When you know, you know.
I have only shot and killed one animal in my life. I was forty feet underwater, kicking my way through a magnificent kelp forest with a borrowed spearfishing gun propped on my shoulder. I didn’t know if I would pull the trigger, but when a silky smooth kelp bass came into view, I gave a slight twitch and saw the fish jump imperceptibly as the spear pierced its throat.
Adrenaline rushed through my veins as I reeled in the string that attached the spear to the gun. The fish struggled to get away, but I had shot it clean through, and within seconds, I was hugging it to my chest.
I burst to the surface and looked around for the friends who had coaxed me to come on this southern California adventure. They were still underwater so I swam towards the chase boat and dumped my gear — including the fish — inside.
My heart was pounding as I watched the colors fade from the fish’s beautiful scales.
When everyone else returned to the boat with fish of their own, we headed back to the much bigger boat where we were all living and working as crew. We showed off our catch and I was elated to be one of the gang that had provided dinner that evening.
Just as I was handing the fish off to the cook, my friend Carter took me aside and showed me a little canvas bag of paints.
“Make a print,” he urged me.
I didn’t know what he meant, but he showed me how to pat the fish dry and then coat it with layers of paint. We found an old ripped sail from the ship and cut off a strip which I then pressed onto the paint covered fish. It wouldn’t win any awards for artistry, but I liked how the detail of the fins and scales came through so clearly.
At the time, the other thing that made my heart pound was thinking about someone that I had met on a different boat the previous year. His name was Jared and we had spent the last few seasons exchanging letters and infrequent phone calls. After we met in New York City, I moved to sunny California while he headed up to dreary Michigan for a year.
Like an old time sailor in the Navy, I was giddy with excitement when we came into port each Friday and the shore crew would bring us our mail.
I was planning to visit him at the end of my sailing season. For several weeks, I had been trying to think of the perfect gift to bring. As I admired my fish print, on grimy fabric and dotted with blood and scales, I knew my search was over.
What I didn’t know was that more than two thousand miles away, Jared was engaged in his own search for the perfect gift.
We were both fans of reading about polar exploration, and I would often wax poetic about Ernest Shackleton. You’ve probably come across him at some point — he was the guy whose ship was frozen into the Antarctic sea ice and he lived on penguin meat and bits of chocolate with his entire crew until they were able to go on a daring rescue mission which saved everyone’s life.
He wrote a book about it called South, which I highly recommend, especially if you are trying to get someone to fall in love with you and need something to talk about.
One of the threads in the book that I found so intriguing and tragic was when the ship was lost, the crew had a whole bunch of dogs with them. They loved the dogs and even enjoyed a couple of litters of puppies while they were all struggling to survive in the terrible Antarctic weather conditions.
When food got too scarce, the dogs were killed — but not eaten by the crew, as is sometimes thought.
There was a photographer on board for the entire journey, and he took lots of photos of the dogs. They were portraits that look almost formal. The dogs were big, doggy looking dogs. Not like your labradoodles or cockapoos of today. Big noses, big eyes, shaggy heads, long tails. Real dogs. I had seen the photos in the middle of the paperback copy of the book that I found in a free bin, and I would stare at them and wonder what their lives had been like.
Although I loved sailing, my plan was to stop living on a boat and to start going to grad school. I rented a tiny cottage on a small New Hampshire lake near my school. I was planning to fly to Michigan to visit Jared, and then together we would drive east where he would help me move in before traveling to Vermont where he would work as a ski patroller for the winter.
With this in mind, Jared wanted to find a gift that would help me spruce up my cottage. Fifteen years later, I can’t remember all the details, but his search started at the library and led to emails, phone calls, dead ends, false starts and eventually to the Australian National Archives.
He was looking for large, poster-sized photos of the dogs. There are lots of images you can call up on Amazon and order for 14.99. These are not those kinds of images. After an arduous search, he ended up speaking with a woman who explained that the only way to get the type of images he was looking for was to have them made from the original negatives which were stored underground.
Somehow they negotiated a price and worked out shipping details so that when I arrived for my visit, he gave me two large photos of my favorite dogs, along with a handwritten note from the woman who had processed them for him.
One is Lupoid who has a thoughtful, questioning gaze and looks a little like a light colored German Sheppard. The other is Shakespeare, who looks loyal and calm and might be some kind of St. Bernard mix.
After I gushed over the gift, it was my turn to impress him. I handed him a grubby roll of fabric and watched him untie and unroll it. The message I wrote along the bottom was a gamble. I had neatly printed:
My one and only for my one and only.
It turns out I was right. That was nearly fifteen years ago and I haven’t shot and killed anything or fallen in love with anyone else since.
We framed the dogs and we mounted framed the fish print. Though we’ve moved several times, we always find space on the wall for the dead dogs and dead fish that brought us together.