The dock squeaking and rubbing against the posts, straining against the lapping of the water of Superior, sent an itching over her skin. Setting the fishnet on the boat shed floor, Francis pulled back the right corner and stretched it out flat and neat until each hole was the Roy way liked it. Was I really going to do it?, she thought. The voice in her head sounded flat and tired. It sent tiny icicles poking on her spine. As she weighted down each corner of the net, she thought about how she’d sneak out the bedroom when Roy was grinding his teeth and making that popping sound with his jaw. She could picture herself crawling out of the basement window and rushing to the highway as quiet as a dead minnow floating to shore. Then she’d run. She’d run fast and never stop. When Roy says that sometimes I’m wild with the spirit of a November gale, he’s right, she thought to herself. Those aren’t just words, they’re true.
Working the nets and feeding the men made her muscles fight each other and put her brain to sleep. When winter came, and the fishing slowed, her life filled with endless moments of shade and ice. There was no one to talk to for miles. Frances dreaded those endless hours of looking out the kitchen window as she dried the supper dishes. She’d look out on the lake, and watch the snow as it all rolled up into little lumps against the rocks along the shore. She’d stare for hours as it piled up, the lumps looking like the backs of white rabbits hunched over with their tails pointing at her. You don’t even get to see their faces to keep you company,. You just get to see their tales. It’s like they can’t stand to look at you either.
The lake was different in the summer. It was blue and had foam floating on it, like it was trying to scrub the winter out of its belly. Sometimes Frances wanted to walk out into the lake and see how long it would take for her to get to the middle of it. She imagined herself holding her breath and strolling on the bottom, just as casual as a summer night, and when she’d get to the middle she’d sit down and rest. She’d play with the herring and tell them where Roy had set his nets so they’d stay away. Their eyes would be shiny like those little beads she remembered seeing on her mama’s church necklace. Their skin would be sparkly like the jewels that the movie stars wore. She loved looking at the fish when they first came from the net. They were fresh and full of color, and when the sun and sky bounced off their fins and tails they were like real art, the kind you see in a museum. But it changed while they were cleaning them in the herring house, after they’d been out of the water for a while; they seemed to lose all their color. It was like they were more than dead. It was like they were hollow.
Stretching the net flat, she was thinking about Roy too. It’s not as if they had a real hearts and flowers type of marriage. She didn’t love him. They’d gotten together because he needed a woman and she needed to get away from her dad and the boys. She was older now and smarter too. She was ready to go. She’d packed a brown paper sack from Greeger’s Grocery. Frances had packed underwear and her bible. She had carefully wrapped them in her mother’s green silk scarf so she wouldn’t forget it. She had all she needed. Frances was ready to sneak out the basement window right at midnight. That’s when the big trucks came rumbling down the road. Those men were always making their eyebrows wave at her, so she knew she could hook up with on of them. She might have to promise them some fun, but it couldn’t be any worse than having Roy bouncing up and down on her.
The sun was hitting the window of the shed just above the crack in the glass so she knew that it was about 10:00 a.m. She needed to hurry across the yard to the house to fix coffee. Roy and the men were really good about coming in and having coffee right at 10 o’clock every morning. He called this one of his rituals. One day she asked him what he meant by that. He spelled it out real slow for her like she was a small child, “R-I-T-U-A-L.” then he said “Lil Bait”, because that was his nickname for her, “it means—well—like a ceremony.”
“Like in church?” she asked.
“Yeah, I guess.” he said and then he laughed the way he did when he wanted her to know how dumb she was. Ever since that day she had been extra fussy about making his coffee and had even stopped spitting in the grounds. Not because she cared what he was drinking, but she figured if it was a ritual then God and her mother must be watching from above.
She stepped over the net and went outside. The air was cold and full of the damp promise of snow. Closing the door behind her, she saw Roy and the men coming up from the boathouse. It was too foggy to go out on the tug, but he and the men were down working on the boat and messing with its engine. She scurried across the yard and into the house, but it was too late. Roy had seen her and was already yelling.
He walked towards her waving his big fat tootsie roll finger at her, his rubber boots slapping against the newly formed mix of dirt and fresh down-like snow. He suddenly stopped and let the men catch up to him. Shaking his head from side to side he quietly mumbled words to them that Frances couldn’t hear. Words that washed up against her like tiny gravel.
As soon as she was in the kitchen, she started to pump the water hard and fast so she could get the coffee on the stove. Roy and the men were in the entryway taking off their Red Wings and stomping around like wild moose, their voices getting louder and louder, like they were competing in some sort of game. Frances was mad. Not at Roy, but at herself for not watching the time. Now she’d be trapped in the kitchen with those big old beasts. She’d have to watch them eating left over biscuits and butter; their mouths pumping up and down like pistons, sputtering crumbs everywhere as they talked.
