David was sitting in the window-seat under one of Ellen's new quilts, brooding and fingering his tumor, when raccoons breached the oatgrass berm edging the yard. It set his teeth on edge to watch them come so fearlessly, but he stayed put; this bone-deep weariness was the worst part of what Ellen called the "new normal." He went back to gazing across Puget Sound at the Olympic Peninsula, charting a flight-plan in his head. How often he'd flown over the Sound on days just like this, navigating narrow windows of sunshine between weather bands, the ocean below ragged with current, or obsidian-slick, in no clear pattern. Visibility was good between Eagle Cove and the Olympics, with only an inoffensive haze around the shoulders of the mountains. How far could a single-engine plane make it through the clearest pass on visual flight rules? The sun had just gone down; even with the ocean and the sky promising calm, it would be suicide. But a good pilot could make sure that when he did go down, death would be swift. A good pilot would not suffer.
That was when Ruger started raising hell. The raccoons were raiding the trash. Sensible dog, David thought. A Boykin spaniel, Georgia-bred and born, Ruger knew raccoons for the bone-sucking, overgrown rats they are. You could fly a Georgia dog to Washington State, but you couldn't expect him to be polite to raccoons.
David roused himself and quit probing. Ellen would've had a fit to see him. Feeling the edges of his tumor was a bad habit, he knew, but it stilled his nerves, like nail-biting or picking a scab. There was a watchfulness to it, too, that steadied him. It was like the watchfulness of the raven in that myth that Ellen loved -- about a great monster halibut, so hungry and greedy that he grew to the size of an island. For a long time the raven, the hero of the story, just watched and waited, considering what to do, while that halibut swelled. David keeping one hand on his tumor was like that. The cancer would most likely kill him, but then again it might not; in either case, it wouldn't do to turn his back on his enemy. He had to remember to tell Ellen, when she came back in. He swung long, stiff legs off the window-seat and found his slippers with his toes.
Ruger's baying got ruder. He scrabbled at the bottom of the door, fraying the doormat and leaving marks in Ellen's parquet floor. If she came in from her work-shed, Ruger was going to get her broom across his bottom, but there was not much chance she would. She always worked on her quilts at this time of day. Today, as always, she had given David a tender kiss and held his hand for a moment before going, even though she'd only be an hour. She was just across the yard. But he missed her just the same. He almost let Ruger bark on, hoping the noise would bring her in.
"All right, dog, all right," David said, "I know they're out there. We're gonna fix it. Ruger, be still!" Ruger fell back onto his haunches instantly, all-over trembling, poised to hand out some discipline. "That's a boy. Let's shoot the eagles some dinner. Ummmm-mmm!"
The Californian, their neighbor to the south, actually fed raccoons out of cat-food cans on her porch. She would not be happy, no, to discover that David planned to throw one of her pets to the eagles.
But he had his therapeutic reasons. The liver was like the trash-bin of metabolism, he reasoned, and if a surgeon couldn't excise the tumor that spread over both lobes of his liver, then excising raccoons from his trash-bins was just good therapy. A dying man should have a special license to shoot vermin, even in the Californian region of Washington State. If David had been a doctor, he'd have prescribed a raccoon a week to every terminal patient, and gotten insurance to cover the ammunition.
Ruger whined and kissed David's slow feet, writhing so it seemed he'd twist his small body in two. Torn over the prospect of the hunt. Back in Georgia, Ruger could flush partridges with the best of his litter. David's cousin Bobby had paid a top breeder $800 for him. But Ruger, it turned out, was scared to death of gunshot noise.
David had been there the last time Bobby tried to take Ruger hunting, on the family's three hundred acres of Georgia pine and swamp. When David's rifle took down a deer, the noise sent Ruger sprinting away from the kill, instead of in the direction of retrieving it. The family hadn't seen him for two days. When he returned, though, it was to David and Ellen's guest cabin. He was caked in mud, curled up in the wood-bin with one of David's yard slippers.
Bobby had gladly sent Ruger back to Washington with his cousin. "He'll do you more good than me," Bobby told him. "He's a good dog. But he can't go haulin' ass through the swamp like that, blind-scared like he gets. One day he'll run into a snake. Or a gator, or a wild pig. Either way, that dog cost me close to $30 a pound -- and I don't think the swamp critters would fully appreciate such rich fare."
