real way to describe the fear. The timbers snap, the bulwarks
break and the rush of water surges towards you, and you
want to scream to release the fear, but you can’t, and
you tighten into a knot instead. The icy water puts you
into shock as soon as it hits you, and you know, in your
mind, that the water will quickly fill the compartment
and you will drown, but you cannot hold to this mercy.
You are overwhelmed by the fear of the moment. You are
more afraid of the fear of what’s to come than actually
dying. You are so afraid of the fear you will feel as the
moments before dying stretch, and you can’t escape the
terror of the time when your body will fight to breathe
the water and cannot, that you cannot find comfort in the
realization that it will be over and you will no longer
exist to be afraid.
Bill Tracy awoke
on his bunk. He shivered in his sheets damp with cold sweat.
His eyes darted about the dark room. The room was quiet,
apart from the occasional snores of the eight men sleeping
in it. He lay flat. He tried to focus on the ceiling, tried
to stop shaking. He turned onto his side with his back to
the wall, making as little noise as possible, not out of
concern for his sleeping shipmates, but for fear of disturbing
the silence and the calm, as though too much rustling from
his bedding would break the spell and he would awaken back
in his dream or the dream would awaken in the room. As if
any sound would start the pattern of noise from the dream.
He awoke with
a jolt as the bell went off. He wasn’t sure when he’d drifted
off again, but he was glad to be awake and glad not to have
slipped back into the dream. Quickly steadying himself, he
smiled and hopped off of his bunk. He spied a clock on the
way out of the crew quarters, still an hour till dawn, time
to fish. The men grumbled and climbed the stair, complaining
about the lack of sleep. Bill complained too, out loud, and
hid his smile.
The sun was up
high by the time they’d stored the haul. The crisp morning
air had given way to sharp heat, and the stink of sweat and
fish covered the men as they iced the catch down. Bill could
hear the murmurs from the older men. The haul was light.
Once he heard
it said, he knew the truth of it. He’d been too busy before
with the work, but now he saw it clearly. Bill didn’t have
the experience the captain or the two old men had, but this
was hardly his first time out. Lads younger than he were
sick with the stench of fish and the toss of the sea. They
hoped to return to port, but with the light load, Bill knew
they’d stay out. Bill shivered again through his work sweat,
when he looked down towards the crew quarters and thought
about sleeping. For a second, he was hopeful that he’d be
able to catch some shut-eye during the day, and fish through
the night, but then he caught sight of the face of the captain…he
may have been lost in imagination from the sun and lack of
sleep, but for just a second the captain looked frightened.
Had he had the same dream? Bill shook off the thought and
the captain seemed to right himself.
was tough. As tough as anyone Bill had ever seen, at any
rate. Tougher even than the two old men that the captain
kept as mates. The captain was younger than the two old men;
Slugger and Barney were their names. Bill had never seen
Slugger hit anyone, but sure he looked as though he could
trade punches with many a barroom full of fighters. The captain
called Barney “Barn”, but the crew called both mates “sir”,
which never failed to raise a dry smile both from the captain
and themselves. The theory, among those who would discuss
it aloud, was that the two old men were the captain’s uncles.
On an earlier trip out, some East Coasters had further theorized
that they had left Ireland ‘cause they were wanted men, part
of an IRA assassination squad, but Bill didn’t believe that
for a moment. Sure the East Coasters might know better, but
Bill had Irish roots himself, which was admittedly less common
in the Northwest than the Northeast, and besides, Bill was
quite happy to work on a ship where English was the language
spoken the most.
All three of them
were grey and weathered. The captain was in the best of health,
but they all showed years of hard living.
dog was an old wolfhound named Sal. Away from the crew, Bill
often overheard the captain asking old Sal for his opinion. “Will
we get a good haul tonight, Sal?” “Which course next, Sal?” “What
would you say, Sal? That wind from the North sure carries
a bite to it.”
