~This story was previously published in Green Mountains Review (2005).
Nine days into the heat, Simon walked up the hill at the edge of Bird Cove. At the top of the lane, a patch of wildflowers caught his eye. That might help. Catherine liked the yellow ones the best, or maybe it was the blue ones. He could never remember. To be safe he picked some of both, and then for good measure, tramped into the scrub and broke off a few stems from a struggling wild rose bush. That would do it, if they didn't wilt on the long walk home.
Like everyone else, he was unaccustomed to such thick, wet heat that made glue of the air and turned the ocean warm; a heat so powerful it could pull water from the skin even during sleep. The shimmering haze erased the contrast between shadow and light, and bleached out the colors of the land, so he could barely make out the cottages on the other side of the cove. On the beaches, the smooth stones steamed like bedwarmers and the barefooted children scampered over them with small cries. The seabirds stopped flying and floated on the calm harbors. Farmers worried about the newly planted hay. Grass wilted, hens were put off their eggs, cows gave less milk and the milk they gave soured quickly.
The heat had come after a deep spring cold had held on well into June, making the herring run late and weak. Then, it swelled rapidly, just as the month turned, until no one could imagine how August would take it away. Simon thought that one day the people along the Nova Scotia coast would come to understand how exotic the heat had been, how long and how strong its grip, and they would call it "the heat wave of '09", but right in the midst of it, without the telescoping effect of time, everyone just called it "the heat".
Last night he had slept poorly again. Catherine had been the one who wanted to live so far out of town, in the cottage where her grandfather Robinson had lived with his second wife. Simon would have been happy to rent a room in the village until they could afford a real house. But she wanted her own place, even if it was nothing more than a two story shanty on a rise that caught every breeze and gust coming through. In the winter, he'd ignore the draft and Catherine's prodding as long as he could, then he would run his fingers over the sills and doors, and stuff the gaps with rags and newspapers. In the summer, it held the day's warmth firm throughout the night. When the weather was seasonable, it was pleasant. But in the past week, it had become an oven, gathering the pulsating heat through the thin boards and baking them without mercy.
In the morning, he went to the wharf for the daily gathering, and took his spot at the last post. The heat monopolized the conversation of the regulars who had ventured out. A fight had broken out in Candless over a block of ice on Saturday. Then there was a family in West Harbor who had become so exhausted from two weeks of bickering with their neighbors over the smell from their outhouse that they had packed up and were leaving for Boston. McNallie pronounced this was nothing compared to the heat wave of '71, not that most of them had been born then, but it had hung on so long, everyone thought the sun was stuck. As to the prospects for fishing, no one wanted to go out. The Slocums and the Pinnocks might, because they didn't seem to know the difference between good weather and bad, but most fishermen would be staying home today. Simon became drowsy listening to them and when he nodded off the others teased him.
"Hey, McDougal, wake up,"
"A late night again? Two years married and I bet the fish are still biting."
"Why go out when it's good on shore, eh? And who knows--maybe this time you've reeled in something for your second bedroom."
"Not the way he and my sister were yesterday. Hardly a word between them and Catherine was acting cold as a fish. And when they left to go home, a wagon could have passed between the two of them on the lane,” said Beecher.
"It's the smooth face. When he gets a beard, she'll fall in line. It will give him a little more gruffness."
His face turned red and he looked out to the sea without giving a reply.
The conversation turned to how the heat trampled down the wind and what a chore it would be to row out of the harbor. And who knew, perhaps the seas would be just as calm, and without a stiff breeze the two-man schooners and sloops wouldn't reach the first fishing bank before sunrise. The heat would keep the herring too far below the surface, the season should have been over by now, and anyway the catch was sure to be too small for the effort. McNallie said the air wasn't stable, couldn't be trusted to hold through the night, and he was going for cod tomorrow. The others murmured in agreement.
"Sky isn't stormy," Simon shifted around the post to face the others, his mind made up. He wanted the peace of a night alone on the water.
"No, it's calm enough now. Was like that in '71 too. Like the rain and the wind had dried up forever. But the heat broke with a gale like a southern hurricane. Stretched from Yarmouth to Halifax. Three boats went down and a house got blown off its foundation. Lost my cousin in it. But that wouldn't stop you."
"I'm just staying in shore like I always do."
"So it won't be the storm, but the rocks that do you in. Suit yourself."