For the month since, Ruger had been David's companion, lending his warmth to David's frequent chills. This was comforting, especially when Ellen couldn't be there. Ruger chased foxes, rabbits, and birds through the yellowed yard for David's entertainment, then plunged over the berm and down the sandy bluff to retrieve malodorous beach-treasures for David's praise. David had known not to ask for Ruger's help hunting raccoons. But maybe now was the time. Ruger deserved another chance, and David didn't know how much longer he'd be able to raise a rifle.
Upstairs, David eased his varmint-rifle out of the gun safe. He squinted at Ruger, who groaned, barely keeping still. "All right," he said, jerking his head toward the safe. "Get me one of those bottles."
Ruger snuffled the floor of the safe and retrieved a plastic pop-bottle. He dropped it in his master's outstretched hand.
"Now, that's a good boy," David said, scratching under a silky russet ear.
He laid the gun on the work-table, and began stuffing the pop-bottle with toilet paper from a bin. The homemade silencer was Bobby's suggestion. He swore it would muffle a small-caliber rifle-shot enough that "You're going to have to shoot twice, so your neighbors won't be left waiting for the other shoe to drop."
The bulk of the silencer might make accuracy a problem, but David expected that the raccoons wouldn't even run. They were so overconfident and lazy, living off San Juan Island benevolence, that they'd make easy targets. If the gunshot was as damped as Bobby claimed, the noise shouldn't arouse the Californian's indignation. And David cautiously figured it wouldn't trigger Ruger's phobia, either.
Out in her cedar work-shed, Ellen knew that David sat in the window-seat at sunset, probing his tumor, brooding over whether he should hurry up and die, or cling to whatever life he had left. If she let herself linger on it, she'd brood right alongside her husband, and maybe die with him too. But that was no way to treat a man like David. She had to temper worry with circumspection, even if he tore himself up meantime. She'd need some energy to put him back together again. Ruger, with his undivided canine exuberance, was much better equipped to deal with David at sunset. So Ellen retreated for awhile to her quilts, even as the fall evenings lengthened and grew chilly, warmed only by the fragrance of the wood, the quilts on the walls, and the heat of her own frustration. This was her way of fighting the overwhelming weariness, the secret, wasting weariness of loving a dying man.
Finished quilts from years past hung along the rough cedar walls: an iridescent school of salmon; a Washington State ferryboat, in a terrazzo of greens; Raven, done in the style of the Kwakwaka'wakw nations. She'd pieced Raven, her first quilt ever, from memories of the women's button-blankets at the Alert Bay reserve, to which David often flew medical supplies. Raven was not properly proportioned. His mouth smiled more than the true Kwakwaka'wakw Raven's, and his wings curved more like a greeting-card angel's. But she had captured his trickster's expression, the alarming glance of a divine being that liked to play.
Her wireless beat out a tune -- something the grandkids had finagled, the last time they were out here. Scott, calling to "check on things," as he put it. This time, it was really to argue about the quilt.
"It was not my intention to cause you trouble by moving up the wedding date, Mom." Scott's slight exasperation came across clearly, even on the speaker-phone. "It's about you and Dad being there. While Dad's still comfortable."
"It's no trouble," Ellen said, soothing still, though both her sons were long grown. "I have been quite prolific for the last few months."
She glanced around at a storm-fall of fabric, so thick that she didn't dare turn on the space heater. Flotsam from a compulsive flood of quilting, since David's diagnosis. She'd made quilts for David, for Ethan and his wife, for their three kids. She'd even tossed a reject Ruger's way, an Olympic landscape that she'd intended for Scott's bride, but which had never come together right.
"It helps to create beautiful things," she went on. "Making the quilt for you and Mary will help me."
"Mei-hui," Scott reminded her. "Her name is Mei-hui, Mom."
"Oh, Scott. I'm sorry." She'd had the same block with Ethan's wife's name, when he had moved his family to New York. Was it self-protection that made her forget? Did she keep from missing her children by blocking out their other lives? Like snipping an irregularity out of the family fabric, and patching the hole with a poor bit of appliqué.
"It's OK," Scott said. "You'll get it. But all that quilting, Mom -- shouldn't you spend that time with Dad? Forget a new quilt. How about the raven one? I love the raven one."
