The Man Who Could Not Drown (part 2)

Can you pull up Leviathan with hooks or tie his tongue with ropes?
Who dares open the doors of his mouth, ringed about with fearsome teeth?
Nothing on earth is his equal – a creature without fear… king over all the proud.

Morning broke over the fog that settled on the graveyard of ships, a grey crypt of ocean with no headstones, leaving no trace of the unlucky or the damned. It was a name no one spoke so close to its edge, and each man slurped his coffee with abandon, happy that night had an end, at least once more.

Sailors are used to stories. Stories made the days at sea more bearable. When you were lonely or afraid, you didn’t say as much, but stories were how other men comforted one another, and how you had a place to go when you needed to and there was nothing around you but unreachable horizon. Farris wished he could say their passenger had told a story that would make sense of it all, of maybe a grand ship going down, with him the only survivor, terrible as that might be. Selfish even. But each story is enough for itself, he supposed, letting out a puff of smoke, and this was theirs, and some mysteries merely entered it and would make nothing new of the tale. Mysteries were ordinary in the vastness of days. You learned to accept them, or you spent your time staring over the side, prying with vain eyes into the cold that met you soon enough as it was. The dawn would make something new of their story, or else it would just be the night they pulled a man out of a storm, one who came from nowhere, and night would have its way and keep its secrets.

The man didn’t wake, and bedding him in the mess was a cursed thing for Jilson, who had the cooking. Breakfast was as angry as he was, and the coffee colder, but strangers from the sea were rare enough to earn the tolerance of angels or the indulgence of demons. That day it was both, and Jilson didn’t grumble. It was bad luck. He let the man sleep, and the captain thought it wiser, after hearing of the night’s conversation, to get saner answers after a fair rest than panicked ones that shed more fog than light. They worked through the day, mostly on tackle. The moment was wrong for baiting, and the calm seemed unnatural even if it was welcome. You read omens in the sea, because you’re never closer to the world as a whole than when the sky and its opposite extend in all directions. Even the islands were vessels that rode the world like carbuncles on leviathan’s back. It’s the world that had you, and not merely the constructions of man or the interests of an hour.

It was second dog’s watch when their guest woke. He ate ravenously, and the crew had a better supper, but he didn’t speak during the meal, and the captain, whose job it was to learn the first of it, didn’t ask. Only when Farris offered him a clay churchwarden, did the man look up from the table with a seemingly sincere “thanks”. He puffed, and took several long draws, before leaning back, and casting his eyes around the table at each of the crew in turn. Farris he lingered the longest on. If there was deference for the captain, he either didn’t know which of the men it was, or didn’t show any. He eyed his empty plate, and nodded another “thanks” at Jilson, who seemed pleased. You never really told the cook his work was lacking, but you did stop, after a while, showing daily appreciation, and it must have made Jilson feel that someone once again felt his pain, if not his care, for making a decent meal out of dried meat and soft vegetables. Jilson did take it seriously, which was what you wanted in a cook – you stayed healthy that way – essential at sea.

“You feeling better?” The captain didn’t need to be more specific. You don’t fault a man for saying a few crazy things when he’s just been fished from certain death. And the answer, anyway, was obvious.

The man, who still hadn’t offered his name, looked a long time at Rayman, until the captain began to fidget not from any vague discomfort, but at the seeming impertinence. Gentleman or not, a captain on a ship is Zeus on Olympus, and lightning fell in swift bolts of obedience from the rest of the crew if he decided you needed to be taught a lesson. Red Cheeks seemed in a mood for leniency, though, because he only waited, sipping coffee and leaning back in his chair, letting the ship rock him as he watched the other man’s face. It was a stance of authority rather than power, and therefore not a thing you needed to bolster with petty emotions. The Abysmal was his own house.

“Silas Cruz, is my name,” the man said. “I appreciate you pulling me from the water, Captain. And the rest of you, as well. However,” he hesitated, though it was impossible to detect if that was discomfort or for effect, “you must return me to the sea before the evening watch, as you call it.”

