She pulls a stocking up her thigh, hands reeling in garters and lace in the way she says he pulled rope in the sea. “Our father who…,” she prompts, prodding me into prayer.
I kneel on the ground next to her. My hands near her feet on the bare mattress as she pulls the stockings to her waist. I clasp my hands to my chest like she taught me to do, but I don’t close my eyes all the way. “Our father who art in heaven, hallows be thy name.”
“It’s hallow-ed,” she says, “not hallo-ws. Go at it again.” Her accent edges out, trembling and crawling on shaky legs. That Irish drawl that has been coming naturally from her lips faster each day as she draws closer to leaving me.
I start over. She stands and takes out a cigarette, lighting it with a match that she pulls from the inside V of her bra, striking it alight with her thumbnail. She’s standing in her undergarments, tightly wrapped up in black and white like the fish they sell down at the docks. The ones they bundle in yesterdays newspapers, smoothly tucking in the corners of forgotten traumas and joys, the weight of the sell holding it together.
“Get on with it, lass,” she says, waving away cigarette smoke. “We’ve got to meet your father. We’ll need to be there when his ship comes in.”
Her hands are shaking as she takes a drag. She’s looking down on the room and she’s looking down on me, but only just; her thoughts are elsewhere this morning. Her dress hangs over the door like a silk blue skin that someone left behind. The gold buttons down the front glint from the broken pieces of sunlight filtering in through the dirty window.
“Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
A curl of her red hair comes undone from the ribbon in the back and toys down the left side of her face. “Here. Hold this for me,” she says handing me her cigarette with one hand and the thin, red ribbon with the other. She drops her hair, shaking it around, rustling through it with her fingers. “Have you seen me hairbrush, love?” she says flipping her hair back behind her. “The one with the ivory handle?”
I sit on the empty bed, uninterested in unfinished and unanswered prayers. The cigarette goes in my mouth and I hold it in the corner like she does. I fiddle knots into the ribbon, practicing the ones she’d taught me so long ago. Busy things to keep me unnoticed while she worked just beyond the sheet hung between our beds.
“Have you seen me hairbrush?” she asks again. She grabs me by the shoulders. “I asked you a question,” her voice borders that edge I know so well. She takes the smoke from my mouth and immediately puts it in hers. “Good at takin’ things that aren’t yours, are ya?” She shakes me back and forth. The ribbon falls to the floor.
“I don’t understand why I can’t go with you!” I say before I can stopper the words.
She slaps me across the face. She points to her chest, just above where her brassier stops and the wonder that stuck us here begins. “I’m the mother and I say what’s best and I’m telling ya you’re going to go live with yer father.”
“I’ve never met him!”
She slaps me again on the other side of my face, her nails scratching for a bite too. I start to cry and for a moment the storm breaks. She sighs and softens a bit. She sits on the bed next to me, pulling me to her chest, my mouth pressing close to the nape of her neck. She rocks me slightly back and forth.
“Yer to stay here,” she says. “I can’t take you with me. I’ve only money for one of us.” She pushes me back until she is looking at me. I search her for meaning, for a sign that she means to come for me soon, but there’s an unspeakable blackness of truth behind her eyes.
“Ah lass,” she ticks, “Suppose we’ll have to do something about that hair before I go, eh?” She touches a strand of my hair, running her red lacquered nails through the length of it. “Here,” she says reaching over for a rusted pair of scissors in the drawer by the nightstand. “Sit in front of me.”
The old mattress sags as she gathers my hair, raking her fingers through it from scalp to ends. She separates it into three thick plats and braids them together softly and easily as if it has been ritual for us all these years.
“Hand me the ribbon,” she says. I lean and reach it, a long tail swooping from the ground. She loops it around the braid. “There, love, nearly done with ya.”
“Why?” I ask, hundreds of hidden meanings scratching at the surface.
“He can’t throw you from the boat if you look like him,” she says, answering all the wrong questions. She pats my head and smiles at me from the silver cracked mirror hanging on the wall across from us. “It’s a crabbing boat so you’ll be bundled up in yer weather gear most of the time. But in case ya aren’t,” she gets up from the bed and rummages in the bureau. “Here,” she tosses me a black cap. “Make sure ya wear that.”
“Where did you get this?”
“It was yer Da’s,” she laughs. “He left it here, when he, well, ya know.” She crushes her cigarette in the yellowed, glass dish on the dresser top.
“But I don’t know how to crab.”
“He’ll teach ya. You’re about old enough now. Fifteen now ain’t ya?”
