The Fisherman's Son (Michael Koepf)

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  Neil could not see it, but he felt its presence following the raft. Real, unseen, stalking. A shark was hovering in the depths. It had always been there. Neil knew that death was swimming ever closer. Knew it, but the final clarity hurt more than he would ever have thought it could.

His whole life had been but a posture against it. The realization overwhelmed him. He was ashamed of his weakness. He would drift on. Wind and sun would weaken the fabric on which his life floated. Glue and stitch would dissolve, unraveling bit by bit in the kneading of the sea. He would be alone, in the water. Tired. Weak. Weaker still, until he slipped away into dreams not remembered and sleep without morning. Arms spread, embracing.

Neil pushed these thoughts and images from his mind, trying hard to think of other things, hating the cowardice of his own forced self-deception. The wind slackened further. The raft was caught in a tide rip, turning slowly despite the sea anchor. The set of the current swirled him on. Thirst returned. He finished his water. Unthinking, as if there were plenty to come. He finished the rations. Unthinking, as if there were plenty to come.

Hours passed, each minute eternal. The wind picked up. Southwest. A squall came. Once more, Neil sucked moisture from his shirt. Night was returning to the sea, and with it came fear, following below. He was floating facedown, watching its approach, eyes wide open, like the drowned woman of his childhood.

The sleeping lady of Point Reyes called again. This time, however, her voice didn't whisper with fog. This time, she sang of wind.

The Half Moon Bay boats and the rest of the fishing fleet trolled west of Point Reyes. The sky was clear, the sea increasing. Neil sat on the edge of the trolling pit, across from his father. Early that afternoon, the wind's first song came to him, humming through trolling wire and rigging. Small, isolated whitecaps broke, hissing like snakes all around the boat. East and inshore, atop the high promontory of Point Reyes, a thin mist formed, then dissipated on the lady's head and face. She was calling, warning the boats to run for safety. But Neil's father trolled on, even though the lines had been without fish for hours.

A white fishing boat passed on an opposite course, tacking uphill toward Bodega Bay. Her deck and trolling pit empty, she resembled a ghost boat rising and falling over large blue white-tipped swells beneath a cloudless sky. The Evon, Marina, Norland, and Cefula were scattered abreast, port and starboard on his father's tack. Their mastheads played hide-and-seek in the troughs of seas.

As they tacked on, swells like walls rose high behind the Maria B, spilling more and more water at their crests. A salmon came to the line, and his father brought it to the boat, playing the leader in his hand in a following swell that was higher than their heads. Neil saw the fish in the green transparency of water. It was a kite on a string, twisting and turning. His father gaffed the fish out of the approaching wall of water. The swell passed beneath the stern, lifting the boat high as the fish slammed to the deck in blood and death.

They trolled on. No more fish came to the lines. Neil waited patiently for his father to give the word to pull the gear, but he had said little all day.

"It's picking up," Neil said finally, to break the monotony, hoping to plant the seed of escape in his father's mind.

His father looked at the following seas and nodded a yes, but then he turned away, cupping his hands to his mouth to light a cigarette. The smoke trailed off with the breeze.

More and more, his father seemed preoccupied. Was it the memory of the people they had fished from the water, or were his thoughts of home and his mother and her job at the cannery? Up and down the coast, the Italian fish buyers had cut the price of salmon. His father and other fishermen spoke about it angrily on the radio. The anger continued when his father spoke of the fish buyers with Neil's mother at home. His mother said she was "trying to make ends meet" by working at the cannery, but his father replied that the Patroni brothers were taking food from their table. Neil was caught in the middle. He imagined a fish with a hook in its mouth and a hook in its tail, pulled both ways at once. His mother put food on the table from the very men who took food off the table. The world was a confusing place.

Worst of all, his mother was changing. All of her money did not go to making ends meet. She charged new clothes and cheap jewelry, and now looked more like the magazine ladies with each passing week. One night Father Kerrigan came to the door and sat with his mother in quiet conversation. She had joined a club forbidden by the church, but after the priest left, his mother said it was her life and he could go to hell. The angelic voice from church that made old women cry sent the priest away with a curse.

Neil's grandmother cooked and cleaned at home, taking care of the baby while his mother was gone, all the time claiming her own daughter had turned her into a slave because she had married a fisherman. His mother fought back. All she had asked for was "a little help" from a mother who couldn't learn to mind her own business. At night in bed, Neil imagined the family home as a solitary vessel upon the sea, beset by storm, lost in a fog.

A boat payment was late. His mother said it was "either that or the mortgage." His father told her to "stop charging junk." His mother said it was her own money and that he wasted too much on the boat. Neil and Paul took their baby brother, Philip, outside, seeking refuge from the storm. They made him a prince in a castle of fish boxes in the weeds. Paul was a king of a rich island, with a beautiful queen; Neil was a pirate in his fish box ship. Their wooden swords struck with intensity, as Philip laughed with glee.
* * *

Weeks had passed since Neil had seen the floating woman, but he thought of her often. His mind conjured up the image of her again and again on the sea's surface, in the foamy edge of tide rips, afloat with discarded bait cartons, garbage, and driftwood white with barnacles. His father never mentioned her. A dark thought haunted Neil. What if she was not dead as they passed, simply too weak to move? Did she drift farther out to sea? Did she glide to the bottom? Did God find her floating soul, or did she slip down into a cold liquid nothing, to wait with all the rest?

They had been back to Half Moon Bay once since the oil tanker struck the hospital ship. Hazel's coffee shop buzzed with conversation about the newspaper account of the fishing boats saving so many. Neil felt proud.

His brother Paul asked a hundred questions. "Did the ship blow up in front of your eyes? Did you see it go down? Did it suck people under? Were there dollar bills floating in the sea? Did sharks eat off the arms and legs of floating people? Could it have really been a Commie torpedo?"

Neil measured out his answers in small portions, savoring his own importance to the rescue. It was also a sort of revenge: for Paul had told him that "nobody misses you at home" and his mother was glad that he was gone.

But soon the harbor returned to business. The newspapers spoke of other things, and his father and his friends were once again mere fishermen.

In the coffee shop, his father and Henry discussed forming a fishermen's association to fight the dealers.

"We'd have a chance if we all stuck together," his father said.

Henry agreed but said, "It won't be easy."

Neil had been glad when the fish moved north. The boats loaded bait, ice, and groceries, and ran through the night in pursuit. Neil once again left Paul to his island home and sailed away with the roaming pirates.
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Excerpted from The Fisherman's Son by Michael Köepf. Copyright © 1998 by Michael Köepf. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.