Thursday, September 9, 2010

week twenty-two: angels dancing on the sea

At the oldest tavern at the ricketiest port this side of the Bering Straight, an old fishing ship captain tells his tale. It's clear that he hasn't shaved in days and the scent of ale on his breath is undeniable. But there's something about him that makes all of the young men listen. There is as much conviction in his words as there is alcohol in his stench. Is he just an old drunk? Or is there something to his tale? Decide for yourself:

“I've been in a lot of storms. I've seen the biggest crashing waves and heard the loudest clashes of thunder known to man. I used to believe that God was using whatever means necessary to kill me, but I was better. He would use the strongest and coldest winds and rain, but my captaining was better than his godhood! I'd laugh as loud as I could hoping he would hear me! It took a lot more than some storm to scare me.

“Now, I'm sure you've all heard the saw that if you've seen a real Alaskan storm, you ain't an atheist. I've seen more storms than any of you put together. I know you ain't fisherman because you're geniuses, but you can put two and two together. Well, most of you can. I believe in God, but it wasn't until one night that my belief was made something real.”

The old sailor pulls out his pipe, lights it, then shakes his empty mug, “I'll tell you what. Any of you who keep my pint full, I'll keep tellin' my story. Simple as this: no ale, no tale. Got it?”

The men around agree and contribute to a small stash of money for this man's drink. The sailor downs a swig and then continues, “My ship is a small one, the Catherine Zeta-Jones. I didn't name her that because she's my wife; I just gave her that name cuz she's the closest woman I've ever been to. I like to think that she knows all my secrets because that poster I've got of her is the only woman I'll talk to. You can't trust women, lads, they talk too much and they'll tell all your secrets. Unless they're made of paper, like my woman.

“Now anyway, so I see the storm advisories and I decide to take the lad with me to do some fishing anyhow. We need money and sometimes you just gotta stick with it, am I right? Of course I am. So, it's just me and my lad, Corky, he's called. He's been the only other man on my boat for some five years now, though if he was still around he'd correct me with a less drunken number.

“Take me and then take the opposite. The poor boy's young, he don't drink, and he ain't the best fisherman out there; only difference is that he's at least dependable. I tell him to do something and he does it. There are no questions asked. I would take a stupid deckhand who could listen over a genius who questions my every move. Corky is the good kind, the stupid kind, that is.”

The old sailor downs several gulps of his drink, “Night crept on us quick that night. It was dark faster than usual, but mostly because of the black clouds over us. It didn't stay dark though. Lightning flashed all around; brightest lightning I've ever seen! I knew Corky was afraid because honestly I was quaking a bit too. You could see the lightning crashing into the sea and the thunder could make you deaf.

“The coldest rain fell upon the deck like a fire hose. There must have been some hail in there too because it was so freezing cold. It's the kinda cold that doesn't just freeze your skin, it chills you down to your bones. And there's the winds that are doing everything they can to knock you right down on your grizzly hindquarters! The rain doesn't just come from above, it comes from everywhere thanks to these winds. Your boots are gonna be soaked even though you're covered head-to-toe in rain gear! None of that matters because the weather's better than anything you can wear.

“Gimme another round,” the old sailor mutters as he slams his cup down on the table. As soon as the drink arrives, he continues, “The scariest part about all of this isn't the wind, the rain, or the lightning, no it's the waves the size of skyscrapers! All it takes is one of them and Catherine Zeta-Jones is completely engulfed in pure Alaskan seawater!

“But I'm at my helm and that ain't gonna happen. I've got to keep turning the rudder away from waves. We can't be parallel; that's just askin' for trouble, but we can't be perpendicular either. Runnin' from waves is like runnin' from a cursed hangover, it just ain't gonna happen. Forty-five degree angles is what you need. But that, my friends, is easier said than done. I remember holding the wheel tight and using everything I got to hold it there. The boat jerks to port, so I slam starboard.

“I don't remember even half the curses I was shouting!

“Corky's working the nets as best he can; trying to keep them tied and stable. It's a job I couldn't do because I'm getting old. I can't move fast anymore! I'm a slow old man and God knows it.

“I remember Corky's face. He looked so scared. He'd been with me in storms before, but this, I swear, was like nothing ever before! Even I thought we were going to die, but there's a difference between Corky and me, you see. Corky's got a young wife back at home and she's expecting. Good ol' Corky's got a reason to live. Me?

“I got nothing!” The old sailor laughs. “I got nothing to lose at all! Sink my ship, break my old bones, I don't care. All I got left is my fishing and my tall tales. So, there's me just watching the young man struggle as I cursed God, the wind, the rain, the waves, and the cold. He ain't cursing though.

