Here are the first three chapters (42 total) of How Well the Sailors Run, a story of the Prodigal Son retold as a sea adventure.
In a cozy Oregon coastal town called SpringwickHarbor, Wade Burns’ desire is to follow in the footsteps of his adoptive father, Abner, and become the Lighthouse Keeper. But Abner has chosen his natural son Jeshurun as First Assistant and successor. Wade is so jealous of Jeshurun’s favor that he decides to do what no sailor in town is brave enough to do: sail away on a cursed vessel called the Vermillion Mourning to become the Keeper of the Hostel Sound Lighthouse. Along with a loopy captain named Captain June, Wade and two other deckhands must brave severe winds and waves, leaky holds and heat exhaustion as they round Cape Horn on a sail that will determine not only Wade’s identity, but also the fate of an entire generation of SpringwickHarbor sailors.
In 1999 I sailed as a deckhand aboard a 1924 schooner whose port of call was Camden, Maine, working seven days a week, sailing passengers in and around the many islands. My experiences in that summer form the basis of this novel.
Please enjoy the salty yarn, ye seamen!
Wade Burns with the wind in his favor gathered his strength and ran for the harbor. With sweat stinging his eyes and his lungs exhausted, he struggled onward into the heart of town—to the harbor, that lifeless haven desperate for sailors. The blood from his blisters splashed through the holes in his shoes and his legs felt like wax, yet he refused to give way to his suffering. For his soul had already set course into an unknown and dangerous storm; but with the wind behind, any hope, however troubled, seemed possible.
As his footfalls echoed against the empty cobblestone streets, he thought he saw a drape or two surreptitiously pulled back. Though the wind that morning offered ideal conditions to sail into the Pacific, all the salts had gone indoors; they refused even to go down to the harbor. It had been this way for as long as he could remember. He knew why. They were afraid. He was going to change it.
Staggering into the lifeless intersection of Shoreline and Main, he tripped on a curb and smacked a stone. The sharp pain caused him to bite his lip. Blood welled from his kneecap and tongue.
Somewhere within his Keep he was thinking of the sailors. The hope of them sailing again. Their wind. Their joy. Their treasure just beyond the warm setting sun. But at the moment, in his skin and skull burned a jealousy so consuming that it had finally defaulted to a desperate and foolish end.
He rose. Set his eyes, limped down the street lined with anchor lanterns, arrived at the wooden pier that overlooked all the vessels crowded into the intimate harbor. It was shaped in a cozy U, one side less than ninety yards or so from the other. Packed with world class sailing craft such as Elegant Bride, Seventh Blessing, Weathering Peace, their naked masts spired into the gull-laden sky. Heaving, he collapsed.
When he vomited nothing came up except a long rope of saliva pooling between his hands. He turned on his back, covered his face from the sun. The blood from his palms mixed into his eyes. He was breathing so hard he startled a gull from the parapet into its lonely swoop over the weathered and lifeless sea craft.
There was a time, he had heard, when these vessels were in shipshape condition. In their prime they had sported shiny brass, varnished decks, coiled lines—vessels able to stir the heart of a mariner, and he could almost picture them now embarking through the inner channel for the sea, the sun glinting off their hulls. But with refuse now covering their decks and rigging they looked like swollen boils ready to burst. But he hadn’t come to look at those vessels.
He rose to a knee. At that moment the wind was so calm it barely rippled the water—a vast shift from the tremendous storm which had smothered the town and her waters for three full days. The wind lifted his black bangs and the thick hair on his arms. Rich, swarthy brine filled his nostrils. He never tired of it. Gathering his strength he stepped to the parapet and looked down to the vessel of his aim.
She was dark. And rugged. Snarled in light. Her masts towered above all the other vessels. Her long sheer stretched beyond the length of the dock. She was a maimed schooner, gorgeous and wrong, a withering mistake: the schooner Vermillion Mourning.
A gale had ripped her form from her journey around Cape Horn, so the myth went. She lacked segments of both standing and running rigging. Her forestays dangled. Her foremast listed. Her halyards lay twisted in knots. The kedge anchor dangled from the bow. The fallen topmast had plunged into the deck. Chainplates were stained with rust. Peeling paint revealed the heterogeneous composite of wood comprising her hull: oak, pine, birch, butternut, elm, hickory, maple, locust, fir, spruce, cedar and teak. Bird waste covered her housetops and hatch covers, deck and rigging. Her helm was missing a full third of its spokes. Her figurehead, supposedly of St. Elmo, had vanished.
Today was the day he was going to board her—the one vessel every salt in town was afraid of boarding, the one they all wanted to scuttle; once she was gone, the harbor would be safe again and they would be free to board their own vessels and sail leisurely into the ocean. But before any of that was possible, he had determined to save her by taking her to sea himself.
Terns and gulls darted overhead, stinging her deck with sharp, shadowy welts. Wade squeezed the railing like a nervous cat and he whispered, “She isn’t cursed. She can’t be.”
He set his eyes on grasping her helm.
When Walter, the lonely proprietor of Walt’s Nautical and mayor of SpringwickHarbor, saw him through the enormous porthole windows of his shop, he said to Bethlem, the heavy butcher, “I hope it happens, Bethlem. I do hope it happens.” He watched him rise in pain and limp down the street toward the harbor like a wounded but brave soldier.
Bethlem, in the back, looked at Walter and his strong hands holding the piñata shaped like a sailing ship, which all the sailorfolk had pitched in to make, and he dropped his eyes to his work. With a sharp hack he cut the pork. “If it does, it’ll be a miracle. But hey, we survived Y2K. And what a miracle was that!” he chuckled. “And now it’s 2001, the official start to the New Millennium. Anything’s possible.”
“I hope so. We can’t afford to live without a miracle,” he said, scratching his bright, expressive eyes. “This town doesn’t have anything left but to hope in one.”