Ellen turned her eyes sideways at Raven, who grinned his not-quite-Kwakwaka'wakw grin. It was really a shame she had never done him over correctly.
"How can you even think of giving your bride crooked old Raven!" she laughed. "What will she think? No. I'm making a Whale for her."
"Fine." Scott sighed. "But my point is, I think Dad's depressed. You can't leave him alone for so long every day."
Trouble, shouldn't, can't. Sometimes the boys pissed her off even worse that the dozens of other thoughtless people who knew just how a woman and her dying husband were supposed to live their lives.
"We're all depressed," she said. Then she said she loved him, and broke the connection.
She spread a swathe of pure-black calico, measured, snipped, and spread out another piece to match. Smooth, fathomless black, like the ocean just beneath its reflections. She hoped Mei-hui liked whales.
As she whip-stitched the top, the whale design surfaced in her mind's eye. Behind it, memories surged up as well, as they always did, with her inventions. The black-and-white of the preliminary oncology report. The sunset's vibrancy that day. How strange it had seemed, that awful evening, that the world should go on being beautiful.
This is a pleasant 65-year-old male… David grimacing, saying, I guess it's time I had this damned cramping checked out… presenting with new onset cholangiocarcinoma with possible involvement of the renal artery… David, one hand tucked against his side, hesitating as the nurse called his name… The presenting tumor is quite large, involving both lobes of the liver… David, silent in the co-pilot's seat; Ellen's hands shaking on the controls, no matter how tightly she gripped… indicating an advanced stage carcinoma, probably inoperable… the sea of late daylight color above, reflected and refracted in the Sound below, on approach to Friday Harbor… Our feeling is that the final report will recommend palliative care as tolerated, as invasive treatment… the line of killer whales welcoming them home, just offshore… will probably be ineffective.
Sometimes life surges in like a great tide, Ellen thought, as she considered blues and greens for appliqué. When the tide recedes, memory shows that life's landscape has changed. Memory reveals the shifted shoreline between known and unknown. What you thought you knew has washed away. You're left with a new shoreline.
The new shoreline had revealed itself the last time they flew to Alert Bay. They were picnicking on the dock before takeoff, waiting for the oncologist to call. The Washington-made cheese, prosciutto-style Washington-cured ham, and bakery-made sourdough bread, from a Seattle shopping spree taken during all the testing, were lined up on the cooler at the edge of the dock. Expensive, gourmet comfort food. They had some chocolates stowed, too, in a cool place in the hold, for later. Nothing would end up tasting right, but they were trying. Don't think about life in terms of the preliminary report, the oncologist had said. Live your life as you always have, and come back in a few days. I'm pretty sure I can get you in on Wednesday. I'll call you tomorrow afternoon to confirm.
Ellen cussed her shaking hands, unable to even make a sandwich. She was leaning over the cooler when she heard a buzz and a thud, as the cell-phone fell from her breast pocket onto the cooler lid. Before she could fumble the half-made sandwich onto a napkin, the phone buzzed again, vigorously enough to walk itself off the edge of the cooler. She heard the plunk, then glimpsed the flash as the phone spun downward.
"Oh, hell," she said.
"Only four fathoms or so," David said casually, but she knew he was inventorying everything, in his head. First-aid kit; fire extinguisher; pharmaceuticals in the hold; beer. He stepped up beside her to gaze into the water. Black satin. "What went in?"
"Oh, hell," she repeated. "The cell phone."
He was silent a moment. "That is unfortunate."
The week before, they would have laughed and prepared to cherish the uninterrupted afternoon. David would have looked forward to shopping for an upgrade. He would have relished telling Ethan the story on the phone later on, trading caps on whose new upgrade was more amazing. Today, they were waiting for a call from the oncologist.
"We'll have to go home," Ellen said. "I think he was calling. I heard the buzz."
David shook his head. "No way. Too narrow a window for takeoff." The weather had been iffy that morning. The FAA forecast predicted rain. But there was a clear patch now that should see them safe to Alert Bay. "We'll call him tomorrow morning."
