The Man Who Could Not Drown (part 1)

All three of them went at it, struggling without gaffs to hoist their haul across the gunwale and on board the Abysmal. They had caught a real, live man in the stormy seas off Sable Island. He was squirming like a man might when hauled from the brine, weak, half-drowned, but breathing, freezing, and displeased. Three mariners, their coats scuffed beyond hue, their hats laden with the salty wet, their beards crusted with weather and age, stood in awe of a thing that was no fish but could not have survived if he were an ordinary man.

He had two legs all right. This was no frothy tale of mermen come true in a mass delusion from tainted pork and too much whiskey the night before. They weren’t hallucinating or sleepworking. On the Abysmal, you slept through anything, from fatigue, because you had to. You spent your day pulling in tuna, when you could get them, but a man might sometimes, after years of it, open his eyes startled to find himself on deck, wondering if it was a night run and he’d fallen asleep, or just the opposite – asleep and called on deck for a run. Instead, sometimes, you were just out of your bunk with no good explanation but habit and the motion of the waves tricking your brain, even after so many years. Sleep-working. Tying knots in your sleep, like your brain was coming unraveled and you had to splice it back. Then you just didn’t say anything to the rest of the crew, because they’d laugh and wonder if you couldn’t hold your liquor.

This was something different, and the man was where no man belonged. It was too far from land to swim, and the currents would have taken him down if the waves didn’t. The fog curled around the ocean’s head like the whuff from a pipe. Light one of those was exactly what Farris did. It helped settle the mind to concentrate on a new problem. He pulled the flame into the hard briar, and wiped his forehead more by way of starting on the idea of where the man had come from, than keeping the rain from his brow, of which there was no possibility. The torrent made the man’s presence even more unlikely. That they had seen him was dumb luck. Jilson been replacing a come-along on the rigging, when he started yelling and beating on the bell. All hands to deck. Jilson was quick eyed, and a quick thinker like that. Farris was the calmer of the two.

The captain, Rayman – they called him Red Cheeks – a play on “Red Beard” because of his shady past and the Irish trademark tint of his scruff – was kneeling by the man, trying to decide what to do. You couldn’t blame him if he’d wanted to throw his catch back in the sea. The last thing they needed was back to land and a lay day for medical emergency, and it didn’t look like the crewman of any vessel, nor a wrecker – he was too clean cut for that. Neatly trimmed, smooth skinned, and thin boned. This was a man who worked on land and most likely indoors. No arguing he was a survivor though, clever to last more than minutes in what was whipping up to be a squall. “Let’s get him and us below, I guess,” the captain said.

The rigging was secure enough, and they carried their haul below deck with marginally more care than they might get a bluefin to the ice. The haul was precious – you were good to your catch, if you wanted it right for market – still a man was a man and not a fish, if he’s not a dream or a ghost. He was too heavy for that – strangely so, despite being too delicate for the sea. Even at just over six feet, the three of them should have struggled less. Could be he’d taken on water, and all his insides were full, but it was more like he carried in him the weight of some secret that they would learn, for good or ill, only when he had rested and was ready to talk. He had lost all struggle along with consciousness, and was dead weight fair enough.

The captain bunked him in the mess, as a precaution, with the mat out of the spare. Better the man wake and tear into chow than sleep unsoundly with a newcomer above or beside, one who could be anyone and, like a fish you didn’t club, capable of surprises. They gave him plenty of cover though, wrapping him in two layers of heavy wool. You never knew about a stranger – could be a governor or someone’s lost heir. What was the thing Shakespeare had written – “I should be angry with you if the time were convenient.” That was a King in disguise, and here was a man disguised as a fish, or as the sea itself, or was it the sea disguised as a man – you just didn’t know, and caution of more than one kind was warranted.

Farris was on evening watch, and his pipe kept his mind company. The squall was a tease, the rain steady, and the fog would yield to dayblink he supposed. Maybe their catch brought luck. The sea was too dangerous not to believe in it. You might be a perfect agnostic on land, when it came to fortune, but you didn’t fish anchor without faith in something, fickle as it might be. A mariner’s gods – his Jehovah, Llyr, or Mohammed – tended to be like the deep itself, temperamental. It’s probably why the Torah was so full of divine caprice, Farris thought. Moses was a sailor, or was that Noah? He couldn’t remember. It was Jonas that every Christian sailor feared. Had they taken on a Jonas?

You knew every creak and groan the deck and the rigging could make because, if you didn’t, the surprises would kill you. Too many nubs went down or went over with dumb looks of shock on their faces, like the whole of the ocean and the vessels that crossed it weren’t a coffin. Didn’t they know anything about Davey’s locker? The movement behind him wasn’t the boat, and it wasn’t sailor’s boondockers either. Unless fish could walk, it was their guest, and Farris turned with gaff in hand, but it wasn’t needed. The man was a slumped wreck of exhaustion. What possessed him to do anything but stay below was the thought that ringed Farris’ next exhalation of smoke.

He put the gaff aside while he steadied the stranger. No need to lurch and do one or both of them harm. “You need rest,” he said. “What are you hungry? Thirsty? There’s plenty in the mess. Can you speak English. I know some Portuguese…”

“Put me back in the sea,” the man said simply. It was a quiet voice – the kind with a quiet about it even when raised above the din of increasing rain. He had one of the blankets wrapped around his waist, and was soaked already, and shivering at violent intervals. This was fever, Farris thought. Delirium from the man’s ordeal. Something a steady rest would solve. He tucked the pipe in his coat, and the ushered the man toward the hatch.

“Back in the sea,” the man repeated. “You have to.”

Farris didn’t argue. Their visitor was too weak to resist cooperating, and Farris had him down the ladder with only a little difficulty. He’d slid part of the way, but didn’t bang anything, and they were soon in the mess again, with Farris tucking him in like a nursemaid. He sometimes felt that way – not a captain, but the nurse of the Abysmal. The abysmal nurse – watching over her, watching and thinking about what might be, watching to keep them all safe, as much as it depended on him. You didn’t just mind your own business on an ocean vessel – everything affected everyone. Farris wondered if he should wake the captain at least, and tell him what transpired. Sleep though, was also worth watching out for, so he didn’t. If the man stayed put, Farris would inform the captain of their passenger’s words at ship’s bell.

[continued 1/11/2013]

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