"Who can blame him? He'll have a storm at home if Catherine stays mad." Another ripple of laughter went around the dock.
At that, Simon gave a sudden push off the post and strode off the wharf. But he delayed going home. He stopped at the boatyard to see the new design the chief builder was working on. Then he wandered over to the cannery to see what the other coves had brought in last week, and to the general store where he bought two pieces of hard candy. Only then did he start back to get food and water for the night's fishing.
He trudged up the last rise to the cottage, his shirt damp, his feet hot in his shoes, and the sun continued to burn like a feverish opal, surrounded by a pasty white gruel from north to south. Not one darker spot anywhere, just the heat pressing down. The flowers were limp now in his hand.
When he got to the kitchen, he saw Catherine by the clothes line out back, bent over the wash basket, and he lost his nerve. He put the flowers in a mason jar on the table and watched as she pulled out a shirt. She snapped it like she was whipping it and then in one swift motion she hung it on the line with two clothes pins she held in her mouth. She replaced them from the sack tied around her waist before she pulled out the next piece, in a jerky fury. He stepped back to turn away but she saw him through the window and he went out to talk to her. He stood off to the side while she continued to punish the clothes and linens, refusing to acknowledge the heat or him.
"I'm going out for herring," he finally said after she had hung three more pieces. She pushed back the wisps of her dark curls with her sleeve and reached for a pair of his drawers.
"Why don't you save that till it's cooler?" he pointed his head toward the basket.
"It's got to be done," she said, jamming a clothes pin on the drawers.
"It could wait."
"Do the fish ever wait? You're going out today." She spoke it like an accusation.
"Is anyone else going out?"
"You know whenever there's a choice to stay or go, they stay."
"It's going to storm.”
“I'll just be in shore."
"Then take someone with you," she insisted.
He sighed. From the day her father had given Simon the old jolly boat, she had urged him to get a crew, a railroad man's son like himself or a farm boy who wanted to learn the trade, because she did not like him going out alone. He was the only fisherman in the cove who did, except for Robert MacGillvary who was too surly to find a willing crew and Clarence Snow who was too drunk to keep one. But Simon didn't think he could find any one who would work hard enough and on a day like this, you couldn't talk a boy into going out, not even if you had a horse trader's silver tongue, which he didn't. And didn't she remember the year when the squall came up at the finish line at the Malone Bay Regatta and he had been the only sailor who pulled out of it? First place and all the more impressive considering he had not been raised in a fishing family, only married into one.
"I'll just be in shore," he repeated.
"Go ahead." She snapped another piece of clothing.
"I've got to make us a living."
"Yes, that's what you think."
"I could stay," he offered without conviction. "If you want."
"No, you go."
"Catherine." He waited for her to speak but she kept hanging the clothes. A bead of sweat slid down his back and other drops formed across his forehead. He didn't know what else he could say. He kicked the dirt with one shoe and then the other. She wanted too much from him. What was wrong with her? Why couldn't she just let him be? He was tired of her pushing him. Get a crew, grow a mustache, join the deacons at church, mingle more with the men at the dock. A night alone again would do her some good, make her appreciate that he wasn't like other husbands. He was never foul-mouthed, he came right home from the dock, he helped her with the chores. Why wasn't that enough?
"You'll have to make up your own dinner bucket." She spoke to the sheet she was smoothing out along the line.
He gave a little snort and said too softly to reach her ears, "Don't worry."
He made the bucket quickly and walked back to the village, following the cove's moon-shaped beach past the larger schooners to the last launchway where his jolly boat rested. He had painted it at the beginning of the spring and it almost looked new except for the old-fashioned bow with the nearly straight stem and wide stern. And he couldn't hide the fact that it sailed without a centerboard or that the single collapsible mast was stored like a dory alongside the boat. But he was proud of it. A hand-me-down from Catherine's father, but it was his own.
He went through his routine to make sure everything was in order for a night's sail. He examined the hole in the forward seat where he would set the mast at the beginning of the drift. He checked the jib stay that he would tie from the top of the mast to the stemhead. He looked in the small storage chest he had built under the aft seat, and went through the supplies. Bailing pail, an extra length of rope, a knife, the lantern with a tin shade he had designed to keep his night vision sharp. Then he double-checked the nets where he had mended them the week before. He made sure the oarlocks were tight and looked at a small split that had begun to creep down one oar. He'd need a new set before the summer was out. He pulled his sweaty hand across the thick paint of the gunwale and scanned the horizon, thinking how cool it would be on the water.