And knowing they could do nothing else about it, Ellen and David established the new normal. It meant just getting on with life, and telling their fears to wait. The rest of the afternoon was so lovely that Ellen wished she had thought of throwing the cell phone in the ocean to begin with. She wondered again how to capture the ocean in silk appliqué. David commented that happiness was a beautiful woman offering him a sweating bottle of beer, and she rolled her eyes. When the plane lifted off, tilting into the hazy strip of blue over Friday Harbor, leaving a spray of salt-water to fold back into the Sound, it was exhilarating, like flying for the first time. She learned, then, to cherish those beats, those moments of grace.
Whale now took shape in curved blue-and-green piecing on the black calico. Ellen snipped white accents for his eye and teeth. She decided to try her potlatch-buttons along Whale's curved back. They had come to the potlatch by chance, that first evening of the new normal.
Alert Bay was so serene and empty it seemed enchanted, as they landed the seaplane at the usual graying wooden pier. Only the softest breeze stirred the pines along the volcanic shore, despite the earlier FAA warnings. None of the usual northwest Pacific chill. And not a soul in sight, though there were plenty of docked boats. David was checking his watch against the weather report when Sterling, one of the dock attendants, finally showed up, emerging from the woods instead of the office.
"Mr. and Mrs. Gordon! Well! Good to see you. Few days early, aren't you?"
"Medical issue, Sterling, had a change of schedule." David spoke gruffly, businesslike. He turned to gently thump a pharmaceuticals box onto the dock. Ellen knew he didn't want Sterling to see his face. "Can anyone inventory this stuff?"
"Oh, naw, no, not today." Ellen noticed Sterling's shirt, a fancyish cowboy-style with pearlized buttons. Along with the breathless way he smiled and greeted them, it made her think he was going dancing. "Nobody's gonna come today. My brother's having a potlatch!"
David said, "I see." They had heard of the potlatches, which they thought were closed to outsiders.
But Ellen said, with a little gasp, "A potlatch!"
Sterling giggled. "You want to come? White people can come. You know that saying, the more, the merrier? You know white people got that from partying at a Kwakwaka'wakw potlatch?"
David laughed, a full, honest laugh. Another moment of grace.
Sterling led them through pine and oatgrass to the cedar great-house, broad as a hangar but with a lower, more intimately sloping roof, painted outside with huge, watching eyes, but inside, warmly red, unpainted cedar. The matron seated near the door handed Ellen a silver dollar. It made her feel ashamed, white and pampered, like she was stealing. How much would a silver dollar buy at King's Market in Friday Harbor?
David stopped her just inside the door, nodding at the crowd filing into benches around the central fire-pit.
"Must be three hundred people here," he said.
Ellen forgot to feel well-off. She and David had only each other. Every one of the three hundred guests knew two-hundred-ninety-nine others. They laughed and bantered, their voices bouncing from wall to cedar wall, wealthy with relationship.
At first, Ellen was irritated by the gossiping women climbing past her and knocking into her knees, until she saw that everybody touched everybody here, without worry of rudeness. No matter how crowded the benches got, everyone shifted to make room for one more. Children swapped laps. A horse-faced, thoughtful boy seemed ill-at-ease beside a pretty, bored girl, until they both began talking at once. Screaming girl cousins dominated the front row, until an elder clumped up, leaning on her walker, and told them to clear out. Across the hall, covered tables promised plenty of food; blankets, baskets, trinkets, and toys were piled nearby. But only the smallest children raced toward the booty, to be called back by chiding elders.
Country music played on bad speakers, mostly drowned out by the guests' yammering. Then a man in a red embroidered button-blanket, who Ellen took to be Sterling's brother, stood and called out in words she did not recognize. The music ceased, and the room darkened. Four young men, whom Ellen had taken to be no one special, stripped down to t-shirts and began beating drums, a deep, throbbing sound. A pair of graying women finally settled in beside Ellen, sighing as the bench creaked beneath them.
"Welcome," whispered the one nearest her, leaning close.
"Thank you," Ellen whispered back. "I'm sorry, but what did he just say?"
"Ah, the talk here is all Kwakwaka'wakw," the woman said. "He said, 'Everyone shut up!'" Her eyes crinkled as Ellen stifled a laugh.
