Some time ago I found myself in a spot of financial bother from which the esteemed halls of academia and the pittance afforded a newly appointed assistant professor could not raise me. I had been an avid sailor in my youth, and paid my way through college working as a first mate on one of the cities many tour boats that operated in and around the harbour. It was an old friend from those days who suggested over an afternoon libation, that I ship out on a ‘Laker’.
‘The hours are arduous,’ he said. ‘And at times the work is backbreaking and you’re away from home for months at a time. But when you see the pay cheque you will forget all that hardship.’ I was not afraid of a little hard work, despite my having spent the better part of five years poring over texts in a poorly lit library cubicle as I researched my PHD. The matter was all but settled in my head and we raised a glass and a few thereafter and he left me later in the evening with the makings of a hangover and the phone number of one of the companies that hauled cargo in the Great Lakes region.
It only took one call to the head office of a shipping company; a brief interview and I was hired. Two days later I was stood on a pier watching the ship come in. Her name was the Wayfarer and she looked an awful piece of junk to me then. Caked in coal dust down to the waterline she was and what wasn’t black was scaled and so thick with rust that the rivets barely showed. The bow was near stove in and the rest of the hull was pocked and dented like the cannonball flecked armour of an old ironside. As she came alongside and the first wires came ashore there emitted from the stack a noxious puff of black smoke that engulfed the pier and set my nostrils and the back of my throat a-blaze.
I was greeted with little ceremony by a young, gruff seaman who did not enquire my name or proffer his, he merely grunted in a way that indicated I was to follow him, and I did so, up the ladder and onto the ship’s deck which was a-flurry with activity and the deafening clamour of industry. I followed him past the open cargo holds piled high with powdery black dust that glinted in the afternoon sun. We passed equally stern-faced men of all ages, all intently focused on whatever task it was they were performing. None even glanced in my direction which I thought peculiar having always made it a habit to introduce myself in a courteous and politic manner when in a new environment. He led me to the forward house of the ship where we descended a flight of time worn iron stairs at the bottom of which he kicked a door open.
‘Stow your gear and then come out on deck,’ he said and disappeared back up top.
The room was an awful mess, a film of dust covered everything. There was an old spring bed with an ancient mattress that held the black outline of whomever had been sleeping on it. There was a pile of clean linen on the bed which I set about making, though freshly laundered the linen was grey with age and the bottom sheet had such a large hole in it as to make using it near pointless, but any buffer between my recumbent self and that fetid mattress was going to be used regardless how ineffectual. I stowed my belongings in an old iron dresser whose drawers I had to use all my strength to pry open. I donned new coveralls and work boots and headed back out on deck.
I spent much of the next week regretting my decision to ship out. The work was brutally hard, and this was not leavened by the lack of civility shown me by my shipmates some of whom treated me with outright hostility. However, in the second week I began to grow accustomed to the order of things and some of this animus began to wear off and by the end of the third week, when the lads saw that what I might lack in knowledge and initiative I made up for in vigor,they began to warm to me. Despite my being nearly ten years older than some of the young bucks I was no less formidable with a shovel, the old stubborn, Scottish streak that ran through me would not allow my age to be a hindrance and made me attack those piles of coal like a calvary man slashing through a flank of foot soldiers.
In hindsight I can understand their skepticism. The grueling nature of the work meant that there was a high turnover of men showing up, getting a taste of the job, and quitting shortly after. And here was I, a slender fellow from the big city, whose body had grown sallow and pale from years of academic work. I knew nothing of sport, or the workings of an internal combustion engine. I had never hunted or even held a gun for that matter and my sexual dalliances remained private, not rendered in gynecological detail as I often heard them described in the crew mess. In short, a betting man would not have put money on my lasting a week, but I persevered, it was after all, a rather indelible spot of financial bother.
By the fourth week I was finally gaining some confidence. I was paired with a mate named Vickers, who was in possession of a formidable beard and a rather fearsome countenance, but despite this and a mountainous physique he proved to be of quite sterling character and once he recognized that I would not be jumping ship after a week he put some time into teaching me things properly and explaining the ins and outs of the coal trade and what the loading and unloading of it entailed. Soon my skin browned, my muscles hardened and my language coarsened and I dared to consider myself part of the crew.
Meals aboard were an inelegant affair. The cook was a pot-bellied homunculus with an acid-tongue whose food was only slightly less toxic than his odious personality. His meal selections were antiquarian and unhealthy, his vegetables boiled to the point of paste, his meats cooked to the consistency of leather and his daily soups proved to be of questionable provenance and were, as the frequent trips to the toilet alerted me, best left alone. However, such was the physical toll of the work that we had to eat, regardless the quality of the rations.
