This is the fifth and final part in the short story of a young man facing his self-doubt in the midst of a mid-Atlantic storm, and finding meaning in an unexpected place. The story also has been posted on Amazon. Thank you for taking the time to read this work. Please take a minute to go to Amazon and leave a review and a comment. Reviews help tremendously. Your time is appreciated!
Copyright James R. Neal 2017
Dan stroked his hands on the wheel, willing the wind back into the sails. But it was to no avail. As the sun climbed higher the gently rolling seas answered the call of the wind, and fell into a rhythm so weak and slow it lifted the hull without disturbing the boom, or making the slightest noise of the slack rigging and sails. Even this slight movement of the sloop soon expired as the sea gave up the last of her energy. The dawn haze parted for the sun as the orb climbed into the sky, and the heat that burned through flattened the sea like the passing of a great iron. Dan watched as the last cloud in the sky disappeared to westward, chasing the storm and leaving the sky behind as devoid of form and feature as the sea beneath.
Dan’s overalls and sea boots, which he still had on from the first sight of the storm, seemed suddenly stifling and hot. He stripped down to his shorts and tank top, cast his foul weather gear aside in the cockpit and rubbed feeling back into his skin. Every inch of his body felt rough with salt that had collected in the night. It coated every surface around him, and he became acutely aware of its gritty feel on everything he touched. Even his throat seemed to have taken on the taste of the sea – as if he had been licking a hot iron dipped in its waters.
The stillness of the air pressed down on him, on the sloop, her sails and the sea itself. Dan considered going back to the helm, but there was really no point. The rudder hung as still and useless as the sails, the sloop utterly motionless in a sea of flat glass. The slim confines of the sloop were the only imperfection visible on the otherwise perfectly flat and uniform disks of sea and sky. It appeared impossible for any other craft or creature to travel through the seemingly solid surface that stretched to the horizon in all directions. The sea, the sky, the air itself felt opposed to any movement – even the rise and fall of Dan’s chest and the drumming of his heart, which he felt plainly in the complete stillness about him.
“Useless, again,” Dan said out loud. He was surprised at the noise his voice made in the still air, and he peered down the companionway to make sure he hadn’t been heard. Nothing stirred below. He leaned over the side of the cockpit and stared into the darkness. Dust, accumulated over unknown years on the plains of Africa and Spain, had been blown to sea by the storm and left to settle in its wake. It could be seen in individual specks on the water’s surface, giving it a faint reddish tint and the look of a great mirror that needed dusting. He could see his eyes were bloodshot, and his hair matted. He wished he had stubble – his soft, pink flesh still refused to produce anything resembling respectable facial hair. But there was something else he had seen in his dad – even in Stan – that was still missing in the boy staring back at him from the sea. It was more than the weariness, stubble and wrinkles that marked them as men. There was something in their eyes that Dan knew he still had to earn.
He leaned back in the cockpit and stared up into the flat, blue metal disk of sky. What did his dad say? “What matters is how you get back up.” How was he supposed to get back up? Like this? With no wind, no seas, no traffic within sight, adrift and motionless – he was utterly useless, at watch over a craft that was beyond command. No, his chance had been last night, in the kind of storm a man – or boy – might only see once in his life. And he had failed miserably. But, his father had gripped his shoulder the same way he had that morning off Cape Hatteras. And he looked at him not in the way a man would look at a failure for a son. Was he just being kind? He was a kind man – Dan knew that.
But no, he was sure there was something there in his father’s grasp, in his smile and in his eyes. It was there just as surely as what Dan was looking for hadn’t been in that face in the water. When would he have another chance to live up to that smile? Stan had stood next to his father, had weathered the storm all night and manned the helm when it needed a man. Stan – the whore-mongering oaf with the grotesque smile, the ridiculous comb-over and annoying laugh. Stan had been there for his father. And he – he had been…incapacitated…puking, sleeping, lying below feeling sorry for himself. He had not been where he was supposed to be. He hadn’t been there when needed. And that, he knew from his dad’s books, was the measure by which all men judged each other.