McNallie had been right about the wind. Simon pulled the oars through the flabby air with his powerful stroke. Quick enough to burn the calluses on his hands and soak his body with sweat. Dip, stretch, back. Dip, stretch, back. The oars thudded against the oarlocks. At the edge of the harbor, he drew in the oars and peeled off his shirt. The hair on his head was thick and wavy, a handsome reddish honey color. But his front was smooth and boy-like except for the few silky pale strands near his breast bone. Last month in desperation, he bought a small jar of chest rub from Dr. Maitland who had guaranteed results from the foul smelling ointment. A couple of hairs might be new. It was hard to tell. He'd have to put on another treatment when he got back.
He took a deep breath in the stillness of the afternoon. The sky was still white and smooth with a small patch of puffier clouds in the northwest. This is when he wanted a son along with him, to catch the words rolling around inside his head, so he could turn to him and say "What do you think?" If he had a son, they would go out on a day like this and he'd start the tack by saying, "Do you think we should go north, or does that cloud coming by Clear Harbor look like it will move out to sea?" And his son would answer him, "Hard to say. We could wait it out a bit and see if it breaks apart, right?" Then they would fall quiet, and a little later, the words would run like fish again and bring them to what they'd do next. But most of the time, they would take each other's company as sufficient.
It had not been like that with his father. He had shoveled coal on the Dartmouth-New Glasgow line, a surly, bitter man. He'd return from his three day runs with a bottle and a temper strong enough to keep Simon and his older brother breathing dust under their bed all night.
His brother was good with his hands and eventually went to Halifax to apprentice with a milliner. Simon, though, preferred to be outdoors whenever he could, and his mother told him he should become a farmer. But the long afternoons tending the family vegetable plot set him against the land. Planting and weeding and picking the long demanding rows, one after another. Beans, peas, carrots, cabbage. Ripping aches in his muscles from hunching low, gnats swarming around his flushed face. His brother droning on like a bag pipe and nagging him to work faster.
One day in Sunday School, the teacher had read God's judgment on Adam, "Cursed is the ground for thy sake, in sorrows shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee", and he had looked around at the other children to see if they were as astounded as he was at this prediction. He had fastened his belief on the entire Scripture right then. With one statement so true, he could not doubt the rest of it. In the afternoons, when he was done weeding, he would go down to the beach and watch the white sailed boats coming back into the harbor, heavy with groundfish. It occurred to him that the Bible stories about the sea were always miraculous. The whale holding Jonah, Jesus calming the wind, the fishermen's nets suddenly filled with fish. As far as he could tell, the ocean fell outside of God's curse, stretching on without boundary lines, furnished with an abundance. He had fixed on it then. He would be a fisherman.
At fifteen, he had gone on his first trip, as a mate on a schooner out of Lunenberg. He had worked on the crew for four seasons until he had married Catherine. Now he worked alone inshore. He drifted for herring in the spring, turned to hand-lines for cod and other groundfish in the summer, back to the nets for mackerel in September, and then dragged for scallops in the winter. He was always happy on the water, as the boat trotted across the waves with the land shrinking behind him. He relished the peace when becalmed and the power when the wind came up and the sails filled. And he loved the empty nights of drifting by himself, looking at the stars in the heavens. He knew he was fortunate to do something that gave him such pleasure. Even today, when the air was as moist as the sea, he felt light. He could set his own course and there was no one to tell him what to do.
He thought that this late in the season, with this much heat in the air, south was the only direction that made sense. He'd go past Langley Head and keep on rowing until he almost reached Barnose Island before setting the nets, lifting the sail, and drifting back across Round Cove and Terrence Harbor. The older fishermen didn't believe there was any advantage to starting the drift from one place rather than the other. But Simon was convinced it made a difference. He made mental notes from trip to trip so he could remember the routes of his best runs. Last year, late in the season, he had started from Barnose Island and had caught so many fish that the boat had almost swamped under the weight. He went back to the oars, and turned up his stroke, with the memory of that triumph pushing him on.
