I knew Clyde Russell. It sure was awful how he drowned. Hauling a load of that eelgrass for his garden in off the tide. He’d done that every fall for years. Feet got tangled in a line, and he fell headfirst in the bay. Reached up to right himself, but the top-heavy skiff tipped over. At least that’s what they figured, finding his body in a big clot of eelgrass.
He was a rock-ribbed old logger who’d seen big trees, six, seven foot thick. I’d watch him at his workbench filing the teeth of a whipsaw, making the angles and curves as sharp as talons. He’d laugh about his shop. Battened boards and shakes, he’d say. But you’ll play hell finding virgin one-by-tens like these. Last as long as me. Longer. He was right, I guess.
Some time after the funeral, driving along I caught sight of the eelgrass, what he’d brought in, still heaped up down in the cove, and my mind started working. Betty and me, we got two girls, and I’m gone every morning at six and don’t get back till dark. And there’s plenty to do around the place. But after supper Betty said, Why don’t you go down and see what she needs?
I will, but I’m tired.
What about tomorrow? I’m taking the girls and driving down to Yachats to visit Ann.
I thought you were seeing your sister next Saturday.
Next Saturday happens to be tomorrow, Ted.
I was thinking I had Saturday to pull the carburetor off my old beater Chev, but I called Bill and said it’ll have to be another day. Then I called Mrs. Russell, and she said she can’t afford help, and I told her no money involved. And she said that big pile of eelgrass is driving her to distraction, and I said I’ll be over first thing.
Next morning I waved goodbye to Betty and the girls. Give Ann a hug for me. I walked down the road, and in Clyde’s shop I found a pitchfork and wheelbarrow. Then I had to face that seaweed, full of bugs and smelling gamey. I started hauling it out of the cove and onto the garden, load by load. Believe you me, it was work. I was thinking, Clyde, you were some kind of man to handle this. Then I spread it on the furrows with the pitchfork.
Eelgrass grows in the oyster beds out on Willapa Bay, and the oystermen keep cutting it back. Oysters have a hard enough time. In the fall these big tangles roll in on the tide. Clyde had been forking that grass every year, turning a sandy soil that can’t hold water into a fine loam. If I had a shoreline I’d do the same, but I live up the road and have to settle for what my chickens give.
That afternoon when I got done washing the wheelbarrow, Mrs. Russell asked if I’d like a little soup. I walked into a room where daylight came flooding in the bay window. We took our soup there at the table. Outside, the tide was drawing down on the flats, and the herons were fishing for minnows. The soup came from a can, but she’d added something to make it tasty. Pretty soon I was dunking my bread. I’ll get you some more. She rose up crooked and scuttled to the stove, the way an old woman can get. I saw her teeth gritting as she sat down again, so after the second bowl I offered to take the dishes to the kitchen.
Oh, no. You’ve worked hard. Why, you’ve done in one day what Clyde would have taken three to do. Maybe you’d like a cup of tea. And I’ve got a little cake that I made.
Sounds good, but I can sure help with the dishes.
No, that’s okay. She tried getting up again, pushing the table and gritting. She couldn’t quite make it, and I couldn’t get a hand out fast enough to steady her.
Are you all right, Mrs. Russell?
She sat down, panting and staring at the tide, and then looked at me. Well, I guess I can tell you. I tried to get Nellie Berger, but I forgot they took away her driver’s license, and Joyce left for Arizona last week, and Dawn, my daughter—oh. It’s my back, just a’killing me. I used up my pills, and Clyde stored the others way up in that cupboard. I can’t climb on a chair to find them. Could you try?
I’ll do my best. Boy, was that cupboard full of pills. Those are my vitamins, she said, as I pawed around. What do they look like? They’re brown, they’re in a glass jar. Like this? I pulled out a jar with a Sunny Jim Peanut Butter label on it. They don’t make this kind of peanut butter anymore. Never know when you need a jar, she said. I can’t thank you enough. Sure, you can. Cut the cake. She smiled and took a couple of pills with water.
We sat down to tea and cake. I talked and she talked, and outside crows worked the eelgrass for all the bugs. Then robins flew in and blue jays. Mrs. Russell laughed and waved. Oh, we’re having a big confab. Then she got quiet, and I thought about leaving. But she stared across the table and said, You know what? I’m scared.
I was about to blabber some great wisdom, but she put up her hand. Just listen. There’s nothing for it but to listen. Okay? Dawn is coming next week from Seattle.
I started to ask who, but then I remembered that woman next to her at the funeral, painted up and thin. Afterward in the reception hall she told the church women how nice the Jell-O salad looked. How nice and appetizing everything looked. How grateful she was. And I thought, Is that what the city does to folks?
Dawn’s in real estate, and she wants me to move up there.
I got the picture. I don’t read obituaries, but looking at Clyde’s I saw the ones for So-and-So, formerly of Nahcotta, and So-and-So, formerly of Ilwaco, or Oysterville, or Chinook. Those people used to live on the Long Beach Peninsula. I said, That’s terrible, Mrs. Russell.
No, it’s not. It’s the way it is. Listen, I’ll tell you a story. Before Dawn was born, Clyde came home from the navy, and we lived high up above Skamokawa in a rented house. He was all day in the woods, and we had a dog, named Bozo. It was nice weather in early September. The blackberries were ripe, and I wanted to surprise Clyde with a pie for dinner. Bozo and I went picking through an old clearcut. Plenty of berries had grown in that slash the loggers had left. The dog and I took our leisure that afternoon. But then, thinking I was on good ground, I stepped and fell through the dead branches of the slash, up to my shoulders. There I was, my feet dangling. One more bump, and I’d have slipped right down to I don’t know what.
No one knew where I was. If I dropped I could break a leg or something worse, and the branches down there come sharp at the ends. Lucky for me, Bozo hadn’t run off. He’d been chasing chipmunks all day and got tired. I called him, and he came onto the branches. I reached up and got hold of his tail, and that was all I needed to get out.
Mrs. Russell blinked and stared. I might never have been found. Now, that would have been terrible. But I had a good dog. Next spring I was pregnant, and I went up along the clearcut, watching my step, you better believe. I found wildflowers, trilliums, twinflowers and dogtooth violets, in the shade of the old trees, a yellow carpet of dogtooth violets. I picked some and set them in water on the table. I swear, Clyde was so hungry he started sprinkling them on his salad. Where’d you get them? he said. That’s my secret.
Her telling me this with a chuckle made me smile too. She could stand somewhat easier now, and I said goodbye. The sun was slanting in, and I glanced back to clear my eyes before taking the road. Crows were rising out of the garden, stealing each other’s flight wind. In autumn you get an angle of light that makes everything more intense before dark—the blue sky, green lawn, brown eelgrass, and black crows floating out to where the silver tide draws away. In a week or so she’ll be gone to Seattle, and I’ll be figuring all winter into spring where to find a dogtooth violet to send her.