Grandpa and I were walking into the village under a splendid azure summer sky, dotted with a few fat white clouds. We had been out fishing all day long, working hand in hand, mostly in harmonious silence. I had gone out on his boat with Grandpa for years and knew almost anything he could teach me about herring and sardine fishing or about navigating and maintaining a boat.
After unloading the day's considerable haul at the fish market, we took a detour via Jeremiah Smith's grocery store. Jem was an old friend of Grandpa's. Today he had received a delivery of fine potatoes from Aroostook County, and we were supposed to pick up a nice big sack for Grandma.
I got along well with Jem. Like Grandpa, he had always treated me like a proper person, not like a child who was ordered to listen and obey and had no right to be heard.
"How's things, young man?" he asked me. "I hear you've been through a bad bout of the flu. And at that time of year, too."
"I really had it bad, but I'm quite fine again. Thanks for asking, though. How's your knee?"
"Gives me aches and pains whenever the weather changes, as it always does. Nothing new there. But John, I heard you had a rare visitor recently? Fair Alice paid a call to her old home? Martha saw her on her way to the station when she was in town."
Grandpa pushed back his cap, scratching his head, and pulled it back in place with a grimace. "She's turned into a lady, Alice has. She's no fisherman's girl any more. Doesn't belong here. Couldn't get back to her doctor fast enough as soon as Mick was doing better."
Jem nodded gravely. "Well, John, ain't much you can do about it, huh?"
"Nothing at all. I don't begrudge her that good life she leads, but I wish she'd not gone so far away from home. And from her roots."
"But the young one, he's a chip off the old block, isn't he? He's a Mainer born and bred, even if he's not living here all the time. You gonna take over your grandpa's boat some day, Mick?"
"Absolutely!" I blurted out, and both men laughed.
"That's my lad", Grandpa said proudly, patted me on the shoulder and added, "Jem, now give me these potatoes. I've got some repairs to do at home, and Mary's gonna give me hell if I'm home too late to do anything but have dinner. Say hello to Martha for us."
Jem dragged a large sack from behind his counter. I volunteered to pick it up, but Grandpa hoisted it up on his own shoulders and said, "You can carry those nets, lad. Don't overexert yourself just yet." His tone was gruff, but the softness in his eyes spoke of genuine concern.
"Thanks for the spuds, Jem. See you."
As usual, we didn't talk a lot on our way home. Grandpa was panting a little under his load, and when I looked at him, I realized for the first time how he had aged. He was nearing seventy, and it began to show. I hoped he would be around for a long time, but I knew I couldn't take his presence for granted any more.
It didn't feel right to let him carry the heavy potatoes while I just had a few nets that needed mending tucked under my arm in a disorderly ball. "Are you sure I shouldn't carry that?" I inquired again.
"You take care of yourself, lad. You heard what the doctor said – fresh air and exercise are fine, but no exertion. We don't want you to have a relapse, do we? You know I'm not the worrying kind, but that was scary when your fever wouldn't go down and you'd do nothing but sleep."
I didn't comment on that, a little embarrassed at this unusual show of emotion. We remained silent until we arrived home. Grandma was delighted to see what we had brought along. While Grandpa filled her in on our day, I wandered off towards the narrow lane leading to the shore, where I sat down on a rock, legs loosely crossed, inhaling the fresh air tinged with salt, absent-mindedly fingering the little groove above my lip that was still sensitive to the touch.
It felt good to take deep breaths again without a sharp sting of pain in my chest. The doctor said I had been lucky not to develop pneumonia after my hour-long hike through the rain and cold.
"You're one tough cookie", Grandpa had said with a half admiring, half rueful smile after I had told him the whole story about my journey to Maine once I felt up to it. "You've got your mom's stubbornness and your father's stamina and strength. I can't help being a little proud of you for having the balls to really go through with that runaway thing, making your way here in the rain. Oh yes, I know, your mother would happily strangle me for saying that." He had laughed raucously, and I had grinned for the first time in what felt like weeks.
Now I was looking towards the near future with mixed feelings.
When it had been clear that I wouldn't recover in time to go back to Missouri before the school year ended, Mom had grudgingly agreed to let me stay right on until the end of the summer holidays. In return, Grandpa had summoned all his powers of persuasion until I had grudgingly agreed to endure that one last year in school.
"If you do want to become a fisherman, I want you to be an educated one", he had said with a wink. "I've always had trouble with the bookkeeping because I only went to school for five years. I want you to do better than me in this one respect." When I had begun to protest, he had added with twinkling eyes, "And besides, all that poetry you learn in school may help you win the heart of your girl one day."
I couldn't help smiling at the memory of that moment, even if I still disliked the thought of having to go back to the Midwest. At least it would only be for a while. I remembered how he had once, on a walk a long time ago, advised me to subside with regard to smaller things in order to get what was truly important to me.
And at least I had had my little moment of victory.
Before Mom left town, I had made it quite clear that I was indeed serious in wanting to follow in Grandpa's footsteps instead of attending college. Shedding some tears for the newly shattered dream of her son graduating from university, she had eventually grasped that I would not change my mind.
"I can't say I'm very pleased with that", she had said in a choked voice, wiping her eyes, "but I guess I will have to accept your choice."
This had been more than I had expected, actually.
I got up and climbed down the path hewn into the rock face to the sandy cove below, stretching out on the warm sand.
Some seagulls were circling above me. I watched them a little enviously as they rode on the breeze, twisted and turned in the wind, swooped up and down in elegant ease, the epitome of freedom that made me feel like a caged bird straining against the bars that imprisoned him. It might be a golden cage I had been forced into, but a cage nevertheless.
In a year's time, I would be free, too. I swore to myself I would never let anyone put me into a cage again. Golden or not.