The woman continued to whisper an account of the potlatch to Ellen. Ellen whispered it, in turn, to David, keeping his hand between hers. Only a few clear moments remained in her memory. The hamat'sa, certainly, danced wildly by a young man who, Ellen's neighbor said, had been fasting in the woods, an initiate to tribal secrets. He reached for guests in the front row, who cowered back; his attendants, bearing carved and painted cedar bird-masks, beat guests with their long beaks. The hamat'sa squatted and rolled his head, while the bird-men lunged for another victim.
"He comes back possessed by a cannibal spirit," Ellen's neighbor whispered. "The Devourer. Here at the potlatch, it is tamed. In the old days, the bird gods would draw blood from people in the crowd with shell-teeth embedded in the mask. Those people would get the richest gifts. They don't do that anymore. But it's still a little scary, no?"
David stiffened beside Ellen at the words "cannibal" and "devour." She wondered if he was offended. But when she looked at him, she saw that he was watching the dance keenly, nodding along with the drumbeats. Her eyes followed his to the young dancer's face, sometimes flickering clear in the firelight. Severe, focused on the unseen.
The Devourer, Ellen thought now, basting her appliqué in place. I wonder if David has stopped hearing that in his head since? I haven't.
She remembered Sterling's brother calling out names. Someone had died. Someone else had been born. Still others were growing up or getting married. Three hundred witnesses murmured over every transition or initiation.
And the stories! Ellen already knew many of them. She whispered the story of Raven and Monster Halibut to David as it was told and performed, needing no guidance from the woman on her other side. When Raven, through flattery, tricked Halibut into cooking himself in the sea, David smiled. "The animal people feasted on Halibut's briny flesh," she told him, "then threw the scraps to the sea, where they became the little halibuts that swim in deep water to this day."
But it was the last dancer that Ellen remembered most clearly. He entered under the grandest mask, Whale, carved out of a single cedar log. His companions, masked as sea-creatures, moaned a slow, deep song that cut through the spell of the other dances. Ellen felt own heartbeat slow. She clutched David's hand.
"What is this?" she asked the woman beside her.
"A dance of mourning," the woman murmured. "The family lost an uncle this year. Whale was special to him."
Ellen could not answer. She wondered whether David had heard. His face was impassive.
Whale and his attendants passed out of the house. Drums beat a long, long time in the dark. When the dancer returned, he wore no mask, but bore instead a rich shell-button blanket, a great copper shield, and a cedar head-ring.
"Whale's legacy," said the woman beside Ellen.
The dancer offered Whale's treasures to the widow, whose face burned in Ellen's memory. Her eyes glistened, but her smile was filled with peace. Had the peacefulness always been there, Ellen wondered now, or did the widow's face transform during the dance?
They had not stayed long after that. David did not want to lose the daylight. Sterling's sister-in-law gave them gifts before they went, though. For Ellen, a little leather bag filled with luminous shell buttons. For David, a leather wrist-band, burned with the image of Kwakwaka'wakw Bear. Sterling's sister-in-law seemed to give a lot of those out to the men. Ellen thought it must be a gentle joke. Bear was the brave one, the strong one, but he wasn't known for reason.
With the sky still light, but coloring like a bruise in the east, Ellen climbed into the co-pilot's seat. The sea remained perfectly still, throwing back silky blue reflections. She cradled her beautiful new buttons, feeling that she had been poor before, and had been given enough to sustain her indefinitely, if she spent it well.
David floated the seaplane into the clear and pointed west, toward the open Pacific. He raised his voice over the engines. "How far do you want to go, Ellen?" His gaze was far away. She suddenly understood the staring, wrought face of the hamat'sa, who had faced death by starvation, alone in the dark with cannibal spirits. What was different about dying of liver cancer, except that the devouring darkness was within, and that no dance could tame it? David smiled then, weakly. "Nothing can top that send-off. A real potlatch! Nothing. There's nothing."
The bountiful feeling fell away from Ellen like a veil. David seemed so tired. She knew he meant, after takeoff, to hold course with the sun, until the fuel ran out. He meant to take the plane straight down into the black Pacific. He meant to meet the water so hard that they might know only a visceral thrill, something that would feel to him like the tumor dissolving, before they met whatever was on the other side of the ocean's reflections. Painless, quick deliverance.
"David. Please." Ellen was tired, too.
"I mean it, Ellen. I'm done. Why not be done? Are you with me?"
