by Oscar White
I once again feel heartbreak in the corner of a fourth-floor hospital room. The linoleum chilling my wrinkled hands as I sit half-defeated and lonely on the ground near the window adjacent my wife. The room is engulfed by the light of a low star and I watch as time passes in the shadows cast from partially drawn shades, IV bags, computers, and vases of wilted lilac. I am sixty-seven now, and my wife lay before me dying. The wires enter through wrists and nostrils like parasites. Though, contrarily, these parasites are keeping her alive. The monitor’s constant beep lets me know that she is still here, listening maybe, but here nonetheless.
The cold cafeteria coffee I’d thrown down in frustration slowly moves along the floor and I stand and go to the bathroom to gather some paper towels. On my hands and knees, I dab the rags until they soak through and drip in congruence with the monitors and the slow ticking of the analog clock above the door. Only moments before the coffee was thrown, the doctor had left me with a decision. Soon, her heart would no longer be capable of pumping blood to her brain. That intricate system that thrived for sixty-four years, now needed machines to keep it alive. I wanted to give her my heart for a second time, or perhaps my body. With nobody else here, the doctor left me with time and a decision that I could not come to resolve, let alone assess, in my solitude.
Death had always been compelling to me, but now I feared it. Death moved the doctor’s mouth and used time as torture, slowly creeping over me and my wife and the room in which it studied us. I now sit beside her bed as the light disappears into the corners of the room until it becomes shadow, dusk and darkness once more. I place my hand on hers and attempt to ponder memories of young love and hopefulness.
My wife is an amazing woman. She loves powerfully and lives powerfully. She never lent herself to the past, nor worried of the future. She had always known how to manage those strange dimensions. I lived in the past, with sharp memories that seeded themselves in my brain, sprouting every now and again. Such as the first time I witnessed death. Not just a beetle on the playground, but the first time I watched life leave the eyes in a lack of animation.
I will always remember this day, as we all remember the first day we experience death. This twisted wisdom is stuck with me, between childhood innocence and the reality of this hospital. I am haunted by a vicious, yet intimate image. It conjures now, as the sun has set in the room, and the blue hour calls upon nostalgia.
It was the end of summer, 1954, and the fall storms had started to show on the shipping forecast for San Juan Island. Mother would listen to the radio in the mornings, staring out the window into the overcast dawn, out past our yard, and toward the channel. Her morning Marlboro rested lazily on her lower lip. My father would be out fishing by now. As all the fisherman were accustomed to early mornings; hot coffee, darkness, and the dim light from their cigarettes. Still, she had always worried about him this time of year. The storms could push him right out the strait and into open ocean if he wasn’t careful. She always imagined the worst; his boat crashing against the rocks, a whale caught in his net, or the storm taking him out to sea.
My younger brother and I played with our toy cars in the living room, eager for our breakfast; but we knew better than to bother our mother while she was listening to the Coast Guard call out the easterlies.
“This afternoon, Cattle Point, San Juan Island… south-southeast winds: 9 to 13 knots… chance of showers… wind waves: 1 to 2 feet … Small Craft Advisory in effect from 6:00 PM PDT this evening…”
My mother shook her head and bit at her lip.
I was always fascinated by the voice behind the coast guard forecast. Repeating itself all day. It was only later that my mother told me it had been automated. It just sounded so real, as if I could picture the man on the other side of the radio. In my mind, he looked like my father; salty, with a peppered beard and cold blue eyes. The voice would speak so that the entirety of western Washington could hear him.
My family lived on south Lopez Island, just east of San Juan. My father was a fisherman most of the year, and my mother was an artist. I was seven years old, and my brother, Jamie, was five. Growing up on the island was unique, yet, there was something so suffocating about it. The isolation and the loneliness came later. When I grew out of adolescence, I knew it had always been there, hidden by that perplexity. My mother loved to hate that time of year because my father pushed himself too hard to get a catch. But the fall storms brought more driftwood to the beaches. She would collect the wood and shape them into art and furniture.
