In the morning I have to force my fists open. We all do. Overnight our hands coil into painfully contorted claws that must be pried open finger by finger. Each and every morning is the same routine. Following a short rest, we rise again to begin the drudgery of another day. When the movement and circulation return to our hands, we’re able to brew some coffee and down a quick breakfast. Then, after climbing into our red wet suits and rubber boots, we march our stiff bodies up on deck like a battalion of madmen.
# # #
My father left when I was three years old. I can’t say for sure whether I can fully differentiate between my memories of him and the fantasies I’ve built up around our family photo album. I vividly remember my father and I at a river in Kodiak, Alaska, which would have to be the Buskin. He is talking to me while fishing for salmon. Though the edges of this memory remain hazy, certain salient details shine through with lucid brilliance. It is a resplendent summer’s day. Father is wearing his typical full beard, a button-up red flannel shirt, and brown hip waders for standing in the river. He stands close to the bank where I am sitting, and keeps looking over his shoulder to talk to me while I pet our scruffy brown terrier, Jax.
A number of idle moments in my childhood were spent wishing my father had left me our terrier when he drove down to the lower forty-eight. Solitude’s nebulous arms can squeeze a child more tightly than adults care to recollect. At age nine I found a stray yellow labrador, he couldn’t have been more than six months old. I begged and pleaded, but my mother stoically denied my wish to keep him. After posting fliers, we wound up finding a home for him with a petite native woman who worked at the drugstore in town. The drying racks layered with smoked salmon in the front of the woman’s house are my only memory from going with my mother to give the dog away. I was heartbroken, but I never mentioned it again, much less the prospect of any other pet. I sensed the unspoken truth that a dog would be an unwanted reminder of my father.
Years later, I was off at college when I mentioned our terrier to my mother as an aside over the phone. She had absolutely no idea what I was talking about. She assured me that we’d never had a dog of any kind, “except for that terrible stray,” as she put it. Moreover, my father had never taken me fishing at the Buskin. Apparently, he had never taken me anywhere without her, and she hated the boredom of fishing. She enjoyed observing nature from afar, being in its presence that is, but was never the sporting type. I was dumbfounded. As the crevasse opened between childhood memories and reality, something happened that I never could have imagined possible: I watched my father fall even farther away from me than he’d already been.
# # #
The Marie Elizabeth is a 180 foot vessel, with 281, 000 pound capacity. We fish incessantly through all manner of seas. A lesser boat would be ill-suited to handle such a schedule. Occasionally, we must stop to pound the ice. This is a natural setback, it being the dead of winter in the Kodiak Archipelago and the Bering Sea. We spend days or even weeks out at sea, working like dogs to maximize the catch, only coming into land for long enough to unload. Fishing for King Crab is one of the most formidable and dangerous jobs on earth, but I suppose that’s also why it’s one of the most lucrative. Nevertheless, the crew gets paid solely on a percentage of the profits, so you’d better believe we find motivation to rise each morning, despite weighty limbs and knotted fists.
The process is simple, yet arduous. We bait large steel crab pots with herring, each 7’ x 7’ x 3’, weighing 700 pounds. The baited steel frames covered with nylon webbing are lowered on to the continental shelf using a hydraulic launcher. Each pot is marked with a buoy so that it can be located when we come back around in one to two days. Weighing well over a ton when filled with crab, we lift these enormous loads from the sea with a hydraulic wrench. Only males meeting size regulations are harvested. All females and smaller crabs are sorted then thrown back to sea. The rest of the catch goes into the hold, where the crabs are stored in a live tank until we return to land with our booty in tow.
# # #
My mother worked at the Kodiak Department of Fish and Game for ten years after my father left, single-handedly supporting the two of us. She never remarried, nor to my knowledge did she have any desire to. She was a forceful and highly independent woman to start with and perhaps being left to raise a child by herself is what pushed her over the edge into what I can only describe as loud and overbearing. Combined with her rather hefty size, this made her a force to be reckoned with.
Growing up, I used to ask myself what it would have been like had it been my mother who climbed into our rusty red pickup truck. What if it was she who left on that ferry out of town? What if it was my father who had stayed to care for me? He would have been considered some kind of local hero for doing his duty as a parent. No doubt, if he had the same personality as my mother, he would have been called strong and fervent rather than loud and overbearing.
