Short Story: Captain Lesley Butler

Waves rose with fury. Wind whipped hard rain into a cyclonic torrent. The scent of sea-salts was all the more present from the river that surged over the trawler’s walls. The Sixty-foot tuna boat pitched and rolled with the ocean, nearly cap-sized with each tsunami-sized wave that the hurricane-force gales kicked up. At the bow of the trawler, Lesley Butler stood sentinel. Her feet were like cement bolted to the ship’s deck. She had an uncanny set of sea-legs that kept her sturdy no matter how angry the Sea-Gods had become with her.

For any of the ten-odd crew it was a curious sight to behold. Time and again, squalls would rise in the storm, crash against the hull with a force that should have dislodged her. Instead, she stayed still, gyroscopic feet and legs inching apart, around, or closer together mindlessly to stabilize against the maelstrom. The waves would crash with their fervor, spray Lesley, then deposit their left-overs at her feet and she wouldn’t bat an eye.

After a while, the ship would pitch, rise on a new plane, and the water would rush toward its stern. The automated pumps stationed around the ships’ perimeter worked double time to pump what water they could scoop as it passed, then pump it back out over the hull. Their occasional bursts of mechanics and jet-fired water were little more than an intermittent hum beneath the roar of wind, rain, and creaks of the hull.

For three days the storm had been on them. As if controlled by some, heretofore unseen deity that commanded it, it followed them no matter which direction Lesley ordered her First-Mate to sail. It had begun with a casual, light rain the first day, became a downpour of strong micro-bursts that grew into the tempest on them now. The crew were exhausted, Lesley among them– though none of the crew would have known it to look at her. All the same she manned her post at the bow.

The crew had been afforded the opportunity of sleep after the first night, but now it was two days that all aboard had gone without it. If it was possible, the crew was just as battered as the ship’s hull, each wave now a struggle to keep conscious and on their feet. Half were ready to tumble over the sides of the ship as they watched the pumps or worked to keep things tied down. Their bounty of two and a half tons of tuna made them all the more determined to keep the metal cases, ice chests, and various equipment tubs from being washed away.

It must have been somewhere around noon of the third day, no-one was sure anymore. The crew’s eyes were bloodshot, blurry from the incessant pummeling from salted sprays and heavy rain. There was only the faintest hint of the sun’s light through the insanity around the ship. As if stuck in a million-mile expanse of the worst hurricane ever seen, they could gain no purchase in an advance from its clutches. Whatever direction it was headed, it seemed to change with each new order from Lesley.

It was around nightfall of the third day that, to the entire crew’s surprise, Lesley broke from her days-long trance to mount the ship’s Bridge. She shoved her way in against the wind, forced her mate off the wheel. Then, with a fury to match that of the storm’s, she steered them into the waves. Her face was hard, her teeth grit and her jaw stiff, set against itself in determination.

The ship rose with a wave, then like a surfer, twisted atop its immense crest to ride it downward. There were cries from the men and women aboard. To state this was insanity was as much redundant as it was pointless; Lesley had the wheel now, and her will would be that of the ship’s way. No one could change that. Not even the sea.

There was something in her eyes, her posture– a ready width to that gyroscopic gait, and a bead of thoughtful sweat on the brow above her chipped shoulder– that said she understood something new. It was as if those hours of standing afore of the crew feeling the oceans tumult and watching it that she’d become part of it.

Lesley manned the helm near on an hour before anyone thought to stop her. They couldn’t handle it anymore. Even the most experienced seaman could not quell the undeniable sickness that swelled in their guts. That hour saw them rise, time and again, to crests of waves of unimaginable size, only for the wheel to be spun hard to port or starboard as it reached its peak. By the time it was atop each wave, its bearing had shifted one-hundred eighty degrees to surf downward until the wave exhausted itself or crashed into another, and the process began again.

Dusk was upon the crew when one finally threw open the door to the helm, rushed in against the winds and opposing gravity of yet another rise to a crest. Boggs was the usual brick-house of a sea-faring man; broad across the chest and shoulders with a torso doubly as thick with muscle as his oak-like limbs. He braced himself weakly against a window to the starboard side of the cabin, his legs rubber from exhaustion and tumbling bile.

“We can’t keep this up, Captain!” He bellowed over the winds and engines. “The men are sick. Exhausted. This insanity has to stop.” He pulled himself along the wall to eye her from the side, “Sometimes, you have to know when you’re beaten.”

Her eyes were fixed ahead, hands working to the tempo she’d long established. Her voice was level, calm, but with a hard tone of irritation, “You know nothing of insanity or exhaustion, crewmen. Return to your post at once.”

“But Ma’am we–”

Her composure flickered, “The sea is a living thing, Boggs. It aches, it breathes, and it loves. Right now, it’s playing with us. But like all living things, it will eventually tire, break. Like you’re doing now. Return to your post or you’ll find yourself out of a job come landfall.”