She nearly said she was. That she'd go with him to the edge of the world, despite the grief it would bring, despite Scott's wedding, despite the grandchildren's confusion -- in the end, they would all understand. She was sure her brother Toby had thought the same thing, before he blew his brains out. Easiest thing in the world. Ellen nearly said yes.
But she hesitated, sad that she would never get to use the buttons, thinking what poor repayment it would be to the family that had welcomed her to their secret dances, to waste their gift. David waited. And then Ellen saw a black fin, curved sharp as a new moon, cut the water.
"David, a minke," she said. "Look! Cut the engines!"
He did, and as they drifted, the minke whale headed straight for them. A second fin rose. Ellen stepped out onto the pontoon.
David followed suit on his side. "Two of them!"
A third fin surfaced, a few yards behind the first two. For a moment, all three sliced the smooth-as-icing water. Then they slid below. The ocean closed cleanly behind them.
"A pod," Ellen whispered.
"Three kings," David said. "Gaspar, Balthasar, and Melchior. Gold, frankincense, and myrrh."
Ellen waited, watching the untroubled surface. Minkes were difficult to spot, if the sea was not as smooth as it was now. Their dorsal fins were no taller than the chop on calm water in a breeze, and they almost never traveled in groups bigger than a pair. They even drew breath gently, with a sigh, unlike killer whales, who puffed like salt-water volcanoes.
When they rose again, the whales were close enough for Ellen to look in their eyes, solemn and distant. They cut a clear blaze southward in the still water, pointing toward Friday Harbor and home.
The minkes' wake was still spreading and fading when Ellen heard something like an exploding plastic bag coming out of the northwest. She was already smiling as she whipped around to see them come, making a ridiculous racket, shredding the perfect sea.
"And here come the shepherds!" she cried. Three whales made a pod, but Ellen had always thought "tribe" a better word for a group of killer whales. They really were shepherds to the minkes' kings: uncouth, loud, bad-asses of the sea, rough-and-tumble but tightly knit as Hell's Angels. First came the biggest male, his fin man-high, scarred with hard living. The matrons followed more demurely, shadowed by unblemished juveniles. Bolder juveniles peeled away, to be chased down by nursemaids. Young males hung around, tolerated as long as they didn't get too close.
But the whales did not pass. They held position less than a hundred yards away, directly in David's westward flight path. On what business, Ellen could not tell. Fins and flukes rose and fell in synchrony; babies learned to breach; and one spy-hopping matron monitored all activity. Breath-bursts hung above the waves.
She got back into the cockpit as the falling sunlight blanked the seaplane's windshield. David considered the whales, one hand on the pilot's seat. She put her hand over his, to get his attention. "You'll have to turn the plane," she said firmly. "I'm not done, and neither are you."
He got back into the pilot's seat and turned the plane southward. They followed the minkes home.
If the whales had made a promise that day, it wasn't for a miracle. The final oncology report kept them both in darkness for days. But Ellen had no doubt that the whales had kept David with her for a little longer. How much longer, she could not think about. She now used her daily sunset hour to work at patchwork and perfect seams. Her quilts spilled out in every color and texture available to her, almost as numerous as her prayers for David's wholeness, and for her own.
Ellen had forgotten her buttons, until now. They would go nicely around Whale's edges, like water beading off his skin.
Memories surface, sometimes like minke fins, sharp and quiet; sometimes like killer whales, breaching with unexpected strength, when you thought the ocean's cold reflections were all there was to see.
Ellen stood back. Even unfinished, her quilt had begun to live. She was putting the first appliqué pieces into the sewing machine when she heard the noise outside.
Something about the timbre of it told Ellen it was a gunshot, although it seemed faint. Her foot paused over the pedal. Ellen fought back a memory of Toby smiling, Toby dead, and rushed outside. She found David prone on the walkway. He was cussing loudly, though, eye-to-asshole with a dead raccoon.
Ruger was gone. Fear had taken him from the moment the rifle let out its muted crack. He took off so sudden and fast that he knocked David off his feet, and he never looked back, no matter how David hollered. Terrified. Damned dog, David thought. He'd lit right out through the middle of the scattering raccoon pack, who'd hardly even given a shit. Even with their leader down, they took their time wandering away.