She was putting the morning biscuits on the pan to warm when the door flew open. As they crushed through the entry, they were laughing and talking about something Bergsy had said down on the dock. From the corner of her eye, she saw two of them make motions with their hand and point at her. Roy yelled some filth at them and told them to settle down. They did as he said for a second or two, but it didn’t take long for them to start-up their moose calls again. Each one of them, though they looked the same to Frances, seemed to call out differently, creating a chorus that reminded her of the cattle lowing back at her daddy’s farm.
She put the biscuits in the oven and held her hands over the stove. Little streams of smoke were leaking out the top plate and it smelled like she was buried inside an old pine tree. She closed her eyes and started thinking about those fish sitting at the bottom of Superior waiting for her to visit. She pictured herself swimming around with them, sleek and shiny as they could be. They were dancing in and out of her hair while it floated around her face, and she was feeding them tiny bits of bread dough as they dipped and spun around her body.
Frances felt a pain on the side of her right hand. “Son of a bitch.” The words fell out of her like hot steam and she realized that she had let her hand fall to the stove top. The room was quiet. The sound of no noise startled her as much as the sound of Roy’s men eating. She stood over the stove holding her burnt hand in her good one.
“Lil’ Bait, where did you learn that?” The men started howling again as Roy pushed his chair back, the legs of it screaming against the linoleum, and he came to the stove. “Let me see it. ” He grabbed her hand in his, the big rough calluses scrapped against the burn lightly and Frances cringed. “Now don’t make a fuss, it doesn’t look like too much, just go pump some cold water on it you’ll be fine.” He slapped her ass with the back of his hand, grabbed the coffee pot, and went back to the table.
“She’s got a nice one there Roy, yes she does. That’ll keep a man warm at night, eh.” Roy shrugged and poured a cup for himself as some of the men laughed and some puckered their lips together and made those squeaking kissing noises.
“Yeah well, what good is she to me burned.” his eyes followed her over to the sink, but Frances barely noticed him or heard the laughter and talk. She was pumping water as fast as she could over the burn on her hand, cool water slowly taking the sting from her skin. She pumped harder and harder and the water came out of the faucet faster and colder. As cool as her hand was becoming, she felt the rest of her body warming, almost sweating like late July. Every muscle in her body seemed to be bouncing as she pumped the water over her hand and into the sink. She could hear her name being called, but she ignored it each time, letting the coolness heal the pain. Finally she smelled the bitter smell of burning.
Frances looked towards the stove and saw Bergsy standing over the open oven door holding the tray of charred biscuits. As she reached for a towel to dry her hands, Roy jumped up from his chair and she felt his hand curl around her upper arm. As she spun towards him, the sound of words and mooing and bellowing all mixed together like a spring thunderstorm at sunset. Her heartbeat was fast and electrifying, but all she could do was stare at the buttons on his flannel shirt.
Words filtered in to her head. Words like LOOK and ME, but she couldn’t stop looking at his shirt. The smell of oil, fish and burnt flour filled her nose. She was breathing heavy. She didn’t know why. It was exciting. Like the first time she’d been with a man. More words came to her. DUMB LIKE YOUR MAMA knocked on her brain. She felt her right hand tighten around something boney. Maybe it was a piece of bait. Roy was screaming. She looked for her hand and it was holding Roy’s hand, the one on her arm. All five of her nails were buried into his flesh like little hooks, blood trickling around her nails, She closed her eyes and suddenly felt cool again.
When she opened her eyes she was spread out on the floor next to the slop bucket.Roy was standing over her and the men were looking straight at her and then back at Roy. Each carried a different look on his face. Some looked scared, like they knew what it was like to be on the floor looking up at Roy. A couple of the men seemed to squirm in their chairs like they were watching Roy land a six pound fish, and some stomped their feet and clapped their hands like they were at a barn dance.
Roy pulled the pan from Bergsy’s hand, and dumped seven burnt biscuits on top of Frances. He was screaming at her about not paying attention. She reached for one of those hot scorched biscuits so she could throw it at him, but he bent down real low and grabbed hold of her shoulders and shook her entire body like an old bathroom rug. Roy told her how stupid she was and how bad she was at keeping house. He took her face and forced it too look at the floor. “Look at this mess.” Frances saw the burnt biscuits fall apart like small pieces of chum. They were soaking up water, water that had overflowed from the sink. Water she had been pumping furiously to cool the pain. Turning to his men, Roy sucked up some sort of power from their enthusiastic dance, but when he turned back to her his face had no expression. It was just his eyes, and they looked sad.
“Lil’ Bait, come here now.”
“No.” She could hear the words, but the sound wasn’t hers. It was the sound of a barred owl at sunset. “…and my name’s not Lil’ Bait, it’s Frances.”
