Does anyone else enjoy Rachel Ball's blog Elephantine? I adore reading it. Her posts are sweet and simple: a lovely photograph or two capturing her favorite details of Seattle, a post about her favorite brunch spot, or a look at the delicate jewelry she makes in her Etsy shop.
Lately she has also been posting something she calls Fiction Fridays, which is her way of sharing the short stories she writes with her readers. I have been quite enamored with this project, since I have been meaning to share my own short stories for a while but haven't quite gotten the chance. In fact, one of my creations icons on the right-hand column says "Drama", but there aren't many posts to go along with it.
I thought I'd begin sharing some stories with you today. I could call it Fiction Friday, or Memoir Monday, but my stories tend to be a mixture of memoirs, snippets of fantasy, and random bits I've come up with, never quite in one category. Therefore, I'm going to call it Flashback Friday, since these stories are often from my past. I hope you enjoy.
I haven’t eaten in two days. I haven’t slept in three.
Time takes its toll, and living on a working vessel sometimes has its
disadvantages. I have grown accustomed to my pattern of life, here in the wide expanse of the Atlantic.
Four hours on watch: navigating through black nights, hauling rough sails aloft with blistered hands, sea salt caking gritty in your hair. Then eight hours off. To catch a nap. To sew a canvas bag for your metal marlin spike. To sneak a snack from the galley. To wait with bated breath for the moment that the call came (and it would come): all hands on deck! Pulling you from a deep sleep and into the void. You drag yourself from your bunk and onto the sea-beaten deck. Batten down hatches when the weather and waves turn foul. Set sails. Strike sails. Keep your course steady and true, until you at last are relieved and can curl back onto the thin mattress of your tiny bunk.
My journal says we have had three days of poor weather, but without my carefully penned log, I wouldn't know. The days have blurred together. Three days that I haven't slept. Haven't eaten. My time off duty has been peppered with on deck! calls, and the rising swells have quelled any desire for food.
I sit on the wooden slats of the foredeck, gazing out at the ocean, my toes digging into the rail to keep myself balanced on a heavily heeling ship. We are rounding Cape Hatteras today, six miles off the coast of the diamond shoals. The Graveyard of the Atlantic. I can count hundreds of times I have visited these beaches with my family, sitting in the heated sand and staring out at the open sea while children played in the surf. Now I stare back from the other side, the beach houses tiny pinpoints of color on the horizon.
The wind is shifty, wild and unpredictable. We are only moving at two knots, though the wind is blowing twenty. It is 8:00 pm and though my watch ended two hours earlier, I have been doing dishes with the crew before nightfall. I am looking forward to my four hours of sleep - the most I will have had in days - before my next shift starts at four in the morning.
I watch the last of the sunlight slip into darkness and slowly descend the ladder to my bunk. The ship is heeling so strongly to one side that I have to brace my feet against the wooden edges of my bed to keep myself from rolling to the floor. I remember only a moment of sleep before a voice sounds beside my head.
"All hands on deck."
Of course. Of course.
"What time is it?" I hear myself mumbling.
"2100," the reply comes.
Nine o'clock. Barely an hour.
I pull on my waterproof foulie jacket and stumble blindly up to deck, where I have been hearing frantic
footsteps for the last hour pattering around. It doesn’t take long to
discern the reason why: the wind, which had been so strong all day, has
kicked up to a wild forty knots, the waves screaming against the hull. Lightning lights up the sky all around us. Dark clouds make the dark
night even darker, and with the sails beating fiercely in the wind, the
extreme chaos on deck is a terrifying thing to behold. It becomes quite
clear why everyone has been called on deck: we have to get the sails
down. Now. The storm is raging all around us, and it is too
strong for our ship. Cape Hatteras, which we have been trying to sail around for the last fifteen hours, now threatens to drag our ship down on her shoals.
