This work was created during the WoW/UNY Governors Island Residency. Rena Priest was in residence on Governors Island in 2018.
When the outbreak started, I was alarmed enough to start taking action. Although I hated to think of myself as a doomsday prepper, I bought a canoe and outfitted it with survival gear, then motored to a lonely island cove where I used to picnic with my family every Memorial Day as a child. The cove had been my great-grandmother’s sanctuary, where she brought her children when the Indian agent came to take them away to boarding schools. They stayed on the island through the fall season and returned to the village when the weather turned bitter. Soon after, the agent returned and took the children away to educate the Indian out of them. Kill the Indian to save the man. The youngest didn’t survive. We returned to the cove every spring to remember.
My grandmother would grieve, saying, “They insisted we learn how to stitch prayers into cloth instead of letting our mother teach us how to make baskets. They insisted we learn cursive, while they refused to learn our language with all the words for how to live a beautiful life.”
As the weeks passed, the news brought reports about people going cannibal. Then came reports of the National Guard being deployed in urban neighborhoods. Stories about towns on lockdown. The whole time, I had been stashing food and supplies on the island. I bought it all on credit cards, not planning to ever pay it back. Less than three months after the first reports, there was a grizzly account of a mother eating her screaming baby in a mall parking lot. I closed my laptop, drove to the harbor, motored to my cove, set up camp, and waited. From the island, I could see the lights of my city. I was there three nights before they went dark.
People like to believe we are beyond the reach of dangers sensationalized in headlines. Those horrors are happening to other people, in other places. There’s no real news anymore, though we have outposts where people leave old clippings about the outbreak. It’s nothing we don’t know. Keep your distance from people. Don’t eat food from industrial farms. Don’t use electricity or motors of any kind… Someone left a bunch of handwritten copies of the Chief Seattle speech. It resonates:
“At night when the streets of your cities and villages are silent and you think them deserted, they will throng with the returning hosts that once filled them.”
Now here I am, waiting for someone to find a cure; waiting for the lights of my city to flick back on, waiting for the pulse of helicopter blades; pushing my canoe away from the shore every night. The nights are quiet except for the loneliness that howls inside me, and sometimes the overplayed songs of my youth play in my mind. Sometimes I forget myself and sing. It’s easy to get careless, to think I’m alone.
“In all the earth there is no place dedicated to solitude.”
Sleeping in my canoe, anchored past the drop-off, is the only way I get a good night’s rest. The GMOs don’t like the water. At night, I sometimes hear people speaking up in the hills. Their voices find me in my lonely canoe, but I can’t understand what they’re saying. Sometimes I wonder if they’re real. They’re not like the voices of my memories.
My dad had a fisherman’s dialect. I can hear his voice as clear and bright as day. It feels so close that I want to talk back; tell him I’m sorry that I drifted away. When I grow tired of my circumstances, I think of a story he told while we were mending net, he and his crew and I, standing in a line and pulling the web, arm length by arm length in search of holes to mend. He didn’t like the crew cursing and telling their raunchy stories around me, so he’d either forgotten I was there, or at that moment, just didn’t care.
Some of those fishing grounds up there are so lonesome and remote, he told us, they make you feel like ain’t nobody else on earth. It gets spooky. Our first go up, we didn’t even have our sea legs yet. It was me and Joe on with Skip Walker’s crew. It was stormy, and all the way up, Joe was drunk on cheap wine and sea-sick as hell. He puked all over one side of my bunk, turned it over and then later puked on the other side. I couldn’t have slept anyway. It was too rough a ride.
By a few days in, the booze was gone, and we were in a calm patch. I felt like I could hold down food, so I went into the galley and saw that all the jelly jars and canned food had fallen to the floor, from the boat being tossed sideways and back. We were trying to put things right when old Skip came in and said, Don’t bother. It’s rough up ahead. So we left it, and sure enough it started to storm again.
When we finally got up to the fishing ground, it was calm as glass, which means no fish, but the damn season wasn’t open yet anyway, and it didn’t open. We dropped anchor in an empty cove and waited for the go ahead to come over the radio, but all we ever heard was talk of radio fish in the straights; jumpers—thick schools swimming right past us. It got everyone edgy.
Finally, the guys elected me spokesman because they were all too scared. They said, Go tell Skip that we’re going to leave if it don’t open by the end of next week. I went and told him and he said, Okay. And during that week, we’s waiting it out there in the middle of nowhere, and there’s nothing to do but sit around starin’ at the four walls, and just when everyone starts getting cabin fever, a big beautiful fiberglass seiner called The Rejoice comes cruising in and ties up. That boat had whiskey, whores, pot, cocaine. It was a big old party boat. I think the net was just for show. I think it was a floating whorehouse.
At the end of the week, we’d spent all the money we’d brought up, and our season still wasn’t open, so we hitched a ride to the next port with The Rejoice and flew home.
Then sure as shit—soon as we got home, word came that the season opened, and here we were: broke, hung-over, and catching hell for bringing our wives the clap instead of a paycheck. Had to learn the hard way, I guess. Don’t get distracted. Be patient and keep about your business and don’t quit until your season opens. Most of the time you’ll do okay, or it used to be that way.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t fanaticize about The Rejoice. In my daydreams, it’s not a floating whorehouse. It’s the U.S. Coast Guard with a handsome crew come to take me to safety, but I guess a floating whorehouse would be just fine. Survival’s got me tired.
Some days I think of motoring my canoe back to town, walking up the dock to the harbor store, and just ripping open a bag of contaminated corn chips, singing loudly as I wash it down with whiskey and cola and let come what may—just fling arms wide to the GMO fate. Some days, I walk along the shoreline looking at the stones, thinking about putting them into my pockets and walking into the waves. But I don’t.
Rena Priest is a writer and Lummi tribal member. Her debut book, Patriarchy Blues, was released on MoonPath Press and garnered an American Book Award. Her most recent collection, Sublime Subliminal, was published in 2018. She has attended residencies at Mineral School, Underwater New York/Works on Water on Governors Island, and Hawthornden Castle International Retreat for Writers. She is the recipient of a 2018 National Geographic Explorers Grant, and has taught various topics in writing, storytelling, and literature.