Ketchikan was a town built on salmon: catching it, salting it, processing it. The rain gauge—called a liquid-sunshine-o-meter—attested to the dampness of the climate.
“Look at that,” Meredith said, pointing to a grassy area across the street where a man with long black hair was carving a totem pole. A crowd was gathered around him, watching.
Nina dared to reach for her mother’s arm. “Let’s go check it out.” She was surprised when Mom nodded and let Nina guide her across the street to the small park.
Rain started to fall as they stood there. Most of the crowd dispersed, running for cover, but Mom just stood there, watching the man work. In his capable hands, the metal instrument cut and gouged and changed the wood from rough to smooth. They saw a paw begin to appear.
“It is a bear,” Mom said, and the man looked up.
“You have a good eye,” he said.
Nina could see now how old he was. His dark skin was lined and leathery, and the hair at his temples was gray.
“This is for my son,” the man said, pointing to the beaked bird at the base of the totem pole. “This is our clan. The raven. And this thunderbird brought the storm that washed the road away. And this bear is my son. . . .”
“So it’s a family history,” Meredith said.
“A burial totem. To remember him.”
“It’s beautiful,” Mom said, and just then, in the falling rain, Nina heard the voice of the fairy tale, and for the first time it made sense. She understood why her mother only told the story in the dark and why her voice was so different: it was about loss. The voice was how her mother sounded when she let her guard down.
They stood there long enough to see the bear’s claw take shape. Then they finally walked toward Creek Street. Here, the old red-light district had been transformed into a boardwalk of shops and restaurants positioned above a river. They found a cozy little diner with a view and sat down at a knotty pine table by the window.
The street outside was full of tourists with shopping bags, moving like wildebeests in the migration season from one store to the next, even in the rain. The bells above the store doors were chiming a random tune.
“Welcome to Captain Hook’s,” said a cute young waitress dressed in bright yellow overalls and a red checked blouse. A yellow fisherman’s hat sat firmly on her brown curls. A name tag identified her as Brandi. She handed them each a large laminated menu in the shape of a fishhook.
In no time at all the waitress returned to take their orders, which were three fish-and-chips baskets and iced teas. When she left, Meredith said, “I wonder what our family totem would look like.”
There was a moment’s pause after that. In it, they all looked up, made eye contact.
“Dad would be the bottom,” Nina said. “He was the start of us.”
“A bear,” Meredith said. “Nina would be an eagle.”
An eagle. A loner. Ready to fly away. She frowned a little, wishing she could disagree. Her life had left markers all over the world, but very few at home. No one’s totem would include her except this family’s, and while that was what she’d always wanted—to be totally free and independent—it felt lonely just now. “Meredith would be a lioness who cares for everyone and keeps the pride together.”
“What would you be, Mom?” Meredith asked.
Mom shrugged. “I would not be there, I think.”
“You think you left no mark on us?” Nina asked.
“Not one that begs to be remembered.”
“Dad loved you for more than fifty years,” Meredith said. “That’s not nothing.”
Mom took a sip of her iced tea and stared out the window at the rain.
The waitress returned with their food. Nina got up quickly and whispered a request, and then sat down again. As they ate the delicious halibut and fries, they talked about the day in Ketchikan—the gold nugget jewelry in the windows of the shops, the ornate First Nations tribal art, the Cowichan sweaters the locals wore, and the bald eagle they’d seen perched on a totem pole in town. It was a conversation that could have been had by any family on vacation in town, but to Nina it felt almost magical. As her mother spoke about things that interested her, she seemed to soften. It was as if every ordinary word loosened something in her until by the end of the meal she was smiling.
The waitress returned and cleared their plates. Instead of placing the bill on the wooden table, she set a piece of birthday cake in front of Mom. Its lit candle danced above the buttercream frosting.
“Happy birthday, Mom,” Meredith and Nina said together.
Mom stared down at the candle.
“We always wanted to have a birthday party for you,” Meredith said. She reached out and put her hand on Mom’s.
“I have made so many mistakes,” Mom said softly.
“Everyone makes mistakes,” Meredith said.
“No. I . . . I didn’t mean to be that way . . . I wanted to tell you . . . but I couldn’t even look at you, I was so ashamed.”
“You’re looking at us now,” Nina said, although it wasn’t strictly true. Mom was actually staring at the candle. “You want to tell us your story. You always wanted to. That’s why you started the fairy tale.”
Mom shook her head.
“You’re Vera,” Nina said quietly.
“No,” Mom said, “that girl is not who I am.”
“But she’s who you were,” Nina said, hating herself for saying it, but unable to stop.
“You are a dog with a bone, Nina.” She sighed. “Yes. Long ago I was Veronika Petronova Marchenko.”