Bethlem sighed, the strain in his heavy eyebrows. “Well, if a miracle is going to happen, I suppose it’ll happen here on the coast of Oregon. I can’t imagine it happening anywhere else.”
Walter tried to ease his concern by expressing cheerily, “You know, Bethlem, don’t worry. I feel the sun is almost over the yardarm. Don’t you?”
“I’ll raise a pint to that!” shouted Bethlem, chuckling resonantly.
The rest of the store crew in the back office cried out “Ole!” overhearing the conversation. The three of them were sitting around a table writing out on slips of paper places they wanted to sail to—places that existed only in their dreams. They were dropping the slips of paper in a coffee jar that they had planned to tuck away until the right time, but only if the right time ever arrived.
Walter’s brow soured. He scratched his chin. “I just hope he doesn’t try something foolish today.” He looked at Bethlem for reassurance, but Bethlem kept his head down. “Maybe I can talk some sense into him.”
“Maybe. Speak for us all.”
Tucking the piñata under his arm, he left through the ringing front door, hobbled down the sloping street in pursuit of him.
When he saw Wade drooped over the railing as if he was about to tumble into the harbor, his heart softened. He had never seen him so near collapse.
“You look like you crossed the whole country.”
Wade lifted his head a little, acknowledging him.
“Are you all right?”
He folded his arms on the railing, rested his head.
Walter gripped the piñata, stroking its rainbow-hued crepe.
Walter stepped closer. “You ran every one, didn’t you?”
“That must’ve taken you all night.”
“Ran by every cottage, bungalow and deck home in SpringwickHarbor.”
Walter whistled. “No wonder you look like a shipwreck.”
Wade turned to face the harbor and he stretched his arms wide over the railing and leaned on them, straightening his legs until they bowed. He looked like a captain on the bridge of a ship. And he grinned away from Walter, over the harbor and fixed his ruddy eyes on the Vermillion Mourning.
Walter knew what he was doing. He softened his tone. “Are you sure you want to do this, son?”
Wade turned and noted the piñata. “What’s that for?”
“Are you sure that you want to go aboard her?” said Walter. He regarded his sharp, angular facial bones, his curly, coal-dark hair.
Wade gathered himself and shoved his hands into the pockets of his white athletic shorts. “She isn’t cursed, Walt.”
“No, she’s not. Of course not,” he said, burning Wade with his eyes. “But why don’t you let someone else go aboard her?”
“There’s no one here but me.” A horsefly landed on his neck. He tried to slap it but missed.
Walter opened his palm. “Why don’t you come back to the store with me. Abigail’s rolling the dough to make apple turnovers.”
Wade’s mouth watered. He scratched his neck. Turned to the schooner. Transferred his weight. Grabbed an arm. “But she’s not cursed. The salts are all wrong. She’s not a thorn in the harbor the way they think she is.” He closed his eyes tightly, straining to make his words true. “I can go aboard her and—”
“Not our vessels? Not our dreams? None of those are poisoned?”
Wade folded his arms. Clenched his jaw. “She isn’t cursed.”
“Wade, listen.” Walter smiled diplomatically. “Let the others do the dirty work. Let them take her to sea.”
“I can do it!” And then his voice changed to a strained plea. “You and I both know what’ll happen if the salts get to her, Walt. You know.”
Walter remained firm. He kept his feet square.
“I’m not going to let it happen.”
Walter closed his eyes and breathed in the fresh salty air. And he felt the sun. “You can’t sail her by yourself.”
“I don’t care if I can’t.”
“The sea is a rough home. A dangerous home.”
Wade added, “Which is why you need a good boat. And a solid crew.”
“There are other vessels. Look at all the boats here just waiting to be taken into the sea.” He lifted his chin at the entire harbor.
Wade took it all in. The ships. The dreams. For a moment he felt his heart flutter open wide with wild, brine-bathed life. “Maybe I could … indulge—no, borrow—a vessel and a dream….” His mind chopped along trying to blend Walter’s words and his own. “Maybe this wood behind me is meant for the locker.”
“Something wise. Now let the others take her and send her down.”
Wade cringed. “You sound like Abner.”
“I sound like a mayor.” He stepped closer. “A mayor who cares for the people of this community.” He held up the piñata with his strong hands. Wade studied it skeptically. Walter brought it within inches of his chest. And he whispered, “You don’t yet know the strength of the community in which you live.”
Wade rolled his eyes.
“This piñata, friend, is a gift from all the mariners in this community to one very special sailor.”
Wade narrowed his eyes. “For someone here in Springwick Harbor?”
“Don’t worry about it. You’re Second Assistant Lighthouse Keeper.”
Wade set his teeth. “I’m not good at that piñata crap anyway.”
“Come away from the schooner. She has an unhealthy thing dented inside her. Let the others take her to sea and do with her what deserves to be done.”
Wade dropped his chin in thought.
Walter saw that his words were having some effect. “You’re a brave man. But prove your strength some other way.” He put an arm on his shoulder.
“Are we good?”
“Yeah. I guess you’re right.”
“If you come up to the store I’ll pour you a warm cup of delicious Sailor’s Nog. On me.”
Wade smiled. “You know I can’t say no Abigail’s apple turnovers or Sailor’s Nog.”
Walter closed his eyes. The scare was over. He patted his shoulder.
They started for the mercantile.
“I’m already spent, Walt.”
They laughed together.
But behind Wade a long, shadowy line suddenly and unexpectedly looped him. He froze. Turned. Gazed again at the floating wreck. And the vessel uninhibited caused his eyes to change. The crimson veins of his eyeballs burst. He said to Walter over his shoulder, “Walt, I need to cool down…. Let me cool down first.”
Walter’s face darkened. He knew what Wade was going to do—knew it in his bones. And there was nothing he could do to stop him. He flattened his tone. “Then I’ll see you in a few.” Tucking the piñata gingerly under his arm so that it would not break, he left the pier to get as far away from the Vermillion Mourning as he could. He hobbled up the street the short distance to his mercantile, went inside to join Bethlem and the other employees, and tried to ignore the terrible events already falling upon Wade.