She finally clicked the forecast off and looked at us.
“You boys want to go down to the beach? There may be new logs for me to collect. You can help me pick the best ones,” she’d said, smiling and winking at us. She was trying to protect us from her worry.
Often, we would go down in the summer and flip rocks over and watch the crabs scurry in the surf. Though, there was always one part of the beach that the adults warned us of. On the north shore there were tidal rocks, where the waves came and crashed along the kelp-covered earth. My brother and I would run ahead, still in view of our parents, and peer over the rock formations and admire the way the sea rose and fell in swells.
My mother always told a story of the Kushtaka, a Tlingit Native American legend.
“The Kushtaka lived in the tidal areas of the sea; half man, and half otter. They are said to haunt the coastlines,” she’d say. “They are always looking for children who wander too close to the sea. So, don’t go over to the north shore as there may just be a Kushtaka in the tide.”
For years, this legend had frightened my brother and me—and most of the kids on the island—well into our teenage years. In our morbid imaginations, we would stand at the edge of the surf looking for them, as they lurked beneath the waves. If someone visited the island on a summer day, the children would likely be lined up along the shore, pointing and holding each other, but nothing surprised me quite like the incident that happened the morning of the storm.
My mother had packed a bag for the beach and yelled for us to come downstairs. I told myself; surely, today the ocean will be angry, and the waves will crash hard, sending sea foam flaring into the sky like returning rain. I explained this image to my brother as we put on our rain boots and jackets and stepped out into the misty morning.
The walk to the beach was a quarter mile long; through the meadow across our street, into the forest of madrone, and down the carved stairs that spiraled to the logs. On the way, my brother and I ran ahead of our mother chasing one another through the woods. These woods were familiar to us. I remember reaching out for him and ended up pushing him over a root. After which, he cried until our mother came and calmed him down. Jamie refused to talk to me after that, his tears still dampening his eyes as he rubbed his dirty hands across his cheeks, leaving dust and pine needles across his face like war paint. When we reached the top of the carved stairs, I stopped. From above, the beach stretched on, driftwood had been scattered amongst it like fallen gravestones.
This is where the Kushtaka live, I thought. A tidal graveyard.
We made our way down the stairs and jumped onto the logs and sand. The sky was still gray, although the morning fog had begun to burn away from the surface of the ocean. It was my favorite place in the world. Now, I can hardly return there. I ran to the water and looked for skipping stones to throw into the oncoming surf. My brother stayed with our mother, begrudgingly. She had been right; the storm had brought new art to the edge of the woods. Logs from distant forests.
If the log had a peculiar shape, she would take it to the surf and soak it, allowing the water to reveal its true color again. She loved to oil them in their natural colors, so that her furniture would tell the driftwood’s story.
I took this window of opportunity and wandered north, eyeing the point. Checking back to see where my mother and brother were on the beach. They walked further south amongst the logs, pointing and laughing. I continued and climbed the small cliff and peered over the edge at the swells that breathed below. Jagged rock and sea kelp glistened from the water, and I observed a family of deer that walked along the shore and out amongst the tides. There were five of them, three of which were very young. I quickly picked out which one was me, which one was Jamie, and which was my mother. There was a large doe that ate at the grass in the tree line, and in her face, I saw a part of my mother.
I sat there for a while, subconsciously waiting for my mother to call me off the rocky throne, and back to the logs to sit and eat the snack she had packed. But she hadn’t. The deer licked at the salt from the dry tidal rocks. The tide was low for now, and they took this opportunity to taste the ocean brine and nibble at the sea grass.
For a moment, the sun came out and warmed the rocks around me and I dozed in and out of daydream while watching them lick away. It was not long before the tide lapped at the rocks below me, making strange hollow sucking sounds as it filled the eroded cavities. This woke me from my daze, and I looked for the family of deer once more. They had meandered down the point some more, distancing themselves from me.
