Leaving Ballenas

This story is very loosely based on an incident that happened when my husband was a lightkeeper on Ballenas Island, B.C. in 1996. That light station has since been destaffed. The story first appeared in Island Writer in 2008.

LEAVING BALLENAS

It was time to go. The pre-departure flurry only disguised the fact that today was all about leaving. Everything was done and it was time to cross the water. Water — to Alix a hostile element always, even on this bright, sun-spangled day.

Alix and Catherine had come for a week’s visit to Ballenas Island, where Alix’s husband was a temporary assistant lightkeeper. They had explored the island, basked in the sun, talked, relaxed. But two days ago, the shadow of departure had fallen on Alix, and her enjoyment had become forced.

She had been watching the anemometer readouts for the past few days, anticipating this moment. After Gerry found her at it and made fun of her apprehensions, she slipped into the weather room on the sly to scan the digital readout. Twenty knots, 22, 23.5 — oh shit, it’s going up!

She would hate it if there were waves. The boat would go whump, whump, whump over them, each “whump” a mountain to be climbed, a nearness of disaster to be endured.

She couldn’t show her fear to the others, because it was irrational. Gerry would explain patiently that there was nothing to worry about, that boats were built to handle waves, that it was only a few miles anyway. Or, even worse, he would get annoyed and dismiss her “What ifs” with a curt “Don’t be silly.” And Catherine, of course, was oblivious, the happy landlubber with no history of failed voyages. Alix didn’t know which of them she envied more.

Yesterday evening, she had slipped out while the others were washing up the supper dishes to take another look at the anemometer readout. It showed fifteen knots and falling, just like the forecast had predicted. but the next day’s outlook was uncertain — “light northwest rising to moderate by noon.”

Moderate, she thought, trudging back to the house. I’m afraid of moderate. What a fool. A “weekend worrier,” that’s what Gerry had called her last summer, after yet another sailing trip ended in tears and recriminations.

But this morning was as calm and bright as an answered prayer. Their baggage was stowed and Rob cranked the boat out of its shed, down the ramp and into the water, with the three of them on board. Gerry started the motor. Catherine and Alix sat behind him, Alix full of that nervous, jumpy “let’s get on with it, let’s get it over with” feeling. Catherine was her usual jolly self, smiling at Gerry, calling him “Mr. Boat Man,” speculating how long it would take to get back to the city, to its malls and cafes. Gerry turned the boat to face the open channel.

The land seemed so far away — Vancouver Island, Northwest Bay, a shore with little houses, a marina, a narrow road that led to a big road, cars, SUVs, trucks, malls, eventually home. But from here, Alix thought, it might as well be Nirvana, El Dorado, the land beyond the sunset.

Gerry throttled up the engine and headed out of the cove, picking up speed. They were going faster. And faster. But they weren’t heading out of the cove after all, but toward the rocks on its north side. Toward the rocks. Yes, the rocks.

But of course Gerry was going to slow down. That’s what the competent mariner does when he finds his boat headed for rocks. He slows down and corrects his course toward open water, deep water, safe water. And Gerry was a competent mariner, no question about that.

But he wasn’t slowing or turning. Alix’s eyes bulged and she felt a torrent of words building up inside her that was going to come out in one big rush — a scream, in fact. He hates it when I scream. But we’re still going for those rocks and they’re RIGHT HERE, RIGHT NOW! It’s too late to turn or slow down, we’re going to hit the rocks and now it’s a whole new world.

It wasn’t the water that was the problem now, or waves, or the distance to the other shore, or the fact that she’d never been at home in boats. The problem now is that we’re moving fast toward that big black rock right here on Ballenas Island and we’re going to hit it — NOW!

The boat hit the rock, rode up on it, slid back. There was an ominous crunch, then dead quiet. The engine had stopped. Everything had stopped. Catherine and Alix were on the bottom of the boat, bounced right out of their seats.

Thank God it’s over. It’s OVER. And everyone’s still alive.

Gerry looked foolish. “My sleeve got caught on the throttle and I couldn’t get it loose,” he explained to Rob, who had come running over. Alix was too jangled and relieved to speak, but she felt a clump of anger flopping around inside her, demanding to be let out. She needed to go away somewhere and be quiet, while Gerry and Rob figured out what damage the boat had sustained. We might not be leaving today after all. What a waste of nervous anticipation.

But there wasn’t much wrong with the boat. “They’re built tough, these Life Timers,” Rob said. “She’ll be good to go in no time.” He and Gerry began to put on a spare prop while Catherine and Alix sat on the beach.

Alix struggled to emerge from her shell of shock. She had to make sure Catherine was OK; she was her guest, and Gerry, who had just about killed them all, was Alix’s husband. But her mouth didn’t want to talk, any more than when she’d started to tell Catherine on the trip up here that this lightkeeping job Gerry had taken was a kind of trial separation. If he didn’t feel differently about their marriage in three months, he wouldn’t be coming home.

She picked up a handful of sand and let its cool dryness sift through her fingers, leaving behind a fragment of mussel shell and a smooth green pebble.

“That was really something, wasn’t it?” Alix said, taking a breath. “Are you OK? I’m sorry.”

Catherine looked at her. “Why? It wasn’t your fault. And it all happened so fast, I didn’t have time to be scared.” She leaned over and gave Alix a clumsy hug. “How long do you suppose it takes to put on a prop?”

By the time the prop was fitted, talking felt almost normal, and it was once again time to go. Alix got up and helped Catherine to her feet. She put the green pebble in her pocket and curled her fingers around it as they walked toward the boat.

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