Wade turned to the Vermillion Mourning. Not her scuttling. Not her—not this rugged, wet mistake. Not before her time. She was not cursed. He could go aboard her. He could claim her as his own—the one vessel everyone else was afraid of.
The morning sun warmed him shining through the futtock shrouds. Controlling his breathing he descended the ramp delicately from the pain of his blisters and arrived on the floating dock on which the Vermillion Mourning was made fast. It moved gently. He felt the tugging of the schooner’s spring lines, the desperate pleading to be free. The movement eased him. His breathing fell into rhythm.
“This is not impossible,” he tried to convince himself.
His plan was to climb aboard by way of anchor. By doing so he would make a statement that the anchoring of his life lay in this vessel and not in anything else.
At eighteen he had never been anchored to anything. Especially not to his dismal post as Second Assistant to the Keeper of the Springwick Harbor Lighthouse. The job simply didn’t challenge him. He strayed from it constantly, avoiding duties and chores, working half-hearted under the oversight of Abner, the Keeper, his adoptive father. Wade felt like he could never please him. But that would change today. Once Abner saw how brave he was, he’d be sure to let him up into the lantern. And all his frustration over his job and life purpose would take on new dimension unparalleled among the salts.
He clenched his jaw and uttered, “I know I can do this,” and calculated the distance to the anchor.
The truth was, he burned to be the Keeper. He wanted more than anything else to share the lantern with Abner. But he knew Abner would never promote him, having reserved the service for his true son, Jeshurun, First Assistant. Abner had been blunt one evening, telling him, “You aren’t brave enough to be the Keeper. You’ll never be brave enough. Jeshurun is the only one who is.” Night after night while true father and true son spent their most intimate hours together in the lantern, he lay in bed, burning with jealously, obsessed over what went on up in that forbidden realm.
After that he began searching for another way to prove himself. It wasn’t long before his eyes fell upon the Vermillion Mourning. He didn’t like the sea or sailing, but he burned to helm a black fear. And if he helmed her in the red beam of the Lighthouse, then Abner, Jeshurun and all the sailorfolk would marvel at his courage and in turn burn with jealousy. And then, finally, Abner would promote him.
Weakening, he plopped to the dock, crawled even with the anchor, closed his eyes and breathed. Buried in the mystery of her, he believed, was the primordial life waiting for him.
A wind picked up. The dangling anchor swung gently then returned to plumb. A heavier wind blew and pushed it closer to the hull. The wind caught the crown broadside and the fluke punched into the thick wood.
“I can do this.…” he repeated, searching for confidence.
Gathering what was left of his feeble strength, he tried to burst forward. But his attempt to soar off the edge of the dock faltered in midair. His eyes grew wide. And then suddenly a gust of wind blew in against him. The strength of the wind caught him off guard, filling his lungs so full he felt like a helium balloon. Before he could lay even a finger on an arm, he splashed into the cold harbor.
He couldn’t swim.
Foundering, sinking, terror flooded him. In panic he tried to touch the hull but it was out of reach. Unable to kick his legs or make his arms work from the shock of the cold, he sunk deeper, beneath the keel. The water darkened. He looked up, eyes squinting at the anchor observing his descent curiously. Never would he touch an anchor. Never would he enjoy the embrace of a thing promised to ground him. The cold water closed around him like a tomb. His lungs caved. The lack of oxygen pained him. He closed his eyes, resigning himself to his doom. This was the day he would die—without embrace of his dream. Eerily his last thought was being swept overboard the Vermillion Mourning during a Cape Horn gale.
A hand wrapped around his chest and he felt himself ascending. Breaking the waterline, he inhaled ravenously.
“Just relax. I’ve got you.”
He inhaled in staccato bursts from the shock of the cold.
“It’s okay, Wade. I’ve got you.”
Recognizing the voice, he relaxed his body. They reached the dock. Wade turned to see the warm, brimming smile of the only natural son of their father Abner. It was Jeshurun. And he was clad in his typical attire: white shirt and shorts so soiled he looked like he had climbed up a chimney.
“Where did you come from?” he said, blowing water off his face.
“Off the island,” said Jeshurun.
“I thought you had to refill the oil.”
“I already filled it,” he said, his voice balanced and sober.
They helped each other out of the water and sat on the dock, arms wrapped around knees, absorbing the flight of the gulls. After a while their breathing subsided. Sunlight warmed their skin.
“Did you hear the rumor?” said Wade, searching Jeshurun. “They’re going to scuttle the Vermillion Mourning.”
She pulled against the dock and her lines stretched taut.
“What do you think about that?” said Jeshurun in a mature tone, that of a ripening thirty-year-old.
“What do I think about it? Why destroy something as ancient as the Vermillion Mourning? She’s earth.” He searched her mystery, her soul. In her dilapidation she called him.
A fat, heavy cloud approached the sun, wishing to engulf the schooner in darkness. Wade’s smooth eyes dug into Jeshurun and then pulled him around to the vessel. They regarded her together, the water lapping against her hull.
Jeshurun let himself be flooded. He knew the destiny in Wade, the current pulling him asea. He saw the wind, the spray flung against his eyes, the salt curing and strengthening his muscles. He saw the mud of his mind becoming lean and sharp as it let go of earth, washed in the waves, the clew in his jaw made hard by a stiff gust. He saw the rudder of his tongue waiting for the smashing, waiting for the will to break. Jeshurun had known this workmanship in Wade from his earliest memory and had striven to bring him into the grace.
