This piece was inspired by a trip to the Columbia River Maritime Museum and the Bumblebee Cannery Museum, both of Astoria, Oregon. Astoria has a long history of fishing and many of its original settlers were Finnish. It was also a hotbed of unionizing activity during the first few decades of the 20th century.
By Wendy N. Wagner
The tide was in, and the butter and brine smell of the sea covered the stink of the river. The Kultaseni nosed against the current, keeping to the edge of the shipping channel. Ben kept a tight hold of the tiller and found himself forgetting to blink as he peered ahead into the darkness. Clouds like wool felting wrapped up the sky, and the air was thick with unshed rain.
He risked a quick glance at the man standing in the stern. Arlo Koski’s bigness defined him, set him apart from the other men in Astoria. At the Suomi Ladies Auxiliary annual tug of war, Koski was always called to be team captain. At union meetings, even the Seattle organizers shut up for him to talk. Ben could remember sitting at the back of the Suomi Brotherhood Hall with his brother Joe, listening to Koski and wishing he could be something, anything like the man.
Now his boss stood motionless, just a darker silhouette against the vaguer darkness of the night, watching for snags and boat traffic—the last the most important since they were out here with no running lights. On a normal night, they might see three dozen boats on the water, but half of Astoria was down at the hall talking strikes. Ben wondered if he could still convince Koski this was a bad idea.
He cleared his throat. “Alice May’s going to be wondering where the hell I am. She’s handing out leaflets at the rally.”
“Those bastards are out here somewhere, stealing our catch,” Koski whispered. “We got to put a stop to it.” He shot a neat arc of spit over the side of the boat.
The man tossed a flask back at him. “Have a drink and stop worrying.”
“I don’t drink,” Ben reminded him, but Koski waved a hand to shush him.
“You hear that?” He turned so he faced the Washington side of the river.
Ben listened a minute, trying to place the sound. Koski didn’t like it, that was sure. “What is it? Dog fights in one of the logging camps?”
The hoarse barking didn’t sound right for a dog. It echoed weirdly off the silent humps of the hills, the sound hollow and lonely as it bounced back and forth across the river dividing Oregon from Washington.
“Sea lions. Ain’t seen one on the river since I was a kid. We finish this up, we’ll go shoot a few. Teach them to stay away from our fish.”
Koski kept a rifle in the cupboard built into the seat at the tiller. Ben could almost feel it under his ass, a promise of hot metal and trouble. Not for the first time he wished he had stayed at home tonight, begged off sick, or taken up some small task at the rally. If he were passing out leaflets with Alice May, he wouldn’t be here in the dark looking for the men who’d been poaching their fish. Men who might very well have their own rifles tucked away in their boat.
“You’ve got to protect what’s yours,” Koski mused. “Your woman, your boat, your drift right—nobody ought to mess with them things. That’s a man’s life right there. It don’t matter if you’re talking about a man or a sea lion, you don’t let them take your life from you.”
“My pop’s got a sea lion hide for a rug,” Ben said, wondering as the words came out of his mouth—he had forgotten about the golden pelt tucked up under the edge of his father’s bed. He and Joe would lay on it when Pop was out fishing and tell each other stories of what they’d do when they got old enough to get away from the old bastard. “That’s the only one I’ve ever seen up close.”
The sea lions’ voices echoed again, a volley of barking cut short by a gurgling growl. He couldn’t tell if they came from behind them or up ahead, not the way the sounds bounced off the rocks and the water. They couldn’t be too close, he guessed—or maybe hoped. Sea lions looked awkward on the land, but their teeth were big as a bear’s, and he knew plenty of older fishermen who’d run afoul of the creatures. They’d fight you for your catch if they were hungry enough.
“There’s our marker.” Koski’s voice cut through the barking and Ben’s thoughts. “Give me the rifle.”
They’d come to the edge of their drift right. Every Sunday they went out here to drag the bottom of the river so their nets wouldn’t foul in the shit that lost its way on its journey to the sea: snags from flooded creeks and mis-tended log booms, oil barrels and empty beer kegs, dead bucks with scanty racks and fish-nibbled eyes. The things that sank to the bottom of the Columbia had been useful or beautiful once, but their time beneath the water turned them ugly.
