Short Story: At Peace on the Water

John McDonnell was a fisherman. He rode the seas by day, slept atop them by night, trawled them the times between. John was mostly a one man show; did it all himself despite the workload required of a commercial fisherman of his station. But such was the way of the industry that a man did what he ought to earn his daily bread. For John, like most good, hearty Americans, that daily bread cost him hours ‘n hours of blood and sweat that dribbled periodically down his catfish-smooth back.

While trawling for whatever his nets could haul in, Martha was at home. Two boys and the life of an overworked school teacher meant, like John, she was under-appreciated, under-valued, and stuck in an industry as collapsed as his. Ever the homemaker and loving mother though, despite the collagen beaten thighs aching from hours on her feet. Each night she’d tuck the boys in, recalling stories John had told her. Stories she felt it her duty to impart to them. Told her, that was, on the rare nights he managed to make it home for supper instead of trying to procure it.

John had wanted to be a fisherman all of his life. He’d sit in school, drawing finely detailed sketches of the various species prowling the coasts and waterways of his childhood. He’d fill whole pages with specs of various rigs for boats and special fish. It was a pass-time. An obsession in the truest American tradition. All of those times he should’ve been focused on maths and sciences so he could “grow up and getta’ good job,” he was planning and learning his trade. When first he started to ply it, the middle finger he gave to dejectors gave him a hard-on. Martha would’ve enjoyed that thoroughly.

The first boat was an old one. Barely large enough to piss off. He spent more money repairing it from summer gigs than he’d ever earn with it. Between that and the oft-bags of ‘shrooms and grass aboard it, he was at peace with a lack of profit.

Cue Martha with comely good looks and dimpled cheeks. The bottles of Ole English Rye, John had taken to drinking. One hot night, and nine months later, there wasn’t much more he could do but provide for the twin boys that popped out.

That wasn’t to say John didn’t love his family. On the contrary, he was a family man through-and-through. Just like Pop’d been. And Grandad before him. Difference was, they’d made their livings as leather merchants or carpenters, back when those things were still valued. In that way, John had followed in their footsteps, found the thing he knew and was good at, and refused to do it for free– or anything else for that matter. That work was for land-lubbers though. The types that could sleep without scents of fish on ice or the sea-salt spray.

John just wasn’t quite the way about things most fellows were. He needed the water. Be it Pacific, Atlantic, or any rivers or streams between the two. He rode them all like a true man of his craft. It was all business until the lunch-time beer, then nothing more ’til the day’s the work was done. And when forced to sleep, the photo of Martha and the boys at his bedside got the nightly, longing look. Then the one of Martha naked got the nightly, stroking grunt. The light went out on his bed with a broad beamin’ on his grizzled face.

It was a bad May that John finally met his match. The season was just starting again. He’d only been out a week. The weather’d been fierce, but nothing the forty-footer couldn’t handle with John at the helm. Per usual for spring and summer, he’d hired on a few, part-time hands to help rake in the expected rush. The result was a near twenty-four hour done in twelve-hour two-man shifts. Only a pair of hands were there to tend the wheel or empty the nets at any given time.

The ocean swelled. The sky gave a thunderous roar. Squalls blew past island coasts far to the west and south. The season was geared to start with a bang. In the middle of it, John and his hands were slogging through knee-buckling waves while the forty-footer rode ‘em like a rag doll. By the end of their second full-day, they were all exhausted, their haul only half as intended.

Were he not chasing something in particular, maybe John wouldn’t’ve kept himself out so long. Maybe he’d’ve been satisfied with the first days’ bounty. Then again, maybe if he’d been that kind of man, he’d’ve never spent all those hours drawing fish or making charts. Never stepped on a boat. Never even dreamed of being John McDonnell, fisherman at sea.

But life’s funny that way, for both the fish and its most patient predator. It’s not quite a matter of maybes. Rather, it’s a matter of the soul. A sort’a passion that can only be appeased and rocked to sleep by the caress of water against the hull.

John and his hands were in a squall to beat the band. They all sensed it. When it finally happened, they almost welcomed it. Like John had said, though more sarcastically than not, he was doomed to end his life at sea. It made sure he was no liar.

The waves pitched and rolled him back. The trawler heaved and hoed. John sensed more than anything that the sea was fierce. Almost seemed as if he’d done something to anger her. Maybe it was his own foolishness. Maybe greed. Maybe poor, dumb luck. Whatever it was, there was no escape.

A final, forceful heave. The sea crashed from two directions. The keel groaned and flexed. Then, a loud crrrack. Fiberglass snapped. The hull tore open. The forty-footer began taking on water. It was over in moments. The trawler headed for the ocean floor, John with it. The last thing he saw before the air left his lungs and the life left his eyes, was the limp curl of a dead fish. It floated up past him in the aerated water, no doubt released from the trawler’s own depths.

As a fisherman’s wife Martha knew the fear and sorrow of missing husbands or partners. Even at the best of times, they lived a life of perpetual torment, terror. Ever on the precipice of tragedy and sorrow. None of them knew if or when their mates might make it home. Usually, they missed their scheduled returns by days anyhow.

