Author’s Note: A small boy is fishing with his grandfather; as they talk about life, thoughts and feelings emerge that make a lasting impact on the both. The story is told from the point of view of the young boy’s memory now as a grown man.
I was sitting with Grandpa as he cleaned his catch with a knife that he always had, seemingly forever.
The skritch it made against the scales as he worked it with expert hands was like the rhythmic slap of waves on the shore.
His deft fingers never seemed to get caught on the hooks, though he showed me where they had, when he was first learning. Callouses covered the tender skin there, but never covered over the lessons.
I watched the shallow water eddy about my ankles as I sat on the boat’s edge, watching the wheeling gulls hoping to steal a fish or two, though grandpa always left them something.
“What is it, sailor?”
“Why do you always feed the gulls?”
“Folks call ’em the rats of the sea. I call ’em good luck.”
“Why? The fish swim away when they see them.”
“Yep. Right onto my hook.” He leaned over to catch my eye and said with a wink, “Fish ain’t too bright.”
Then he’d laugh his gentle laugh, and give me a fish head to examine. Somehow, they always looked surprised to be dead.
A gull wheeled in close, and I threw the head into the water to watch them dive and scramble and chase, until finally a victor flew away, three others in pursuit, but there were always others, and they flew in close and bold, curious to see if I held any more treats, but I splashed at them, and they wheeled off, calling me names in their language.
I ran my fingers over the scales of one that was close to me, but didn’t pick it up. The gulls were big, and I was small. I wasn’t afraid, but I didn’t want to test how far they’d go.
“I wonder what they think about when you pull them up…” I said.
“Don’t guess they think much at all.”
He’d finished cleaning the fish, and walked slowly over, and carefully sat next to me, and dipped his ankles in the water next to mine, and the water sloshed in harmony around all the ankles now, and gently swayed the boat beneath our weight.
“I guess they’re in a lot of pain, and just want it to end…” his eyes got far away when he said that, and I knew who he was thinking about.
He nodded, and took off his glasses, cleaned them with his shirt tail, and dabbed at his eyes with his sleeve.
“Yeah, like Grandma.”
He looked at me then, and put his arm around my shoulder, and we watched the gulls for a while.
“And like me.” he said.
“Nothing in particular, and everything in general,” he chuckled.
I smiled, not fully understanding, but he knew that.
He cleared his throat:
“Life’s a lot like a boat,” he said. “You start out in a small craft, and as you travel further out, you take on more, and the craft’s got to get bigger, has to be able to hold all you get. But if you get too much, it slows you down and the journey takes longer. You make more mistakes because you’re always making adjustments for the things you have. You with me…?
“Yes, sir,” I said, proud of myself that I actually sort of got it.
“And then the storms come, and the stuff you have can help weigh you down, and keep you steady, or it can shift and help the waves flip your boat. If it does that, which is most of the time, you not only lose the things, you lose the people too, the people who’ve helped you to become a good sailor. Still there?”
I nodded, swinging my feet in the surging surf, making foam, dangling a piece of seaweed from my toes.
“And then, eventually, you have to get where you have to be. You have to take the boat home, and get rid of the stuff, because it’s just too much. Some of it you drop off along the way, and some of it you unload when you’re back. The journey’s over, and your stuff’s gone, and you’re just glad to be home, in the quiet. You like that?”
“Sometimes,” I said. “When I’m reading, or thinking about stuff.”
“You thinking about this?”
I looked up at him, because his voice had changed. “Yes, Grandpa, I am.”
He tousled my hair, and laughed his gentle laugh again. “Good man.”
“Are you sailing home, now?”
“I am, son.”
He sighed, and looked out at the setting sun.
“To her, and a whole bunch of other folk you don’t know,” and his sleeve moved again, but I couldn’t see if he was crying.
“You getting rid of stuff?”
He chuckled at that, and again, I smiled with him, unsure.
“Most of it’s gone now, but there’s a little more to go.”
“Oh. Wellll, could you tell her I said hello?” As I spoke I tried to write the word “Grandma” in the mud with my big toe, but the waves kept pushing new mud over it. I wrote it anyway, knowing I’d finished it, that it was still under there somewhere, and it would last for all time.
He smiled, a bit sad, “Ok, sailor. I’ll do that.”
We gathered up our catch.
As we walked home, me with my small sack, him with the bigger one and the fishing rods, I turned to look back at the empty boat, sitting empty on the stilling water, in the fading light, and thought about the time he wouldn’t be there with me.
I stopped, and gestured for him to bend.
He did, and I kissed his cheek.
He straightened, a bit puzzled.
“What’s that for?”
“In case you sail for home before I say good-bye.”
I was cleaning my catch, and he sat on the edge of the boat with his ankles in the water.
I threw him a fish head, and he caught it, turning it around to look at it as the gulls grew bolder.
Satisfied he found what he was looking for, he kicked his feet, making foam, and hummed a tune, looking at the sea birds.
He watched them for a time, turning the fish head like an hourglass, but he didn’t throw it.
The blue of the sky deepened as the sun dipped toward the horizon.
“What is it, sailor….?”
© Alfred W. Smith Jr. 2014