A name stands like a sand castle, tall and unyielding in the place where you build it, until it is swept away with ease by the incoming tide. It was impossible for me to completely understand why my mother was the way she was. Nevertheless, I was grateful for her constancy, which provided a place for me to grow. My roots were firmly anchored in the foundation of her steadfast dependability. Despite her many jagged cliffs and barren valleys, I could rely on her to hold steady. She provided an unfaltering shelter from the ebb and flow that so often agitates the rock a child stands on.
Mother nicknamed me Lily, after the wild chocolate lilies that bloomed on Kodiak around my birthday every June. She seemed to say it in an endearing way, but it never felt like a compliment. There is no doubt that chocolate lilies are beautiful; they cover the hillsides during the first bloom of wildflowers, before the snow has fully melted from the peaks. But when their brown flowers begin to wilt away in early July, they give off the foulest odor, resembling something between decomposing trash and fresh fox scat. Every year, the beauty that is cherished in June is quickly forgotten with the progression of the season, as the inevitable stench rises from the transitioning earth.
When the other children caught on to my nickname, they felt compelled to give me nicknames of their own. Fart Lily and the Albino Turd were the two most popular choices, inspired by the enchanting combination of my blonde hair and the infamous aroma of the chocolate lily. This was one of the many reasons that when my mother told me she had accepted a job in Humboldt, California, I couldn’t have been happier. I was starting high school and California sounded like a sunny new place where I could get a fresh start. I was leaving behind the miserable children of Kodiak, the illusive Buskin River, and the stinking brown chocolate lilies. I was heading to a place where people would call me by my real name, Amanda.
# # #
Outstanding circumstances can leave us out at sea and the entire catch can be spoiled. When the crabs are left for too long they turn cannibalistic as they begin to die. In addition, the catch can be lost if the water in the hold turns too cold, freezing the crabs to death, or splitting their shells while still alive. However, such instances of devastation are rare. The real loss in profit comes from the lengthy regulations placed on the industry, combined with the short seasons.
Monitoring in the crabbing industry increased when the populations of King Crabs plummeted mysteriously in the 1980’s. Nobody can agree why this happened, whether it was overfishing, warming waters, or some other reason. This was all before my time of course, when I was still idolizing Madonna and eating Cocoa Puffs. The greatest population crash actually happened in ‘83, when I was only three years old, the year my father left. Regardless, the old salts like to ramble on about the “golden days” in the evening when they get a bit of spirits in them. But I say to hell with the golden days, these days suit me just fine. As far as I’m concerned, we’d all be better off if every man shared his bottle and kept his nostalgia for himself.
# # #
Without any friends in Kodiak, and not being allowed to walk around off the sparsely paved roads without supervision because of all the bears, I had spent most of my time inside, reading and eating while my mother was at work. I lived a much more active lifestyle in Arcata, but I never developed close friendships. The guys were persistently hitting on me, and the girls didn’t trust me for this reason. I wanted nothing to do with any of them though; I just wanted to be left alone. A deep sense of solitude had followed me from Alaska to California. I could not name it, but it burrowed into my innards like a tapeworm, and held on tight. Eventually, this parasite came to define me as much as any other attribute.
The town of Arcata in Humboldt County, California, was many things, but it was not particularly sunny. Arcata is an isolated college town way up in the northern tip of the state. In many ways, it reminded me of Alaska. Both places seemed to be a haven for the sort of people who liked to get away from things, the big city in particular. In Kodiak it was the Kodiak brown bear, bald eagles, and Sitka spruce that dominated the landscape. In Arcata it was the fog, California redwoods, and hippies. Though Humboldt was not what I had expected, I settled in and didn’t find myself particularly miserable. I took up skateboarding and soccer, and generally thinned out from the pudgier self I had been from childhood through the eighth grade.
Humboldt did not have any real seasons to speak of. The entire year was one long fall, with fog and rain being the staples you could count on. In an Alaskan winter, the distinct seasons are marked by light in addition to weather. The winter is filled with eminent darkness, and the summer with an equal and opposite amount of light. Have you ever stood at two o’clock in the morning and read by the light of the sun? There is an order to the chaos, a balance to the imbalance of the days and months. When this inherent sense of balance becomes lodged into the core of a person, you can’t suddenly strip it away and expect them to still feel centered.