He was the only one out until Langley Head when he saw a schooner coming from the north with the sails down. It was coming too fast to be rowed. After a few minutes, he could make out the barn red hull, and then he was sure it was the Slocum brothers from the next cove. They had bought the first motor on the southern coast and he was envious of the boat-bursting hauls they brought in. Catherine's father had been skeptical when Simon mentioned getting a motor. "How can you catch fish with that durn contraption announcing you like Gabriel's trumpet? Simon let the subject drop, but often when he drifted at night, he dreamed of buying one.
The schooner slowed down and pulled up alongside of him. Harvey held onto one mast and leaned out, signaling with his other arm. "Hey there," he shouted to Simon, with a wide, tooth-gapped grin. "What are you doing out?"
Simon smiled and lifted his cap. "What are you doing out?" he echoed back.
"We figured let the chickens plant the corn. If you're a fisherman, go fish."
"Couldn't agree more. You been out much?"
"Thursday and Saturday. Not the best, but worth the trip. You should do alright. Have a good night."
The boat accelerated past him and turned out to the open ocean, with Harry at the tiller, waving back over his head.
Simon waited while the jolly boat rocked in their wake. The water ahead of him stretched flat and dark and free until it met the sky. This is what pulled him off the land. He pulled the oars all the way in and leaned against the side of the boat.
He had met Catherine his third year on the schooner, at the Malone Bay Regatta. She was serving pie at the Methodist Church table and he had watched the way she had moved, like a spark, never sitting still, creating a cloud of activity around her as she flashed her smile to the customers, laughing, and tilting her head to one side like a bird. He fell in love with her that day and spent the rest of the summer wooing her. She had other beaus, a stream of them from good families with favorable prospects. He persisted, though he had been surprised at his boldness and his desire. But he wanted her like he wanted to fish. Even when she broke off seeing him and took back up with an old suitor, he kept calling on her. When she finally said yes, he felt like he had won the Regatta all over again.
She had grown up in a family of fishermen, but she became seasick from the slightest motion of water, even if she was standing on the beach when the tide came in or the wind riffled the water. Once, soon after they were married, they had walked down to the cove and she swayed as if she were on a boat. He reached for her and steadied her with his arm around her waist, his fingertips filling in between the bones of her slender rib cage. She had laughed after swaying. "If this is how nauseated I get from looking at the sea, what do you think carrying a baby will do to me?" He had kissed her right there on the beach and her face had turned pink as a sunburn. "You are a brash young man, even if you are my husband," she had said, and adjusted the brim of her hat. But she was pleased.
She spent their first winter together knitting tiny sweaters and booties, but when her stomach remained flat in the spring she gave them away. He watched her knit another set this past winter. They were still stacked on the chest in the spare bedroom. He did not understand why they had not conceived a child, given how frequently they came together. When they were first married, there had been a period of patient awkwardness, but within a few months of the consummation, that initial tentativeness had been replaced by a vigorous desire, and he went to her as often as he dared without overstepping the propriety of a married man. Catherine blamed herself, saying it was because she was older. But he told her it was like fishing. If you went out regularly you were sure to bring something home sooner or later.
But the other night, he had felt a resistance to her. She moved close to him in bed as they lay enveloped in the sticky heat and whispered in his ear. "I feel it is a good time." He had not said anything, but remained motionless, staring at the wall in the dark with his eyes open, seeing nothing. He was peeved because he had believed the men at the dock who had said the heat would break that day and so instead of going out he had stayed home and planted potatoes with Catherine in the suffocating afternoon. And he was thinking about how the last two months had been pitiful, that he should have had twenty-five full catches by now and he only had fifteen. He was trying to figure out if he could make up the shortfall if he did a few trips back to back, herring to cod, when she whispered to him.
"I'm too tired," he had said to her after a pause.
Her reply came immediately. "Are you sure?"
"It's too hot."
"You're away so often."
"No." His tone was sharp enough to put her off. He lay there perfectly still in the darkness, pretending he had fallen asleep while she had sniffled. When she finally stopped, he moved over to her to make peace, but she stiffened and shook his hand off her shoulder. He rolled back over to his edge and stayed awake, with her insistence still chafing him.
In the morning, before he woke up, she left for the market without making breakfast. When he got up, he finished the water in the jug and left it by the door instead of going out to fill it. All day, they used short, telegraphic sentences when they had to talk, but they avoided each other as much as they could. If he came into the kitchen, she shifted to the sitting room. If she went out to the back of the house, he skirted around to the front porch. Sunday, they walked to church in silence, stoically listened to Reverend Browning preach about the need for patience in such unusual weather, ate dinner at her parents' house with the rest of her family, and came home still not speaking.