It was in the crew mess that I warmed to this rough and tumble gang. They came from all over the country. Mostly small towns. A large contingent came from Newfoundland, or the Rock as it was often referred to. They were a gregarious, hardworking lot, constantly joking and it was amongst their ranks that I first noticed Hank, and while many of these men warrant their own pages, this tale belongs to him.
He was conspicuous for his quietness amidst all that rabble. He was of average build, with close cropped peppery hair that was mostly hidden by a ball cap permanently affixed to his head. He would sit there and not say a word. Occasionally he would smile at some particularly ribald comment but mostly he just sat and nursed a cup of tea. I could tell that he was treated with a certain amount of reverence by the others, which I attributed to his age which I guessed to be somewhere in his late fifties. It was Vickers up in the wheelhouse, on a night watch on Lake Huron who told me that he had survived the sinking of a fishing boat back east. And thathe was the sole-survivor of the wreck. His father, brother and brother-in-law had all perished. I could not shake this thought and a few days later, I went back aft for a snack after my night watch and I found Hank there, alone at the mess table. His hands cupped a mug of tea which had long quit steaming. His eyes seemed moist and I felt a palpable sense of sadness emanating from his person such that after I prepared my sandwich I sat down at the table in the hopes of igniting some sort of conversation and perhaps raising him from his torpor.
‘Black night out there,’ I said referring to the gale howling just outside the galley door, we were now well into the season and the winter gales has begun to blow, and he suddenly shook his head as though he’d been in some sort of dark reverie and he looked at me and said in the parlance of his people.
‘Yes b’y. It is that.’
I continued with my sandwich, regretting the rather uncomfortable silence that had descended.
‘You likes your books, don’t you?’ He said to me. I was surprised by the question but quickly chewed the mouthful I had just torn off and responded.
‘Why yes, I suppose I do.’ I had, as I’d grown more comfortable, taken to reading in the mess as I ate, consumed as I had been by a rather sumptuous piece of criticism called ‘Shakespeare in Parts.’
‘Are you a religious man?’ He asked, to which I replied that I wasn’t though I did not discount the notion of a god entirely.
‘And what about life after you’re dead?’ I found myself increasingly flustered by the nature and candor of the questions.
‘I suppose I don’t believe in anything like that. Mine’s a more scientific approach. But why do you ask?’
And so on a dark night on Lake Huron in the crew mess of the coal ship Wayfarer, Hank told me his story.
They had been fishing off the Grand Banks in November. The weather was terrible, but the fishing was good. They had nearly filled their hold when their ship began taking on water.
‘We wents down in a hurry,’ he said. ‘Five minutes tops.’ Only two of them made it into the water, the other three never emerged from the sinking ship.
‘T’was me and my brudder afloat out there, hanging on to just one lifejacket. My son she was cold let me tell you.’ They tried huddling and talking but within minutes the extreme chill overtook them and he lost consciousness.
He came to with three ruddy faces peering into his. He was on his back in a warm room. He could smell diesel and hear the faint thrum of an engine.
‘Where am I?’ he asked.
‘My son,’ a bearded man and the largest of the three said, ‘you’re some lucky feller. We had just cast our nets and we comes across you bobbing around out there. Yes b’y. Some lucky.’
‘How longs have I been out for?’
‘Geez now b’y, you ‘ve been layin’ there near an hour,’ said a small, skinny man with a moustache. They all had fierce heads of red hair but were of varying physical stature.
‘The others, did you find any others.’ To this they gravely shook their heads and the skinny one laid a comforting hand on Hank’s shoulder and he felt a surge of grief powerful as the ocean they were atop flood through him.
‘Let’s get you up there feller,’ and the three of them helped him onto his feet and led him to a square booth-style table around which was a settee on three sides. He slid into the middle and the third man, a rotund, cherubic-faced chap slid a steaming bowl and a mug of tea in front of him. The men settled into the settee on either side of him and watched him as he ate and sipped the warm liquid. It was a Jigg’s dinner which was somehow nearly tasteless, a difficult feat for a meal made of salt beef. The tea was scalding but no matter how much sugar his shaking hands tipped in it retained a metallic flavour.
‘Where are you b’ys from?’ he asked.
‘We’re out of Alder’s Cove.’ The bearded one said.