Boggs was irate, too tired to function rationally, “This is insane! You’re refusing to accept the inevitable. We’re done for! The more you fight it, the more you prolong it. In the meantime we suffer for your delusion.”

With a swift turn of her body, she released her grip on the wheel. It spun erratically against the waves that stole its grip from its engines. In a flash, she had the man by the throat, rough fingers poised to snap his Adam’s apple. He choked, breathless.

Her eyes burned with fury, “If you’ve given up, then get the hell off my ship. I’ve enough dead-weight with the tuna we’re carrying. If I’d wanted more, I’d have bled you like the rest of ’em and shoved you into a cooler.”

His eyes began to roll back into his head. He groped tired hands across her forearm. She sneered, shoved him sideways to retake the spinning helm. A moment later she’d returned to her rhythm as though she’d never left it.

Boggs worked himself upward along the wall, “You’ve lost your goddamned mind.”

“And you seem to have a lot of life left for a fish that’s trying to beach itself,” she countered. “Get out of here.”

Boggs cast a wide, black-eyed look between Lesley and her first mate, who’d been fixed to one corner of the cabin since she’d taken over. He remained motionless, as much in tune with her as she was with the ocean. Boggs growled, shoved open the door to the deck, then fought it closed again.

“It will only anger the crew,” the mate said.

“I don’t care,” Lesley replied evenly.

“You say it’s playing with us?” He asked, curious of her meaning.

“Like a child that toys with a cat, or a cat to its prey,” she replied.

He eyed her skeptically, “How do you know that?”

She glanced back at him finally, “I just do.”

For six, straight hours, Lesley matched the sea wave for wave. By that time, the crew had begun to sour. Most had been sick at one point or another. All-out anarchy was poised to explode aboard the ship, the crew set to mutiny. They just wanted to go to their watery graves peacefully For them, there was no other option than that. For Captain Lesley Butler, it was the only thing not a choice.

The crew fought for the helm against the pitch of another wave, ready with ropes, weights, and tools. They would beat Lesley from the helm, tie up and weight her, then cast her into the ocean if need be. Boggs led the slow, painful charge toward the wheel when the unthinkable happened.

As if all at once, the storm disappeared. The stars appeared above and the deck pitched downward along the remnants of one, final wave. Were they anyone else, they might have thought they were in the eye of the storm, but something told them they were free, clear.

Someone spotted blinking lights on the horizon; tall cellular towers on the coast, sweet apparitions of land. Someone checked a GPS. They were only ninety miles out of port, thirty from land itself, the latter visible for the wondrously clear skies around them.

The crew collapsed into varying degrees of exhaustion. Lesley relinquished the helm to her first mate, who’d managed to conserve what remained of his strength in the corner of the cabin. Then, with her gyroscopic gait no longer taxed, she exited the bridge to find the crew lying about the deck. Most were already asleep, the others at least part-way there. Lesley approached Boggs, whom sat with one leg up, wrist on his knee as he stared at the clear skies with a curious confusion.

“Captain,” he said as she appeared beside him.

“Boggs,” she said, calm as ever and ready to step past.

He stopped her with a word, “Captain?” She swiveled to eye him, urge him onward, “What just happened?”

Lesley’s arms were crossed, “She got tired, like an overstimulated child. The storm was her way of trying to find someone to show her affection and attention. Once given that, she played until she collapsed.”

Boggs wasn’t sure if she meant it metaphorically, or if she truly believed in a sentience inherent in the sea. In either case, he responded distantly, “Just like you said.”

There was a pause. Lesley was silent, face indifferent. Boggs’ shoulders slumped, he wasn’t sure if he believed the sentience of the ocean, but Lesley had been right. The sea had tired itself out– and with a timing too coincidental for his liking. All the same, he couldn’t know what to do or say– if there was anything– even if it had been true.

Boggs’ face sank with remorse, “I’m sorry, Captain.”

Lesley gave a small tilt of her head to clearly remark a similar sentiment. Cosmically, they were even, she with him for her threats and violence, and he with her for his planned mutiny and distrust.

“Next time, a little faith wouldn’t hurt.”

He gave a small nod, then laid his head back against the crate behind him to stare up at the sky.

Could the sea truly play like a child? He wasn’t sure. Boggs thought to ask the Captain, but she’d turned for the bow, retaken her place to stand sentinel until landfall.

Whether they believed it or not, the crew was in her debt. She’d heard the cries of a sad, neglected creature with all the immensity, wrath, and beauty it could manifest. In that, she answered with something more than her voice, something the sea could understand. With the ship, she cared for the sea to keep it from the heart-sickness that claimed so many that sailed her. She’d surfed the waves with as much calculated affection as if she were to play ball with a child. Once satisfied, the sea returned to its wayside, rejuvenated by the attention and once more allowing safe-passage for the trawler, its crew, and Captain Lesley Butler.

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