Martha and the boys didn’t worry ’til then. It wasn’t long after that they knew she’d joined the ranks of widows whose only solace was that no man could be so cruel as to stay at sea so long.

John was one of those men. Lost to the sea. Lost to history. Nothing was left to find of him or the others. He’d spent his whole life wanting to be a fisherman, living as one, then dying as one. Even in his final moments when he felt the forty-footer shudder and begin to sink, he was at peace knowing that. After all, the water was his home, always had been. Now, it would be forever.

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Short Story: Captain Lesley Butler

Waves rose with fury. Wind whipped hard rain into a cyclonic torrent. The scent of sea-salts was all the more present from the river that surged over the trawler’s walls. The Sixty-foot tuna boat pitched and rolled with the ocean, nearly cap-sized with each tsunami-sized wave that the hurricane-force gales kicked up. At the bow of the trawler, Lesley Butler stood sentinel. Her feet were like cement bolted to the ship’s deck. She had an uncanny set of sea-legs that kept her sturdy no matter how angry the Sea-Gods had become with her.

For any of the ten-odd crew it was a curious sight to behold. Time and again, squalls would rise in the storm, crash against the hull with a force that should have dislodged her. Instead, she stayed still, gyroscopic feet and legs inching apart, around, or closer together mindlessly to stabilize against the maelstrom. The waves would crash with their fervor, spray Lesley, then deposit their left-overs at her feet and she wouldn’t bat an eye.

After a while, the ship would pitch, rise on a new plane, and the water would rush toward its stern. The automated pumps stationed around the ships’ perimeter worked double time to pump what water they could scoop as it passed, then pump it back out over the hull. Their occasional bursts of mechanics and jet-fired water were little more than an intermittent hum beneath the roar of wind, rain, and creaks of the hull.

For three days the storm had been on them. As if controlled by some, heretofore unseen deity that commanded it, it followed them no matter which direction Lesley ordered her First-Mate to sail. It had begun with a casual, light rain the first day, became a downpour of strong micro-bursts that grew into the tempest on them now. The crew were exhausted, Lesley among them– though none of the crew would have known it to look at her. All the same she manned her post at the bow.

The crew had been afforded the opportunity of sleep after the first night, but now it was two days that all aboard had gone without it. If it was possible, the crew was just as battered as the ship’s hull, each wave now a struggle to keep conscious and on their feet. Half were ready to tumble over the sides of the ship as they watched the pumps or worked to keep things tied down. Their bounty of two and a half tons of tuna made them all the more determined to keep the metal cases, ice chests, and various equipment tubs from being washed away.

It must have been somewhere around noon of the third day, no-one was sure anymore. The crew’s eyes were bloodshot, blurry from the incessant pummeling from salted sprays and heavy rain. There was only the faintest hint of the sun’s light through the insanity around the ship. As if stuck in a million-mile expanse of the worst hurricane ever seen, they could gain no purchase in an advance from its clutches. Whatever direction it was headed, it seemed to change with each new order from Lesley.

It was around nightfall of the third day that, to the entire crew’s surprise, Lesley broke from her days-long trance to mount the ship’s Bridge. She shoved her way in against the wind, forced her mate off the wheel. Then, with a fury to match that of the storm’s, she steered them into the waves. Her face was hard, her teeth grit and her jaw stiff, set against itself in determination.

The ship rose with a wave, then like a surfer, twisted atop its immense crest to ride it downward. There were cries from the men and women aboard. To state this was insanity was as much redundant as it was pointless; Lesley had the wheel now, and her will would be that of the ship’s way. No one could change that. Not even the sea.

There was something in her eyes, her posture– a ready width to that gyroscopic gait, and a bead of thoughtful sweat on the brow above her chipped shoulder– that said she understood something new. It was as if those hours of standing afore of the crew feeling the oceans tumult and watching it that she’d become part of it.

Lesley manned the helm near on an hour before anyone thought to stop her. They couldn’t handle it anymore. Even the most experienced seaman could not quell the undeniable sickness that swelled in their guts. That hour saw them rise, time and again, to crests of waves of unimaginable size, only for the wheel to be spun hard to port or starboard as it reached its peak. By the time it was atop each wave, its bearing had shifted one-hundred eighty degrees to surf downward until the wave exhausted itself or crashed into another, and the process began again.

Dusk was upon the crew when one finally threw open the door to the helm, rushed in against the winds and opposing gravity of yet another rise to a crest. Boggs was the usual brick-house of a sea-faring man; broad across the chest and shoulders with a torso doubly as thick with muscle as his oak-like limbs. He braced himself weakly against a window to the starboard side of the cabin, his legs rubber from exhaustion and tumbling bile.

“We can’t keep this up, Captain!” He bellowed over the winds and engines. “The men are sick. Exhausted. This insanity has to stop.” He pulled himself along the wall to eye her from the side, “Sometimes, you have to know when you’re beaten.”

Her eyes were fixed ahead, hands working to the tempo she’d long established. Her voice was level, calm, but with a hard tone of irritation, “You know nothing of insanity or exhaustion, crewmen. Return to your post at once.”