A warm, salty trickle made its way down Dan’s face and onto his lip. He hastily wiped it away with his shirt and stole another look down into the cabin. Still no movement. Only complete exhaustion could grant sleep in the stifling lack of air down there. Dan was glad they were sleeping. He didn’t want company, and didn’t feel much like he deserved to be with them. He had earned a right to be on this boat, though. Surely all the delivery trips, all the night watches when he was younger, all the time spent cleaning, stocking, loading and unloading boats for his dad had bought him a berth on this passage. But he had blown it. And when would he get another chance? He might crew on another dozen passages without getting a chance to prove himself like he had lost just hours earlier.
But what matters is how you get back up. And how would he do that? And when? He thought last night to be his night. He had felt it coming on, finally, when the storm showed her face. The anticipation of her had grown until his body shivered. But when he had the chance to take what was his, he had failed. He felt its loss now in the pit of his stomach, like watching a prized possession that had just been given slip from fingertips into the sea – into the sea herself, who dad always said would give, and take away.
Dan searched for some point of reference on which he could focus, and force his mind onto some task or happening at hand. But there was only the flat expanse of sea and sky. What was it really bothering him? Was it that he got sick? That he wasn’t in the cockpit with Stan and his dad during the storm? After all, he did make it through his watch. There was something else, something gnawing at him, gnawing deeper into him than the seasickness. It felt like the loss of something – but he didn’t know what it was he had lost. He could have a dozen more chances before they reached Bermuda. But would they be any different? Would he react or stand up any better?
Dan felt his blood go cold, from the base of his skull down to his gut, and his limbs go limp. That was it. Twelve hours earlier he had been there, at the wheel, man enough to stand up to anything, even the worst the sea could throw at him. He hadn’t had to think about it. He just knew. He knew without thinking that he was ready to become everything he had ever admired. Now, the morning after, he no longer felt it in himself, and thinking about it only drove it further from his grasp. He didn’t know where it came from, or where or how to regain it – or if he would be up to earning it. Was this what his dad had meant? Did it matter most how he got back up from this?
Dan was completely lost in this dilemma – whether or how he would reascend to the zenith from which he had viewed the world only one day prior – when a sudden, rapid flapping rent the stagnant air in the cockpit. The unexpected disturbance of the seemingly implacable stillness startled Dan, making him jump and driving his heart rate faster than it had reached at the height of the storm. He sat upright and searched the air above him for the source of the sound – nothing. The air about the boat was likewise as empty, and had fallen again still and quiet. He searched the cockpit fore to aft, then back again, and had about passed the momentary flutter off as a hallucination when his eyes settled on the strangest sight he had seen since the sloop slipped her mooring off Lisbon.
Sitting there on the starboard lifeline, just aft of the binnacle, was a bird with no earthly business more than 200 miles from the closest land. It was small, frail, with a brown cap, white mask, black vest, and brown speckled wings. Its feet were made perfectly to cling to small branches, its beak to crack seeds. Dan recognized it as a swallow, not much unlike the ones from home and exactly like the ones that filled the trees and bushes along the harbor in Madeira. He had read that land birds could be blown hundreds of miles out to sea by powerful storms. They usually flew until they could fly no more, then fell unseen into the vastness of the ocean. Their new passenger had likely been blown from Madeira, itself only a speck in the immensity of the Atlantic, and had happened across the only solid surface within hundreds of square miles of glassy water.
Dan sat as still as he could, afraid to breathe lest he scare the swallow off its lifeline. He stared at the little bird, balanced on the thin line, and it seemed to stare back at him. With its head cocking first to this side, then that, it struck Dan the bird didn’t have any sense of how close it had come to oblivion before it happened upon the sloop. The two sat like that for quite some time – Dan lost all track – until the bird, apparently convinced of Dan’s innocence in the hierarchy of the food chain, abandoned its perch and hopped down into the cockpit. It was now almost within Dan’s reach. It slumped down onto its belly, lowered its head, and then ceased all movement. Dan’s heart sank under the sure knowledge that the little creature, which was now so inexplicably important to him, had succumbed to its exertions and died.
He stared at the small corpse for quite a while, not sure what to do with it and unwilling to throw it overboard, until the lids over the bird’s glassy eyes fluttered. Dan’s heart lifted again.
“You need water,” he said to his new companion. He had a sense that it should seem silly to be talking to the sparrow. But it didn’t. “Wait here, please. I’ll get you some water.”