“I’m twelve.” I wonder where she put the lost years.
“Ah well, you’ll pass like an older chap. Just do the work and don’t whine like ya tend to do sometimes.” She looks at me knowingly. “Plus it helps that ya look like ‘im.”
There is a single long, black hair tangled along the edges of that cap that isn’t mine or hers. “I look like him?”
She nods, tilting her head to the side without committing much. “Well, I suppose you will at least. Bit easy to tell with your hair all long like that. What’s lucky is ya growing only those mosquito bites.” She waves vaguely at my chest. “Anything bigger and you’d be takin’ all me customers.” She pauses tasting the words in her mouth before she says them. “Course me, by yer age, was already workin’ the streets back home.”
She clicks her tongue, clearing out her words and her past lives. “Just a shame really though, your hair is such a lovely color. Just like mine it is.” She looks at herself in the mirror, smoothing her loose hairs into place. “Only thing ya got from me I suppose. But life is full of tough breaks, now ain’t it.” She sits up straighter and reaches for the scissors again. “Now then, hold still,” she says spidering her fingers against the top of my head, turning it forward and pressing it down.
“But what if I don’t like him?”
She shushes me.
“But what if he doesn’t like me?”
“Come now, child. Don’t be daft. That’s why we’re not going to tell him you’re a girl, now are we?” She shakes her head at the stupid child she has birthed. “A woman on board a fishing boat is bad luck. Besides,” she pauses and looks at me through the mirror, “it doesn’t matter if he likes ya or not, you’re not to go lookin’ for love or approval from a fisherman.” She points the scissors at me through the mirror. “Mark my words, child. Do so and you’ll only end up empty hearted and coldly disappointed.”
I wait, expecting more. A bit of advice, a continuing of the conversation, but there’s nothing. She places the scissors at the back of my skull and saws through the thick braid.
She presses down harder. “Hold still lass.”
As she cuts I feel the weight of her presence leaving piece by piece. Her hands leavening, lightening as she tears me away from her. Cutting the cord to the only thing still holding her here.
“There,” she holds the braid up to the light examining it, wondering at it. “Now who’ll know?”
His ship is already at dock when we arrive. Her blue dress shimmers in the water’s reflection. My head feels itchy and, even though I’m wearing the black cap, naked.
“Any minute now,” she says smoking through two cigarettes as fast as she can light them. Her small, green trunk is on the ground next to us and she’s holding one of my hands with hers. It’s cold and clammy even though it’s warm outside.
“What did you do with my hair?” I ask.
“Why? Want to keep a bit of it, did ya? Pretend at having chest hair?” She laughs and throws her cigarette to the ground. “I tossed it. Out to the sea it goes. Like everything else that doesn’t matter.” She grinds the stub with the toe of her high heel as she watches the docks. When she sees him she turns to stone. The sun comes in behind him as he disembarks, darkening his entire figure until he’s nothing more than a sturdy shadow climbing nimbly down the ship’s ladder.
“There he is, the bloody bastard,” she says, venom and strife laced in her words.
He jumps the last four rungs, landing on the plank walkout with repercussion. In the few steps it takes him to reach us, the dock echoes with his wrathful walk. Jangles of buckles and belts announcing his arrival.
He doesn’t say anything right away, he just looks at her. Showing no recognition of her. Instead he hesitates for the briefest of seconds at her hand clutching mine. He reaches and scratches at his seal skin colored beard, sizing up the situation. My heart thumps in my chest as I realize he has a black cap, similar if not identical to the one I am wearing and I think he notices this. His eyes narrow slightly, another wrinkle along the many windblown creases he carries.
She lights another cigarette for bravery but she doesn’t offer one to him. “This is yer son,” she says letting go of my hand and pushing me forward. She moves her cigarette between her front teeth, hardly opening them at all, drawing out her accent in the fighting stance her kind are so well known for.
His face doesn’t change, but he folds his arms across the faded red flannel shirt. It strains along his shoulders, the fabric yearning for space from his knotted muscles. The sleeves are rolled up to his forearms where thick, black hair comes down to his wrists. His knuckles are scabbed over and flecks of dried blood—his or otherwise it is impossible to tell—line the edges. He clenches his fists, just slightly, just enough that I hardly notice it. He’s squaring off for a fight.
“Take ‘im or leave ‘im, makes no difference to me, but he’s yer problem now,” she says. She picks up her trunk, preparing to leave now that she’s seen me off.
His eyes turn to me, dark riveted currents scanning for weakness and I cower. I reach for her hand, but she pushes me away, no longer her concern. When he finally speaks its gravel and bone.
