Before the Veil

Joe checks his knife. The steel blade is sheathed in the moose-hide scabbard strapped to his thigh. Next, he pulls the spray skirt tight over the lip of the cockpit and taps the black neoprene four times, once for each of the four directions. Ritual complete, he digs the blade of the two-ended paddle into the beach gravel and shoves off.

Cook Inlet waves rock Joe’s kayak. He works the rudder pedals, angling the boat toward the dock at Merna’s. 

Gray clouds fill the sky. Beneath them, a few whales spouting out past the harbor entrance. Probably humpbacks, this time of year. Just a little wind, coming from the head of the bay, bringing the fish smell from the cannery, thick and oily.

The cannery. Where Uncle Clyde found Donnie, his naked body dumped on top of a pile of old tires. Donnie was working one last summer in the cannery before starting college in Anchorage. Joe’s youngest brother and the only one left alive. Piled like trash behind the cannery. Face down, thank God, the gulls couldn’t get at his eyes.

Joe shakes his head, forces himself to focus on the rhythm of reach and pull, reach and pull. Thinks about his kayak, a modern version of the basic design his ancestors perfected centuries before the Russians arrived in wooden boats with canvas sails so big the Grandfathers said they looked like clouds.

No neoprene back then. They donned waterproof parkas made of seal gut and wooden hunting hats painted to fool the seals. They prayed to the old gods and launched themselves into the unforgiving sea and reached and pulled their way across the water with bone-tipped harpoons lashed to their kayaks with long strips of moose hide.

Joe glides up to Merna’s. The dock is deserted. The tide is out. Clumps of seaweed dot the pebbly strand between the cold, slate-gray waves and the tall grass growing above the high-tide line.

The gilded onion dome of the church looms over Merna’s store and the rest of Perry Harbor. Merna’s is locked up tight, a padlock on the front door and iron bars guarding the windows. Wasn’t like that when Joe was a kid, when they played in the surf and helped the grown-ups with the set nets. Back when everybody walked and paddled. Before outboards and four-wheelers. Before TV and fentanyl and bootleg liquor.

Joe clips his paddle to the side of the kayak, pries his spray skirt loose, and hauls himself up onto the weather-beaten dock. Rich scents of frankincense and myrrh fill his nostrils as he pulls the kayak out of the water. Sweet voices of old ladies singing funeral hymns fill his ears. He squeezes his eyes shut, rubs a hand over his face. Sets his mind on what he’s come to do.

The dock creaks. Randy steps onto the boards, his hands hidden in the pockets of his ripped jeans, something heavy weighing down the pocket of his stained Seattle Seahawks hoodie. He’s red-eyed and shaky, wandering the no-man’s land between drunk and hungover. But still dangerous. Randy’s always dangerous.

“Hey, Cousin.” The false cheer ringing in Randy’s throat matches his counterfeit smile. “Thought you might be looking for me, so figured I’d meet you here. Save you some time.”

Joe swivels his head. Nothing behind him but dock boards.

Randy’s eyes flick to the knife on Joe’s thigh then back to his face. He pulls his hands from his jean pockets. “I thought you might be upset, about Donnie and everything, so I brought something special. A family heirloom, you might say.” 

Randy pulls Grampa’s Navy-issue Colt out of his hoodie pocket and smiles. “Never bring a knife to a gunfight, Cousin.”

Joe takes a step back. “Who said anything about a fight?”

“I did.”

Joe takes another step back. He’s running out of dock. Water on one side, too shallow to dive. Merna’s store on the other side. Behind Randy, the mountainsides covered with berry bushes. Lower down, thickets of alder, then the beach grass, tall enough to hide a man.

Or a sister, silent and unseen.

A sister, wise too young because of her brother.

A sister, rising up.

A sister with one arm cocked back like a seal hunter.

A sister, launching a fist-sized rock that flies as straight and true as a harpoon.

The rock smashes into Randy’s skull. Blood trickles through the gaps in the boards, drips into the salty ocean. The trickle turns to a flood when Joe open’s Randy’s neck with the skinning knife. 

The dock boards creak again. Not as loud this time.

Joe picks up Grampa’s revolver, straightens, and says, “Hello, Little Cousin.” He tucks the pistol into the back of his jeans. “You okay?”

Letty tugs her long braid over her right shoulder and shrugs, her face blank. She says, “Donnie told me he was gonna go to the cops if Randy didn’t leave me alone. Randy heard.” 

Joe stoops and cleans his knife on Randy’s jeans. “I should have been here.”

Letty shakes her head. “You were out working.” She picks up the rock and flings it into the bay, where the waves swallow it.

Joe points with his chin. “You want to do anything with this?”

Letty spits on the body lying on the dock. “Leave it here,” she says. Still no expression on her face. “If we leave now, we can get to the church before they pull the veil over Donnie’s face.”

Leave a comment with a living thing, an inanimate object, and a location and I will write a story based on your prompt and tag you when I publish it.

Jim’s Taco Fund (trying not to be a starving artist)

If you’ve ever tossed some coins to a subway saxophonist or a juggler working a stoplight, please consider sending a few bucks my way — $5 covers a day’s worth of tacos. Or, for $3, buy me a coffee!

Photo by Brett Johnson on Unsplash