‘Oh, my brudder’s wife’s people are from down that way.’ And looking at the three faces he realized they did look familiar. ‘She’s a Muir. You knows them?’
‘Oh yes b’y. Old Sheila who runs the dried goods store.’
‘That’s the one.’ Hank said. Gladdened to hear mention of hissister in law’s cantankerous grandmother.
‘She’s a real ball-breaker that one,’ said the skinny fellow. ‘Once winged Ned there with a can of baked beans for belching in her store.’
‘That sounds like her alright b’y.’ Hank said laughing and they all laughed too.
‘What’s the name of your ship here?’ asked Hank.
‘The Brenda C.’ said the bearded one he took to be Ned. That name struck a note with Hank, but he was so rattled by hiscircumstances that he could not place it.
‘Have youse called the coast guard,’ Hank asked.
‘Yes b’y. We let them know. We let them know alright.’
‘Well are they sending out a boat?’
‘Yes, yes. She’s on her way out now. Now youse best eat your supper there. Get some strength back. How’s you like it? That’s old Gary there’s specialty’, he said indicated the skinny fellow with the moustache. The other heavy-set fellow did not seem to speak. Hank nodded amiably and took another spoonful of the tasteless stew. He felt a sudden pang of fear and sadness when he remembered his situation and how hopeless the odds of seeing his father and brother ever again were. Hank looked around the cabin. The walls were wood-paneled and grimy from exhaust and the usual wear and tear of a working boat. There were some pictures hung, and below a brass barometer there was one of the three men who, looking at the similar turn of their mouths, he now took to be brothers receiving an award from a dignitary of some sort. It was hot in the cabin and Hank realized that his clothes were not wet. How had they dried so quickly he wondered.
‘C’mon b’y, eat up.’ Ned said nudging the bowl.
‘What about the coast guard? How long did the say they’d be? You don’t even know the name of my ship. She was the Dorothy M. They need to know that so’s they can notify our families.’
‘Don’t you worry about any of that stuff my son, you just eat your dinner there. Drink your tea. Strong stuff that,’ he said winking. ‘Gary put a drop of the ‘oul dark stuff in it there too. Put hairs on yer chest eh.’ He looked around at his two brothers and they nodded and laughed.
‘But I really thinks we should call the coast guard again. I’ll go up to the wheelhouse and…,’
‘Now listen here,’ Ned said brusquely and clapped a firm hand on Hank’s shoulder. ‘It’s all done. You just need to sit there and finish your supper which Gary here made for yous.’ Hank noticed that the men had sidled up closer to him and he began to feel a bit claustrophobic. He looked at the three faces close to his. Staring raptly at him as he ate as though he were a specimen of great interest. He looked to the wood panelled wall beside him and the brass barometer and the photo of the three men. Why did it look so familiar?
‘What’s that photo from?’ Hank asked.
‘Yes b’y,’ said Gary animatedly. ‘That’s the prize we got for biggest haul of ’86. That there’s the mayor of Alder’s Cove.’
The men had moved even closer and they were shoulder to shoulder now. And then Hank remembered. The three Riley brothers and their ship the Brenda C. that had disappeared without a trace in a December gale in the winter of ’89. The photo had been on the front page of his local paper. Hank’s eyes widened and he pushed the bowl away. There was he noticed now, a powerful stench in the cabin.
‘I knows who youse are!’ he shouted, terrifed. ‘I knows who youse are! What’s going ahn here?’ And he stood as best he could behind the table with the settee beneath him and the men crowded closer.
‘Don’t youse worry my son. Youse are going to stay here with us. Now you eat your supper,’ and he pushed the bowl in front of Hank again and clapped his great paw upon his shoulder and thrust the spoon in Hank’s hand. But it was no longer Jigg’s dinner. It looked to be a bowl of fish guts and suddenly it was cold in there and his clothes were wet, sodden through and he was shaking. Ned put his hand on Hank’s and tried to force aspoonful of guts to his mouth. His hand was not warm, but waxen, like cold clay.
‘There was no life in that hand b’y, let me tell yous.’ Hank said.
Again Hank pushed the bowl and Ned’s hand away and he lurched up and over the table, upsetting the mug and bowl and sending them skittering across the deck. He knew he had to get away from their grasping reach. He turned to face the men still at the settee and their skin was mottled and pruned and white, their eyes black holes and their arms were outstretched towards him.
