LLyn De Danaan


It’s a dark night. The moon won’t rise for another hour. The water is very still, yet I can see the frothy crests of small surface waves lapping at the pilings under the dock where I’m sitting. I can see those crests because there is so much phosphorus in this part of the Sound tonight. The phosphorescence rides along with the movement in the water and looks like fireworks when it dashes against the pilings beneath me. Every so often, a sparkling splash makes its way up through the spaces between the planks of the dock. Then I feel the cold, wet salt water slapping at my shorts. But the air is warm and I don’t care.

I’ve got a flashlight in my hand and the water is clear  and smooth enough to use it to spot the dogfish even yards away. Their eerie eyes light up and glow green below the surface, even down there close to the bottom where they hangout. I see their eyes and they see my light. They follow the beam, warily at first, and then they swim toward it faster and faster until they near ram the dock. My pal, Boots, and I each have a make shift spear: a bundle of carved points tied fast to the end of a stick. When the fish get right under us, and are staring, mesmerized by the light, we drive our spears into their horny bodies.  The fish wriggle on the end of our sticks but can’t break lose. That’s the way we’ve carved our points, Boots and I: with a barbed point. The fish can’t back off. We’d seen them carved this way in the museum collections we’ve visited on school trips. We’ve even seen them in the Indian relics local people have found down on the beach.

We always go for the dogfish. Seems like we’ve done it for years. But of course, we’re only 12 years old so it can’t have been that long. Not that there’s anything to do with the dogfish. Nobody eats them. They’re just dirty old bottom fish. We could save them and use them for bait. But usually we just toss them back in the water. We’re careful because their spines can hurt us. We toss their bleeding bodies back in the water and those once bright eyes go sour and pale as the fish dies. Tomorrow they will float to the surface of the water and something will lunge at them from the sky and, like a lightening bolt, strike then grasp in their talons then carry them off to be devoured by a nest of young or jerked into a hundred smaller pieces and eaten as a snack. They won’t go to waste. Nothing here does.

It’s late. The last ferry from Seattle to Indianola has made its run. There are a few lights still bobbing around out there on the water. Probably some fishermen poking around trying for salmon. With all the phosphorescence, it shouldn’t be a great night to snag a fish. The old timers say the fish can see the nets and everything else on a night like this. Still, if you know where they are and are patient, you might get one or two.

People who fish don’t care if they don’t catch any. The men, and a few women I know who fish, just want to get out there on their own no matter whether there are fish around. I suppose it is a little like going into a trance. If you are alone on the water, in the dark, and feeling the rocking of the boat and hearing the sound of the lapping water and the occasional gull’s cry, then that’s your world. It’s all there is and it’s all you need. And after a while you crave it because that world is so much easier than the other one. That’s how I feel anyway.

Just when I think I’m starting to feel a little chill in spite of the warm air, Boots suggests we jump into the skiff at the end of the dock and row up toward Indianola. Just for fun. Boots is daring that way. Nobody calls her by her real name. She isn’t a Bertha. She is just Boots: always lean and strong,  her skin deeply tanned by the summer sun. She reminds me of an otter when she is in the water. That’s how sleek and supple she is. She likes to jump off the side of my sailboat when we are out darting around the bay. We heel over as she steps up on the gunwale. Her long brown toes grip the smooth curve of the boat just long enough for their knuckles to turn white. Then she dives, jerking the boat over then quickly upright again. I see the black hole she’s made in the water closing in on itself. Her body is propelled out like a rocket from somewhere in the depths. She breaks the surface and moves surely and quickly just skimming the water with long, even strokes. She is soon far away from me. The bronzed skin of her wet back catches the sun and almost blinds me. I could stay in this dazzling August heaven and watch her forever. Sometimes the little harbor seal that has fallen in love with her wriggles its body to the edge of its warm resting place on the shore, slides into the water, then scuds toward her to follow a short distance behind. All I can hear then, on a calm day, is the heavy, even breath of that seal. I tack up and down the bay near her and keep a watchful eye. But Boots is always safe. She can do anything and could probably swim across the bay a hundred times a day.

Boots comes every summer to her family cabin on the shore. Her grandmother is rich as hell and lives in a big stone mansion up on a bluff. I’ve only seen her once or twice. She wears a long black dress and a high lace collar like in the old days and when I met her the first time she invited me in for a cookie. She looked pretty ominous but she was nice as heck to me.

I get to come and live with my grandparents every summer. I can hardly stand the rest of the year waiting to get back to the island and the water. I love the water.

So Boots and I pull ourselves up to our feet, place our spears on the ground together near the bank, then walk to the end of the dock to where the skiff is tied.  I’ve got a little sailboat too, but that’s tied up over by my house. The skiff is perfect for tonight. Anyway, I can row for miles. I have extra long oars and I know how to feather them.

The rope is heavy and damp in my hand as I untie the cleat hitch. Boots is in the prow, leaning forward like an eager, ancient masthead, and I sit on the bench in the middle of the boat facing the stern and grasp the handles of the long oars. We may as well go out. The moon is coming up anyway and the dogfish won’t be so interested in our light. I begin moving the oars, scooping through the water rhythmically.  Every time an oar blade hits the water, the phosphorescence darts around like the  fiery showers from a sparkler on Fourth of July. It is, suddenly, a celebration.