His oily roundish face and gleaming teeth, abundant eyebrows, healthy nose and bronzed hair expressed passionate joy—a full man filled with the bounty of life. He desired to share his life with those mariners who were willing to find and live the calling of the sea. Challenging them with adventure, he encouraged each to catch grace in their sails and fear nothing. If they would ever disembark again, he would bid them joy. And when they returned, he would embrace them. Every night he rose to help guide potential salts into the harbor at their darkest hour, desiring eagerly to pass his light over their eyes until they found peaceful rest, strengthened in spirit, free from the clutches of the Northern Point. The darkness, the fear, the suffering—died in the glowing of Jeshurun and his calling as First Assistant Keeper of the Springwick Harbor Lighthouse.
“Did you know that there’s a telescope on the top of StrawberryMountain where you can look almost thirty miles into the sea?”
“What do I care about that?”
Jeshurun shrugged. “Just wanted to point that out. It could change things.”
Wade shivered as the wind cooled his wet clothing.
“You can see the ships heading up to Seattle or down to San Diego or San Francisco. You can see a whole horizon.”
Wade peered at the clouds.
“I wish that would interest you,” he said.
“Look, all I know is that this vessel, this breath of earth, gives me life. She entices things in me I don’t understand.”
Jeshurun peeled off his shirt and leaned back on his hands.
“Tell me again the story of how she arrived.”
“You mean the myth?”
“Depends on the mood of the weather if it’s a myth.”
“It is a myth. And this myth is only now whispered about, and only in light.”
Wade dipped his hands into the harbor and washed them.
“No salt still alive is willing to share the witnessing of that day,” said Jeshurun. “It is said that she sailed into the intimate harbor without a crew.”
“That’s impossible,” he said in a coaxing voice.
“That’s what they say.”
Wade sat forward. Jeshurun scratched his thickish neck and continued.
“On that day she moved through the inner channel slowly, easily—lacking a helm, coming to rest at the dock guided somehow by an unseen hand—guided by strange, silent words no one understood. The men made her fast to the dock and then fled to the surf to bathe, scrubbing themselves with holystones to be rid of her charm.”
Wade knew the story by heart. He gazed upon her, this living, breathing myth.
“She has remained fast to the same dock ever since. So the story goes. But Wade….” He inhaled. “The wreck off the Northern Point is more important.” And he exhaled bitterly through his nose. “Another vessel ruined.”
“Didn’t she see the Lighthouse?”
“Of course she saw the Lighthouse. But we need a pilot boat captain to guide them in during these brutal storms.…” He broke off. “Those coming in are having a difficult time trusting in the Lighthouse. But this captain now resting in the Roseway Inn—he’s a different breed. Abner said he purposefully aimed for the cauldron.”
Wade knew the cauldron well, having grown up on the island of Springwick Harbor, which served as the edge of a blade: immediately to the north was the murderously jagged cauldron called the Northern Point; immediately to the south was the safety of the outer water of SpringwickHarbor. In recent years too many ships had suffered a dashing against the rocks exposed in the middle of the cauldron. If a boat failed even a little to heed the unmistakable red light of the Lighthouse, and veered north, it would founder in the cauldron and become, in a matter of minutes, flotsam.
“Is he mad?” said Wade.
“He wanted to sneak in. Abner said he was pretending to be a stowaway on a captainless vessel, so that no one would take note.”
“I’m sorry I couldn’t have been there.” And he turned his eyes upon the heterogeneous timberwork of the Vermillion Mourning. “I’m sorry we couldn’t sail aboard her to the wreck and save them.”
Jeshurun studied him intensely. “The Vermillion Mourning isn’t seaworthy. She’s a death trap. Anyone who sails aboard her defies the ocean; the ocean waits to swallow her. The wicked deep is hungry for anything cursed. If you go aboard her, you’ll fall in love with your own drowning.”
“She’s not a coffin.”
No … not yet, thought Jeshurun.
Wade inhaled deeply. “She’s a pretty schooner. The prettiest in the harbor.” He gazed at her dangling forestays, rubbed his dark eyebrow with his slender finger. “She feels just right.”
Jeshurun exhaled heavily. “Someday I’ll build you a schooner.”
“She would be uglier than the Vermillion Mourning.”
“Depends on the taste of the salt, Wade. All I have to do is figure out how to float a corpse. That vessel would be quite a bit prettier.”
Wade narrowed his eyes at the cloud swallowing the sun, closed them to ponder deeply the want. “At night sometimes I’ve dreamt about this schooner—sailing aboard her, around Cape Horn … in a tremendous gale. The waves crash over the bow, and I’m at the helm, and the wind is overwhelming. Days pass as I’m fighting the Horn, yet I’m still driving her to her destination. Then suddenly we’re through, and all is peaceful. I’ve passed my test.” At this he lay on the dock and watched the clouds.
Jeshurun knew the test that was tugging on him, because it had tugged on the hearts of the landlubbers in SpringwickHarbor since its settlement. “What do you mean?” he asked him, to draw out his heart.
“I don’t know. But … I believe I’ll pass the test.” He raised his chin again to the Vermillion Mourning, consumed by her shape and dimension. “She drafts twelve feet, Jeshurun—the deepest in the harbor. She’s one hundred and eleven feet on deck. Twenty-four feet across her beam. Double-hulled. Two hundred-fifty tons. The heaviest in the harbor. Her mainsail and spars weigh two tons. Her kedge anchor, the one I just now tried unsuccessfully to grab, weighs five hundred pounds. She’s the heaviest, largest schooner in SpringwickHarbor. A destination for sailors from all over the world.”
They went on discussing the attraction of the Vermillion Mourning to those sailors thirsting for a hard strike at the sea: Against their conscience they made pilgrimages over land to see her. Sailors wanted to be as near her as they dared without touching her—as if to bravely sense her danger and then veer away before getting hurt. She repulsed the weak, drawing them closer. They hated her mangled wreck, loved her gorgeous sheer, drawing out of them their own gorgeously mangled will. Against their better judgment they felt themselves bonding with the schooner, pressed together under the weight of the clouds—a beautiful togetherness, a beautiful doom. Fearful of being drug with her into the sea, they fled from the harbor never to return.