“He can’t be more than twelve,” he says.
“He’s fourteen,” she counters.
She takes a step towards him, weight on one foot and spits in his face. “Fifteen,” she says wiping the corner of her lipsticked mouth. He grabs her arm quickly, bending it behind her back and holding it tight. Her trunk drops to the ground, popping open and spilling its limited contents onto the deck. Underthings and faded dollar bills flapping around.
“Do it yer bastard,” she says and nods towards me. “Show off in front of the child how strong a man ye are. Give ‘em a taste of who ye really are.”
The lines on his face shift and he lets her go. She shrugs her shoulders, regathering appearances and laughs. “I’ve known tougher bits of brick than you.” She spits at his feet.
“You never said,” he says and there’s a lot of meaning behind these words that I don’t understand. He watches her, she watches him, each waiting for the next feral move. But she’s tamed herself and he’s conceded, tail between his legs. There’s no need for more. She juts her chin out and he crosses his arms once again.
“Get on the boat,” he says, his eyes still on her and nods to the ship behind him.
He whirls around so fast I don’t realize he’s struck me until I am shivering on the ground. I hear her scoff and pull on her cigarette. I touch the mark on my cheek, feeling the imprint of a thousand needles. He stands over me, his shadow cowering me in shade. “If you’re going to work for me, lad you’re going to listen to me.” There’s a drawl in his voice that echoes hers. Not quite the same, but similar. Speaking of a past, a history that I’m somehow part of, but will never understand.
She gathers her trunk, all its contents back in their proper place albeit just a bit done up. “Be a good boy, lad,” she says over her shoulder as she walks away. “Say your prayers and, God willing, he’ll watch over.”
The sun’s not up yet. The cabin is a reflection of the sea; damp, musty and dark. A room to myself seemed fine enough that first day, but now it drags a bit. I sit at the edge of my bed and let my hair down. Shaking it, raking it through my fingers like she did to her own hair so long ago. A trait I’d picked up, a genetic marking I didn’t know I had. My hair is longer than it has ever been. It’s redder than it has ever been. My face remains unchanged, the same stony, boyish cuts that mark me as his. If the crew suspects they tell no tales. To them I’m just the twelfth among the eleven.
Fists pound at my door as Peter, the deck boss, rallies the crew. “Get up, get up, get up.” Three successive poundings, three repetitive crows.
“Ayuh,” I say. “I’m up.”
“Get on deck,” Peter says already moving onto the next door, his voice fading as he moves. “Start pulling rope.”
That first day feels like yesterday, but of course it isn’t. Like how the ocean seems the same everyday, but of course it’s not. Five years or eight years out here I can’t remember. Seventeen or twenty years old I don’t know, but I do know now where she put those lost years so long ago. They tend to slip away one after the other when each day is the same as the next.
I gather my hair up, braiding it in a tight length and wrapping it around the crown of my head, pinning the small leftover tail behind my left ear. Sometimes I think when she cut my hair, she’d cut the last bit of me too. The last good bit at least, leaving behind all the jagged pieces that didn’t quite seem to fit right.
The cap is still too big, but it covers what it needs to cover. I’ve not cut my hair since that day. Didn’t see a reason too. No one suspects. No one asks. Hardly anyone notices me at all—least of all him.
On deck the ice has already been chipped away. The storm blowing through late last night, interrupting our fishing and sending us to bed early to wake up as soon as it broke. Peter and his brother are on the other side of the deck counting pots, seeing how many we have left to drop. Captain is already in the wheelhouse. I can see his outline sipping heavily from a silver flask.
I tighten my jacket, pulling my yellow waders up just a little and shake out my arms trying to send warmth to my fingers. The cold weather gear under my fishing gear feels grimy and stiff. Too cold to do any good.
“Back at it, eh?” Phillip says hauling a bucket of chum in one hand. “Ready to catch them crabbies today?” He pinches the remaining three fingers on his right together, snapping at the air around me. “Pull and drop this morning, lad,” he says. “Pick ‘em up and put ‘em back until the Captain says otherwise.”
I nod and start at the rope knowing today will be a long day. He carries on and I pick up where I left off last night. I snake the rope around, shaking out the salty scabs, fighting it like we do most things. I’ve learned that a fisherman counts his worth by how many things he’s lost: limbs, lives and lovers. They are the currency out here. You just have to pray that your number doesn’t come up.