A gust of coolness roused him from his sleep. The boat had drifted clear past Round Harbor. He jerked around to the northwest. The clouds had passed over the rise of the land, and instead of breaking up, were gathering force, and looked intent on swallowing the sky with little curling, licking tongues. A rough wind pushed through the air. He went quickly to the oars and began to row, aiming for Barnose Island in the distance. It stood planted in the sea, not much more than a pile of crumbling rocks which fell steeply into the ocean, but he thought there might be a spot around the east side of the island with enough of a slope to pull the boat out of the water if a storm came.
As Simon rowed, daylight drained from the sky. The clouds were lower now and thicker, moving swiftly out to sea, widening and expanding past him. Then the wind picked up with a low moan. He struggled to keep his rhythm even. The waves slapped coarsely against the sides and sloshed into the boat. The dinner bucket jangled against the side of the storage chest. He paused. He was almost to the island but with the strength of the wind, he couldn't trust the rocks. He could try to row back to land but he was sure to get caught in whatever cloud burst there would be. The only option left was to row straight out to sea and hope to beat the land force of the storm.
Simon turned the boat out to sea, fighting the choppy water with deep, rapid strokes to keep pace with the flying clouds. But they were gaining on him. The oars creaked as he leaned hard to steer out of the wind. He did not hesitate or panic, but kept the strokes as steady and methodical as he could, like chopping wood.
Then, the clouds touched the sea and suddenly he could not see the bow. The wind burst into heavy gusts, with horrible groaning noises as if it were strangling the sea. The boat pitched back and forth and then side to side, and then back and to the side at the same time. Everything became tilted and skewed. Sharp cracks of thunder ripped through the air. Rain hammered against his chest and his pants and his face, stinging his eyes. Waves crashed into the boat. He swallowed mouthfuls of the salty foam. He kept directing the oars, but like a boxer, instinctive and thoughtless. The ocean collapsed and turned into deep troughs forcing the boat to leap up and down, crashing from channel to channel. The storm was trying to beat him into water and he suddenly knew how men died at sea, small, beaten, and stunned.
And then the boat thrust straight up, as if the sea wanted to turn it over and when it came down there was a ripping blast, and he tumbled to one side and felt the boat break apart. He slid into the bracing water. Catherine flashed into his mind, her face twisted. "Don't go," he heard her say. He felt the nets swarm over his head as if they were trying to catch him and in terror he dove deeper into the water.
He came up lunging for air just as a wave came over and thrust him back down. If he did not come back, he would be remembered as the stubborn husband washed away by the sea. "Save me, please save me," he pleaded as he broke the surface again. Something thick hit him on the shoulder and he clawed the water for it. His hands found it, a piece of the broken boat, and he pulled it to his chest like the neck of a horse.
He struggled to keep his hold, gulping air in the brief lulls and then bracing himself for the next blow. The waves crashed over him again and again, intent on prying him away from the wreckage, and his muscles turned watery and weak. But he held on, never changing his grip, afraid that if he did the raft would slip away. The storm roared on with a tumult of water and wind, flinging him up and down, tossing him from side to side.
Then, the rain began to let up, and the wind lowered its tone. The waves turned to big swells, and after some time they lengthened into rolls, in a gentle coiling procession. Simon lifted his head and tried to calm himself with oxygen, but his heart thumped wildly, as if the gale had moved inside him. The sightless fog of the storm had been replaced by a deep darkness, spreading high overhead, even and constant, as if light no longer existed, the sun and stars and moon wiped off the sky's slate. He looked out to where he thought the horizon would be. He stared so hard for a point of light or rock that his eyes began to water, but the only thing he could see were darker clumps just beyond his raft, seaweed churned up from the storm or chunks of debris from the boat, dissolving into the water and then returning in a melancholic pulse.
His legs began to feel coldly numb as they dragged behind him in the water and he inched his arms along the wreckage to judge the length of it. He could not touch the end and it curved slightly. The side of the boat he guessed. He pulled his whole body onto it, resting his cheek against the cold wet wood. He had heard of boats lifting and yawing, but never breaking. What kind of storm could snap a boat in two? "Take my word," McNallie had said to him at the dock. "You'd be better off staying home and trying to fill that house of yours. If you're out when this heat breaks, you're going to wish you had never set foot on a boat."
