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30th May
posted by amber

In the Storm

The boss died in the storm, in the dark and noise and violent motion, but we gave his body to the sea in bright sun and deathly quiet and an ocean so still it might have been in some painting hanging on a parlor wall. And us in the middle of it in a boat so beat-up no one would ever paint its picture. The harsh light made those old grey boards look white, made our faces black.
We had all that fish on board. The engine was dead but the cooling unit still worked. We stood on deck, caught in concentric rings of echo from the sound the boss made when he hit the water, until the silence stretched beyond the horizon, then Raf said, “Gotta take parts from the cooler for the engine.”

Just the day before I would’ve argued with him, said not to lose our catch, try something else. Taken the boss’ side, like I always did. I hated the boss, but being as close as I am, or was, to having my own boat, I couldn’t help but see both sides. It pulled me, one way, then the other.

Now I was ready to let a month’s wages follow the boss over the side. Just to keep from having to ride out another storm with no engine.

When I was small I slept in a hammock. My big brothers invented this game – me in the hammock, like a bug in a cocoon, wrapped tight while they each took an end, swung me, spun me, dropped me so fast and dizzy, I didn’t know if I was down or up. Imagine that, only in a beat-up old boat that doesn’t wrap around you tight and safe. And imagine you start to think maybe your brothers want to kill you.

People assume sailors love the sea but we don’t – we only work there. Most of us don’t even know how to swim. But we keep going out on boats, not letting ourselves see how old and decrepit they are, how big and wild the sea can be.
It was Joe lost his nerve. None of us liked him much and if we’d been betting, we all would’ve bet he’d be the one to end up huddled in a locker, crying and muttering to himself, his eyes big and white every time one of us opened the door. So it was no surprise. What did surprise me was the way I – we all – felt so gentle toward him.

Six men on a boat and when you hire on with a boss like Gar, you know he’ll be in his cabin drinking rum half the time and yelling at you to work harder the rest of the time. He was the owner of the boat, but never knowledgeable enough in the ways of the sea for us to call him Captain.

Five men to work, and a good catch weighing just so much, each man has to pull something like three times his own weight. One man like Joe, one lazy man, one man who can never find a job to do except when it’s time to pull in the net, then he’s busy elsewhere and he doesn’t seem to hear you when you call, one man who tries to convince you he’s so bad you’d rather not have him cook or clean or fix net, you can really hate that man.

And because you hate him, when you sit around in the late evening, the sea invisible but present in its motion and smell and sound, when you’re on deck drinking rum and he comes up, suddenly the rum doesn’t taste as good, you don’t feel as drunk, there’s a guard on your easy conversation and easy affection. So if he sits down and accepts the mug of rum someone offers and grows easy in his conversation and seems to feel part of the affection that was there before he came, and tells stories of his childhood, so maybe you can see why he’s lazy, you can’t forgive him.

You don’t want to hear those stories, especially the way he tells them, as if he’s escaped that desperate life, an orphan raised by his aunt, her slave really, and no matter how hard he worked it never bought love or even an extra morsel at the crowded table or the friendship of the idle cousins he envied. He always ended the story with the words, “So at least I know how to work.”

How to avoid work is more like it but I guess we’ve forgiven him. We’re grateful to him for being the only one brave enough to show the terror we all felt. So we let him stay in the locker while we put the fish over the side, and Mak cooked beans and brought some to his hidey-hole. We worked half the night to fix the engine. When it was done, we warned Joe before we started her up and got underway.

This is the story which won Antigonish Review’s Sheldon Currie Fiction Prize in 2010. I’ll be publishing the entire story over 3 days.


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