Authors: Ferenc Máté
- A N
NEW YORK LONDON
stood by her man.
Copyright 2006 Ferenc Máté
All rights reserved.
Albatross Books at
W.W. Norton & Company Inc., 500 Fifth Ave, New York, N.Y. 10110
W.W. Norton & Company Ltd., 10 Coptic Street, London WCA 1PU
nd, tell me, wasn’t that the best time, that time when we were young at sea; young and had nothing, on the sea that gives nothing, except hard knocks—and sometimes a chance to feel your strength—that only.
t was the last of October, the first of the big storms. The glass had started falling before midnight, hesitant at first as if it might change its mind, but then it fell steadily and the gusts grew and by dawn the clouds dragged over steep seas, driving a rain as cold as snow. I rowed out to Bird Rock to pound in another ring, under noisy gulls that soared and dove in the updraft on the cliff. The old Swede was on the float of his small island, hauling out the dinghies and skiffs he was repairing, flipping them over and lashing them down. Then he stood and waited in that rain, waited until I came back from pounding the ring, and as I drifted close I saw his face drawn tight, looking worriedly out at the heaving sea, “You dance good out there tonight, eh?” he said.
I rowed back into the calm cove, in the embrace of mountains. A handful of fishermen’s shacks floating on cedar logs shared the cove with a net loft, some seals, some sea otters, the odd black bear that came to crab at dawn when the tide was low, and a long-neglected ketch bobbing at anchor.
I worked out of the cove that year as a deckhand on a tug owned by a miser named Henderson, salvaging logs that came loose in winter storms out of log booms being towed down the blustery, snowy sound. All my youth I dreamt of running away to sea, but this sure as hell wasn’t in my dreams. At school I stared out the window after the rain, stared at the baker’s roof where a pool of water rippled in the sun, and imagined it was a vast, empty ocean—the Indian or Pacific—or the Celebes or China Sea; and my mind would drift away to atoll-strewn turquoise waters or some long sandy shore. But mostly I dreamed of clutching the wheel of a small schooner, her sails bulging, the trade winds blowing, the wooden deck warm under my feet, and as far as my eyes could see, all around me, the sea. An endless freedom.
I should have left it at dreaming. But when the sea fills your every thought awake and asleep, you can no more resist than the tides can the moon. So I went to sea. Put in two years scraping rust off a West African coaster, a year and a half shoveling coal into the furnace of a steamer, two years standing watch on a hulk that hauled rubber from a tin shed in Brazil to brick sheds in the snow, and after all that, there I was penniless in that sunless North Pacific hole, praying for a storm.
Log salvage is a profession that thrives on the loss of others, a little like grave-robbing except the law is on your side. The International Law of Salvage Rights gives to anyone the right to grab and make his own most of what is wrecked or lost at sea, and villages from Cornwall to Sumatra have eked out a life harvesting the bounty heaven sent with storms. And so did we.
North of us they were felling forests, dragging logs the size of houses to the shore with oxen or steam donkeys, chucking them in the sea, making them into floating booms with chained boom-sticks around them. Then a tug would hook a yoke on, point south, and give her full throttle. And sit there. After a while the booms began to nudge, barely, like a snail. When a storm caught them and smashed a boom or popped loose logs, we’d be there driving eye pegs in them, hauling them behind our rock, fattening up Henderson’s pockets and putting a few nickels in our own. Most salvagers wait until the storm dies and the sea calms before heading out, but Henderson wanted us to “get a jump,” so out he sent us at the height of gales, into riptides, the darkest nights, because “that, my boys, is when the others hide under the covers, and you alone will harvest the presents from the Lord. And if by His will yea be drowned, well, hell’s bells, that’s your destiny.”
Between storms we kept busy chiseling rot out of the tug, recaulking planks, keeping her afloat, and I would stare at the lonely ketch weathering away. Hours I spent gazing at her from the tug or rowing around her in my skiff, getting near, sometimes scooping the heaps of rot-starting muck from the corners of her decks, sometimes checking her anchor lines for fraying. I committed her every block, every line, every bit of hardware and rigging to memory. And every time we passed her as we headed out into a storm, my heart would tighten against the knowledge that she would never, ever be mine.
HE SEA IS
noble in her impartiality. She harbors, feeds, maims, and drowns with disregard for age or race or creed; the sole bias she can be accused of is that she won’t tolerate a fool.
