The Gift

Akio Shinya had returned.  He was camped tonight with four other Japanese kayakers here in Kalekta Bay.  It had taken them eight hours to cross Akutan Pass, paddling against westerly winds and the year’s biggest tides.  The five of them, in four kayaks, had suddenly appeared below the cabin, and were soon up the river mouth, unfolding from their cramped boats exhausted, wild-haired and salt encrusted, and jubilant to be alive.

She’d heard they were coming, that Shinya-san was back in the Aleutians, that he was very saddened to learn her husband had passed away. She’d watched the horizon for them all week, once she’d returned to the cabin again, this first time alone since Ben died, six months before.  A solo flight.

‘Just me and the moon,’ she’d told herself that first morning out at camp.  She’d come out on a charter, a two hour run, and the skipper had dropped her ashore, giving her a gentle hug, before steaming out and disappearing around the Cape.  By the time she’d tied up loose ends in town, pulled the door shut behind her and hauled her gear down to the boat, she’d been wound up like a top.  Excitement and adventure dancing partners with the jitters of going it alone.  She wondered if Ben would be worried, or proud of her, maybe a bit of both, but she knew he’d understand it was something she needed to do.

And, so far so good.  She’d mustered the curiosity and courage to do this, and why not?  She was use to her own company, capable of doing whatever needed to be done, and to not come out to this place of peace, a part of her life, seemed wrong.  But it was hard.  She was coming to terms that Ben was not here either.   There were no reminders of his sickness and suffering as there were in their house in town, although the bad memories still came in thick as squalls.  Here, he was present to her in his quiet handiwork, the radio wires, the jumble of tools in the shed.  The roof they’d raised together so many years ago.

A few days before, clearing weeds in the hot bright sun, she’d sat to rest her back.  Gazing out across the marsh, green and glistening in the light, she could imagine Ben’s cap moving above the salmonberry bushes, fixing the water hose.  She could hear the ringing of his axe, the slow stroke of his grass blade along the trails, his resonant voice in the mornings over coffee.  She’d known then they were sweet times.  She’d known all along.

Sounding the depths of her grief, sobbing like a child, she floundered desperately, trying to sort out the groundlessness of loss and uncertainty.  She emerged over and over again, struggling to hold both the sorrow and the joy, striving to stay open and present, to keep putting one foot in front of the other.  No one could show her how to do this, so here she was, profoundly changed, and on her own.

The smoke from her morning fire brought the kayakers up from their tents.  Lively, but respectful they filled the cabin and roused themselves with coffee and hotcakes and fruit.  The table had been pulled into the center of the cabin.  They were a sight, their outer clothing smudged and duct taped, their skin weather-tanned, their faces exuberant.  Last night they’d all joined in the making of a huge pot of celebratory soup, entire heads of garlic, hand-sized pieces of ginger root and pepper sauces all going into the pot.  She’d made them a wild greens salad which they’d loved very much.

They revealed some of the hardships and triumphs of their journey, tracing the route from the chart on the cabin wall.  Despite, or perhaps because of, the language barrier, there was a poignancy, a striving for meaning beyond the words.  She opened her journal and each of them painstakingly penned their names and addresses in English and Japanese.  They laughed and took photos, and there was an impromptu showering of gifts.  She offered the small watercolor sketch she’d made for Shinya’s arrival, and a book on wildflowers.  They gave her traditional ‘handkerchiefs’ of fishes and Mount Fuji, a driftwood spoon they’d carved, fire starter, and all the  lemons, limes, ginger root and soup mixes left from the trip.  Trying to be off-handed, Shinya bundled up his down parka and gave it to her, saying, ’Very smoky, needs washing, but maybe keeps you warm.’  I hope come again, he’d written for her.

The tide was falling and they had to go.  In the grass by the river mouth, she watched as they quickly broke camp, fascinated by all their colorful kayak gear and the practiced skill they showed carefully stowing their boats.   She was impressed by their quiet strength, a sureness without swagger.  The men followed Shinya as he pulled his kayak down the river shallows to the beach, and out into the swells.  He circled as the others clambered into their boats, adjusting their spray skirts and paddles.

There were tears as they raised their paddles, and a few more photos.  As quickly as they’d come, it seemed, they were gone.  Almost from a dream they’d arrived, vibrant and brave, and now the empty shoreline, with hardly a trace.  She marveled at being in the right place, at the right time for this to happen, and wished that Ben were still alive to share this with her.  Later the next day, walking the long beach, she thought again about courage, and only then fully realized the gift she’d been given.  She was a woman on her own, with her own way of seeing, hoping for the courage to live a life that no one else could show her how to live.  You can’t look to any anyone else for your courage, she thought, but you can know what it is, and set your sights when you see it shining in others.

©2009 Suzi Golodoff All Rights Reserved


Suzi Golodoff is a writer and naturalist who has lived in the Aleutians Islands of Alaska for the past forty five years. She journals with coffee every morning, writes mostly poetry and haiku, and published a field guide to the ‘Wildflowers of Unalaska Island’.