There’s no 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.

Captain McCann 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.

The captain’s 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 the sonar.

“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.

Bill covers 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.

The 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 them.

Bill opens 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.

Seconds later the nets came up, shredded, and empty. For a moment, silence, not even the sounds of the storm could be heard.

Chatter started 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 us.”

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 electromagnetic interference.”

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 up.”

Lightning flashed, 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.”

“Something ripped 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.

Lightning flashed 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?”

Another flash and a deafening noise reverberated through the hull. All three men were knocked to the floor.

“That weren’t 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 nodded.

“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.

“Bill! C’mon, 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.

Together, they 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 old dog.

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.

# # #

Last of the Irish Rover by Ian Welke
originally published in the Winter 2011 print edition



After working for 15 years in the computer games industry and writing in the hours between crunch times, Ian Welke now spends his time reading everything he can get his hands on and writing short stories and novels. In 2008, he sold his first short story to After returning to southern California after six years in Seattle, Ian still misses the rain clouds, but enjoys married life more.

For more of Ian's work,
visit his Big Pulp author page


This feature and more great
fiction & poetry are available in
Big Pulp Winter 2011:
Interrogate My Heart Instead

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