I’ve been on the water for three days, having left Sara and her son Liam and their kitchen smelling of honey and bread dough, warm milk and washable markers. On my last day in Kodiak, the fog looked thicker than the icing on the little gingerbread shapes Sara snuck into my going-away bag. Also in my bag are the three little jars of salmonberry syrup (our botched batch of jelly-jam from the spoils of our walk along the sunny coast), some smoothed-over green and blue beach glass, a handful of the chocolate bunnies I kept stealing from Liam when he wasn’t looking, eight books, a lump of clean clothes, the jojoba and almond face scrub I bought at the little health food store I wished we had in Sitka, and a bottle of screw-top Shiraz. I have gotten used to reaching for Liam’s little hands above wet pants and milky puddles and listening to Sara’s sharp and soft insights on being a fisherman’s wife. Leaving friends is never easy and it’s especially hard when it’s raining and they live on an island without a phone.
When I got to the loading dock, the same oompa-loompa-ish man who patrolled the gangway in Homer asked me for my ID and boarding ticket, and I asked him if it would be as rolly as our ride three days prior. “Never can tell,” he sang with a voice that seemed to come out his nose, so I went up the slick plank to my narrow room, 22C, the same one Sara and I had last week on 20-foot seas that sent a chorus of barf noises from the bathrooms and a captain with a pad of bandages rushing past who said, “We’ve got another bleeder on level two!”
Sara was in our cabin and I was upstairs watching cold drinks crash when the intercom told the passengers to remain seated for at least 15 minutes and to steer clear of detached objects. When I went to check on her, she admitted she’d already planned an escape route for every person on board, while I had only planned on the stroke I’d swim in the event that the whole ship went down (freestyle). Sara reminds me of my own mom; they both exhibit that rare, instinctual compassion that comes with being thoughtful mothers.
The weather is better on this long leg back to Sitka. From my porthole, I watch the waves for hours at a time, alternating between the gray and its foggy lid, and the two books I have going: My Antonia (“Half the sky was chequered with black thunderheads, but all the west was luminous and clear: in the lightning flashes it looked like deep blue water, with the sheen of moonlight on it and the mottled part of the sky was like marble pavement, like the quay of some splendid seacoast city, doomed to destruction, and all about us we could hear the felty beat of the raindrops on the soft dust of the farmyard”) and Speak, Memory (“How small the cosmos (a kangaroo’s pouch would hold it), how paltry and puny in comparison to human consciousness to a single individual recollection and its expression in words!”). One takes place in the plains and one somewhere far away, and this is where I live.
Outside, the waves are dark gray, rolling like a snapped sheet in slow motion, and right up under the lacy fringe where the water breaks is a ribbon of vivid turquoise, the color of the warm water on the Maya Riviera. Today, we were supposed to see Mt. Elias, the 18,800-foot peak above Yakutat, but instead, there is only the charcoal unrolling itself from under the boat and blending with the edge of the gauze-like fog. For dinner, I eat a gingerbread man and a green apple that tastes like Anchorage.
In Yakutat, I follow a road past lily pads in a still pond to Fat Grandma’s—a dusty store of t-shirts and candles and leaning shelves where the woman behind the counter calls, “Swap out a book and take one for free!” Before I leave, she says she’s getting on the boat, too, and corrects herself, yelling: “Anyone in the store can take any books for free!” The only books I see are Nora Roberts and John Grisham and the shiny kinds with lots of moonlight and the authors’ names bigger than the book titles, so I decline.
A little further down the road at a jam-packed general store, I buy two bars of soap and a mango, but they don’t have knives, so I spend a half a mile trying to pry it open with a plastic fork before two tines crack off inside. Back on the boat, a very old man comes up to where I’m sitting (I’ve found a knife and am pulling long strips of juicy mango off the blade with my teeth), and he says--slower than I’ve ever heard the word--“Pap-eye-ah.” I say, “Mango.” He says, faster, “Papaya.” And we leave it at that.