suit is, and how quickly I might get to it, and will it really be mine as Phil promised.
Phil runs aft on the port side with a knife and I back quickly away. He reaches over the side and cuts our lines, freeing the other boat. The other deckhand is out working on their deck. We don’t talk; we just work. Well, mostly I observe. Things are going in slow motion. I want to do something, but I’m afraid I’ll be in the way.
In the end, the Valhalla ends up with a gash in her port side, mid-ship, above the waterline. The other boat has damage to her starboard bow. We’re out of the danger of sinking, but our trips are over. The outriggers are part of our fishing gear, and that port pole is destroyed.
On my watch that night, the ocean is calm, but the boat pounds clumsily upon her. It’s like we’re crossing a series of rolling pins that are hidden under a crushed velvet blanket.
Bored with the monotony, I take my hair out of its usual ponytail and spend time on the important work of separating split ends. I take each strand, one at a time, and bring the tip up to see whether it’s begun to split. If it has, I take both edges and carefully pull them apart. While I’m searching for the next strawberry blond end to attack, I find my very first grey hair. I hold it between my thumb and forefinger for some moments, considering what I’ve heard: for every gray hair I rip out, seven will take its place.
I yank at it, feeling a quick bite to my scalp, then drop the offending strand to the deck.
Phil takes over for me around midnight. I head for my bunk below, falling asleep immediately.
And the dream… it comes again that night. In it, there’s someone or something chasing me. I’m doing okay outrunning it, but when I get to the door of the house, I reach out and can’t quite touch the handle. I try to stretch my hand out further to gain that last inch, but the handgrip is always just out of my grasp. The monster, human or other, is gaining. I scream. But the only sound that comes out is a guttural “uhhahhw.” I wake myself with that scream. I find I’m out of my bunk, reaching my arms through the overhead hatch into the night air, trying to shove my body through. The noise of the engines is on my side; Phil can’t hear.