Ben hated those hours dragging the river. They were nothing like the ones spent casting their nets or reeling in those silver salmon. He and Koski never talked much those times, but they didn’t need to. They put out their net and they let the current take them toward the mouth of the river, toward the sea, the birds and the weather calling to them like they were some kind of friends, and the soft curves of the hills casting smiles on the open stretches of the water. Ben had been a fisherman for four years, and he liked the work. He liked the muscles it put in his arms, big ones like Koski’s. He liked the man he was on the river.
“What you waiting for?”
“I don’t know if this is a good idea.”
“That why I do the thinking around here. Now hurry up.”
Ben stood and lifted the bench seat. His fingers found the cold muzzle of the rifle. God, this was a bad idea.
“Just going to scare them,” he reminded Koski. A part of him felt like a kid again, bringing his dad another bottle of beer even though he knew the drunker the old man got, the more likely he was to hit Ben or his brother. The rifle felt wicked in his hands, just like those bottles had felt.
Koski gave an indecipherable grunt and took the rifle. He jammed a fresh plug of chew into the pocket of his cheek. “See anything yet?”
Ben couldn’t see shit out here, but he made a show of looking around in the thick dark of the river’s night.
Then the tiny white flare of a struck match appeared, moving slowly toward them like a falling star traveling at river speed. “Shit.”
Koski crouched down in the bow. “Get us closer.” The light glowed bright for another second, then dwindled down to the red star at the end of a cigarette.
Ben’s heart jumped in his chest, but he kept his hand on the tiller. He trusted Koski. The big Fin had given him a job when no other fisherman would even let him help mend their nets. Koski had found Ben a place to live after he cleaned out of his pop’s place, and he never asked, not even once, for anything in return. Hell, last month Koski had even straight up given Ben enough money to buy a ring for Alice May. Nobody had ever taken more care of Ben Pouttu, especially not his pop, who right now was probably blacked out under the pool table at The Shark Tank.
Koski adjusted the sail a bit and they slowed even more, just moving enough to keep the current from pulling them downstream. The soft hiss of drizzle on the water started, and up ahead someone cussed softly.
The rain brought the dark down tightly around them. Ben’s tongue felt too big for his mouth and dry as fresh sawdust.
The gillnetter’s bow thumped something hollow. A man hollered and Ben jumped to his feet, not sure what to do next, but Koski was already moving, his massive silhouette the only shape Ben could be sure of.
Should he follow? Should he grab his gaff hook? He tried to find the quiet space in his mind he usually felt on the water, but his mind just spun.
The boat rocked and he realized Koski had jumped onto the next boat. No time to be scared. With that rifle in Koski’s hand and him wound so tight, Ben couldn’t let him out of his sight.
Ben grabbed the mooring line and leaped after his boss. Someone uncovered the lantern in the bottom of other boat and the soft glow stung his eyes. Ben stumbled and caught himself just as a fist glanced off the side of his head.
The night fisherman grunted as Ben dug his elbow into the man’s gut. He threw his arms around his attacker, pinning the man’s arms to his sides.
Someone bellowed, and from the rear of the craft, a sickening crunch sounded.
Koski stood panting. The gold light lit his face wrong, put too much in shadows. He wiped something slick off his face with the back of his hand. “Got him,” he said. He shook out his wrist. “Hell of a hit.”
“What did you do?” Ben’s prisoner whispered in heavily accented English. he twisted out of Ben’s grasp. “Ivan? Ivan!” He lurched toward Koski and the crumpled figure in the stern.
Koski shoved him. “I know you.” He gave him another shove, and the man tripped over a glass float and toppled backward again. “Goddamn crote. Should have known it’d be trash like you stealing our fish.”
Koski dropped onto his knees so he could straddle the Croatian’s skinny frame. Ben sat the lantern upright, needing to see, not wanting to see. He knew the man, of course. Town wasn’t so big he hadn’t seen the Novac boys down at the cannery or The Shark Tank. The boys kept to their little band of Croatians and Bulgarians, the two of them new enough to Oregon they still stank of sauerkraut and cherry brandy.