“But Ma’am we–”

Her composure flickered, “The sea is a living thing, Boggs. It aches, it breathes, and it loves. Right now, it’s playing with us. But like all living things, it will eventually tire, break. Like you’re doing now. Return to your post or you’ll find yourself out of a job come landfall.”

Boggs was irate, too tired to function rationally, “This is insane! You’re refusing to accept the inevitable. We’re done for! The more you fight it, the more you prolong it. In the meantime we suffer for your delusion.”

With a swift turn of her body, she released her grip on the wheel. It spun erratically against the waves that stole its grip from its engines. In a flash, she had the man by the throat, rough fingers poised to snap his Adam’s apple. He choked, breathless.

Her eyes burned with fury, “If you’ve given up, then get the hell off my ship. I’ve enough dead-weight with the tuna we’re carrying. If I’d wanted more, I’d have bled you like the rest of ’em and shoved you into a cooler.”

His eyes began to roll back into his head. He groped tired hands across her forearm. She sneered, shoved him sideways to retake the spinning helm. A moment later she’d returned to her rhythm as though she’d never left it.

Boggs worked himself upward along the wall, “You’ve lost your goddamned mind.”

“And you seem to have a lot of life left for a fish that’s trying to beach itself,” she countered. “Get out of here.”

Boggs cast a wide, black-eyed look between Lesley and her first mate, who’d been fixed to one corner of the cabin since she’d taken over. He remained motionless, as much in tune with her as she was with the ocean. Boggs growled, shoved open the door to the deck, then fought it closed again.

“It will only anger the crew,” the mate said.

“I don’t care,” Lesley replied evenly.

“You say it’s playing with us?” He asked, curious of her meaning.

“Like a child that toys with a cat, or a cat to its prey,” she replied.

He eyed her skeptically, “How do you know that?”

She glanced back at him finally, “I just do.”

For six, straight hours, Lesley matched the sea wave for wave. By that time, the crew had begun to sour. Most had been sick at one point or another. All-out anarchy was poised to explode aboard the ship, the crew set to mutiny. They just wanted to go to their watery graves peacefully For them, there was no other option than that. For Captain Lesley Butler, it was the only thing not a choice.

The crew fought for the helm against the pitch of another wave, ready with ropes, weights, and tools. They would beat Lesley from the helm, tie up and weight her, then cast her into the ocean if need be. Boggs led the slow, painful charge toward the wheel when the unthinkable happened.

As if all at once, the storm disappeared. The stars appeared above and the deck pitched downward along the remnants of one, final wave. Were they anyone else, they might have thought they were in the eye of the storm, but something told them they were free, clear.

Someone spotted blinking lights on the horizon; tall cellular towers on the coast, sweet apparitions of land. Someone checked a GPS. They were only ninety miles out of port, thirty from land itself, the latter visible for the wondrously clear skies around them.

The crew collapsed into varying degrees of exhaustion. Lesley relinquished the helm to her first mate, who’d managed to conserve what remained of his strength in the corner of the cabin. Then, with her gyroscopic gait no longer taxed, she exited the bridge to find the crew lying about the deck. Most were already asleep, the others at least part-way there. Lesley approached Boggs, whom sat with one leg up, wrist on his knee as he stared at the clear skies with a curious confusion.

“Captain,” he said as she appeared beside him.

“Boggs,” she said, calm as ever and ready to step past.

He stopped her with a word, “Captain?” She swiveled to eye him, urge him onward, “What just happened?”

Lesley’s arms were crossed, “She got tired, like an overstimulated child. The storm was her way of trying to find someone to show her affection and attention. Once given that, she played until she collapsed.”

Boggs wasn’t sure if she meant it metaphorically, or if she truly believed in a sentience inherent in the sea. In either case, he responded distantly, “Just like you said.”

There was a pause. Lesley was silent, face indifferent. Boggs’ shoulders slumped, he wasn’t sure if he believed the sentience of the ocean, but Lesley had been right. The sea had tired itself out– and with a timing too coincidental for his liking. All the same, he couldn’t know what to do or say– if there was anything– even if it had been true.

Boggs’ face sank with remorse, “I’m sorry, Captain.”

Lesley gave a small tilt of her head to clearly remark a similar sentiment. Cosmically, they were even, she with him for her threats and violence, and he with her for his planned mutiny and distrust.

“Next time, a little faith wouldn’t hurt.”

He gave a small nod, then laid his head back against the crate behind him to stare up at the sky.

Could the sea truly play like a child? He wasn’t sure. Boggs thought to ask the Captain, but she’d turned for the bow, retaken her place to stand sentinel until landfall.

Whether they believed it or not, the crew was in her debt. She’d heard the cries of a sad, neglected creature with all the immensity, wrath, and beauty it could manifest. In that, she answered with something more than her voice, something the sea could understand. With the ship, she cared for the sea to keep it from the heart-sickness that claimed so many that sailed her. She’d surfed the waves with as much calculated affection as if she were to play ball with a child. Once satisfied, the sea returned to its wayside, rejuvenated by the attention and once more allowing safe-passage for the trawler, its crew, and Captain Lesley Butler.