The ketch belonged to a man called Block—a fool. The year before, he’d owned whorehouses in Vancouver and Victoria full of Kwakiutl squaws sent by their husbands to earn extra cash for them to throw great potlatches and impress friends and relations with their nobility. To get the freshest squaws, Block bought a double-decked whore boat for nine whores, ran it along the coast, plucked the ripest and sent them off to logging camps, mining camps, fish camps, homesteads, and even the odd missionary, for training. The whore business flourished, so he sold it off at a fine profit, and to fit in among respectable people—those who had sold off their whatevers before—he bought himself a tugboat line and a mansion, and had Hoffar-Beeching Shipyards build him the best and fastest ketch on the coast. She was modeled after the East Coast racers, forty feet on the waterline, full-sterned, a sheer to break your heart, bronze-fastened, Port Orford cedar-planked on oak frames, teak decks, spruce masts varnished like a grand piano, sails of the finest cotton, but when her inside was still as hollow as a barrel, Block went unexpectedly and irreversibly broke. He lost everything except the ketch. While the lawyers wrangled, she lay anchored in our cove, sat there for a year. Leaves and needles piled up in drifts, rust wept from her fittings, moss grew on her decks in the shade, mildew bloomed on her folded sails, her paint cracked, varnish peeled, and long beards of tube kelp streamed from her rudder in the currents of the tide. She was rotting alive.
I rowed past her on the way back from the Swede’s, checked to be sure her anchor lines led fair over the rollers, to make sure she’d ride out the coming storm. The rain had eased but the clouds stayed low and a hard wind whipped the sea against the tide, carving six-foot waves as steep as tombstones. A mile south of the entrance, a tug dove and bucked, fighting the waves with a three-section log boom behind it. It was dusk. We got ready to go out. We donned sou’westers, tied the cuffs tight with line hoping to keep out at least some of the sea, laid out spikes, eyes, lengths of line, a boom chain, sharpened our knives and marlin spikes, stoked the galley stove under the coffeepot, cranked up the diesel, and cast off from the buoy.
The wind gusted but the sea in the cove stayed a chop; waves could never get in. Eagle Island protected it to the south, leaving a narrow twisting channel to the east and an even narrower opening—a few boats wide—next to the Swede’s island to the southwest. There was only one menace in the cove—the wind. The southeast gales would slam into the curve of cliffs and turn and funnel back out with undiminished force past the Swede’s island, right into the face of inward-rushing waves. Hell for anyone trying to cross the bar.
We headed out at dusk.
The poor ketch, her rain-slackened halyards slapping against the shrouds, tacked and sailed bare-poled hard against her anchors. I watched until she melted away into the rain and the fading light.
The tug reared as she slammed into a wave, and her saw-toothed bow pointed at the clouds. She hung for a moment at the crest, tipped forward, and hurled herself down the back. The propeller lifted clear into the air and its vibrations rattled the iron plates of the stove. I clung to the galley sink and when we hit the bottom of the trough with a bone-jarring thud, the kerosene lamp went out and green water ran a foot deep past the cabin. Then the next wave came and the bow lifted and we surged out of the safety of the cove. Jordan the skipper laughed, loud and self-satisfied. He was still too young to get angry at life, too young to worry about death right there beside him, so he stood cheerfully at the helm in his swaying pilothouse with a smile on his creaseless face. He was never perplexed by the violence of a storm, piloted the tug as if he didn’t notice, and in no way felt threatened by the fact that the ocean was trying its best to send us straight to hell. He loved the sea. Loved the creaky tug, loved his dumb but cheery wife, his dough-ball baby daughter, his modest little house under the cedars near Dundarave which he spent every spare moment reshaking, patching, painting, beautifying. He was blessed.
I relit the lantern. We were out in deeper waters now and the waves were longer, their faces more climbable, and the tug had an easier time of it. The clouds broke and the moon lit patches on the sea. Jordan eased the throttle, slid down his side window, and smiled out at the night. I went out on deck and gazed over the moon-silvered froth, searching among that chaos for incongruous straight lines—loose logs.