In the stern, Ivan lay with his head cocked up on the gunwale, black trickling all down his temple. The rifle lay beside him, the stock smeared with blood. The Croatian didn’t move.
“Did you bust his head in?” Ben whispered. “Sweet Jesus, we were just going to scare them!”
“Shut up,” Koski whispered. Luka Novac made a little whimper. Koski outweighed him by nearly a hundred pounds, and all of it fish-hauling muscle. The wind and cold had toughened even his skin, every exposed inch of it red and leathery and freckled. In the yellow light, he looked like the devil himself.
Ben took a step closer to Koski. “He looks pretty scared, Arlo.” The moist molasses fume of Koski’s breath settled over the three of them, a tobacco fog. The rain sifted down Ben’s collar in a steady, miserable dampness.
“Should have been scared before he started poaching our fish.”
“We didn’t mean nothing,” Luka blurted. “We were just doing what we had to!”
Koski slapped him hard enough to spin Novac’s face into the net underneath him. The crotes hadn’t had a chance to play out their whole net, and now the tail of it ran out the stern of the boat, tying the craft to the weight they’d dropped someplace upstream. The night had gone silent around them save for the soft movement of the water against shore and craft. Somewhere in the darkness, a fish jumped.
“He’s real scared.” Ben put his hand on Koski’s shoulder. He hadn’t heard that placating tone in his own voice since before his brother had run out in the night. Memory settled onto him so that he could almost smell the stale pipe smoke and sour beer stink coming off Pop’s clothes. Pop never beat Ben like he beat Joe, and Ben never knew why. Was it this voice? This soft, desperate voice that gave away just how weak and soft he really was?
Koski swiped Ben’s hand off his shoulder. “You scared, crote? You real scared?” He drove his fist into the smaller man’s belly. Not too hard, just like he was testing the man.
Novac twisted and bucked, but Koski had him pinned good, his knees pressing down Novac’s hands so he couldn’t fight back. Novac stopped moving. His eyes traveled past Ben and all the way back to his brother’s broken shape. “Please stop,” he whispered.
“You telling us what to do?” Koski punched him again, harder this time, and the air went out of Novac with a whoosh.
In the stern, Ivan still lay motionless and soundless. Ben shifted on his feet, but he couldn’t bring himself to walk the ten feet to the man’s side to see if he still breathed. If he didn’t know the man was dead, he couldn’t get in trouble for it, could he? He’d seen a man hanged just last summer for killing a man. It was an argument, just the kind of stupid shit two old buddies shot back and forth when they were out on a boat. Then the one had picked up a gaff hook and that’s all there was. He’d cried like a baby girl when they brought him to the gallows.
Ben spun around. “Jesus, Koski, we got to get out of here. If somebody catches us, it won’t matter if these crows were stealing from us. They’ll just put us in jail for killing Ivan.”
Koski let out a huff of breath, but he didn’t move.
“Damn it. How am I supposed to marry Alice May if I’m in jail?”
“Yeah, that’s right,” Novac said. “Think about your friend here.”
It was the wrong thing to say and Ben knew it, but he moved too slow to stop Koski from grabbing Novac by the throat.
“You don’t know a thing about him,” Koski growled. He shifted his weight and came up slow, hoisting Novac till the little man’s feet dangled above the bottom of the boat. His legs swung across the lantern’s beam of light, casting darkness across the boat, then light, then dark again.
“You goddamn crow. The two of us out here six days a week fishing, our one free day scraping the bottom of the river to keep our drift right. Then you come along and take what’s ours. Rather have seen a chink out here than a goddamn crow.”
He shook the Croatian with every few words. Ben could hear the bones in Novac’s throat creaking and his limbs flopped weakly. His face looked dark.
The sea lions began to bark again, this time so close Ben felt the sound vibrating inside his body. He shook Koski’s arm. “Please,” he begged. Everything felt wrong: the sea lions, the shadows sweeping back and forth across the boat, the rustle of the nets as Novac’s toes stirred them ineffectually.
Koski dropped Novac. “Where the hell are they?”
“They sound right next to us,” Ben said. The sea lions’ cries echoed off the hills and pounded in his skull. His chest ached with the power of the sound.
