Short Story: At Peace on the Water

John McDonnell was a fisherman. He rode the seas by day, slept atop them by night, trawled them the times between. John was mostly a one man show; did it all himself despite the workload required of a commercial fisherman of his station. But such was the way of the industry that a man did what he ought to earn his daily bread. For John, like most good, hearty Americans, that daily bread cost him hours ‘n hours of blood and sweat that dribbled periodically down his catfish-smooth back.

While trawling for whatever his nets could haul in, Martha was at home. Two boys and the life of an overworked school teacher meant, like John, she was under-appreciated, under-valued, and stuck in an industry as collapsed as his. Ever the homemaker and loving mother though, despite the collagen beaten thighs aching from hours on her feet. Each night she’d tuck the boys in, recalling stories John had told her. Stories she felt it her duty to impart to them. Told her, that was, on the rare nights he managed to make it home for supper instead of trying to procure it.

John had wanted to be a fisherman all of his life. He’d sit in school, drawing finely detailed sketches of the various species prowling the coasts and waterways of his childhood. He’d fill whole pages with specs of various rigs for boats and special fish. It was a pass-time. An obsession in the truest American tradition. All of those times he should’ve been focused on maths and sciences so he could “grow up and getta’ good job,” he was planning and learning his trade. When first he started to ply it, the middle finger he gave to dejectors gave him a hard-on. Martha would’ve enjoyed that thoroughly.

The first boat was an old one. Barely large enough to piss off. He spent more money repairing it from summer gigs than he’d ever earn with it. Between that and the oft-bags of ‘shrooms and grass aboard it, he was at peace with a lack of profit.

Cue Martha with comely good looks and dimpled cheeks. The bottles of Ole English Rye, John had taken to drinking. One hot night, and nine months later, there wasn’t much more he could do but provide for the twin boys that popped out.

That wasn’t to say John didn’t love his family. On the contrary, he was a family man through-and-through. Just like Pop’d been. And Grandad before him. Difference was, they’d made their livings as leather merchants or carpenters, back when those things were still valued. In that way, John had followed in their footsteps, found the thing he knew and was good at, and refused to do it for free– or anything else for that matter. That work was for land-lubbers though. The types that could sleep without scents of fish on ice or the sea-salt spray.

John just wasn’t quite the way about things most fellows were. He needed the water. Be it Pacific, Atlantic, or any rivers or streams between the two. He rode them all like a true man of his craft. It was all business until the lunch-time beer, then nothing more ’til the day’s the work was done. And when forced to sleep, the photo of Martha and the boys at his bedside got the nightly, longing look. Then the one of Martha naked got the nightly, stroking grunt. The light went out on his bed with a broad beamin’ on his grizzled face.

It was a bad May that John finally met his match. The season was just starting again. He’d only been out a week. The weather’d been fierce, but nothing the forty-footer couldn’t handle with John at the helm. Per usual for spring and summer, he’d hired on a few, part-time hands to help rake in the expected rush. The result was a near twenty-four hour done in twelve-hour two-man shifts. Only a pair of hands were there to tend the wheel or empty the nets at any given time.

The ocean swelled. The sky gave a thunderous roar. Squalls blew past island coasts far to the west and south. The season was geared to start with a bang. In the middle of it, John and his hands were slogging through knee-buckling waves while the forty-footer rode ‘em like a rag doll. By the end of their second full-day, they were all exhausted, their haul only half as intended.

Were he not chasing something in particular, maybe John wouldn’t’ve kept himself out so long. Maybe he’d’ve been satisfied with the first days’ bounty. Then again, maybe if he’d been that kind of man, he’d’ve never spent all those hours drawing fish or making charts. Never stepped on a boat. Never even dreamed of being John McDonnell, fisherman at sea.

But life’s funny that way, for both the fish and its most patient predator. It’s not quite a matter of maybes. Rather, it’s a matter of the soul. A sort’a passion that can only be appeased and rocked to sleep by the caress of water against the hull.

John and his hands were in a squall to beat the band. They all sensed it. When it finally happened, they almost welcomed it. Like John had said, though more sarcastically than not, he was doomed to end his life at sea. It made sure he was no liar.

The waves pitched and rolled him back. The trawler heaved and hoed. John sensed more than anything that the sea was fierce. Almost seemed as if he’d done something to anger her. Maybe it was his own foolishness. Maybe greed. Maybe poor, dumb luck. Whatever it was, there was no escape.

A final, forceful heave. The sea crashed from two directions. The keel groaned and flexed. Then, a loud crrrack. Fiberglass snapped. The hull tore open. The forty-footer began taking on water. It was over in moments. The trawler headed for the ocean floor, John with it. The last thing he saw before the air left his lungs and the life left his eyes, was the limp curl of a dead fish. It floated up past him in the aerated water, no doubt released from the trawler’s own depths.

As a fisherman’s wife Martha knew the fear and sorrow of missing husbands or partners. Even at the best of times, they lived a life of perpetual torment, terror. Ever on the precipice of tragedy and sorrow. None of them knew if or when their mates might make it home. Usually, they missed their scheduled returns by days anyhow.

Martha and the boys didn’t worry ’til then. It wasn’t long after that they knew she’d joined the ranks of widows whose only solace was that no man could be so cruel as to stay at sea so long.

John was one of those men. Lost to the sea. Lost to history. Nothing was left to find of him or the others. He’d spent his whole life wanting to be a fisherman, living as one, then dying as one. Even in his final moments when he felt the forty-footer shudder and begin to sink, he was at peace knowing that. After all, the water was his home, always had been. Now, it would be forever.

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3 thoughts on “Short Story: At Peace on the Water

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