Catherine would be pacing at home now, frantic. When they had gotten married, her father told Simon that he had to think beyond himself and not take unnecessary chances. "It's the times you come home and she hugs you like the Leviathan because she's been up all night frantic that she's become a widow. Then you'll wonder about turning to farming." Growing up by the sea had not toughened her. Instead, it had worn away her natural defenses. Too many stories heard over supper. Boats run aground, over rigged schooners that capsized, legs tangled in the nets, and all the other peculiar reasons why men never returned, leaving behind parents and wives and children.
Even when he was at home during a storm, she wondered out loud if her father or her brothers or her sister's husband or her cousins had gone out. She would become restless with the storm. When the wind rattled the house, she would jump up and put on water to boil for tea. She would stand over the stove, smoothing down her apron, then go to the shelves and adjust the stacks of dishes and utensils. Finally she would take up her knitting and mumble the 23rd Psalm. He would try to calm her down, but she always brushed aside his fumbling attempts. "Someone might be lost out there, or the boat may come off the launchway," she would say. Her nervousness would subside as the wind died down, but she was never completely calm until she knew everyone was safe.
True to Mr. Beecher's prediction, there were mornings when he returned from a rough night and she would cling to him and squeeze him so tight, he marveled at her strength. And then she would beg him to rent the field next to their house and plant a crop of cabbage so he would not have to fish so much. He would not answer, but would scoop her up in his arms and twirl around and then carry her upstairs to the bedroom.
He desired her now. He wanted to pull her to himself. Match his lips with her lips, move his face through her loose hair, feel her hands glide down his back. He started to shiver and could not stop. His arms cramped across the wood. When he drifted alone in the darkness, the nets filling with herring, the hours were so peaceful. But tonight the sea judged him. Why had he been so eager, so content to go out alone? He had viewed fishing as his protection, the way to keep himself pure, to avoid quarrels and provocations. But now it felt like a perversity in him, a bentness. There he had been, on his way to drift for herring when all the other men were back home with their wives. He had been determined to get away from Catherine, so sure that his skill could bring him through any storm. She had come to him and he had turned away. That was all it took for him to deceive himself.
"I'm too tired," he had said to her. He wanted to escape from her urgings and her exhortations and her schemes. It was the same impulse that started him drifting in April before there had been any herring, and what kept him going out every chance he got, more than any other fisherman in the cove. He said he had to get ahead, but that was only half true. She was so desperate for a child. Of course he wanted one too. But he did not want to be pushed.
He could have gone to her by the clothes basket and whispered, "I'm sorry" with a tiny kiss on her ear. He could have tried. But he believed it was always better to pull back with people, to let things get smoothed over as a matter of course, like riding out a bad patch of weather. Especially with Catherine being so high strung.
The air felt cool but it was still heavy with moisture, as if the storm had not swept in with new air, but had simply come straight down with the wind and rain, and then gone straight back up. He could not tell how far he had drifted. When he fished, he was accustomed to long lazy-like stretches of darkness and silence, the boat ambling along as if it were following the current of a river, checked by an occasional bearing from the light off Western Head. But this drifting was dangerous. If the storm had blown him off the shore currents, he could be on his way to England. He listened for a bell or the cry of a bird, anything to mark his place. But all he could hear was the steady breathing of the ocean.
His skin chilled with fear, and he hugged the raft tighter as he floated on and on, the ocean lapping over him and trying to rock him to sleep. What could he do? The list was short. Keep holding on, keep watching, keep awake. He shook his arms and legs to make his blood move.
The refrain of a sea shanty he had learned on the Lunenberg schooner came to him. "To the sea, to the sea, to the wide, wide sea, come with me laddie to the sea. No woman's as fair as the ocean out there, come with me laddie to the sea." He was too thirsty to sing more than one verse out loud and the rest he hummed to himself. He went through every song he could remember, and then all the Scripture he knew. The Lord's Prayer. The Beatitudes. All the psalms he had memorized as a child. Psalm 23. Psalm 84, Psalm 139. "O Lord, thou hast searched me, and known me. Thou knowest my down-sitting and mine up-rising, thou understandest my thought afar off. Thou compassest my path, and my lying down, and art acquainted with all my ways." He faltered on a verse, and he switched the phrases around, trying every combination, until he thought he had it right, "Yea, the darkness hideth not from thee; the darkness and the light are both alike to thee, the night shineth as the day." If he got back, he would check to see if it was right.