“I feel like one day I shall sail with her to my bitter end,” he said, “to Cape Horn, the Horn’s bald cliff, and be dashed to pieces joining the other dead sailors who had hoped for better seas.”
“You belong in the bilge for such words,” said Jeshurun.
“But if you let me up into the lantern,” he said in a breezy manner, “I promise I’ll come to my senses.”
Jeshurun stared hard at his center. “You won’t have your senses after I let you up into the lantern.”
Wade fell silent.
After their skin warmed and their clothing dried, Wade draped his toes over the edge and Jeshurun followed and they watched the light play off the bow. They followed the long, slender line of her caprail all the way to her stern and then back to the bow rising beautifully out of the water. Even with the disheveled bowsprit and fallen topmast, she radiated power and strength, a quaint strength that sailors once acknowledged no matter where they were in the harbor.
“She is pretty, Jeshurun. You have to admit it just a little.”
Jeshurun smiled. “Maybe a little.”
The bay water lapped against the dock and it rocked slowly. A wind, elegant and fragrant, rushed over them.
His heart hammered. “I wonder who had held her when the wave struck? What solid shape took out the spokes of her helm? A fish? A meteor? I feel sympathy for the helmsman who had held her when he suffered his last watch.”
“Some sailors are pretty strong,” said Jeshurun. “Some are meant to survive practically anything the sea throws at them.”
Wade turned on his side to face Jeshurun. “It’s my destiny to sail aboard her.”
“You wouldn’t make it out of the harbor. But on another vessel you could sail all the way to Hawaii.”
He rolled onto his back and covered his eyes with his forearm. “What am I saying? I don’t like sailing.”
You’ve never sailed, thought Jeshurun.
“I’ve never been up in the lantern, either.” He cut his eyes into Jeshurun.
Jeshurun breathed soberly.
“I just know I’m destined to sail aboard the Vermillion Mourning.”
Jeshurun’s tone was brotherly and matter-of-fact. “Wade, I don’t think even the best of sailors are meant to survive the Vermillion Mourning. She’ll destroy anyone who desires to board her. Her destiny is to destroy you.”
“But I can … taste … her.”
Jeshurun cupped his fingers together and studied the contours of his palms. He whispered to himself, “For the foolish, doom tastes a lot like love.”
Wade frowned as if he had bit into a raw oyster.
Jeshurun made his hand into a fist and brought it down softly onto the dock as if trying to pound the light of what he saw into Wade. “I think you and I should sail aboard some other vessel. I’ll teach you everything you’ll ever want to know about the water. I’ll take you into the sea and we’ll discover the grace of sailing.”
He ignored the suggestion, shivering in the shadowy chill. “I don’t know how to sail.”
Jeshurun regarded Wade: his icy cheekbones, his sharp, angular chin, the cutting shadows in his eyes. He understood fully that Wade struggled to sense the deeper reality in what he saw, fighting to connect one paradox after another, filling his mind with the treasure of his searching. He rested in the unseen, rested in the bounty of a fallen ship, in her unspoken need, her hidden beauty. So intensely wanting the schooner, he would do anything to bend her darkness to his dream. The Vermillion Mourning pulled on him like a tide, mooring him to the bottom of the ocean. Jeshurun saw his depth, the troubled movement in him, the desire to change and be changed by a sea constantly redefining her strength. The light of his eyes and the terrible glory within them fought viciously for birth. The rumbling of the wind lay just in him, just beneath his skin, searching for escape and the freedom to carry his dream over the waters.
“We’ll be safe together,” he said. “You won’t drown.”
“But if I drown, I won’t get to—”
“You won’t drown.”
“Then maybe I’ll get cold.”
Jeshurun laughed. “The sea is sometimes cold. But that’s where sailors are born.”
Wade’s stomach growled. He hadn’t eaten all morning, having avoided breakfast with Abner and Jeshurun. After surviving the brutal cold, he hungered for a sandwich from Walt’s Nautical.
“Then I’ll take you sailing. Agreed?”
Wade nodded, and they arranged for a time the following morning to sail a pram around the outer harbor. He left Jeshurun at the dock, ascended the ramp and crossed the pier, continued along Shoreline to Main, went into Walt’s Nautical, limping all the way from his exposed blisters. The grocery looked down from a corner of the street into the quaint shops that once bustled with mariners from all over the world—mariners who were longing to return to their boats.
Walter stood on a chair behind the counter hanging the piñata. He turned. His lips widened when he saw Wade and he gleamed with his bright, expressive eyes. “So you survived. How’s my lighthouse friend?”
Wade shrugged. “You need someone to break open that sailing ship.”
“I’m saving it for a special occasion,” he said, controlling his voice. He tied another knot and gently tugged on the heavy rope holding it. He wiped his hands, stepped down from the chair, moved around the corner and embraced Wade. His rounded shoulders opened to him, and to those who frequented his store. His strong hands, wide girth and square jaw gave the impression of a bowler merrily rolling his way through life taking with him any and every friend he could grab. They all deserved the hope of the dream.
Wade regarded the piñata again, a mysterious weight surging through him. “What occasion?”
“I’m not really sure, Wade. Another storm is coming. I’m not sure there’ll be anything to celebrate.”
Wade looked around. The grocery with its cozy ambience modeled the intimate sea life of the town, packed densely around its intimate harbor. It served as a conventional food store stocking fruits and vegetables, beef and dairy, grains and wine, but was invitingly more.
Sailors salivated browsing the packed shelves of rope, ships bells, sailors’ palms, barometers, chronometers, inclinometers, clocks, anchor lanterns, marlinspikes. They felt comfortable looking through the large porthole windows of the storefront, dreaming themselves bound for adventure. Four fans turned moderately, like lazy propellers, to offset the heat.
