Lucky Jack likes to join me on the fantail for coffee. For the past week we’ve observed this gigantic school of fish travel around our gate in the marina. One of the old fishermen tells me that they are anchovy.”Hard to catch but well worth the eatin’.”
I don’t really fancy trying to catch any of them, but I do like to stare at them for at least two-cups-worth of coffee. So does the cat.
As I watched them maneuver around our boat, switching directions instantaneously with some unspoken communication, I got to thinking: What if our favorite harbor seal was nearby? Then the story grew… What if they were up in Johnstone Strait (where my story’s heroes are currently travelling southbound)… And then: What if “Saka”, my orca was also nearby? Hmmmm…
Well, lets just say that my little coffee-break-buddies are now in the book. Immortalized in fiction.
They seemed okay with it.
Here’s a short excerpt from the current chapter, still in progress as I write this post (but it comes with anchovy).
Chapter 29 excerpt. Sea of a Thousand Words
by Chris Wallace
Kim bent over his outstretched leg and concentrated on the serrated knife wedged between his shin bone and the dirty cast. Yaculta’s ancient dock wobbled and creaked as he vigorously rubbed the blade back and forth—his strokes sawing through the soft padding and into the fiberglass shell. Sweat formed across his forehead as he hacked away at the resilient encasement.
Dot sat beside him and repaired the bolt-rope in her Dyson sail. The whippings had torn during their open crossing and now the entire leach threatened to unravel. She glanced up from her stitches to observe her friend’s progress. Dot realized that Kim’s hair had grown quite long in the last couple months; the ends now curled all around the base of his neck. His shoulders and arms had become muscular, bearing the marks of a serious paddler. With the return of his physical health, Kim’s mood had improved as well. Days upon end with nothing to do except reach for the next paddle stroke had healed his mind from its habitual worrying. There was nothing for one to do on the open ocean but fall into a ritual of breath and movement, and it had proved to be restorative for them all.
Dot smiled inwardly as she watched Kim remove his cast. He certainly doesn’t look like a brainy scientist who used to just sit behind a desk. She stared down at her own well-defined biceps and deltoids. I am beginning to look like Reba and Oolie now too—that is good. Their non-stop voyage from Calvert Island, across Queen Charlotte Sound and Johnstone Strait had been arduous, but had succeeded in shaping them into hardened, resilient voyagers. The rough weather, torrential rain and biting wind tested everyone’s resolve—but as she reflected on the past two weeks, Dot appreciated the transformation that her relentless paddling had produced. The motion of the sea had become part of her—or she part of it. It pulsed through her veins in the same rhythmic motion as the tide. The skin of the baidarka’s hull, measuring only a few millimeters, transmitted the songs of the ocean through Dot’s bones as she rowed upon its surface. Melodic calls of humpbacks; the sonorous drumbeat of the grays; staccato clicks of the orcas and porpoise, even the rustling sound of kelp forests… all were felt and amplified through the baidarka’s covering. Dot recalled her last two nights of paddling under the shadow of a crescent moon—the margin between sea and sky was indiscernible—so black were the nights. Phosphorescent plankton burst into firecracker-like explosions every time her paddle dipped through the water and sparkling beads fell from her blade at each arc, splashing back into the inky depths. Even at her weariest, those silent light shows kept Dot awake and entranced. Happy as she was to be back on land for a spell, Dot couldn’t wait to step back into the baidarka and revisit the liquid environment to which she’d grown so accustomed.
“It’s finally off!” Kim separated the halves of his cast and rubbed the pale, wrinkled skin of his lower leg. “Oh man, that feels so good.” He muttered while massaging the exposed limb. Rising to his feet, he exclaimed, “Look at how much thinner it is than my other leg, Dot!” He shook the fiberglass crumbs from his leg and tested its strength, slowly placing weight on his foot. “All is well.” He smiled and hobbled around the dock.
Dot returned to her needle and stitching palm. She pulled the length of waxed twine through the canvas and then stopped—a glint from the water caught her eye. She leaned forward and looked below the dock. Ripples formed in collective rings as three-inch anchovies revealed themselves. Diminutive splashes occurred randomly as the fish jumped for food. Dot set aside the sail and laid down on her stomach—her chin resting on the back of her hands. She spotted the school of tiny fish as they swam several feet below the water’s surface. There must be hundreds—if not thousand—of these little guys! The fingerlings crowded together, moving as one body, then instantly shifted in another direction. The sunlight glistened off of their silvery sides as they turned. Dot waved Kim over and pointed at the swiftly moving school. He sat on the edge of the dock and dangled his feet over the side as he watched them feed. Suddenly, the swarm of fish compacted—swimming tighter together in a massive, undulating orb. Kim leaned forward to get a better look at the shape-shifting anchovies. Dot’s attention was drawn to a slow moving shape in the background. She watched as an oblong head glided stealthily toward the school of panicked fish. Its sleek fur was dotted with brown and white spots, its dark eyes skimmed along the water’s surface; intent on its prey.
“What is that?” Kim asked, pointing toward the harbor seal as it approached. Dot held her finger to her lips, indicating not to spook the animal. They observed the seal as it rounded up the school of fish, drawing them into a constricted noose. Kim remained transfixed by the seal’s tactics. A subtle movement in the distance prompted Dot to look up. She caught a glimpse of Saka’s dorsal fin near the entrance of Mudge Bay. Anchovies aren’t the only item on this morning’s menu, she mused. Dot nudged Kim and gestured toward the fin, now only eight-inches above the waterline and moving swiftly. Kim looked back toward the unwitting seal as it prepared to dive into the condensed ball of fish. He flashed a concerned glance at Dot.
Dot shrugged her shoulders and shook her head. After so many years, she’d grown accustomed to witnessing Saka’s hunts. She briefly considered sparing Kim the shock of seeing the kill, but held back. He’s a scientist, he can be objective… Besides, one can’t exactly be companions with an apex predator and not acknowledge its feeding habits. Saka’s dorsal fin submerged completely. Dot knew exactly what was occurring at that moment: The whale had just increased his speed; planning to strike the distracted seal from behind and below. She rolled over onto her back and closed her eyes. Kim’s sharp intake of breath informed her that Saka had found his target. She didn’t need to turn around to picture what transpired—the orca most likely shot out of the water with the injured seal in his teeth… If he was feeling particularly playful, he would perhaps let it go—giving the mortally wounded creature a chance to escape. Dot had seen this tactic many times—Saka would allow the seal to swim some distance and then grab it once again, rattling it in his strong jaws until the bones were pulled from the meat. Occasionally she’d observed him tossing his catch into the air—like a cat teasing its mouse before the final kill. Dot loved Saka with all her heart, but preferred not to watch the orca play with his food.
Kim shook his head and tapped Dot’s arm. She opened her eyes and rolled onto her side. “Now I see why they are called ‘Killer whales’… that was pretty intense.” He looked back to where the kill had transpired, the scene appeared undisturbed, save for a red tinge in the water. The anchovy school spread out once again and resumed their plankton feast.
Here is a brief video of my little fishy pals, taken from Kwaietek’s fantail. (And thanks for the story idea, lil’ guys).