Wilder Fiction Prize Winner
By Kara Fortier
Donald Duck is dying.
Cancer, the doctor says. I can’t remember what kind. Marlene has cancer, too. It’s sad, yet strangely fitting that they have cancer together. Neither of them could have faced it alone.
Donald Duck’s real name is Don Snyder. He met me before I was born, but I didn’t know him very well back then. I was three when I awarded him his nickname. He thought it was the funniest thing in the world.
“What’s my name?” he’d crow. “What’s my name?”
“Donald Duck,” I’d say, and he’d laugh like the sun was going out.
Donald Duck’s laugh wasn’t a light cackle; it was a deep chuckle that came from the very bottom of his being, slowly at first, as if he had to think about what he was going to say. “Ha, ha, ha,” every syllable pronounced separately and given equal weight and importance. It lasted forever and made you feel like you were the only person in the world worth laughing over, the only person worth listening to. When Donald Duck laughed, time stood still and rushed forward, squeezing decades into breaths. I’d listen to him and think I knew how to spell laughter.
Donald Duck was taller than Dad—six-three or six-four, inhumanly tall to a toddler. That is what I first learned of Donald Duck: his height and his kindness. And, of course, his voice.
Donald Duck had the best voice in the world. It was as tall as he was. You could listen to it all day and never get bored, never once be tempted to interrupt it. It sounded like honey and sunshine, and a little bit like the inside of a Crunchie bar, all crackly and sweet. It was what I imagined the sailors from my books sounded like. Donald Duck’s voice told the best stories, and I always listened as if my life depended on them.
Sometimes it did. Other times I just liked to hear that voice.
The only thing I loved more than Donald Duck’s voice was Donald Duck’s boat. The Sandpiper. The best bird on the shore, and the best boat in the sea. You could get everywhere that mattered in a boat, and the Sandpiper took us there. The whole of history happened on its bow, in a series of spirited reenactments that transpired while our parents were diving. We were privateers attacking a Spanish galleon; we were sixteenth-century merchants seeking riches in India; we were frozen sailors searching in vain for the Northwest Passage. The Sandpiper was a whaler and a schooner and a nuclear submarine all at once, and Donald Duck was always its captain.
When our parents came back, we would race to the stern and stand on the dive platform, toes gripping the edge, to throw the guts from Dad’s latest filet to the seagulls. When the fish guts ran out, we raked the water for comb jellies to appease the ravenous birds. Dad said I used to think fish guts were gross, but I don’t remember ever being such a sissy. Probably my mother had thought they were gross, so I thought women were supposed to believe that.
But fish guts were never gross, and they never stank. They looked like flat rocks washed with the blood of necessity and they smelled of childhood.
After the diving and the bird feeding we would head in to the dock, more slowly than we had left it. Don and Marlene liked to eat at the Galley, where you had to have socks and they had the best desserts in the world. Only people from the Navy were allowed, and a big sign above the door read, “No Shower Shoes.” Donald Duck was in the Navy once, but he doesn’t talk about it anymore. I wanted to be in the Navy someday, too.
I didn’t wear shoes in the shower, but I guessed that old people like Don and Marlene must. We never showered after diving. Instead, we dragged the sea in with us, picking off the worst of the seaweed at the door and flaking dried salt into our meals. I don’t know why they worried about our socks.
Sometimes their friends would meet us there at the Galley, and they would talk about their farms and their children, and I always liked them. Donald Duck’s friends were always fun.
Kendra’s father killed a heifer and Julia-Anne had watched. I wanted to watch the next one, too, which would be on a Sunday, but Dad said no, it was too far a drive and you didn’t invite yourself over other people’s houses to watch their heifers get killed.
Every Fourth of July we spent with them, sitting for hours in a little square—Don’s and Marlene’s square, where they were allowed to bring as many people as they could fit. It was always crowded in the square, because Don and Marlene knew everybody there was to know, and the light shows on the water were better than fireworks.
When I was twelve, I finally became an adult. My certification came in the mail, a flimsy little card with dolphins on the front, and it seemed impossible the wonder that it held. My entire life I had waited for this card. On the back was all the information I’d ever need: my date of birth, my worldly status (Junior Open Water Diver), and my picture, in case I forgot.
Dad called Donald Duck and told him the great news. The Professional Association of Diving Instructors had approved my certification, and my name would appear on a list somewhere in the Maldives. That way, if I died, they would know who I was.
Donald Duck offered to take the Sandpiper out that weekend to celebrate. I liked that he would be there for my first dive. Marlene waited topside that day, possibly doing reenactments of old Navy battles on her own to pass the time. She had been told by the doctor that she was too old to dive anymore, so she tricked him into letting her do only the most dangerous dives instead. Everyone knew that when Don and Marlene stopped diving, they would die.
Sometimes Don and Marlene danced on the Sandpiper. There was no music but the wind whistling over the water and the gentle slap of waves on the hull. Don would sweep her up, his big hands closed around hers so gently you might mistake him for an angel if you weren’t careful. The rocking boat would have tumbled anyone more land-footed, but Don and Marlene were the king and queen of the Ocean State. That was all the dance floor they needed, and all the music, too. The only other thing they required was each other.
For me, Don’s and Marlene’s relationship was like the ocean. I could never really understand romance—children are so often cocooned in a different kind of love—but it looked to me like theirs was the deepest kind, the kind no one else can ever quite fathom. Like when you’re swimming at the surface without a mask, and all you can see below you is darkness. You know the place—you could locate every underwater boulder there, and the hideouts for all the best fluke and spider crabs—but just for a moment you don’t, because it feels so good to be lost.
The remarkable thing about the sea is that you don’t have to know where you’re going to recognize the beauty around you.
That was Don’s and Marlene’s love, and I treasured it more deeply than I understood it.
It was evening when we went to see them last. I have known Don and Marlene all my life, and I had never been to their house. We went in winter, after they got sick, to visit them just for the sake of visiting.
Or so we thought. We should have known that there is no visiting without diving, even if it is only in the stories.
Dad and Donald Duck told stories to the rest of us for hours. It was kind of funny, because they had done most of their diving together, and they kept interrupting each other with “Oh, was that the time you tried to pet the bristle worm?” or “You can’t get narced at eighty feet!” The stories always happened in the wrong order, with the punch line coming before the first person was done telling the story.
Then Donald Duck got out his new BC, the stupid kind where you risk drowning yourself if your buddy runs out of air, according to Dad. The arguing got so loud that I forgot we weren’t on a boat, but they were never truly angry. The only person my father never got mad at was Donald Duck. I realized then that, even though he was trying to sell us a piece of equipment that would probably kill us if we ever tried to use it, Dad trusted him with our lives more than he trusted himself.
He always had.
Donald Duck is dying, but he isn’t scared. It’s only cancer, he says, and you can dive with cancer. He’d like to die at the bottom of the sea, but he isn’t sure he’s going to get to. So he’s decided that’s where he’ll go afterward. It’s up to us to do it.
He’ll stand on the lovely, trusty Sandpiper, parked in Heaven’s Jamestown, and wait for Marlene. Then, when she’s on board, he’ll set out one final time to sea. I know they have boats in Heaven. If they didn’t, what would be the point?
I want to go to Jamestown when I die.