The Isle of Virtue

Pieter was a fisherman, named after that famous fisherman from Bible times who ended up leading a church. His parents immigrated to the Pacific Northwest from the Netherlands in the early 1900’s, bringing Pieter along as contraband, deep within his mother’s womb. To his father’s surprise, the babe began to show, not long after they settled their homestead on one of the small islands which dotted the Canadian coast, but was in fact actually a part of Alaska.

When his mother finally gave birth to him, his father wanted to call his name, Jonah. But she objected to the inference, saying: “If he was Jonah, what did that make her?” She felt bloated and wasn’t in the mood for such jokes. So they agreed upon the name Pieter instead: whose career, like Jonah’s, also involved surprises at sea.

When Pieter was still quite young he met the eldest daughter of another immigrant family who had moved to the island. Her father was a Russian priest and her mother was Spanish, herself a daughter of a colonel, who had been a close ally and friend of General Vallejo. He settled his family on a large estate north of San Francisco. Prior to becoming a priest, the Russian met and fell in love with the Spanish girl. He married her in an Orthodox ceremony at the chapel connected to Fort Ross, on the northern California coast—where he had been serving as a deacon. Not long after the wedding, he was ordained, and the newlyweds moved north to start their family.

Isabel was their first-born and grew up to be a fine young lady. She was hard-working and had a practical disposition. When Pieter asked her to marry him, she had just turned seventeen but she was no naïve girl. She knew what it took to make a life in their world. It wasn’t easy. So, she wanted some guarantees first that Pieter could provide for her, before she’d agree to anything. She didn’t aspire to wealth but she did want to be comfortable, at least as comfortable as one can reasonably expect to be on a remote island.

Pieter was already a capable seaman when he proposed to Isabel. He had inherited his father’s home, his land, and fishing boat the year before, when his father unexpectedly died; and now at the age of twenty-one, he was prepared to begin a family of his own. These things assured Isabel of a reasonable future, plus she liked Pieter, so she agreed to be his wife. Her father performed the sacrament of marriage for the young couple later that same year, and then she moved into Pieter’s house.

Pieter and Isabel raised three children, who all eventually left the island, and their parents behind, to make lives for themselves in cities abroad. And the couple buried their own parents—Pieter’s mother and Isabel’s father and mother—in their middle years, which was now long ago. The two old souls now lived together alone; having settled into a familiar tranquility that comes from many years of shared experience. Time passed melodically like the waves which lapped the side of his boat, and crashed lightly upon the beach; and the seasons came and went like the tides. 

In the mornings, Pieter kissed his wife before leaving the house, and then made the short trek down to the rocky beach, where he kept his small rowboat. After he left, Isabel got busy with her work: feeding the goats, gathering wood, chopping it, stoking the fire, gathering vegetables from their small garden, mending clothes, canning, pickling, cooking and repairing. And there were a multitude of other tasks to be done, depending upon the season and the need. She had become old and tired, but her will was as strong as ever, and she did these tasks stoically and even joyfully, despite the pain they had left indelibly throughout her body. Life’s meaning could be found in these little things; and she was grateful too that they kept unhappy thoughts at bay. 

Pieter shoved his rowboat out into the water and climbed inside. Years ago his fishing boat had fallen into disrepair so he had abandoned it. It needed a new motor among other things. But he no longer fished to make a living; he only caught what he and Isabel themselves needed to eat. The waters surrounding their island had more than enough to sustain them so there was no need to repair the larger vessel. So he left it moored. Over time it became a vestige of an earlier time—a relic of happy memories—and a home for birds, otters and barnacles.

Today, Pieter planned first to check the crab pot that he had set out in the middle of the cove the night before; and then he would row south to the kelp beds between his and the neighboring island to do some fishing. The water of the cove was clear and still as he glided across its surface; the blades of his oars barely stirring it, as he expertly pulled his way along. Mist hung over the surface of the water, and caught the rays of the sun, diffusing it into halos of golden light. A fish jumped out of the water, returning again with a gentle ker-plop, and sending forth tiny ripples. Pieter pulled at the chain and lifted the crab pot into the boat. Three small crabs scurried round the pot, and he lifted two out, placing them into a bucket near his feet. The third he dropped over the side and watched, as it sailed down through the water and away to freedom; they wouldn’t eat more than two tonight.

After dropping the pot into the back of his boat, Pieter took up the oars and rowed out towards the open water. The cove he had called home for his entire life was roughly circular, and took about ten or fifteen minutes to row across. Conifer trees lined its northern half, all the way around it to the west, where his father had made a large clearing back when he was just a baby. To the south there was a large stand of trees about half-way out towards the mouth, but east of that the ground became too rocky to support much more than grass and the occasional shrub. Looking out across this barren point towards the southeast one could see the clouds gathering, or the sun rising over the waters beyond the cove, and gauge what sort of day might be brewing. 