It was the captain’s place to answer, but Jilson set his mug down too hard, and muttered under his breath. It was something about there having been no point eating a fine meal only to drown it right after. The captain, instead of answering directly, spoke to Farris. “You looked him over this morning.” It was a statement of fact – Farris had. “Any serious damage?” He meant ‘had the man, Silas Cruz, taken a blow to the head?”

“None that I could see, Captain. That doesn’t mean…” Farris didn’t finish. It didn’t mean the man wasn’t insane to begin with. Farris had needed to check him for fever, if nothing else. Something like that could scuttle a crew, leaving a ghost ship behind as mute testimony, until it too succumbed to the storm or, forlorn and desolate, threw itself onto the rocks. There was no fever, and Cruz was obviously of a sound temperature. His chills were gone, and he seemed entirely at ease, except for the thinnest hint of urgency in his voice when talking to the captain.

“You feel that way,” said the captain, looking at Cruz, “why not save us the trouble and throw yourself in the drink?” The captain nodded toward the visitor’s torso in a way that suggested he was able bodied enough to haul himself over the side.

“It doesn’t work like that,” Cruz answered.

“And how does it work, then?” Jilson asked. He was barely containing himself, possibly more for the loss of an appreciative diner, for once, than a more general frustration.

Cruz kept his eyes on the captain. “You pulled me out. You have to put me back in.”

“I don’t guess we have to do anything,” Jilson said. Rayman held up his hand, and Jilson fell silent, and at last began clearing plates.

The captain spoke in a measured tone. “We haven’t thrown anyone over since I’ve been the Abysmal’s skipper, and I don’t think I want to break a clean record like that without good reason.” Then he leaned forward. “You going to give us a reason?”

His meaning was plain. If the man was going to be trouble, Rayman might order him thrown to his fate, though more likely they’d just strand him on the nearest rock – the captain was no murderer that anyone knew. But if Cruz was only the sort of man whose heart fell in on itself from broken love or grief over a loved one, the captain wasn’t about to add more grief to the world’s suffering with one more needless loss. You knew your captain, even when he wasn’t a personable man or an intimate one – you knew his temper, because you had to, and because enough time in close quarters, even with an endless ocean around, shows all men eventually for what they are deep down. It hadn’t yet shown Cruz. Time was slow on the sea, except when it wasn’t.

“I would like to tell you that you’ll change your mind, but I fear you’ll take it for arrogance,” said Cruz. “I mean no one any harm. Of that, I assure you most of all.”

The captain leaned back again, keeping his eyes on Cruz’s. Farris waited a moment, then said “You might tell us more about how you came to be in the water in the first place, and how you managed to stay above it on a night like last.” It was his role to voice whatever was beneath Rayman’s professional dignity. It was no shame to himself, but only duty, and you did your duty without embarrassment. It was your mind you gave first, and your ears soon after. Farris was asking for Jilson’s sake too – who was banging plates in the sink – but he was asking for the ship most of all. You served the vessel as much as the men. Farris had been at sea most of his life, and you learned that the ship would take care of you, it was home and friend and wife and savior, if you took care of the her. He blew a haphazard smoke ring, a signal that he’d voiced his only deep concern.

After a moment, Cruz turned to Farris and said, “What I can tell you is that I swore to be angry even to death, and so death fled from me, and I have only despair.” He said it without feeling, that Farris could see. It was as if he’d said, ‘I’m a financialist from Nouvelle-Ecosse. I was a passenger, and I don’t remember how I came to be in the water.’ It was a communication of simple fact, with the slightest tinge of irony, but even the sadness of the words wasn’t represented in his tone.

If Jilson had been frustrated until then, his shoulders now went slack, and the dishes made less clatter. The only monster on sea or land greater than Death was despair – from that, all else fled. But Jilson might have been thinking of his own anger – he had a penchant for it. The captain said nothing more to the man, and neither did Farris. There was no answer for such a thing, and the subtle shift in the pitch of the vessel indicated hands were best topside to prepare for a change in weather.