Humboldt felt flat of affect; three hundred and sixty-five days of gray rolled around like a record on repeat, with no distinguishing angles to break the continuum stretching into the future. Nature keeps her clues a secret there, never revealing to the body how the cycles of time are passing. I grew up with fall closing in on me, literally closing in, as eight minutes of sunlight were lost per day. October was a time when the body received its last warning signals from the land to prepare itself because winter was on the horizon. The four years of my life spent in Arcata were spent in one long October. All the while, I felt my whole self tingling with the anticipation of something to come, anything. By the end of my senior year in high school, that anticipation had developed into an intolerable edginess, and I knew without question that it was time to go.
It was in part this deep-seeded need for change that made me head back north for college, and it was partially my drive to get as far away from my mother as possible. The need to be independent was fierce within me, as was the desire to get a taste of some real adventure. Alaska’s frontier was alluring to me for all of these reasons, but especially because I had become fixated with the idea of conquering the place where I had felt defeated as a child.
# # #
From a distance, life on a crab boat seems painted with all the colors of adventure. The chilly waters seem to harbor caches of hundred dollar bills rather than crabs. However, I know many greenhorns who show up in Bristol Bay after a summer or two on a salmon boat, thinking themselves fit for a winter at sea. Many of these young bucks turn away after only one season, if they can endure that. Why? Bait, catch, raise, unload: sounds simple. Simple, yes, there are many simple realities. For instance, it is the middle of the winter off the coast of Alaska. A man overboard couldn’t last twenty minutes in the freezing waters. There are a couple hours of sunlight per day, meaning we work almost exclusively in darkness. With nine crew members and a skipper, we handle 250 pots weighing 700 pounds each, working through storms the average person on land cannot fathom, spending weeks out at sea, confined to cramped living quarters, with little rest and high fatigue. They say that time is relative, well time loses all meaning on a crab boat in December. It is all one long night with intermittent bouts of comfort around the dinner table down below, where the crew unwinds with a warm meal or a round of whiskeys with cider.
# # #
Scott confided in me later that he saw me skateboarding down the middle of the road in Fairbanks carrying my books in my hands, with a shotgun slung around my shoulder, and he was instantly smitten. On my end, it took a little more persuading. We first officially met at a music venue, where he walked right up to me and started talking confidently. Most guys in Fairbanks seemed to find me intimidating, but there was Scott making the move, as it were. It surprised me actually, because you could immediately pick up on how quiet and sensitive Scott was. But, he made such an effort to talk to me and gave me so much attention that I let my guard down. He asked if he could call me some time, and when I said yes I didn’t really mean it, but then I gave him my number anyway.
# # #
On a peaceful day, we are still blinded by the spray of the sea, being tossed about like wet laundry through the wash cycle. As we bait, set, and raise the pots, the boat cruises along at its steady pace, keeping us on course. If we miss a mark, we lower efficiency, meaning we lower our pay. The pressure is permanently fixed to get the greatest catch in the shortest time. Since our goal is to load up as much crab as possible, we sleep little, and it is not uncommon for a seaman to stuff his body with drugs to keep it in motion. Meanwhile, we‘re handling heavy machinery on a violently rocking, slippery deck, with freezing cold waves crashing aboard, our hands numb, our eyes blinded. Needless to say, people die, and others find all manner of ways to get injured. And yet, despite the dire fatigue and high stakes, we must act quickly and with precision. Failing to do so threatens to cost us our catch, and more importantly our lives. That being said, even boats filled with the strongest crews go down, or lose crew members that have been swept overboard into the unforgiving seas.
# # #
I started working on fishing boats when I was nineteen. It was a way to make extra cash over the summer while I was a student. For the first two years I worked on a salmon boat, and then the third year I went out on a deep-sea boat for slightly higher pay. Salmon fishing was tame and not particularly interesting, but the challenges I incurred my third year were fierce. It was the summer after I graduated from U of A, and I realized too late that my crewmates were all high on speed, and that the skipper was a loon.