Pieter smiled broadly as he left the cove, because the sky was clear and the breeze was gentle. It would be a beautiful day, easy for rowing, perfect for fishing, and amenable for watching the wildlife. On days like these one could see for miles and catch a passing pod of whales, which might otherwise be obscured by the clouds and the heavy mist which was more typical of the area. He felt excited today, happy to be alive and expectant for surprises. Although he had lived his entire life within this small world, never having ventured beyond the immediate island group—maybe a four mile radius at most—he never tired of it, nor did he feel bored. His kids had often complained and he could never understand them. As he gazed deeply into the water which revealed its emerald green architectures of rock below, highlighted by ripples of light cascading across their craggy surfaces, he thought back to his children’s complaints: “Why do we have to go fishing again?…I don’t want to be here anymore!…This is booriiing!!!” He shook his head and sighed as he continued to plumb the depths of this underwater world with his eyes, and he was delighted to discover colorful starfish attached to the rocks: red ones, and golden ones like living exclamation marks in that green watery world. “How could anyone be bored by this? I can’t understand it,” he murmured to himself. He missed his children though, and wished they might visit someday. It is difficult to live this kind of life, he could acknowledge that. And of course, they had to go and find their own way, make their own families. But it always surprised him that they didn’t return; wouldn’t they want to visit, at least once?

“Well, no sense in stewing over that. They’ll come if they want to.” He pulled hard on the oars and the small craft leapt forward through the water. This was getting harder to do. He felt the strain in his arms and down his back, and into his legs. He rubbed at his shoulders briefly and longed for the evening when he and Isabel could exchange backrubs back at the house. “That’ll feel good. But gotta catch some fish first. Gotta earn my keep here.” Pieter rowed to the kelp beds and settled in for the day—tossing a small net over the side of the boat, and also pulling an old home-made pole out, and casting a line.

Pieter fished for several hours and caught five small steelhead trout in his net, and two on the line. He kept the two he caught using the pole and three of the largest from the net, tossing them all into the bucket on the floor of the rowboat, where the crab he had caught earlier were waiting. The smallest trout from the net he tossed back into the water for another day. He and Isabel would eat well tonight. He pictured his beloved Isabel at home preparing a salad using vegetables fresh from their garden, and perhaps roasting some potatoes as well, and baking bread, which they would smother with goat cheese and butter. It would be a feast—a handsome reward for a good day of work.

As he rowed back to the cove, the sun began to dip towards the west; and its golden rays illuminated the peaks of the island at the eastern horizon, far over his left shoulder. He stopped rowing and watched as the sunlight bathed the mountains, illuminating their snowy tops and turning them pink. Was it one mountain or three? It was difficult to discern. There were certainly three distinct peaks, so it must be three. Although they all seemed to share the same base, so perhaps it was one. Ah, no matter. One or three, it was beautiful and glorious to behold.

As the sun finally dipped below the western horizon, Pieter pulled into the cove, and minutes later the sound of land ground against the bottom of his boat. He jumped out and pulled it onto the shore. Grabbing the bucket of seafood, he walked up the trail to the house. The air was cool and getting chilly. Birds chirped from the trees, which had all become silhouettes against the darkening sky. The warm light spilling from the windows and the sight and smell of smoke coming from the chimney welcomed him home. And once inside, he embraced his greatest love and commented upon how beautiful she had become.

“I think you became more beautiful than you were when I left you this morning,” he exclaimed. “What did you do to yourself?”

Isabel smiled and laughed, “You old fool. It’s just your eyes, you’re just blinder than you were this morning.”

They both laughed, and Pieter took the bucket out to the shed to prepare the fish and crab for dinner. Isabel put another log in the stove and continued to stir the soup she had prepared. During their supper they shared stories from their day.

“You know, those mountains to the east, I’ve never gone there. I was looking at them today and they are really pretty. I think I’d like to head over there and see them up close.”

“You mean those hills? Hardly mountains. Oh, don’t be silly. That is at least ten miles away. Too far for you to row.”

“You’re probably right. But they look so nice. I can’t believe I’ve never gone over there. In all my life.”

“You should have gone before. You’re old now, old man. Too old. You lost your chance. It’s too far to go now,” Isabel answered.

“You’re probably right. Ten miles you think? That’d take a good part of the day just to get over there. Probably would have to spend the night. Probably take some blankets…some food. Ten miles isn’t that far,” Pieter reasoned.

“What are you blabbering about? You’re aren’t going over there. I can’t afford to lose you. You’d kill yourself trying to get all the way over there,” Isabel responded.

“Yeah, you’re probably right….You should go with me!” Pieter exclaimed.

“What?! You want to kill me too?” Isabel retorted.

They both laughed and finished eating their dinner. Isabel had gone on to think about other things, while Pieter lingered, silently mulling over the details of a theoretical trip to the mountain. “Naw, she’s probably right. I’d probably kill myself.” He got up and cleaned the dishes and then returned to the table and rubbed his wife’s hands, which had become stiff with arthritis as the years had worn on. Once he got them reasonably limbered up, Isabel returned the favor and rubbed his back, which had grown hard and sore from years of rowing. Tired, they both prepared for bed and tucked in early, watching the glow from the stove as they fell off to sleep.

(to be continued)

~FS

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