‘My son, my son. What have you done,’ said Ned as he and his brothers rose and lurched towards him. Hank ran for the ladder and bolted up it through the empty wheelhouse and out onto the open stern.
‘There was no wind but she was ‘tic a fog out there buddy let me tell you.’ He saw the three brothers emerging one by one from the ladder. He had but one choice. He leapt over the aft rail and into the freezing ocean.
‘All’s I remember is that awful cold. And seeing the stern of the Brenda C. and those terrible brothers and their hands reaching out for me in the water, and the voice of that big feller Ned saying ‘’My son, my son. What have you done.’’
I have to admit that I did not know how to respond to Hank’s story, I was an academic, I could not believe in tall tales like this, but I found myself gasping at this conclusion and I uttered ‘My god!’ But surely this can be chalked up to some form of PTSD I thought to myself. Some form of survivor’s guilt.
‘How were you eventually rescued?’ I asked.
‘They found me washed up on the south shore just outside of Nathan’s Harbour.’ I nodded.
‘Remarkable,’ I said.
‘Yes b’y. Remarkable indeed. But that water is some cold that time of year. A feller can’t survive more than five minutes in it. And I was found three hundred miles south of where our ships last fix was.’ That was indeed incredible, but one did here stories of miraculous feats of endurance and seeming impossible stories of survival. Men falling from 10000 feet and walking away unscathed and the like. Surely this was one of those instances.
I could tell there and then that regardless what had occurred, Hank believed precisely what he was saying and I found that, despite my scholarly inclinations, I did too. And at that moment I felt so terribly sorry for him and I told him as much and thanked him for sharing his story with me. The malaise that had shrouded him before seemed to have lifted a touch and he seemed almost buoyed and as I was leaving he stood.
‘Queerest thing is, I thinks they were lonely. And they was jealous of me because I was breathin’ and they wasn’t. Yes b’y I think they were jealous and awful lonely. ‘
I went to bed that night shaken. PTSD certainly, but how do you explain the other things. I corroborated all of this information the next day on the ship’s computer. It was impossible to explain. No wonder the man looked haunted as he did.
A few days later, we were in a gale on Lake Superior and Hank did not show up for his duties. He was normally an early riser, starting his workday at 5am. Vickers told me to go and knock on his cabin door and I did so. There was no response and so I opened it. His room was freezing, and I saw the portal was wide open, and below it his work boots were placed neatly.
Hank was gone. We searched the ship but I knew what had transpired. The coast guard were called and a massive search ensued but in those water’s a man would not last but minutes, no formal investigation was launched because of his history and his struggles with depression. The boys all knew the fantastic story of his that made the papers all over the east coast but as it turned out he had not told a soul anywhere about his experience on the Brenda C. Did he worry people would think him crazy, and some would. Stories of ghosts and ghouls make the more analytically minded of us roll their eyes, but how do you account for that distance. I have wondered ever since if he saw me, strange fellow as I was to his eyes, as some sort of confessor. I think of those rheumy eyes, and of the measured, gentle nature of his voice as he recounted that terrifying story to me. And I remember the thick pall of sadness that I felt around him. Perhaps he already knew that night we spoke, what he was going to do. That no matter how long he lived And how far he travelled, those grasping, ghastly hands would still be reaching for him, harrying him to his end.
That was all many years ago. I got off the Wayfarer shortly after and paid my debt in full. I have since found a tenured position at a prominent West Coast institution, and I enjoy my life well enough. There are days though, where I am down, when a muslin veil of despair seems to cling to my person and I remember that awful tale, and the open porthole and the work boots placed so neatly below them. Such a strange detail, the final act of a man’s life, arranging his work boots neatly. And I’m not sure what unsettles me more, the dreadful tale he told me or the tragic manner of his death. And It unsettles me so, because it makes me wonder if perhaps I need to reconsider all my notions of death and religion and the order of the world. How do you explain these things? But of course there are more things to heaven and earth I suppose. More things.
Sometimes I have nightmares and wake with the smell of fish in my nose and the feel of a pruney lifeless hand pressing on my chest, and a disembodied, unearthly voice rasping into my ear ‘My son, my son, what have you done?’ My heart beats fit to explode and I must catch my breath and tell myself it was only a dream even though I can still imagine the lingering chill of that sepulchral hand upon me. It is then that I dig out the old King James version of the bible my mother gave me years ago, and I’ll read a passage as though to exorcise the evil that I have imagined, that has haunted me since Hank told me his harrowing story.
And what of ships you might ask. Well I have not set foot on one since.