It is senior prom weekend, but that means nothing to Michaela Spear. Well, actually it does have some significance. It’s very near the last day I’ll have to spend with those stuck-up jackasses at school.
But not the last day aboard this boat. Living here. Working here. My only time ashore spent at school. It’s lonely. Just Dad. She loops the top strap of an oil-slicked apron over her neck. Cinches the waist.
As alone as I am out here, it’s nothing compared to school. Their giddy giggly behavior.
Molly Malone, the boys call me, even to my face. The girls call me nothing at all, except for the time I overheard Sarah what’s-her-name and that skinny bitch girlfriend of hers referring to me as The Mermaid. She opens the hold. Gulls squawk.
I come up smelling clean enough after a morning shower, but my damn clothes. They live on this boat more than I do. There is no way to get the brackish fish smell out of them.
She begins slicing and gutting a small mountain of salmon. At least aboard a charter boat, there would be some variety to the work — and perhaps even some interesting clients. Maybe even some boys. But not on the Mary Dare. Why does Dad have to own the last commercial fishing boat in The Islands?
Because Dad is a stubborn man, a different inner voice answers. Her mother’s, perhaps. You’ve always known that. And he is a loner.
So he is, preferring to drag a tangle net instead of the conventional gillnet that requires a partner-boat. He claims the survival rate is higher with the tangle net, and perhaps so, but she knows his real incentive is to avoid having partners. The same incentive that drove her mother off, she imagines. The highlight of her workday is piloting the small skiff to set the net, when she can watch the rollers fall into the horizon.
Now, she pays close attention to her chore. One false slice with the knife could open her hand to the bone. She hears a crack and, looking up, sees a small shearwater tumbling toward her. It had hit the spar, fleeing from a large osprey. It somersaults through the air and lands in the open gut of the salmon on her lap.
It’s alive, but its wing is so badly broken that she wonders whether it will ever fly again. She sets the bird aside in a careful sweep of her hand and finishes gutting the salmon, throwing it into the hold. She stands, her slicker making the sloshing sound it does whenever she moves, and places the small bird in the shade atop a nest she constructs of a hand rag. Adjusting the mangled wing so that it sits properly against the bird, and sensing that there is not much more to be done for the creature, she returns to work.
Her father comes down from the pilothouse to help her finish the harvest. He walks with a pronounced limp from a wound inflicted twenty years earlier during World War II. A tall sinewy man, he has been mostly bald as far back as she can remember. She has his build, but thankfully, her mother’s curly red hair, now tied behind her with a hank of number twelve line.
He slips into the oilskin apron and ties it behind his waist. “What’s with the bird?”
“Flew into the pole.” She picks up another salmon and sits on the small bench.
“Not much of a navigator.” He pulls another stool from under the gunwale and works across from her. “Maybe blind,” he continues, with a playful smile, looking from the bird to his daughter. A late spring snow begins, large flakes floating to the still green water behind him.
“An osprey was about to have him for lunch,” she says a moment later, tossing another fish into the hold.
The bird is standing now, peering around as if in a drunken stupor.
“Can’t have him walking about the boat, Mickey. Not sanitary. Besides, one of us might trip on the little cuss and end up in the drink.”
“Maybe she will fly again,” Michaela says, not looking up. She guts another fish.
They go about their work for another hour until nothing is left except the tidying up. She knows he will leave that to her and return to the pilothouse for the trip to Friday Harbor. The pilothouse, where all the decisions are made.
Michaela goes to the mop closet. Her father hangs his apron and climbs the ladder.
It’s late Sunday afternoon when they arrive back at the harbor. She rows to the dock, knowing she will be safe from ridicule in her wanderings of the town. Her classmates will be sleeping off their hangovers from the prom after-parties.
Returning in the skiff at dusk, she places the bird in a cage she has purchased at Donovan’s Hardware and sets the cage under the protection of the pole shroud. She turns to see her father watching from the stern.
He flicks the last of his unfiltered cigarette into the harbor. “Not much of a life for a creature of the sky.”
Is that what happened with Mom?
“She’ll make the best of it. I’m off to read.”
“Good night, Mickey.”
She is cleaning the hold the next morning when he comes up from his berth. He looks at her through the thin fog. She pays no attention to him, silently cursing the smell of fish, hosing the glistening metal.
His gaze shifts to the cage, now empty, the door hanging open. He looks at her again. This time, she returns his stare.
Then she flips the hold doors closed and secures the latches. From the corner of her eye, she sees the old man standing at the windward rail. He lifts his nose.
She climbs the stainless steel ladder to the pilothouse.
Gregory Jeffers has been a professional technical report writer for over thirty years. Three years ago, he began writing fiction. He has published non-fiction, but not fiction.