When a baby was born in the village, the fishermen were quick to name a godfather. And for as long as anyone could remember, it was Oscar. He was every child’s godfather born over the last 50 years. Oscar was a silent man, with a weathered silence that comes from living and dying on the sea, a lifetime of fishing seasons— good and bad. He was a strong man, if not a little mysterious, some thought.
When a baby girl was born to the Aleut daughter-in-law and son of the old Swede, the family named Oscar as her godfather. The old Swede, big Ed, was a friend of Oscars’ in their early days. It was Ed who followed Oscar out in a storm to hunt for Oscars’ son. Oscars’ son, lost at sea. 40 years past.
Slipping two bottles of beer into his worn wool coast, big Ed painfully walked through town down to the water’s edge to find Oscar.
Oscar saw the old Swede come up over the steep cliff and smiled.
“I thought you could use a hand with those nets..."
And so they sat near the shore drinking bottles of beer and watching the waves break over the rocky beachhead, talking of nothing and understanding each other perfectly.
“That s.o.b. doctor was so drunk it took Emil and me both to drag him out of bed and hold him up in the cold shower. Couldn’t sober him up! -and what do you know, the baby didn’t want his help anyway! That’s the way it should be, Ed."
The old Swede was dying. But it seemed like a small thing as he sat with to a man whose son was gone. A son he could only talk to in his prayers. His body never washed ashore. Wordless— as only fisherman can be, they scanned the sea, and the sky wondering what lay in store for them tomorrow.
The sun was sinking under the horizon and the tides went out as they picked up the nets and walked home to their suppers.
It had been a poor fishing season, like the last and the one before that. But the morning dawned full and fair weathered. It was a dangerous time, the lull between summer and fall fishing. Hard gale winds blowing in from the Baltic and lightning across the Gulf of Alaska could curse a crew with certain death or bless their tug with a belly full of fish.
“You can almost smell winter in the air,” they would say to each other, chugging out into deep icy waters.
The little fleet formed a flotilla and headed out to test their luck. They did not fear drowning as much as they feared starvation.
“A little under the weather Oscar? This will pick you up!” Big Ed had brought his old friend a loaf of his wives’ sourdough bread and some rosehip tea.
“A little,” Oscar answered setting out a can of butter next to his friend.
Ed sat at the wooden table in the tiny kitchen filled with Wilma’s pots and cake pans. Oscar’s wife had died the Christmas his son was lost at sea. After that it seemed that Oscar lived on coffee and cigarettes, pilot bread, dried fish and an occasional bottle of beer.
Big Ed pulled a pocket knife from his jacket, and wiping the blade on his pant leg, cut two big pieces from the warm loaf. Oscar sat and stared out his window— down, down across the zig zaged rows of rickety ramshackle houses, down, past the rusty cannery— down to the rocky shoreline.
“The clouds are moving in,” Big Ed raised his head, looking at nothing in particular.
“I hear the winds…”
Big Ed and Oscar ate their bread and drank two cups of black coffee each. Oscar stood up. He looked at his old friend square in the face.
“Thank you Ed.”
Ed looked at the coffee grounds in his chipped cup.
“Tomorrow’s the baptism. Sunday. Noon. They are going to call her Wilma.”
Oscar smiled. When Ed looked up he was gone.
Midnight. The fleet had not returned and the fishermen’s wives began to gather at Zenia's— big Ed’s wife— house. There was coffee and Russian tea, a few cans of salmon and salt bread put out to eat. By one o’clock the fleet had still not returned, the same by three, then four.
The hurricane-force gale winds had flattened the few trees surrounding the little fishing village, scattering them like broken dolls. Then the fog rolled in thick and sharp, like the breath of a monster from the bottom of the sea. More than once the fishermen’s wives heard their husbands swear they had seen the creatures.
The women spoke quietly, if at all. Some knit while others absent mindedly played cards or cradled crying babies.
“I’m going down to the dock and the signal house.”
The women looked on expectantly as big Ed buttoned up his jacket and pulled on his hat and heavy rubber boots.
“Come help me get out the door,” When Big Ed opened the door, the women formed a barricade behind it.
“Hold steady!” big Ed hollered, stepping out into the black howling winds. The strength of the gusts took the old Swede by surprise— like a hard hit to the head. Big Ed’s fisherman boots were no match for the rain-turned-ice on the broken boardwalk that snaked down to the little harbor. Tripping over a wobbly railing, he slid halfway to the shoreline, landing face down on a rocky sand bar.
“The wind’s not the worst of it,” Ed thought as he tried to move his leg.
One by one the fishermen’s little tugs were hauled in. One by one they reached home and the arms of their wives and children— who were praying and waiting for their return. All were now safe and sung, all but one, that is.
“It was Oscar who found us, after he towed the last boat in we lost sight of him. That’s when we found Big Ed.”
Big Ed had come to the next day, in bed with a set leg.
“The baptism is noon Sunday,” were his only words.
The fishermen and their wives and children gathered in the tiny hand hued church erected on the little bench above the village for the baptism. They had no priest; they honored what mattered to them by gathering together and sharing a few good words. Weddings. Baptisms. Burials. Fisherman lived by simple luck, what others called faith.
Leaning on one crutch, Big Ed limped his way up to the front of the room. He scooped up the baby, and buttoning her up in his old wool coat.
“I told Oscar, the baptism was noon Sunday.”
Big Ed made his way out of the church down the boardwalk to the docks, followed by the rest of the village. Stopping at the shores edge he stood and watched the tide come in. Raising the baby up in his arms towards the sky, he turned to the little crowd.
“Wilma, I baptize you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost,” then gently dipping her in the waves of sea foam, he turned back towards the sea.
“Here is your Goddaughter, Oscar: Wilma.”
The fisherman and the families were making their way back home when a boy who was lagging behind came running, shouting and waving a broken piece of wood— washed up and ripped from Oscar’s tug by the storm— on it painted in big black letters The Godfather. And the only sound was the sound of the waves crashing to shore and a few shrill cries of gulls, as everyone bowed their heads.
M.J. Cleghorn, of Athabaskan and Eyak heritage, lives and writes near the banks of the Matanuska river in the Palmer Butte, Alaska, where the moose, wild dog~ roses and salmonberries provide unending joy and inspiration.