Novac’s barking cough was nearly as loud as the sea lions. He pulled himself onto the heap of nets, clasping his throat and gasping.
“I can’t see anything,” Ben said.
Koski reached for the lantern and played the light over the water off the port side. No rocks, no logs, no sea lions. The animals’ calls echoed all around them, a stranger and crueler version of the sounds coming out of Novac’s throat.
“I see something,” Koski said. It wasn’t his voice at all, but some tiny, gutted version of it. Ben had seen Koski face down a black bear and a hurricane without losing his calm. Unflappable, ready for anything, tough. Up until tonight, Koski was everything Ben ever wanted to be in this world.
“What do you see?” Ben wiped his palm on his pants and switched the hand holding the lantern. He suddenly wanted nothing as much as a glass of whiskey.
Koski stayed silent. In the stern, Ivan Novac made the tiniest of moans.
“What do you see?” Ben repeated.
Koski raised his arm and pointed. The roaring and barking grew louder, came from all around them, no place and every place all at the same time. There must have been dozens of sea lions, maybe a hundred sea lions, their voices hollow and mean.
“Ivan?” Novac whispered, his voice filled with gravel. He crawled forward a few feet. “Are you okay?”
“Let’s just get out of here,” Ben said, but Koski stayed frozen, staring into the darkness where there was nothing to see. Ben pulled on Koski’s waist and the big man stumbled backward a few feet. “Come on,” Ben said. “Come on.”
He got Koski back into their own boat and then went back for the rifle, which still lay, blood-streaked and sticky, in the stern of the Croatian’s boat. Luka held his brother in his arms.
“I’m sorry,” Ben said. Luka did not look up at him. In the light of the failing lantern, Ben could see the bruises on Luka’s face and throat, ugly, vicious things.
Ben picked up the rifle, its iron cold as the river itself. Ivan’s blood had clotted on the stock and the black goo reminded Ben of the blood that had seeped out of his brother’s nose the night Pop had broken it. He had no idea how he was going to clean all that dark and nasty off Koski’s rifle. The sounds of the sea lions grew louder.
“Look,” Luka croaked. He pointed off the side of the boat, toward Washington, where the darkness seemed deeper and vaster.
Ben peered out there. Besides the sea lions, nothing moved or sounded. Fish did not jump. Ben could hear his own heart in his ears, pounding hard, as if it could free itself from his chest and swim away to the sea.
Then he saw it: a face rising from the water. The great dark eyes gleamed back at him, catching all the light of that one little lantern and reflecting it back at Ben. What did those eyes see in him? What had they seen before? He felt the soft weakness that had followed him his whole life and knew there was no place clean or pure, not in all this world, because underneath the violence and the whiskey and the petty arguments, there was only this, this seeing and being seen, this one pair of burning eyes in a face he could never, would never describe. The barking rose around him, louder and louder as the beasts closed in.
“It’s a sea lion,” Novac said.
The sounds began to fade as the pod passed them by.
“Just a sea lion,” Ben echoed. He shook his head and blinked, but the afterimage of those two eyes burned on in the backs of his eyes.
In the darkness, something splashed. He threw the rifle after it and then got back into the Kultaseni. He needed a drink.
About the Author
Wendy N. Wagner is the author of the forthcoming horror novel The Deer Kings (due August from Journalstone), as well as the SF novel An Oath of Dogs, and two Pathfinder tie-in novels. Her short fiction has appeared in nearly fifty publications. She is the incoming (2021) editor-in-chief of Nightmare Magazine and also serves as Managing/Senior Editor at both Nightmare and Lightspeed. She lives, works, and makes mischief in Portland, Oregon. You can keep up with her at winniewoohoo.com.
About the Narrator
About the Artist
Ashley Mackenzie is an artist and illustrator based in Edmonton, Alberta. She was born in Victoria, BC and grew up between Vancouver, BC and Edmonton, AB. After studying online for a year through AAU in San Francisco, Calif., she moved to Toronto to pursue a degree in Illustration at OCADU. Though she loves the challenge of creating complex conceptual illustrations and finding new ways to navigate ideas, visually she also enjoys making concept art and decorative illustration. When not drawing, she can be found reading, playing video games or thinking about her next project.