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Tonight Is For Breathing

The water taxi moves slowly through the marina. The captain takes care to keep his wake small until he’s clear of the breakwater that protects boats at rest from the ocean swells that roll in from the Pacific, down the Strait of Juan De Fuca and into Burrows’ Bay. Warm wind, salty from the low tide, blows gently across her face, stirring the strands of blonde hair she lets fall from her old baseball cap. A spotted gray harbor seal warms himself on a dock. He slips, without a splash, into the green water as the boat moves past.

This boat carries people and supplies to islands not served by the big car ferries. It carries them to remote beaches, campsites and cabins far out of cell phone coverage, far from the city glow that dims that stars at night.

I know her. She sits alone in the bow, outside the cabin that houses the captain and the passengers. She’s surrounded by the luggage of weekend islanders. Backpacks, tents, groceries, and it all seems like it’s going to bury her as the twin sterndrives power up and raise the bow to a plane. She reaches for her hat, turning the bill to the back to keep it from blowing away. She smiles.

It’s summer and the air is warm but a little cooler over the water, so she zips her jacket tight to her neck. The sea reflects a thousand shades of blue and green. Flat patches of upwelling water meet incoming tides in a violent collision of whirlpools and whitecaps, but the big aluminum boat cuts through them with ease as it turns north to cross the shipping lanes.

The wind, the spray of the wake, the twin engines –they’re loud and it’s all she can hear. She looks down at her backpack, wet with saltwater spray and stacked with the others. What did I bring? she wonders. I don’t remember packing. What did I bring? She looks out across the strait toward the islands. It doesn’t matter.

Ten thousand years ago, glaciers pushed down from the north and shaped the hard rock into mountains and valleys. As the oceans rose the mountains became islands and the valleys long deep channels, or so he had told her. As the boat moves across the surface of one of those channels, what lay beneath must be cold, green and deeper than imagination, she thinks. In this way, her thoughts drift as the boat crosses open water. They drift until the moment she catches sight of the shoreline.

Ahead, waves break against broken gray cliffs as dry tan grass pours over their tops in places reaching like an arm and hand straining to touch the ocean. Behind the grass, a thick forest of western hemlock and douglas-fir covers the island like a blanket. Here and there, tangled madrona trees cling to places where greener trees can’t grow, their red-bark peeling like sun-burnt skin. As the boat moves from open water into these islands, ragged shorelines reveal secluded beaches, coves and cabins otherwise hidden from sight. Here, she thinks, it would never find me.

Close to the shore, along the leeward side of a tall island, the captain finds calmer water. The boat gets the attention of a pair of black tail deer, grazing on a steep shale slope that falls away into the swift current. Heads up, ears cupped, their tails flick warnings to each other, while further down the shoreline, in the top of a dry old crag, an eagle, white head above her brown body, surveys her kingdom. With annoyance she takes flight as the boat trespasses across her fishing grounds.

I know her. I know she feels the salt air fill her lungs, in and out. In and out, just like the eagle she watches fly effortlessly over the waves. And she, like the eagle, is beautiful and aware.

The boat passes a group of sea kayaks, yellow and orange against the blue and green swells, then a couple day-boats trolling for salmon. The captain throttles back the engines, a polite gesture to fellow mariners, but the water taxi is soon at full speed moving toward to its destination as the wind blows strands of blonde hair across her smile.

Finally, the captain approaches a small island, rounds a point and turns into the deep cove. He throttles back and aims for a low pebble beach -the one sheltered between two rocky cliffs, where sun bleached driftwood logs lay across each other and campfire smoke drifts out over the water. High above this beach, in the tan grass, she sees him, standing next to the yellow tent.

Soon, she imagines, they will sit together on a blanket, her back against a driftwood log, the warmth of the campfire on her bare legs while pebbles cool her toes. He will hand her a cup of wine and, never, she will think, has there been a more elegant glass than this old aluminum camping cup. And as she sees, hears, tastes and touches all of this, the boat slides with a crunch onto the beach. She has arrived.

She knows that he’s ached to talk with her. Talk with her about everything. Ached to close the space. It has never been this long before. But I know her. I pour the wine that needs to flow through her lips, over her tongue and into her fingers and toes. I know that tonight those waves need to wash through the months, the way they washed through a million pebbles in perfect rhythm, one wave after another since forever before, as they will forever after. I know that as the campfire sends embers up to live in the stillness of a billion stars, older even than the pebbles that were once mighty rocks now humbled by the waves, that tonight she, like the rising embers, needs to join in that stillness. I know her. So tonight, my words are spare.

There will be days to talk about travel, time, the ocean and the stars. There will be nights to talk about the space and her journey. But tonight is for breathing.

And so she listens to those waves, in and out with the cadence that's marked the ages and she lets them sing her to sleep. Her breath will match their ancient rhythm as she moves into her dreams. Dreams in lightness and stillness.

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