Bill got little
rest during the day, and when evening came, they dropped
their nets again. Before they could set in to dinner, the
alarm bells rang, and they raced away from their plates to
pull the nets back out of the water.
Bill could see
that the captain was angry, but the captain kept his cool,
not taking his frustration out on the lad who was manning
“Not your fault.
Shoddy equipment.” Bill heard the captain say through the
wind and the spray. A light misty rain started to fall, joining
the wet of the sea.
“I don’t understand
it, Captain. They were there, and then they weren’t,” the
college boy explained. “College Boy” was an affectionate
ribbing for the lad that worked the sonar and much of the
electronic gear aboard the ship. Truth of it was he had dropped
out from school, but he had a good deal more education than
the rest of the men, and they were quick to have some fun
with it. Still, they could see the captain respected the
kid, and that carried to the men.
Over dinner the
captain let the crew know what had happened. A sonar malfunction
had shown what had been guessed to be a school of dolphins
near the netting. They redeployed the netting after dinner.
his ears, cradling his head. He can’t hear the screams
of the drowning men. But the noises of the shapes in the
darkness…human cries morphed into whale songs, followed
by the screams of men being pulled into the cold water.
had filled the crew quarters first. Bill lay awake listening
to the pounding on the hull convinced it was the dream,
and desperately trying to wake up. Still he hears them:
the songs of the men below, and the screams of the men
below decks, maddened by the pounding against the ships
hull and the cold wet fear of the dark sea surrounding
his eyes, and it’s there in front of him, a tall, dark,
shadowy shape in the blackness. Bill closes his eyes and
opens them again quickly, but it’s still there. Sal is
standing near it, growling and bearing his teeth at it,
but it stands still in the darkness. Finally, Bill gathers
the nerve to shine a light at it, and now it’s a coat on
a chair, and Sal yelps and runs up the stair.
“Pull them in
lads. This rain’s just the front of the storm, and the sonar
makes this to be a good haul.” Slugger stopped as he said
this. The captain said nothing, and Sal whined and moved
behind the captain, with his tail between his legs.
the nets came up, shredded, and empty. For a moment, silence,
not even the sounds of the storm could be heard.
amongst the sailors, especially the young ones. Slugger picked
it up immediately and explained: “This storm’s out of Alaska.
We’ll head south to avoid the brunt of it, wait it out, and
then head back to port.”
The captain watched
Slugger, gave it a moment to sink in, and ordered, “All right,
secure the nets and the holds. The sooner we finish up, the
sooner we’re on our way.”
As soon as the
nets were up, “Barn,” the captain said loudly but calmly
to his mate in the cabin, “Due south, best speed.”
The captain ordered
Bill to the cabin, and sent Slugger down to the crew quarters
to stay with the men. Before going to the cabin, Bill heard
a lot of uneasy talk below decks about the shredded nets,
and more pressing threat of the swiftness of the north storm
and how quickly it had overtaken their ship.
Bill stood in
the back, scratching the top of Sal’s head.
College Boy was
pointing at the sonar screen. “I don’t understand it. Maybe
it’s screwed to begin with, and now the storms making it
worse. There!” He said pointing to the screen as lightning
flashed. “With each strike it looks like they’re all around
Bill focused on
the screen. With the next strike, it did light up.
“So,” the captain
pressed, “you’re saying that there’s nothing there? Just
College Boy started
to nod, then had to catch his balance hard as the ship smacked
into a large wave.
“Why the malfunctions
before the storm then? There was no lightning when that ‘school
of dolphins’ or the ‘large school of fish we caught’ showed
and the screen lit up again, and as the thunder struck, another
wave pitched the ship.
“God-damned storm,” the
captain said to no one in particular.
“Maybe the sonar’s
picking up something else,” Bill said nervously.
The boy glared
at him. “It ain’t picking up nothing.”
the nets,” the captain said calmly.