He slipped below as quietly as he could. He could hear his dad and Stan breathing heavily in their sleep, one in the aft cabin and one in the main cabin forward. He poured some water from one of the fresh jugs into a mayonnaise jar lid and carefully dissolved in a pinch of sugar. This he carried back up as quietly as he had come down, holding his breath as he climbed over the threshold of the companionway, again fearing the bird might fly off to its death.
“Here. It’s just water and a little sugar.” He was holding the lid between cupped palms, the way he had been taught to hold the communion chalice in church. “It should help you.”
He carefully set the lid down within inches of the bird’s beak, as close as he felt he could without spooking the fragile creature. This done, he eased himself down onto the cockpit seat on the same side as the sparrow, still within arm’s reach.
“You got caught up in the storm, like us?” Dan was speaking in a soft hush, partly to soothe the bird and partly to avoid drawing Stan or his dad into the cockpit. “There must have been a lot of you blown out here. I bet most of you didn’t make it.”
This filled Dan with a sadness he had never felt before. It brought back his nausea and made him feel helpless in a way even the storm, and his sickness, hadn’t brought on.
“You’re going to make it now. You’re with us.”
Dan’s sadness switched to a panic that caused sweat to well up under his shirt. How would he keep the bird from flying off, to its death? What would he feed it? How would he keep Stan from spooking the poor creature with his hideous laugh? The bird had come to him. He had a responsibility to keep the creature alive until they made landfall. But how could he? That was almost two weeks away. He began to worry that Stan would be coming up soon to relieve the watch.
The sparrow interrupted Dan’s panicked mind by rising from its crouch and making two small hops to the lid. It dipped its beak into the water – once, twice, three times – and then crouched again by the lid. Dan sat in vigil with the bird for at least another hour while it repeated this cycle twice more. Finally, it seemed to have regained some of its strength, and shook out its feathers. Then, to Dan’s surprise and immense joy, the bird made one great hop with a flap of its wings and landed lightly on his leg. Dan could feel his face beaming, and his chest heaved with silent laughter as he struggled not to disturb the swallow from its stance. Its claws tickled his leg as the bird hopped back and forth, turning its head from side to side to measure him up.
“Well, you are brave, aren’t you?” Or was it trust? Or just ignorance? He held a finger down to the sparrow, and the bird took it, then hopped up onto his arm, to where Dan could hold the bird within inches of his face. “Yes, you are brave. And you have no idea, do you?” He stared into the bird’s eye. It was as dark, round and smooth as the ocean upon which they both rested. Dan peered closer. He could make out his reflection in the bird’s eye – just a dark outline that dominated all in the little creature’s view. For a moment he saw something there. It was something without a name in Dan’s vocabulary. Something greater than what he had lost. Something he had never even thought to seek.
In a flash of wings it was gone. Dan uttered a gasping cry as the sparrow lifted into the air, and then alighted on the lifeline opposite where it had boarded.
“No!” Dan struggled to bring his voice under control. “No, you can’t. Please.” Dan slowly reached his finger out to the bird.
The bird hopped sideways and cocked its eye to capture Dan once more in that perfect, dark orb. Dan’s finger inched closer.
His finger was almost touching the bird now.
“C’mon. Please. Just stay with me.”
His finger hovered just beside the bird.
“Please. You’re too far out to make it back.”
The bird cocked its head, gave a sweet chirp, and in one swift motion took flight.
Dan’s lips quivered, he gasped for breath, his finger still hanging beside the bird’s last perch. He watched it fly, willing it with prayer to turn and come back. But it flew on. It continued until it became a speck, then disappeared into the unbroken canvas of gray sea and blue sky.
Dan slumped against the side of the cockpit, feeling again helpless and small. He remained that way, silent and still, until the first breath of a breeze ran its fingers through his hair. He lifted his eyes, and saw the sail begin to gently billow, trying to fill. The lull behind the storm was breaking. Soon it would fill the sails. The sloop would again crest the waves, driving them westward. Dan stood, ran his fingers along the cold metal of the wheel, and resumed his place at the helm. That, it suddenly became clear, was his station. And he would keep on, he knew, until he could fly no more.
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