I never told anyone about the hardships I faced that year. The experience of every woman fishing in Alaska is unique and dependant upon which boat she lands. The message I received the summer after I graduated was that a boat had no place for a woman unless if it was one where her tits could be stared at properly and derogatory remarks could be made about her. I told the crew that I was the skipper’s daughter—a lie that successfully intimidated away some of my harassers. I survived by making the act of fishing the focus of my concern, ignoring the crazy, smelly bastards I had set out to sea with.
While 5’8” is considered tall for a woman, it’s on the shorter end of average for a man. And though virtually every inch of me was lean, I knew I would never have the muscle mass or brute strength to compete with men when it came to certain things. But what I lacked in pure strength, I made up for in blind, stupid determination. Since outsmarting the dolts I worked with was not an effective tactic, I pushed my way through violently, bulldozing down any obstacles as they came up. I never once let anyone know I was afraid, but I slept with a six-inch blade under my pillow and one eye open. During the day I just pretended like I was as crazy as the rest of the lot, screaming and swearing to myself all day long, and never looking anyone in the eye.
I couldn’t wait to get off that abhorrent boat. We pulled into harbor and I took off without so much as a handshake with any of the crew. I sat waiting for a bus on a wooden bench at the far end of the dock, where I started talking with a random skipper, grateful to be speaking with a sane man. It turned out that he operated a crab fishing boat in the winter, and he happened to need an extra hand, if I was interested. This skipper had a handlebar mustache and the suntan of a Viking and he still reminded me of the pope after being stowed away with a herd of beasts. Besides, I’d just graduated and it was starting to occur to me that I had no idea what I was actually going to do with my degree in English Literature Thus, random fate began my career on the crab boats that year. It seems inevitable looking back on it, like I was destined for the singular profession capable of exhausting my obstinate disposition.
# # #
I remained convinced for months after we started dating that I was going to break up with Scott, but there was something in his gentle, persistent way that complimented me and kept my feathers from getting too ruffled. Suddenly I felt balanced and not quite so rough around the edges. Scott stands three inches taller than me at 5’11”. He is quite thin, with strong cheekbones, and dark brown, almost black hair. This contrasts sharply with his pale skin and sky blue eyes. In fact, the color of our eyes is practically the only thing that we have in common. He is the reserved, nurturing type, while I am the short-fused, loud sort. I need to be in control, and he has no problem relinquishing it. What can I say, I made a complete ass of myself trying to push the guy away, but he stuck by me like a pillar through my wild tirades until he finally broke me. The week my mother died unexpectedly of a heart attack, when my last connection to the outside world felt severed, Scott flew with me down to the funeral in Humboldt. When we got back to Fairbanks, he asked me to marry him. This time when I said yes, I meant it.
# # #
A storm has blown in, but this is nothing out of the ordinary. We continue working through the high winds and intermittent rain. It’s nearly impossible to tell one person crawling around on deck from the next, especially in bad weather with our red hoods pulled up tightly around our heads. Out of necessity you come to rely on every crewman the same. The days of proving myself equal to the men are over. My abilities aside, my stoic resolve to return year after year for another lashing has finally quieted any lingering doubts over my adequacy, both to the crew and to myself. Occasionally a newcomer will make a joking remark, but rookies don’t know starboard from port side, and everybody knows it.
I used to think every storm would do me in, but I’ve survived seven seasons at sea without injury. Though admittedly, with storms brewing and lines flying I still feel an illusive sanguinary breath climbing the vertebrae on the back of my neck, searching for a place to take hold. Ask any old salt, and he will tell you that Death preys malevolently upon him on the crest of every wave, waiting to envelop him into an icy, forlorn grave at the bottom of the Bering Sea. And do not be mistaken, when a fisherman meets his demise—having known full well the gamble he was taking—no one speaks of it with the mark of tragedy in their tone.