“Then why isn’t
the sonar picking it up the rest of the time?” the young
man asked, steadying himself.
again, and for just a second, Bill thought he saw something
on the deck, too tall to be a man, but by the time of the
thunder, it was gone. Sal was growling at the door. “What
if,” he said too softly for the other men to hear, “the sonar’s
broke, and only works right when the lightning strikes?”
and a deafening noise reverberated through the hull. All
three men were knocked to the floor.
no wave. Something hit us,” the captain said, getting to
his feet. Sal barked at the door. Looking at the radio but
talking to the lad at the instruments, the captain said, “Have
you been able to raise anyone on that thing?”
“Nothing all day.” College
Boy shook his head.
“Well, keep trying.
Tell you what, that big knock we just had? Hell, anything
more than this storm’s roll of the waves, and change it to
a general SOS. Got that?”
The college boy
“Now I’m gonna
see just what condition were in.”
The door swung
open. “Captain, three of the lads are gone.” Barn said, and
he sank to his knees, cradling himself and shaking in the
wet on the deck.
“You better start
that SOS now,” the captain said blankly. He, Sal, and Bill
made their way out onto the deck.
The wind howled,
and the rain stung the eyes. Bill wiped his face with his
right hand and steadied himself on the deck with his left.
Slowly inching his hands along the rail, even through the
heavy work glove, he could feel the large scar in the wood.
Too scared to look closer, Bill took off his glove and felt
along the edge of it with his bare hand. Finally, he worked
up the courage to look, just as his fingers discovered that
the base of the scar was filled with a scaly slime. He jerked
his hand back; he could see now that it looked like a large
claw mark, and that there were similar marks lining the rail.
He barely noticed the captain asking him for help with Barn.
man. Help me get him into the cabin,” the captain said, then,
shaking him, “Bill, College Boy is gone.”
Bill whirled around.
The cabin, no more than a few feet behind him, was now empty.
dragged Barn inside a set him down just inside the door.
“Where’s Slugger?” the
captain yelled. Bill could barely make out the captain’s
hoarse scream over the wind and the rain.
Barn didn’t answer.
He just stared into the watery sky and hugged his knees.
The captain put a hand on Barn’s shoulder, gave it a squeeze,
and then made for the hatch. Sal whined, pawed at the floor
of the deck to and fro, then followed the captain below decks.
Bill couldn’t look at Barn. He could feel the weight of the
dream and the bite of the sea, he knew that he’d see them
both in Barn’s face and he couldn’t bear to look at it. Not
wanting to be left alone with him, he followed the Captain’s
The below decks
were full of water up to the knee though the water level
wasn’t rising, not quickly anyway. Bill grimaced as the boat
lurched and another waterfall poured in from the hatch.
“Hogan? Malone?” The
captain called out to the men, calling each of their names,
but there was only the sound of the ocean and the storm.
In the flickering
light of a flashlight, submerged and rolling with the ship,
something large washed from the cabin to the wall of the
galley and back again. The captain’s light chased it, but
now it hid behind the wall inside the crew quarters.
Ever slowly, ever
carefully, the captain made his way forward, aiming his flashlight
into the room. Bill, several paces behind him, picked up
the other light out of the water. For a second the storm
was quiet, and Bill could not hear the sound of the sea,
when that second broke all he could hear was the captain
crying, and then the pounding on the walls of the ship. He
was most the way up the stairs ahead of the rush of the water
as it poured into the ship from below.
The last thing
Bill remembers are Sal’s whines and the captain’s screams.
Bill has no memory of how he got off the boat, or even of
the coast guard rescuing him.
Today, Bill wanders
the streets of Portchester. Sometimes he sings or hums, sometimes
he weeps. When the storms come in off the sea from the northwest,
he screams. At the corner of 5th and H Street he yells, “Their
storm is coming.” In the heart of the town square he yells, “Their
storm is coming.” At the edge of the pier, into the ocean’s
darkness, he whispers, “Your storm is coming.” Then he walks
in a hurry back into town.