“Enough,” Mom said sharply. “This is my first birthday party with my daughters. There will be time later for the rest of it.”
At dinner, they talked about ordinary things. They drank wine and toasted again to Mom’s eighty-first birthday. After a delicious meal, they wandered through the Vegas-like glitter of the giant ship and found their way to a theater, where a man in an orange sequined jumpsuit was performing magic. He made his barely clad assistant disappear, gave her paper roses that turned into white doves and flew away, and cut her in several pieces and then put her back together.
Mom clapped enthusiastically at each new trick, smiled like a little kid.
Meredith could hardly take her eyes off her mother. She looked bright and almost happy; for the first time, Meredith understood how cold her mother’s beauty had always been before. Her beauty was different tonight: softer, warmer.
When the show was over, they walked back to their staterooms. In the crowded hallways, amid all the chatter of their fellow passengers and the ringing of the casino bells, they were strangely silent. Something had changed today, with that little burning candle on a piece of chocolate cake, but Meredith didn’t know quite what had changed or how they would be reshaped by it. All she knew was that she had lost the ability to stay separate now. For more than twenty-five years, she’d kept up her side of the wall, too. She had refused to really see or need her mother, and in that distance, she’d found strength. At least a facsimile of strength. Now she had almost none of that left. Truthfully, she was glad it was too late to hear more of the story tonight.
At their door, Nina stopped. “I had a great day, Mom. Happy birthday.” She moved forward awkwardly, pulled Mom into an embrace that was over before Mom could lift her own arms.
Meredith wanted to follow suit, but when she looked in her mother’s blue eyes, she felt too vulnerable to make a move. “I . . . uh . . . I know you must be tired,” Meredith said, smiling nervously. “We should go to bed and get up early. Tomorrow we’ll be cruising Glacier Bay. It’s supposed to be spectacular.”
Mom said, “Thank you for my birthday,” so softly they almost couldn’t hear, and then she opened the door and went into her room.
Meredith unlocked their door and went inside.
“Dibs on the bathtub,” Nina said, grinning.
Meredith barely noticed. She grabbed a blanket from her bed and went out onto the small veranda. From here, even in the darkness, she could make out the coastline. Here and there lights shone, marking peoples’ lives.
She leaned back against the sliding door and wondered at the vistas she wasn’t seeing. It was all out there—the mystery, the beauty; beyond her ability to see now, but there just the same. It was simply a matter of timing and perspective, what one saw. Like with Mom. Perhaps everything had been there to be seen all along and Meredith had had the wrong perspective, or not enough light.
“I suppose that is you, Meredith.”
She was startled by the sound of her mother’s voice, coming from the darkness of the veranda to her right. It was another jolt of reality: there were hundreds of tiny verandas stuck out from the side of this ship, and yet in the dark, each one seemed entirely separate. “Hey, Mom,” she said. She could only make out the merest shape of her mother, see only the white sheen of her hair.
They were alike in that way, she and her mom. When they were troubled, both wanted to be outside and alone.
“You are thinking about your marriage,” Mom said.
Meredith sighed. “I don’t suppose you have any advice for me.”
“To lose love is a terrible thing,” Mom said softly. “But to turn away from it is unbearable. Will you spend the rest of your life replaying it in your head? Wondering if you walked away too soon or too easily? Or if you’ll ever love anyone that deeply again?”
Meredith heard the softening in her mother’s voice. It was like listening to melted pain, that voice. “You know about loss,” she said quietly.
“We all do.”
“When I first fell in love with Jeff, it was like seeing sunlight for the first time. I couldn’t stand to be away from him. And then . . . I could. We got married so young. . . .”
“Young has nothing to do with love. A woman can be a girl and still know her own heart.”
“I stopped being happy. I don’t even know why or when.”
“I remember when you were always smiling. Back when you opened the gift shop. Maybe you never should have taken over the business.”
Meredith was too surprised to do more than nod. She hadn’t thought her mother ever noticed her one way or the other. “It meant so much to Dad.”
“I made the mistake of living for other people. For Dad and the orchard, and my kids. Mostly for them, and now they are so busy with their own lives they hardly ever call. I have to memorize their schedules and track them down like Hercule Poirot. I’m a bounty hunter with a phone.”
“Jillian and Maddy flew away because you gave them wings and taught them to fly.”
“I wish I had wings,” Meredith said quietly.
“This is my fault,” Mom said, standing up. The veranda creaked at the movement.
“Why?” Meredith said, moving closer to the rail that separated the two verandas. She felt her mother come toward her until suddenly they were standing face-to-face, a foot or less apart. Finally, she could see Mom’s eyes.