The rough seas have left me feeling more fatigued than usual, so I am grateful that only two pots remain in the day. I take to sorting a round of crabs, tossing several small numbers along with any females back into the sea. I spot a beautiful, large female that must weigh close to 10 pounds. The rain starts to really come down, hammering like a drum over my hood, running over my eyes in a waterfall. I wonder how old she is as I pick her up and examine her. She must be twenty to thirty years old, telling by the size of her. I notice that the middle of her three walking legs on her right side has sustained some sort of injury. It is hanging at a funny angle. In all likelihood the injury occurred during her stay in the crab pot. Starting to slide a bit, I steady my sea legs, while glancing at the crab’s contorted limb. How many of the crabs that we throw back into the sea wind up dying anyway from injuries incurred along the way? It’s impossible to say, but this particular crab will probably be fine.
It’s more peaceful down there than up here on a day like this, I think to myself while tossing her overboard. Time stands still in that instant. A wave of water has enveloped me from behind, causing me to lurch violently forward. My body and mind are paralyzed as I tumble along with the wave. The only thing that flashes before my eyes is a wall of water. Will I rise again after falling into the abyss below?
I envision myself sinking through the calm, black depths of the sea. I sink deeper and deeper under the heavy weight of the water, without desire to swim up to the turmoil above. In the midst of the confusion, something tugs at me hard and fast from the side. I slam into the wooden deck, and then slide for what seems like the length of a football field, finally crashing the side of my body into the steel frame of a crab pot as water mercilessly washes over me. I lay still, not knowing the extent of my injuries, but knowing I couldn’t possibly have escaped unscathed. Will I rise again?
# # #
It is June and the days are growing longer. Scott and I are walking our dog, Sam, a brown and white spotted mutt we rescued from the pound. We keep him on a leash as we hike through the hills in Homer. Homer is on the Southern tip of the Alaskan mainland, just above the island of Kodiak. Scott has a small veterinary practice in town where I help out here and there. After being bound by a cast and a long run of physical therapy, my fractured leg has healed and I can walk without a cane again. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened to me if my crewmate Brandon hadn’t seen that wave coming. He managed to pluck me out of the air with one hand, while holding on to a line with the other. Maybe the crew could have fished me from the sea that day, but with the conditions as they were, likely not. I easily could have been left behind, but instead I was left with a broken leg and a slight concussion.
I had to take a season off to recover, but I’ll be good as new by this December. Scott’s tried to talk me out of fishing anymore, but he knows it’s pointless. My life with him soothes me during the spring and summer. For the first several months of the off-season I am filled with pure contentment and relief. The pleasures of physical comfort take months to wear off. Then time moves on, carrying off with it the remembrances of all suffering. Autumn falls into winter as the night overcomes the day, and I am lured once more to an interlude with the unknown, my ritual of austere abandon.
Crab pots lost at sea continue to attract and kill crabs. As the crabs go after the bait they will injure and then actually devour one another. Imagine these ghost pots left behind, abandoned along the floor of the sea, luring and exterminating massive King Crabs, self-baiting in a gruesome cycle. I wonder whether my father is out there roaming freely still, or if he has been caught yet and drawn in. My only hope for him is that fate lays out his life decisively, because it haunts me to think of him stuck somewhere futile in between catastrophe and bliss.
I don’t remember much after that wave struck. My last cohesive memory consists of tossing a crab overboard. As with my memories of childhood, I am no longer so certain which of my prevailing recollections are tangible fact and which are mere illusion. Breathing in deeply, I take in the early summer landscape, attempting to fasten down this moment with Scott into the holds of my memory. We rest for a bit on the side of a hill, and I take a picture of Scott with Sam under his arm, the two of them surrounded by a cluster of chocolate lilies.
Lauren Andrews is a graduate of UC Berkeley and New York University currently residing in Brooklyn, New York. She has worked as an editor and literary assistant in publishing, a field biologist in Alaska, as well as an emergency and perioperative nurse. When she’s not crafting plays, fiction, and poetry, you’re sure to find her in the mountains running trail ultramarathons. In addition to works of fiction and poetry previously published, her play, “The Good Seeds,” is being presented by the Strawberry One-Act Festival for playwrights this spring in midtown Manhattan. She is the co-founder of an organization under the same name, The Good Seeds Project (www.thegoodseeds.com), dedicated to promoting social welfare, education, and the arts. And her collection of poetry, “23rd & Telegraph,” is currently being published by Desert Willow Press.
If you enjoyed ‘Chocolate Lily’ leave a comment and let Lauren know.
The SHALLOW CREEK Short Story Competition
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