Cruz was left to his pipe, with coffee and more tobacco. You could no more ask a financialist, or whatever he was, a gentleman, to pitch in on deck than you could ask fish to jump into the hold for you. If the captain had taken him for a threat, they would have done more, but Rayman’s silence was sufficient to indicate the matter was closed, at least for the moment.

There were no black clouds, no warning that a seaman could take into account. You were always ready, but readiness was only part of the job. Response was the other part. The sea was a mistress whose rage could be unaccountable and descend on the unwary without a hint of dissatisfaction until it struck. The wind rose toward a violent squall, the water broke, and the waves shifted white, until there was no doubt they were facing a more dangerous night than the one before. A ghostly whistle began to tear through the rigging, heralding a storm of legendary violence. There was nothing for it but to tarp the hatches and be ready to entomb themselves below decks when the worst of it hit. The captain was helping to nail down laths along the tarps, shouting to be heard over the music of destruction, when Jilson looked back to see Cruz midship, holding on to a cleat and watching them with incongruent calm. Jilson made him aware, with a touch and a nod.

“Get below!” the captain shouted. But if Cruz heard, he didn’t move. The captain clapped Jilson on the shoulder, and the man went to usher their passenger to safety. They couldn’t afford to worry about him with minutes maybe, before the worst, but there was also the fact that incompetence standing in your way when you needed only skill was often as bad as a hole in the bow. Jilson almost swaggered, seeming to like his new assignment, but when he reached to put his hand on Cruz, the man’s arm shot out and cuffed him on the jaw, sending Jilson to one knee on the deck. It was just enough, they would later understand, to get Jilson angry. Anger and orders don’t mix, especially during a storm.

Jilson spat, got up and, despite the shifting of the vessel, had sea legs enough to throw a round house of his own, which Cruz ducked, laying another blow into Jilson’s ribs, and one more to the abdomen.

The captain and Farris crossed the deck as the waves tore across the washboards, and bent the Abysmal into a swinging lilt that pitched its crew to the deck. Only Cruz, who should gone down first if not right along with the seasoned mariners, remained where he was, seeming to ride with the inhuman legs of the sea itself. There was a shudder and a scream of timber, and all hands watched as the main brace tore away from a previous splice. Sometimes a sprawl was all you could manage, clinging to anything that wouldn’t immediately give way. All of the crew did just that.

Then the ship steadied, as if whatever lungs that blew it toward doom were taking another breath. Cruz was still on his feet, and the other men reached theirs, with Jilson’s anger spreading across his face in a wave that resided, after a moment, with Cruz still not moving, into confusion. Whatever Cruz was, he was more than he seemed, or less man than a part of the tempest itself. That’s what they said later, when they said anything at all, before deciding at last, without discussion that the matter didn’t bear speaking of until perhaps, dying in some infirmary, they might whisper it privately to a priest who would dismiss the magic, like you blew out a candle, saving you from it in the end, and pronouncing a hasty absolution.

Jilson was speechless, and Farris found no need for conversation. The unspoken words were clear enough, even if the full meaning was not. It was Rayman’s place to give what orders he would but, in the temporary calm, Cruz preempted the captain, saying what he had the first time he’d spoken. “Put me back in the sea.” It wasn’t the violence of the man, but that of the storm.

You want to say that you never committed an act of human sacrifice, not in your whole life. You want to think that, as long as you never traded another person for yourself, you might avoid the retribution that waits in any rational cosmology for the unjust, even if the vindication of the righteous is beyond you. Farris smoked his pipe the rest of his life, and thought about that. He thought about the man they gave back to the sea, and how they were spared the wind, and he wondered about the whirlwind, as judgment was called in the proverbs.

Did Jonas’ crew, fleeing Ninevah, wish in the end they had not surrendered their charge even to the wrath of God? A sailor’s gods are fickle and might just ask you, after fire or flood fell from the sky, why you yielded to them rather than resist their will, powerful as they were. Would the priest understand that? Or would he, with a wave of his hand, send Farris to the deep with no accounting on earth for what must be answered in the lair of Leviathan?

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