He waited for the sky to turn the paler black before dawn, but a thick, dark, ceiling remained overhead as if time had stopped. When he had gone to school, the afternoons often seemed to crawl along. To keep his spirits up, he would fasten his sight on the angle of the sun and mark the shadow moving across the desk. And when he fished, he did not care how long time took--no, he liked it to go as slowly as it could. He was greedy for it to linger, so he could catch more fish. But tonight, when he wanted time to go faster, the blackness of the night refused to change, as if it had slipped out of the flow. If he could only flip his mind like the wave had flipped the boat and wake up into an envelope of heat with Catherine beside him.
Cowardice. That is what he should call this going out. He should have stayed and fought her. But what would he have said to her? He was a fisherman, not a teacher or a preacher. She had more words than him, and he relied on her to talk them through the rough spots. When she was silent, he was helpless. If he had stayed home, nothing would have changed. He would be trying to sleep in the angry darkness beside her, frustrated and tight inside, still unyielding.
But this was no different. Here he was in a frightening silence with the darkness pressing on him like the eye of God. He saw now he could not escape from the curse. The struggle remained whether he stayed or left. At home with Catherine, or drifting on a meager raft, it would always be her willfulness, his hardness. This was the same as if he had not gone out. No, worse. He would lose her now. He would not leave an heir. And whose stubbornness had it been? He could not say. If he had not gone out, if he had stayed with her, the days would have gone on as they were meant to be, one after another. The two of them would have found a way to repair the break. He might have had a son. Now, another man would have her when he did not return. She would have another man's child. He would only have a gravestone by his father's. "Simon McDougal. 1909. Lost at sea."
His shoulder throbbed where the wreckage had hit him. Another foot higher and he would have been knocked on the head. He remembered the body he had seen as a child, washed on the beach. From a distance, he and Tommy Spruyt had thought a seal had been brought to shore by a winter storm. But when they got closer, they saw the arms and legs bloated in the black oil skins and the man's skin hunched up in rubbery folds. It had been a Liddell from two villages up the coast, caught in a sudden nor'easter. He had been hit on the head by a swinging boom, and swept overboard. His eyes were open wide in panic, but the rest of his face was calm.
Simon began to wonder what dying would feel like. Peaceful he hoped, like the tide letting out until the boat rested on the sand. Softly, like sinking into a deep, death-like sleep.
And then, he thought he heard a deep throaty sound. And above the hum, a voice calling, like a mother looking for her child, "Simon, Simon." He trembled, but he did not know if it was from relief or dread.
The lantern burned softly in the darkness across the deck. Harry Slocum pulled a tarp around Simon. "We were almost to the first bank when the storm came up," Harry told him. "We were going to go right back once it calmed down, but Harvey said, 'No, McDougal is out there. We should do a few sweeps in case he needs help.' So we started to check the currents. When we saw some bits of boat, we got worried that if we found you, you wouldn't be breathing air." He poured a cup of water for Simon. "You were right on course as far as I can tell. Headed straight for No Name Cove."
" Dead on," said Harvey.
"That storm came from nowhere, didn't it? Reminds me of that nor'easter--when was that, Harvey?" Harvey shrugged.
"Must have been in '98 or '99--that's right, '98. Mother was still alive. Wind came up so fierce it blew me overboard and if Harvey hadn't been there to throw me a line, I would have gone down for sure. Isn't that right, Harvey?"
"Sobered me up good. We never did tell Mother, did we?"
"Don't think so."
"But you'll have to tell your missus, what with the boat gone."
Simon finished the last gulp of water and gave the cup back to Harry. "Thank you." The words came by rote.
"Do you want some more? What am I thinking? Of course you do." He poured another cup and peered at Simon's face. "Ocean was cold, wasn't it. But you're a tough one. Not every sailor could have hung on all night."
Simon took the chunk of bread Harry offered him. His fingers wouldn't unbend and his arms felt they were still clenched around the raft.
"You're married to a Beecher, aren't you?" Harry asked. "Catherine is it?"
"Boy you were lucky. There's a woman who would never forgive you if you didn't come back."
Simon gave a blank look.
"We've met her. A real beacon of charm. But she knows what she wants."