I couldn’t help but notice as one of the fawns wandered from the others. It sat on a rock farthest from the shore; eating and peering back for its mother from time to time. The tide rose around the rock rapidly. The fawn’s mother saw this as well and walked back toward him, making a strange noise; a low grunt, deep in her throat. I watched with intent.
The tide rose and soon the fawn was completely separated from the island. The rock was nearly five feet in diameter and the water around it rose to almost two feet deep. From a distance, the doe called out to the fawn, but it just continued to stare at the water, scared to jump toward shore.
Suddenly, a terrible noise entered the air and I shivered. It was as if a small child was screaming in pain. The fawn jumped along the rock, back and forth, back and forth, screaming for its mother. The screeching was nearly unbearable, and I held my hands to my ears. It was as if the fawn were my alarm clock back at home, blaring in my ear in the morning hours.
The doe dared not jump in the water, for she would certainly be swept out in the undercurrent. I still held my hands over my ears, but the animal’s cry pierced through them in a strange rhythm. The doe grunted deep and hollow and pranced along the shore, mirroring her child.
As it writhed, I thought of my father’s woodshop behind the house. I imagined myself walking down the path, admiring the chipped white paint and lush evergreen forests that hugged at it. My father’s rifles sat in the woodshop, and often my brother and I would wander out and watch him clean them after a day of hunting quail. With this, I had the sudden urge to kill the fawn. To put it out of its misery. But the more I thought about the trigger, I knew that it would be too hard. I could only watch in horror as it screamed into the morning air.
The waves now washed at the animal’s hooves. The rock was going to be submerged in a matter of minutes, and the shore grew more and more distant. The bleating cut the air. I could not take my eyes off the strange scene. It was searching the water for escape; a path, a boulder perhaps. But it found nothing. Only its reflection in the brief moments between white crested waves. Maybe it was looking for the Kushtaka too, like the children that lined the shores. Perhaps it was afraid of them as well. I suppose somewhere in the back of my mind I heard my mother yelling at me to come get a snack and to get down from the rocks, but the breeze caught her voice.
The water was at the animal’s stomach. Only moments now, I thought.
Finally, the fawn jumped in an attempt for the shore, bleating still. It landed in the water with a splash. Its legs kicked beneath the surface, but it was quickly swept from the rock and into the foam. The current was too strong for the young animal, as I had expected, as its mother had expected. I imagined the kicking of its hooves, frantic and hopeless. I imagined myself beneath the surface, somewhere in the caverns of granite, like a Kushtaka, staring up at its kicking hooves from the depths. Beneath, I reached for its legs, pulling it down toward a certain death. But instead, I sat, watching from my perch as it screamed, until finally, it was still.
I still remember the way I sat there, hands pressed against warm rock, eyes fixed on the bleating fawn. Intrigued by the beauty of it all. For a long time after this incident, I was angry. I was angry at the deer for being so foolish. Angry at the water for drowning it. Angry I did not save it or kill it myself.
Not until now, here in the hospital room, did I realize what truly captivated me; why the animal was so scared. It did not fear the water in its lungs or the distant shore. It was the unavoidable tide. The slow rising tide. The anticipation of death to take it away in the current, slow and certain.
I could not take my eyes away from the fawn, nor can I take my eyes away from my wife. The fawn died screaming, though she is silent. I thought about killing the poor animal, but I only watched as time took it from me and pulled it out to sea. I think about it now, on this evening; the warm rocks, the shipping forecasts echoing in my memory. Sixty years have passed, and I have witnessed death time and time again. I can only prolong or speed up the inevitable, but not stop it entirely, and that is my tragedy. I can only watch.
Oscar White is a 2018 graduate from Portland State University, where he received a BFA in Creative Writing. He is currently studying for an MFA in Creative Writing at the Rainier Writing Workshop (PLU) His writing often drifts between the genres of Gothic and Historical Fiction, blending gothic tropes with the human experience. Oscar’s work has been published in Pathos Literary Magazine in Portland, OR. He now lives in Bellingham, WA.