David flung the raccoon out over the bluff, for the eagles' breakfast, while Ellen hosed the blood, goat cheese, and olive oil off the driveway. They secured the trash bins with bungee cords. Ellen started dinner. Just as if everything were normal.
David eased into the window-seat, an ice pack on the back of his head, where Ellen had found a lump. He prodded his tumor, not caring whether it drove Ellen crazy, because he didn't know what else to do. He hurt all over from the fall.
"So -- Scott's quilt. It's nearly done, well in time," she announced, slapping chicken breasts into a pan. "An Alert Bay Whale, isn't that a perfect family emblem?"
David grunted, jerking his hand away from his side. He hated thinking about the wedding. Why move it up? Why honor his death before he was dead? David suspected that the re-scheduling was more for the benefit of Chinese propriety than anything else.
"Why don't they just come visit?" he grumbled.
Ignoring his question, ignoring his tumor-prodding, though David was sure she had caught him, Ellen said, "He asked for Raven, but he didn't really mean it. I don't think he really wanted it."
"You didn't want to give it to him," David speculated. "But you're right, he didn't really mean it."
David's hand went back to his side while Ellen's attention was on the broccoli. He hated this time of day. It was too dark out to see anything but his scowling reflection in the window. Even as tired as he was, he dreaded the long, restive hours, in bed in the dark, not wanting to wake Ellen, watchful of the shadow looming ever-larger on his life's horizon, big enough to blot out the view of the Olympics. What would Raven do? He thought. How do you trick your way out of cancer and cook it up in the sea? Who would come to feast on your enemy?
And where was Ruger? David regretted frightening him. Ruger brought him the most comfort in the evenings, with his dozing warmth and his dog-smell.
"Damned dog," David said.
Ellen was suddenly there, taking his hand very gently away from his side and kissing his knuckles. "If he survived the swamps in Georgia, he'll be fine," she said.
David closed his eyes and let her put his hand to her cheek. She was right. But he should've known better than to take that dog out shooting. Should've known, better than anyone, how hard it could be to resist running away from a fear so deep.
It wasn't an eagle, but a raven that came the next morning to breakfast on the raccoon. David wondered whether the eagles had departed to the mainland rivers, following the salmon upstream, or to some other food source. They'd never let a raven perch there otherwise.
David was picking at a goat-cheese omelet when he saw the raven fly up, disturbed. It was Ruger, returning home, but not over the berm as usual. Instead, he pranced in from the cedar grove to the south, alongside a big, glad-faced woman in a caftan and wool clogs: the Californian. She walked right by the bluff overlooking the half-eaten raccoon.
Ellen, who was just about to pour coffee, hurried to the cabinet to find a third cup. She filled it and brought it to the Californian at the door.
"Welcome!" Ellen said, smiling. "I see you found Ruger!"
"Ruger, huh?" The Californian seemed to recognize the name from somewhere. David figured she thought it was the name of some communist philosopher. But she allowed herself to be distracted by the coffee. "He chased a raven into my yard. Why, thank you!"
"Would you like an omelet?"
"Breakfast! Really? Thanks, but I don't eat eggs or cheese. Rugey wouldn't want to miss it, though, would you, Rugey?"
Ruger turned ecstatic circles, panting and whining, his wagging tail a blur. The traitor. No dignity. David hoped he was torn over the shame of flirting with a raccoon-lover.
The raven's call, very close by, turned all eyes to the picture-window. Ruger went bananas until David told him to shush. The dog quieted, but leapt onto the window-seat, quivering to get at the raven, perched again in the eagles' tree. David supposed Ruger was trying to redeem himself.
A bit of something dead hung from the raven's beak. Looked like an eye to David at first, until he realized the morsel was still attached, by a collagenous cord, to the raccoon's unmistakable striped tail. David slurped his coffee to keep from exclaiming.
The Californian screamed, but in shock, not in disgust. And then she said, "Awwww, is that you, Ringo? I wondered what happened to him. His mate was all alone last night. Who got you, eagles?"
David cleared his throat.
Ellen said, "Oh, don't worry, he didn't leave a mate. Those raccoons that've been marauding around are just a vagabond bunch of males. They only mate in the spring. The females can't stand them the rest of the year."