Simon thought of Catherine chewing the ends of her bedtime plaits. He had lost the boat, made her suffer in a storm alone. She would never forget it.
"Don't feel too sorry for yourself. I wager you have as much determination as she does. You'd have to."
"Well," Simon tried to think of something else to talk about.
"Oh no. I think I know your kind. Real soft on the surface but can't be crossed. Underneath you're granite." He tilted his head back. "Like Harvey there. Goes along with the flow, but when he gets his mind set, he's the rock, not the boat. But enough of that." He patted Simon on the back. "You're safe. That's what counts. Where are we, Harvey?"
"Coming up to Barnose Island, I reckon."
The sky had become a soft gray in the east and Simon could make out a faint shadow of the island.
"Cut the motor, time to put up the sails." Harry said. "We'll have you home by mid-morning. Go ahead and take a rest now."
Simon leaned against the cabin, but he could not sleep. He listened to the breeze puff against the sail, and watched the dawn begin to grow. The sky lightened in degrees, and as it lightened, the coast line took shape, getting bigger and then taking on color. To the east, the dark water stretched calm and smooth before him, unmarked by the storm. The scraps of his boat were far beyond his sight. The sea had almost killed him and now it looked as if nothing had happened.
He reached home as the day was beginning to boil. The shanty stood proud on the hill, on fire in the morning light.
"Catherine? Are you there?" The floor creaked under his steps. The laundry was folded in the basket waiting to be ironed, the flowers on the table had not been moved. He went upstairs. The stack of knitting remained on the chest. The coverlet was neatly spread across their bed. Her nightgown hung on the hook. A wave of fatigue came over him. His feet had blistered in Harry Slocum's spare boots, his shoulder ached, his eyes smarted from too much salt. He stumbled down the stairs, and stopped short at the bottom, not knowing where to go.
And then he heard her come through the kitchen. "Simon McDougal, don't you ever do that to me again." He turned and saw her eyes flashing but she walked towards him weakly, as if she had been beaten. "I was sick half the night. So afraid. I thought you might--" She shook her head.
He took her words as a measure of forgiveness and pulled her to himself. Her arms went tight around his back, as if she would never release him. They breathed together in a fierce embrace, squeezing the blood through their bodies, trying to bandage the rift between them. He had almost lost her, this small, thin woman he had chosen, and he did not want to let her go. He hugged her tighter.
He knew now that the sea could not hide him. Even on the water he was hemmed in, caught under the watchful care. In a few more days, another storm would come and blow the heat away. He would join a schooner crew and work until he saved enough to buy his own boat, a two man whaler with a motor. A baby would come, he was sure of it, and a few years later another. They would pick out a spot for a new house and he would build it carefully, with the boards tight up against each other.
"You are a fool, Simon. A fool. What am I going to do?" She began to cry.
"Hush Catherine." He stroked her head. “Hush.” He pressed her closer to his chest and let some of the hardness inside him float away.
THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY
I was working at a management job that was sucking the life out of me (even if it was in book publishing). Desperate to do something that would bring joy to my soul, I decided to fulfill an old dream and write fiction. Every morning I would get up at 5 AM in the pitch black, and tip toe into my study with a large mug of coffee. There I would write for two hours, while the rest of my family slept.
"Night at Sea" was the first short story I wrote in those pre-dawn hours. The idea had come to me during a business trip to Florida. But I couldn't say how Peter from Nova Scotia, living almost a hundred years earlier, was created. At the time, I was living in central New Jersey, a good hour from the ocean. I had grown up in Massachusetts, but not on the coast. I should add that I don't like boats, especially small ones, and that fishing is one of my least favorite activities.
Since I'm a creeper not a plunger by nature, I took my time writing the story. As I did, I began to learn how to craft a narrative and bring characters to life. The days turned into weeks and then into months while this simple fisherman kept me company in the dark. Finally I was satisfied enough to submit the story to literary journals. The road to publication turned out to be quite a journey in its own right, but that, as we say, is another story.
ABOUT A.H. WALD
A.H. Wald worked in publishing for fifteen years as an acquisitions editor and Editor-in-Chief of Princeton University Press before writing full-time. Her fiction has appeared in numerous publications including North American Review, Image, and The Southern Review. "A Night at Sea" was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She has spent the last thirteen years living on the west coast--of Africa--where she can see a sliver of ocean from her upstairs terrace. For more information: www.ahwald.com