We don’t talk, Boots and I, she is lying on her back now, hanging her head down toward the water off the prow and looking at the stars. She’s pulled a tee shirt on over her bathing suit. She’s wearing that one with the frills around the top. I don’t wear frills. I’m still in my wet, yellow shorts and a cowboy shirt I wear everyday except when my grandmother grabs it from the end of my bed while I’m asleep and puts it in the wash.

Boots is lucky cause she has curly hair and after she’s been in swimming, it dries in little dark red ringlets around her face. My hair is straight as a poker, as they say. But it is pretty thick. When I’m not wearing my favorite sailor hat, grandmother parts it on one side and puts a clip in to hold it out of my eyes. It’s always getting in my eyes. I’d cut it real short if Grandmother would let me.

As I row, I tell Boots to keep me aimed straight for the jagged row of lights to the north. That’s the ferry dock. I keep the rising moon on my left and watch it struggle to clear the dark streaky clouds on the horizon. It peeks out now and then. We’re eight days past the full moon, but it will still be bright. The overhead sky is clear enough that I can see Pegasus and the big square and the seven sisters and a whole lot of the Milky Way. Saturn is there somewhere. My grandfather taught me how to read the night sky.

Sometimes Boots calls out from her perch if she sees a shooting star. We’ve made a lot of wishes on those shooting stars. But the rule is we both have to see the same one at the same time. I think Boots always hopes I will have seen the one she has seen. I think Boots hopes we can wish together. When she isn’t announcing the shooting stars,  she tells me if I’m too far to the right or left and I correct my course.

As the moon gets higher, its light washes out the phosphorescence. Now we can see the dark traces of the fir trees on the land around us. Nothing is distinct. Everything is in shadow. Sometimes we hear a doleful cry of a solitary heron. Sometimes we hear a large fish as it leaps out of the water, flaunting its freedom, then falls back into the deep with a plop and splash.

The dock at Indianola is big. Three boats to Seattle leave here everyday. There are stores and a post office. But everything is closed now and the only lights are those shining around the dock. They’ve only had electricity for five or six years, so we’re used to the dark and so are they.

It’s late. Very late. And I’m too tired to row all the way back home. Boots knows that.

Boots runs down the dock to the shore hooting and hollering like a mad woman. I think she imagines we are stuck on a desert island and we are in for high adventure. She reads a lot of books about girls having adventures like Nancy Drew. Plus she has a great imagination. When she gets to the end of the dock she starts walking east, picking her way along the shell covered beach. She doesn’t want to cut her feet. There are clamshells and oyster shells and bits of crab and dead barnacles mixed in with all the other beach debris. Though we both go barefoot all summer, the shells and dead barnacles are sharp and hurt like hell. I can easily see her, a dizzy shadow tip toeing in the moonlight.

I take care tying my cleat hitch and look at the water line and markers on the pilings so I know how high the tide comes in here and how much slack to leave in the line. It’s not quite at its highest now, but will be soon. By the time we’ll want to start back, it will be three or four feet lower I reckon.

Boots, meanwhile, has spotted some fishing boats pulled up on the beach a little ways north and east of the dock. Some of them have tarps pulled up over them to keep their insides dry. All along that beach, above the high tide line, are fishing nets and crab pots and charred driftwood remains of big bonfires. There are a few drying racks with salmon. I’m tempted to go get a piece but don’t. I just keep walking toward where Boots is.

“Come on,” she hollers at me, “let’s find one with some cushions and we’ll make a tent.” I follow her with the now dimming beam of my flashlight. She’s right. We can sleep in a boat under a tarp.

We find an old boat with three torn and ragged but serviceable life jackets filled with kapok. We had to yank nets and other gear out of the way to make a little nest for us in the bottom of the boat. Then we arranged the life jackets and flopped down and pulled the tarp back up over us. We giggled so hard and so long I thought we’d never stop. Once in a while, Boots would peek out from under the tarp to see if anyone was on the beach or if the dawn was on its way. Finally, after a tickling bout, we fell asleep, wrapped in each other’s arms to keep warm.

It was a Suquamish fisherman come to work on his net who found us. He wanted to get out just before dawn when the fishing is almost always really good this time of year. He nearly passed out when he pulled the tarp back. “What the heck! What are you girls doing here?”  Then he couldn’t stop laughing. He had a big thermos with a dented metal screw top that doubled as a cup. The body of the thermos was painted black and red and had his name scratched on it. “Jacob” it said. It was full of hot black coffee. Jacob shared the coffee all around. We each took big gulps then passed it on to the next. He pulled a package of store-bought donuts out of his rucksack. It was probably his breakfast, but he seemed to enjoy sharing it. He said he didn’t believe in mermaids but he has family on Vancouver Island who swear they are real. He thought for a minute that’s what we were. We told him about our spear points and he gave us some tips for making them more effective.

The sun was up above the horizon so we decided we’d better get back home and let Jacob get to fishing. We’d still be in time for breakfast. Grandmother would be cross if I didn’t make it to breakfast. She’d probably begin to wonder where I’d gotten to. There was steam fog rising from the water, but we could see for miles. As Boots called out directions, and I plunged the oars through the water, I watched Jacob back on the beach getting his boat and gear ready. The water was smooth.  Boots was back at the prow and happy as I’d ever seen her.


*Based on an incident relayed to me by Mary Randlett. Thanks.

About Llyn De Danaan

LLyn De Danaan is an anthropologist and author. She writes fiction and nonfiction. Katie Gale: A Coast Salish Woman's Life on Oyster Bay was published by the University of Nebraska Press. She is currently a speaker for Humanities Washington.
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