More so than any of the taverns, Walt’s Nautical served as a meeting place for sailors to share stories and news from the Conch while grabbing Nog and a pastry on the way to their sailing craft. They discussed the weather and continued along the sunlit streets to the awakening harbor life. Inhaling the rich salty air, swabbing the dew off the rails, untying the bow lines, raising the head sails, they caught the wind that promised an unforgettable adventure into the Pacific
At least, this was the way of life for Walt’s Nautical and for SpringwickHarbor long ago.
Wade, Walter and everyone else knew that their robust marine community had all but dried up. Gnawing angst permeated the streets like dense fog, searching the doors and the bones for cracks. Inhabitants felt too timid to drift from their port of call, too afraid to sail anywhere.
They had forgotten a time bathed in joy when the town celebrated with the arrival of an old salt who had braved the storms of life with courage and humility, eager to share his stories over a pint at the Lantern Fish. Once rested, he was ready to sail out again into the ripping wind.
They had forgotten about those young folk who, in a moment of magical discovery, realized that they too were born to sail. In a burst of wind these fresh young sailors rushed for their vessels and cast off, longing to test their calling.
Long ago, in distant history—before Wade was alive—sailorfolk still sailed freely in and out of the inner harbor. In that age the whole town rejoiced with dreamers young or old who felt ready to take to the sea and share their knowledge with those who loved the craft like themselves. Every mariner knew they were part of a blessed community, intimate and adventurous, filled with hope, sharing the passion to live asea.
Lately, however, there hadn’t been any newcomers. The treacherous bluffs of the Northern Point had been too treacherous to surpass. The Springwick Harbor Lighthouse—the once regal red light guiding and protecting sailors from the perilous bluffs—had somehow failed to show the way. Only the strength and skill of Abner brought them ashore, but without their vessels. This was considered the worst of tragedies. People would whisper to each other, A sailor without a vessel is like a man without a dream.
Sailors young and old had forgotten that a dream like joy was possible.
Wade picked up a ship’s bell and rung it meekly. Then he toyed with a monkey’s paw, hitting his palm. He picked up a bundle of seine twine and began wrapping his wrist.
Walter watched him with amusement. He believed in a new harbor. He saw that harbor in the eyes of the dormant sailors who would come sheepishly into his store, mingle at the back with Bethlem, too afraid to come forward and buy something they knew they would never use, for a vessel they were too afraid to captain or even desire. He saw in their eyes a latent strength stored up in them from all their terrifying journey under storm. That was why he had visited their lodgings and convinced them to contribute to the piñata. That piñata in his mind would bring his beloved harbor town back to life.
But that schooner. That hideous schooner. Their thorn.
Thaddeus, the lanky stock clerk, appeared from an aisle. “Did you go down to the harbor, Mr. Walter?”
“I did. There’s a helm aboard her.”
“A helm, Thad.”
“After the storm.”
Thaddeus said breathlessly, “That means she’s ready to sail.”
Bethlem laughed. He wiped his bloody apron. “But she ain’t. You know as well as I no one is brave enough to take her to sea.”
Abigail’s olive face struggled with the fear weighing on her and she gazed through a porthole window as her body listed. It’d kill whoever went, she thought. She continued to roll without enthusiasm the dough for the turnovers.
Wade trembled. His blisters burned. He looked exhausted, defeated from his failure to board the Vermillion Mourning.
“I’m not sure she’ll ever cleave with the sea,” said Thaddeus.
Walter nodded and a pallor descended on the group.
“Well, if she don’t, at least we’ll have each other,” said Bethlem.
The group felt a cold pressure stiffen their skin.
Walter thought to himself, What use is it to be together if we can’t share our common dream? The heart of our town? The hope to be alive upon the waters and filled with grace aboard an everlasting vessel is slipping through our fingers like vapor.
He sensed that they were grasping for a desire so nebulous no one understood how to helm it. They could muster only weak and failing dreams, anything utterly untrue, all destined to end before they left sight of land. The one hope fashioned in the soul of the town—the dream destined for sea—still lacked a solid name. It lacked a keel and ribs. Nothing was shipshape. A cold hand waited to scatter it before it was launched into the water. It was a lonely time, a hungry time. A time of anger. It was a time to suffer as a dreamer and feel separated alongside those who could not communicate the unspeakable want in themselves, the hunger to sail unafraid, to be made free. SpringwickHarbor was foundering in a dead dream, the worst kind of fear.
“Abner pulled a sailor from the Northern Point,” he said. “A Navy captain.”
“Is he all right?” shot Thaddeus. “Did the storm get him at all?”
Where’s he from? thought Abigail. Is he hungry? What’s he look like? Is he handsome?
Bethlem whacked a rib in two. “He’s a survivor…. Right, Walt?”
The group felt cool, soothing hope returning through the window.
“I don’t know. Haven’t seen him. Abner took him up to the Roseway Inn to get him food and shelter. Imagine he’s pretty tired.”
Bethlem sorted the ribs for packaging. He lifted his robust jaw. “Is he the one?”
They all fell silent before Walter, waiting for these next most important words.
Walter folded his arms and leaned back on the checkout counter. He chewed his fingernail.
“Walt,” said Abigail. “Bethlem asked you!”
He tore off a sliver of dead skin.
“Well what did Abner say?” she said.
“I haven’t talked to him.”
Wade disappeared into an aisle, wishing to veer far away from any conversation dealing with his adoptive father.
“Well, what do you think he would have said?” said Abigail.
Thaddeus stopped sweeping. He stood erect. He filled his lungs. “He’s not the one, is he?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know if he’s the sailor we’ve been hoping for. I don’t know if he’s brave enough or crazy enough to do what is needed for this community to get back on its legs.”
Thaddeus’s chest deflated.
Bethlem, noticing Thaddeus out of the corner of his eye, raised his voice, “But he could be, right Walter? I mean, this guy could be the one? After all, there’s a helm aboard her. That’s all that was left. And now it’s there. So there’s reason to hope.”