“I look close into his hand and see he's got his crucifix held tight. Kid always believed in God, and his wife gave him that thing. 'Piece of tin,' I used to tell him. Of course, Corky would agree with me. Kid would agree with anything I said because I signed his checks. But there he was, holding on to the last resort he had.

“And that was when that wave hit,” the old man looked into his pint and saw nothing. “Fill me up!”

The bartender gave him another one. Free of charge, since his story had the customers staying for more. And the sailor went on, “This massive wave crashed right on top of us. We were already soaked, but this was something else. I shook so hard in the cold that I lost control of the boat. We jerked hard port side, knocking us both off our feet! Catherine Zeta rocked sideways and we slid to the boat's edge!

“The foot-high railing at the side held us there; Corky had to be maybe three feet away from me. When the boat rocked again, I saw the kid go over the edge. I held tight, but he was over. I panicked! I thought, 'Oh, God, no!' Then I saw his fingers. They managed to grab the railing! His head came out of the water. I couldn't hear him because of the storm, but I knew what he was shouting; screaming.

“He shouted with everything he had, 'Help me! Help me!'

“I looked down and saw him there, everything he had to lose, everything he believed in, didn't matter. Not a bit. This was his life and this was my life. I held on. I could only see fear in his eyes. He knew what I would do. His face went from desperate to pleading. I didn't let go. I was afraid. I was too afraid to risk my life for Corky's.

“Then his fingers slipped and he was gone forever,” the old sailor stopped talking right there. He stared at his pint glass and all there saw his eyes water. Remarkably, the old drunk pushes his tears back and presses on, “The sea was dark. There was no hope of finding him. Maybe- maybe he was out there, because I can't remember if he wore a life jacket or not that night....

“Doesn't matter. Not anymore. Corky's body is at the bottom of the straight, where the families of all the fishes we ever caught are cursing his name. I'll bet he's still got that crucifix in his hand. He's gone to be with God now. I hope he has. He has to be with God. He just has to be.

“Somehow I manage to get back to my feet and I got back to the helm. I was angry; mad now. Mad at God, mad at mother nature, and mad at myself. So, I shouted loud for God to hear, 'You did that! How could you kill him like that?! Why not kill me?! I got nothing at all!'”

Another ale, “Just then, and I swear to this, lightning struck right on my decks, knocking some of the railing clean off! I can show you the burns on my ship! The thunder deafened me and I couldn't hear a thing. I couldn't hear a thing except my own thoughts. And in my thoughts, I wasn't cursing. Not anymore.

“No, I was praying. I was praying to a God I don't- didn't believe in. There I was. The man with nothing to lose, the man who half-wanted to die, praying to God that I would survive. If it was God who made that storm, then only God could possibly keep me alive. I couldn't steer Catherine anymore, the rudder was shot. I was ready to die, but I prayed to my last resort.”

The old, drunken sailor sighed very hard, “It took a storm bigger than my ego to open my eyes. All the while, I was blaming a God I didn't believe in. It was a paradox. If it was all his fault, then I'd have to believe only the old man up there could save me. So as I held the wheel, I prayed. I prayed my heart out, what little is left of it, that is.

“I looked up and in the lightning, I swear I could make out the figures of angels dancing among the waves. The horrors of the sea are their stage! The angels out there are so beautiful. I remember forgetting my fear at the sight of such beauty. Maybe I was seeing things, in fact, believe I was seeing things. I don't care.

“Why, I don't know, but I let the wheel go. It's hard to remember just what was happening during those chilled moments, but for whatever reason, I let the wheel go and sat down on the deck. I let God have it. I looked up into the sky and decided just to let him have it. If he wants to kill me, he will. I wasn't about to fight God. Not anymore.”

The old sailor finishes his last ale and refuses another, “My story's over.”

“Why did you come here, sailor? We haven't seen you around.”

“I'm here because I need to be absolutely drunk,” the old sailor burps. “I'm just on my way over to see Corky's wife and tell her what happened.”

“Will you tell her the whole story?”

“Bah, of course not. What woman wants to hear an old drunk like me?”

“So, what will you tell her, old man?”

“I'll tell her that Corky died in an accident. I'll tell her how he made me believe in God. She'll like that. No sense telling her that her husband died because I'm a coward.”

The old sailor picks up his jacket and puts it on. He looks down at all the young men who had listened to him and said nothing as he walked out of the tavern. Once outside, he found that it was raining again. Just a drizzle, nothing severe, but it kept his memory alive. The old sailor looks into the night-covered rain and wishes again he could see the angels dancing on the sea


  1. so sad. but really good. I've definitely had those moments when I've shouted at a God that "I didn't believe in"

  2. I like the use of the present tense; it gives this piece an awesome "story inside a story" feel. I think you should've kept it more consistent. The last paragraph, for example, I think should be entirely in the present tense... otherwise, nicely done! Cool story bro