She was starring Roy in the face now, sad eyes to sad eyes. Roy had been nasty before, but he’d never hit her. Oh he’d grabbed her and shook, but he’d never taken a swing at her. She was shaking on the inside, and having a hard time breathing. Her chest felt like it was tied down with a dog harness, the exhilaration gone. Pushing herself up on all fours, she brushed the dirt and swill off her dress and tried to walk outside. She made it through the entryway, around the boots, and out the door.
Roy didn’t follow her so she slid around the side of the house and sat on the old tree stump. She wondered if his was how the herring felt when they were trapped in the net with nowhere to go. No way to escape. Maybe that’s why their shiny black eyes lost their light. When Frances was little and her mom was sick, she’d told her the reason she’d named her Frances was that it meant free, and that being free and loving God was all the mattered. She remembered how her mom had looked when she was laying there in her bed, her silver hair shinning with layers of color and her hand on the bible. After all those years of dirt work and sadness, dying was all she had for an escape. Being free was all that mattered.
She knew then. Frances new that she’d have to run and she couldn’t wait until midnight. If she could get to the basement, she’d be able to get her paper bag and slip out the back when Roy was down on the dock. She ran around the west side of the house. The latch on the sitting room window had been broken for years. She knew how to push it in just right and slip in and out of the house real quiet. She’d done it hundreds of nights to walk in the woods. Sometimes she’d meet up with men. Sometimes she’d just sit alone. She even had her extra pair of walking shoes hid outside so she never tracked dirt in on the rug. Moving the window up slowly, she got it open just enough to push herself through it quickly. She crouched down low and laid flat on the green and blue carpet. Pushing her body forward until she got to the old rocker, she stopped and curled up in a ball behind it. Roy and the men were quieter now, and she watched as their feet moved around the kitchen. As they got ready to go back down to the dock, one by one they all put on their boots and left.
Roy was alone. Frances laid stock-still by the corner by his mama’s old rocking chair and waited for him to leave, but he must have heard her breathing. He came stomping into the sitting room calling out her name, but this time he was using her Christian name. “Frances, Frances!” She was frozen solid watching his big old boots mash the good rug down flat everywhere he stepped.
When the chair pulled back, she could see that the cuff of his pants needed mending again. He reached down and she closed her eyes tight, waiting for his big leather hand to come down square against her face. Instead, he picked her up by the wrists and set her down in the rocker. Frances saw spots of dried blood on his knuckles. Kneeling down next to her he began whispering to her in a shaky voice. He smelled of butter and diesel fuel. She could count every wrinkle around his left eye.
“Frances,” his voice was low and spongy. “ I know what I did in the kitchen was wrong, but you can’t act like you ain’t on the planet with the rest of us. Sometimes it seems like you don’t think you belong here. Like maybe you could do better. Like you’re waiting for a better time. A better man.” His tone became hard, like it was carting a big old anchor in it. “You won’t you know. Not you, I can tell you that. Your pa was glad when we hooked up. He said that since your ma had passed you’d been little or nothin’ but dead weight. That’s what he said. He said take her. Maybe she’ll learn to be a wife and if you’re lucky she’ll get some sons to help you on the boats.”
She started to feel like she was going to cry. She sucked in her cheeks tight and pinched them between her back teeth so she wouldn’t scream out. Roy got up and walked over to the window. He pushed the sash down hard and turned around to look at her. He stood in front of it and the first bit of noon sun broke through the snow clouds and came into the room. He was nothing more than a dark outline. His voice was like shaved ice.
“I’m not a dumb man. I can tell you’re plannin’ on runnin’ off with someone. I don’t know who, but I’ll know soon enough.” Frances looked down at her hands. She wasn’t runnin’ to another man. That wasn’t being free. Her stomach took on a feeling like she’d eaten too many mashed potatoes and she wanted to be sick. She knew it wasn’t worth tryin’ to fight. Not now. Not when an old man said he knew what was inside your heart and head. As Roy left the sitting room and slammed out the kitchen, Frances closed her eyes. She started seeing the silver herring, all shiny and with bits of pink in their fins. They were swimming past her. They were swimming around her. They were swimming through her like some sort of communion from God
When she opened her eyes the sun was lower in the west. The snow was starting to come down in big clumps. Almost like small doves flying to earth. She went outside, her feet mashing the snow and mud together. All the men were with Roy in the shed; folding the nets she’d mended that morning. Their backs were to the window and all Frances really saw were shadows of arms and heads twisting. She walked to the edge of the lake. Small mounds of snow were beginning to form on shore. Breathing deep, she felt the cold air fall to the bottom of her lungs as she stepped off the rocks, flattening the snowy lumps that were gathering along the edge with her toes she whispered, “Take that rabbits.” The water lapped past her ankles and then to her calves. Suddenly she was up to her knees in water and ice. The gray sunlight reflected off the snow as it hit the waves of Lake Superior. All she wanted was to be free like the herring. Swim in a solid school of sparkle and shine. Then she took a second breath, and as she held the air inside her, she began to feel the depths of freedom, shiny silvery freedom.