"Really. Huh. Could've sworn I saw those two getting intimate."
"I guess they could be non-traditional raccoons," Ellen said.
David was surprised into a perfectly normal laugh. The Californian laughed, too, after a moment. Ellen, David noticed, did not correct the Californian's impossible notion that an eagle could have killed a full-grown, healthy raccoon. She just poured the Californian more coffee.
"I guess I'll just consider myself honored," the Californian said amiably, accepting a slice of toast, "to have witnessed the circle of life firsthand."
Eagle Cove was socked in by evening, but David could see a great bird silhouetted in the tree above the bluff. The mist shifted a little, and he saw that it wasn't an eagle. It was a turkey vulture.
A turkey vulture. David went to the gun safe for his AR-15. He had twenty yards to shoot straight, and needed something a step up from the varmint-rifle. A turkey vulture? He'd excise that bird's head clean from its body.
Ruger came bounding in then. He went straight to the bottom of the safe for a plastic pop-bottle, and dropped it at his master's feet.
"Oh, hell, Ruger," David said. "You and your god-blessed phobia!"
He replaced the AR-15. Then he picked up the pop bottle, considering. He grabbed a box of birdshot. "Well, dammit, then, I'm going to take off that vulture's head another way. Ruger, come!"
On the way down the stairs, David shook birdshot pellets into the pop-bottle, hoping he'd remember to retrieve every one that spilled, so it wouldn't end up in Ruger's stomach. He screwed the lid on tightly. Then he opened the back door, stepped outside, and pitched the bottle at the vulture with the force of a man who was not yet old, with a fury as big as all the skies he'd never flown. A muscle wrenched in his right side with explosive pain, as if the tumor underneath struck out at David's war with the vermin that were its animal kin. He flinched and began to weep. His legs gave way underneath him, until he sat in the doorway sobbing. The mist thickened and moved closer.
Ellen came running from the cedar shed. David had cried out louder than he knew. What did she expect to find? Him with a knife in his own vein, or with a gun in his hand, or just flat-out crazy-faced, like a hamat'sa found unawares in the dark? He was almost sorry to disappoint her. What was there to keep him from it? Suicide was supposed to be a cowardly act, but what was courageous about pretending to survive? Was it more honorable to be dragged from life, suffering, wasting, and enfeebled? Where was the great hunter who would give him a clean, painless death?
He heard Ellen sigh, felt her hands on his shoulders and her lips against his neck.
Just like that, normalcy returned. As long as she was with him. As long as she held his hand.
"David," she said, "I need you to promise me."
"Promise? Ellen, what am I supposed to do? Nothing's normal. And I'm as weak as a man can be."
"I want you to renew your vows to me. Right here and now. I want you to promise to be my husband. Remember, to have and to hold, in sickness and in health?"
He could not stop crying. He shook his head. He meant, don't say 'til death, don't say it, Ellen, please.
Her hands squeezed his shoulders harder. "Forever. Beyond the end. Death won't part us. Promise me. Do you take me again?"
David raised a hand to hers. "Forever."
She held him afterward, as he wept and quieted.
They just sat there.
A raven called from the cedars.
And then Ruger's nose was in David's hand.
"Oh, Ruger, what is that?" Ellen was saying. She sounded distressed.
David looked down at the dog, then stared. Ruger, grinning and wriggling, stood over the ugly, reeking, vulture carcass he'd just retrieved.
"I hit it, by God," David cried. "I hit that scavenging bastard!"
Very early in the morning, David woke before his tumor could frighten him. He held his wife, half-sleeping, in his arms. She turned and kissed him. Some things did not wash away with life's great tides. Ellen's precious, breathing warmth; the way their lengthening years together wrapped them in silken illuminated intensity; the strength of well-worn love, better than ever. David felt he had died and gone to heaven. Absurd to imagine parting. Not so much like the prospect of losing a limb as of being turned inside out and having your bones removed.
David rose, and Ellen drifted back to sleep. From the window, he watched a raven take flight from the tree above the vermin remains. An eagle took its place at last, soon joined by its mate. They fell to where the raven had left off. How strangely comforting to witness this wild-domestic bliss, so grisly, yet full of perfect peace.
M C R
This work is copyrighted by the author, Donna Lee Miele. All rights reserved.