Abigail agreed. There’s a lot to be hopeful for, she thought.
Thaddeus refused to hear them.
Wade came around the end of the aisle and faced them all. “Abner didn’t pull out the Navy captain from the Northern Point. The Navy captain drowned.”
Thaddeus looked like a wave had swamped him.
“Are you sure about that, son?” said Walter, jaw tense.
“But he did pull out a stowaway. He’s the one getting rest in the Roseway Inn.”
Thaddeus shouted. “I hate the Northern Point! Why does every ship have to sail into the Northern Point! I’m tired of this! We need a captain!”
They thought of how the Northern Point loomed over their little sailing community, of her bluffs over two hundred feet in height curving in a giant U that trapped the sea, and ships, as they crashed against the rocks. They were comforted that Abner could look down into the cauldron and see the waves and the ships swirling over the rocks jutting out of the center, and rescue those in peril.
But even with his paternal guardianship, the sailorfolk knew that nowadays few mariners were brave enough to vie for the harbor, too afraid to trust that even if they were shipwrecked in the Northern Point, they’d still make it to SpringwickHarbor when Abner pulled them to safety. Many were too intimidated by the daunting Point to trust in the Lighthouse. They had heard the stories of SpringwickHarbor, of its peaceable freedom, but didn’t believe it was worth the risk. Those who did found that whatever peril they encountered en route paled to the rest afforded them once they arrived. Once they passed into the narrow inner harbor they were safe to call it their home and sail from it to their heart’s content.
Wade burned. What if he could be the captain? What if he could sail her all the way to kingdom come?
Walter breathed calmly through his nose. “The stowaway you’re talking about, Wade, is Captain June.”
“He didn’t aim the vessel for the harbor and miss into the Northern Point. He aimed for the cauldron, because he wanted to smash his vessel into the rocks. Once he rigged the helm, he hid himself as a stowaway, because that’s how he knew he could slip in. And he’s here now. And I promise you. He is the one.”
Thaddeus ran outside. He yelped the seagulls off the street until they flew over the harbor.
Walter laughed to himself, vigorously wiped the checkout counter. “So anyway, how’s Abner? Is he tired?”
Wade rolled his tongue and said listlessly, “He’s plugging away.”
“That’s good.” He continued wiping.
“It’s too bad it’s happening,” Wade went on. “I’m sure Abner knows what he’s doing. But there’s no excuse for losing a vessel to the bluffs. The Lighthouse is easy to spot.” He wiped his sweaty palms on his sparkling white T-shirt with the words BORN TO RUN stenciled across the chest. He thrust a hand into a pocket of his white athletic shorts.
Bethlem laughed from the back of the store. “I don’t mean to be ill-mannered, Wade, because you know that I think the world of you. But I have to ask the question. Have you ever seen the Lighthouse from the sea?”
Wade felt a flash of anger. He quickly focused it toward Walter. “No, I haven’t.”
Wade angered at his adoptive father Abner for failing to competently man the Lighthouse, and at Jeshurun for his incompetency as First Assistant. He believed himself capable of doing a better job and keeping the vessels away from the Northern Point. But as Second Assistant he had not been given the opportunity to prove it.
Walter felt Wade’s eyes. “I understand your frustration at your post. You have a tough assignment. You’re being humbled on that Lighthouse island. That can’t be easy. But listen. Jeshurun will serve as the Lighthouse Keeper. The whole community is waiting in celebration over it.”
Wade shrugged at the floor and jingled the keys to the Lighthouse in his pockets. He looked around at the brass polish and cleats and the shelf of nautical books including the publication Notice to Mariners printed weekly. The top issue on the shelf was 24 April 1983—the same year of his birth. Such thick dust covered it that he could barely read the print.
Walter had told him stories of seasoned mariners arriving together and picking up their copy of Mariners and reading the high and low tides written in chalk behind the counter and striking up a conversation with Walter and Bethlem and the others. It had been a special place, a haven for joy.
He wished the camaraderie of the sailing town would return. If he couldn’t become the Keeper and guide salts in, then let him take the Vermillion Mourning out to sea to find them. Yet he knew that if he waited patiently, one day he was sure to become the Keeper. This was his foundation, and from it he felt free to observe the town leisurely, confidently and critically.
“You should go sailing today, Wade.” said Walter. He withdrew behind the counter and arranged a bin of sailor’s palms.
Wade shook his head. He avoided his eyes. “No, thank you.”
“You like to run.”
“All over these streets. All over these hills.”
Walter darkened his brow. He opened his palm. He voiced his passion, “Have you ever gone running asea?”
Wade picked up a porcelain replica of the Springwick Harbor Lighthouse. He didn’t care about any life that one might find asea, other than the Vermillion Mourning. He cared about the Lighthouse. What would it be like to don the linen apron so handsomely appropriate on Jeshurun and Abner, though he had never actually seen them wear one—and polish the glass? Trim the wick? Be the one responsible to keep the lantern turning by rewinding the weights? He felt like a foreigner in town observing the curious joy of the sailors while retreating mentally to the Lighthouse where, he had convinced himself, was the only truly safe place for him and his heart. He limped to the back of the store. Abigail was kneading dough. Bethlem was hacking steak with a cleaver. Thaddeus continued stocking shelves.
When Abigail saw him approaching her, her shoulders relaxed and she breathed until her chest and body relaxed. She perked up, giving him her best smile. He was the young adult in the harbor whom she wished her own sons would model. She saw something in him that she longed for them to discover in themselves. “You look like you could use a Band-Aid or two.”
“Come in for your sandwich?” she said in a soft tone. “I’d serve you a fresh apple turnover, but they’re not ready yet.”
Wade picked through the premade sandwiches at the bottom of the refrigerated shelf. “Where’s the roast beef?”
“It’s there. Bethlem made one for you this morning.”
“I don’t see it.”