We move around with urgency, strapping on
harnesses, plundering through the darkness, and trying not to slip on
the slick deck
into the raging ocean. We have to scream to each other to be heard over
the sound of the waves and the wind. We drag down sodden halyards,
try to calm the angry sails with our hands, but everything suddenly
seems so much bigger and stronger than us. I grasp the lifelines on
the windward deck, trying not to fall to the leeward side where the ship is leaning so far over that the sea is rushing in through the
scuppers and over the rail.
My first mate Sarah grabs my jacket and yells near my ear over the roar of the
sea, “I need you to check the foresail throat ballentine!”
heart is skidding wildly in my chest; it's chaos on deck but I am
trying to keep a steady mind amidst the rolling of the sea and thunder.
The throat halyard she wants me to attend to is on the leeward side of
the ship, the side that had the wild ocean rushing over the side.
With careful movements, I battle the sway of the ship and make
my way to the port side rail, where a very messy ballentine coil has
shifted into a tangled heap. In order for us to get the sail down, we needed the rope to pay out cleanly.
“I need a flashlight!” I yell, and one of the crew, face green
with seasickness, throws me a small one. I quickly stick it between my
teeth, letting it shine onto the pile of coil. I brace my boot against
the rail of the ship to keep from falling over, and with quick
movements, begin re-coiling the line. The rope is heavy,
sodden with salt water, and the storm has wrapped it into a rat’s nest
of tangles. I fight through the kinks as a wave pounds over the side
of the ship and drenches me in a crash of salt. I choke on the spray,
desperately trying to work faster. Voices behind me are still shouting
at one another, running back and forth while trying to stay safe and,
above all things, stay aboard.
“Ready on the peak halyard! Ready on the throat halyard!” voices from the darkness shout.
“Ready!” I cry, the last of the loops lying flat on the deck,
released from my shaking fingers. Another wave soaks me and I grab
the pinrail to keep from slamming into it.
Oh, God. Oh, God.
“Ease your halyards!”
I take the line off the pin and ease it out, listening as the foresail makes its slow decent.
Hurry, hurry… it seems so imperative that we get all the sails down and regain control of the ship.
“Grab gasket lines! Lash the sail!”
There are ten of us immediately standing on the hatches, throwing lines
to one another and fighting the great sail into a messy bundle. The
darkness makes it hard to see, and only when lightning lights up the sails
can we discern our fumbling fingers over the lines. A rolling wave
slams into the hull and we all lose our balance a little. The boom
heaves to the leeward side and wracks into Scott, who roars and falls to
the deck. I fall beside him, my fingers clamping onto his foulie jacket
to keep him from sliding down the deck. Sarah calls for our medic,
and Julie quickly brings Scott to safety in the aft cabin to tend to
his head. The rest of us catch our breath, push salty hair out of our
eyes, and fight keep moving.
It takes us two long hours. The heavy sails are down, and
all we have left to do is ride out the rest of the storm as safely as
possible. It is almost eleven thirty, and my next watch starts at midnight. I am exhausted, and shaking, and growing steadily more seasick as time
wears on. It is my 67th hour awake. My body is quaking with adrenaline
and anxiety, I am cold and drenched, my salty foulies feel like glass
against my skin, and I have four more hours that I have to stand watch in
this awful weather.
My entire watch is exhausted. We are all delirious
and cranky. We start hallucinating, seeing things in the darkness that aren’t there, jumping every time lightning lights up the sky. We lie like
miserable, wretched animals when we aren’t at the helm or watching the
horizon, trying not to be ill. We clip our harnesses into the
lifelines to steady ourselves. It may be the only thing that keeps us safe as we
threaten to fall asleep on our feet.
It is the longest, most painful
four hours any of us has spent on deck. The storm rages, and then
slowly, calms. By 4:00 am (and we thought the hour would never come) we
give the deck to the next watch of tired sailors and we drag
our weary bodies below decks.
I pen the words I have been awake for 70 hours through the worst of storms before exhaustion pulls me under and the darkness consumes me.