E SHOT DOWN
the back of a wave, leaving behind the looming bulk of the Swede’s island where a window glowed with reassuring light. Then we turned west, taking the seas abeam so that we both rolled and plunged. All we had to do was wait and not be blown ashore. The logs were coming; they had to, we knew the winds and currents; we knew our sea. The booms would be breaking up soon and the logs drifting north by northwest, pushed shoreward by the wind, herded by the tide, and they would come like cows home to the stable, toward the jagged bluffs of that nameless bight ahead, where the bottom suddenly shoaled and the waves rose up in rage before shattering into foam. But not before hurling everything they had brought: driftwood, floats, nets, lost boats, halfway up the bluff to lodge in crevices and crags.
Jordan had turned the tug bow into the seas, kept the throttle low, and braced himself against the cabinside with his shoulder to have one hand free for his coffee. When he spotted the first log, he eased the tug alongside, and I waited knee-deep in breaking sea with a pike pole. Then harpooned it. I clung to the pole for dear life, waiting for the tug and log to bob in harmony. In that moment of calm at the bottom of a trough, a mere blink of an eye, I yanked an eye spike and lanyard from my belt, threw myself down on my knees to hammer in the spike, yanked out the pike, fed out line, and cleated the bitter end.
By midnight we had done well; we were towing our fifth log toward the safe lee of our rock. The wind still raged, but the moon peeked out and threw shreds of light on the churning sea. Rounding the rock, Jordan slowed. I hauled in the line to prevent it from slacking and fouling the prop, uncleated it, and lashed it to the boom chain that linked the other logs to shore. I was just snugging the bowline when Jordan threw open the cabin door. His smile was gone—an imbecilic amazement took its place. He must have been saying something because his mouth was moving, but it was lost in the wind. He stared at something beyond me. I turned to look. I think I let out a laugh, then the tug lurched and the line I held snapped tight, almost yanking me overboard. For a moment the moon hid behind a cloud and the scene vanished from sight as if it had never been. Then the clouds thinned and in that eerie light I saw it had been no vision; it was the ketch.
She came darkly, a ghost ship through the foam, with the tips of her masts white against the night, sailing under bare poles without a stitch of sail aloft. She was propelled at a curious angle by the tide and heeling slightly from the pressure of the wind, heading toward open water with her bowsprit high. Coaxed by the currents, she turned a few degrees and drifted past Bird Rock. With the wind and waves now adding to the pressure of the tide, she gained speed, and with her quarter angled slightly across the seas, she headed toward the nameless bight where crashing breakers hurled against the bluffs.
For a moment I thought: This is how it should end: better than rotting away in the cove.
The moonlight sliced a crevice in the clouds and lit her path across the sea. Jordan had forgotten the wheel and the tug drifted into open waters, gave a roll, and slammed us hard against the cabin. The slamming cleared my head; I had to save the ketch.
Jordan was shouting into the gale, but I understood nothing and could think nothing, only that the ketch of all my dreams was heading down the last half mile of her life, to become kindling for the cottagers to find. I lashed a line to the pike pole, cleated the bitter end, and sent the pole hurtling through the gloom. It fell laughably short. If I could get a line hooked on her I could ease her away from the rocks into open sea.
“Get close!” I roared at Jordan, and he roared back something that I couldn’t understand. But he jammed her into reverse and we rolled and pitched slowly toward the ketch. Then I thought of just getting near in the heaving seas without smashing her to bits, to climb on a line aboard her and let out the anchor rodes, to flatten the scope and the let the anchors catch and dig deep into the bottom.
“Get close!” I yelled again. “What the hell are you afraid of?”
Lit by the compass light, Jordan’s face looked fearful, his movements hesitant. We were less then a boat-length from the ketch. I was ready. Jordan throttled down. I raised the pole and aimed at the bowsprit where the whisker stays, head stays, and bobstay formed a web, where the pike pole was sure to tangle in something. Even an idiot couldn’t miss from this close. We drifted closer. I leaned back and threw. And in that very instant of release, when I had timed a fleeting lull in the lurches of the sea, when all my hopes and dreams shot like a current through me, just then, inexplicably, Jordan thrust the gear in forward and throttled hard. I lost my balance, my strength, my hope all at once; the pole fell stupidly into the sea. The tug roared ahead, leaving the ketch in the gloom.
I thought I had gone mad. I grabbed the hatchet we kept on the aft deck to hack fouled lines, and lurched toward Jordan. God only knows what I intended. The tug barreled at full speed through the uncertain light. I flung open the cabin door and raised the hatchet. Jordan turned, smiling again, that old confident, content-with-life smile. I can’t remember how long I stood there.