He felt the closeness of this family who ran the grocery. He had spent so much time here that he knew their sailing dreams. Walter’s was to sail with friends into the setting sun. Abigail, Wade’s surrogate mother, wished to sail into the sea with her boys—swore she wouldn’t leave without Wade. Bethlem’s was to recover the nautical miles he had lost while adrift on a life raft following a storm and sail away on an adventure with the hero who had rescued him: Captain West. But no one knew where he was. Thaddeus dreamt of discovering an uncharted island. And Hank’s was to round up the whole gang at Walt’s, take them to sea on an unsinkable vessel, and throw a barbecue in the eye of a hurricane.
These sailors had known Wade for his lifetime and they impressed him with their kindness and passion for sailing. He felt safe around them. He felt safe in SpringwickHarbor. He wished somehow their dreams could come true.
“How’s that Jeshurun?” said Bethlem in a husky voice.
“He’s all right. He pulled me out of the water this morning.”
Abigail touched her floured fingers to her cheek and gasped. “What happened?”
Wade clenched his jaw.
Bethlem chopped off a slab of meat. Abigail looked forcefully at Wade.
“Did you fall in?”
“I don’t see any roast beef here.”
“Did Jeshurun take you sailing?” she said.
“No. I don’t ever want to go sailing with Jeshurun.”
Abigail stopped kneading dough, looked scornfully at Wade’s bent shape.
Thaddeus placed a can of tomato paste on the shelf. “It would be a dream job to be the Springwick Harbor Lighthouse Keeper.”
Bethlem chopped off a slab of fat. “Jeshurun should be about ready to step up.”
Wade rolled his eyes. Something hot and seething melted his teeth.
Hank, lean and efficient in brown clothing, burst through the back door wheeling several crates of produce. He nodded hello.
The entire store erupted in unison, “Haaaaank!”
“It’s Hanky-poo,” added Thaddeus.
Hank winked to Abigail and slapped Bethlem on the back.
“You’re late,” said Bethlem.
“I stole your hair appointment.”
Bethlem rubbed his bald head with his forearm.
Thaddeus turned to Hank. “Need help?”
“Why should I?”
“You’re amazingly weak for your size,” said Thaddeus. “You need to bean up.”
Hank wheeled the heavy cart to the refrigeration room. “And you’ve got a God-given gift for blindness.”
Thaddeus pushed up his glasses. “I wish someday I could be as blind as you, Hank.”
Abigail looked bashfully at Hank, who had turned red. Bethlem smiled and his thick dark creases became shadows. Wade stepped closer to them. His smooth, peach-fuzz face bridged with delight. And he placed a hand on the counter of the bakery.
“How are your boys, Abigail?”
“They’re anxious,” she said in passing. “They keep bugging me to go sailing but I don’t have the time. They need someone to take them.”
Wade picked at his fingernails and scratched his dark curly hair. “Bethlem could take them.”
“With my luck?” He snorted. “I don’t think we’d get out of sight of land before something drastic happened. No sir, not me.” He glanced sheepishly up at Wade. “Maybe Thaddeus would take the boys. Except he doesn’t know how to steer.”
Thaddeus nodded. “Tried several times.”
Wade sighed through his nose and swallowed, leaned his head to the side. “Jeshurun can take them. Jeshurun can do anything.”
Hank came out of the refrigeration room. “Why don’t you take them, Wade?”
Wade dismissed his suggestion with a facial gesture. He went back to the sandwiches and tossed one out of the way, flicked another, stabbed at a sandwich without looking at it.
“That’s not the roast beef,” said Bethlem.
“I don’t care what it is,” he said in a cross tone as he limped to the counter.
“He never eats anything other than roast beef,” said Bethlem to Abigail.
“Well maybe today he’s changing his colors,” she whispered.
At the counter Wade dropped the sandwich before Walter.
“Those clowns in the back giving you a rough time?”
“You listen to me, Wade.” He leaned over the counter. “Your life and Jeshurun’s are not the same. He has his own duties, and you have yours. And your duties are not the same.”
“Well what’s my duty?” he said with a sharp jaw.
“You’ll figure that out. But don’t listen to those thoughts that tell you you’ve got to be just like Jeshurun. He has many talents, and you have many talents. You can’t live your life drafting off his wind. You’ve got to discover your own wind. And listen to this.” He motioned him to lean closer and they met over the counter. “There are some things you can do that your brother is not meant to do.” His eyes twinkled. A dab of spit glistened on his lower lip.
“What possibly could I do that Jeshurun can’t already do in his sleep?”
He charged the sandwich to Abner’s account and turned for the door.
“There’s more to life than the island,” Walter whispered.
“But I don’t want anything else.”
“That’s not what I hear.”
Wade froze, chin to air.
“Look, son. SpringwickHarbor is home to sailors. All those boats in that harbor are the dreams of the people. You and I know this. We’ve talked about it many times. ”Wade scratched his cheek. His jaw came open.
“But some vessels are not healthy. You know which vessel I’m talking about.”
“The one I’m convinced can fly us all home.”
“She doesn’t belong in this harbor. And you don’t belong on her. She’s destined for the Abyss. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
Wade adjusted the sack in his hand without meeting Walter’s eyes.
“She’ll end your life. It would be better to suffer the life of an earthbound lighthouse keeper, and never share the glory of the lighted lantern, than go aboard the Vermillion Mourning. Do you hear me?”
Wade shivered. “No.”
“Enjoy your sandwich.”
He stepped for the door. He turned. “Walt,” he said. “Have you ever wanted a dream so much you’d give your life for it?”
“And so has everyone else in SpringwickHarbor. We’re all dreamers, and all of us are waiting for our dreams to come true.”
“My dream is to be with my father in the Lighthouse. And he’s promised me it will never come true.” His eyes flickered. “I don’t belong here.” And he stormed out of the store.
Walter looked disconsolately at the others. “We may never go.”