But I don’t know the words anymore. It’s been ages since I prayed. But I have a religion. I gather rope safe in the knowledge that the water is my church. The crew, my people. She talked of finding God’s love in steeples but out here, I only know God’s anger. I don’t imagine the same God who created these waters would much care if I were dying.
The work commences. The crew moving like cogs in a machine. Each of us working our spots. Each of us ambling on without fail. I remember to lift my feet as I pull, stepping over the coils of rope looped on the ground. It’s a small movement, an easy mistake to make, but one that can cost your life if you’re not careful.
Thomas throws the hook to catch the pot. The waves a hymn, undulating in time to the movement of the boat, lapping at the corners of the deck as we reel it in the catch. Thomas winds the rope through the block and I gather the rope in tight, concentric circles. Weaving them together like a snake charmer’s basket. An animal, the warmth of it, an idea so outrageously out of place out here that I can’t help but smile.
“Something’ funny, eh?” Thomas says. He’s always prodding for a good time. I shake my head. “How ‘bout I tell you a story then, lad,” he says, “since you’re in for a laugh and all.” He gums his cigar. One hand on the block while we wait for the pot to break. He watches the sea, his eyes the color of the sky. His beard as scraggly and stiff as rope.
“Now listen here,” he says. “I heard this story once. Short and sweet it was,” he watches the pot intently, the way only a skilled worker knows how. “On the first day God said let there be light.” He spreads his arms wide and raises his voice. “And by god-fucking-almighty there was light.” The pot breaks the surface as he prophesies and it is full to the brim with ripe, red King Crab.
The pot comes over the bow and we pull it in. Simon and Peter, their legs spidery and wet, quickly collect, count and christen our catch. The others place their hands on their hips and breathe deep. It’s a brief rest while the crab gets counted. I wipe at my face. Sweat, blood, water, or tears, it’s hard to say what any of it is anymore. Philip hangs the chum in the next pot. I wind more rope while I wait.
My fingers nimbly count the notches like rosary beads, telling me the tales of the sea. How far the ocean has risen this year, how long we’ve been out here, the storm that is approaching from the east. It’s all there. It reads like the Bible.
The ship creaks and cracks as we shuffle and work, our rain gear distorting our identities. The cold snapping at our skins, marking our ruddy cheeks with burns from the wind and sun.
The rain comes hard halfway through the string. Sideways, upways, all ways. You can lose your sense of direction out here. Thomas is letting the line. Andrew, brother of Peter hands me the buoy line.
Thomas nods as he works, the cigar now limp and wet between his lips. I pull down on my hood, pushing it further against my face to block out the wet cold. Thomas swings the hook, hitting his mark and strings it through the feed. The pot comes up easily and quickly.
“Get the rope!” Andrew yells. I’ve not time to wind the rope away. I scuttle, reach and pull the rope into the long, fast loops that I’ve been taught.
“Hey, hey, hey!” Someone is yelling. I don’t know who. I bend, crouch and reach for the middle of the rope and pull it in one go. There are arms waving and flailing. Yellow rain jackets blurring in the corners of my eyes. I grab the rope again and stand, feeling the void of something having just been here before me. The air feels colder, emptier, pockets of holes that I can’t account for. And it’s then that I see the eight-hundred pound metal crab pot swing past my head having just missed me.
“Get down! Get down! It’s coming back around!”
The crew has scattered. I drop prone, hands covering my head as if that might protect me. Rope draped all around. The pot swings wildly overhead, daring at any moment to drop and crush me. The rope holding it in place creaks and complains, threatening the unspeakable. But I am spared.
Simon and Peter stand on either side of me and steady the wild beast as it calms and hangs in still motion. “Are you okay?” they ask setting the pot into its launch.
I tug at my cap, making sure it’s secure. My heart is as unsettled as the surging storm. I can’t feel my legs, but I’m alive. That’s more than I should be able to say.
“Thought you were a goner there, greenhorn,” Thomas says laughing. The dark, drooping edges of his eyes telling how many times he’s been witness to this. “That’s crab fishing,” he says, his mouth a dark pitfall of smile. He readies the hook for the next pot, the work continuing on.
I walk to the other side of the deck and catch my breath. My stomach is heaving and my heart is racing with adrenaline. Puke or pass out, it’s a gamble which might come first. I bend, touching my knees and hanging my head to clear the rush.
It’s then that I realize my hands are empty. The rope.
My eyes follow the horizontal gaze and see that it’s still on the ground.
Thomas doesn’t see it. And then the unthinkable happens.
He forgets to pick up his feet. He winds the line like a lasso, a maverick of these seas. The deck is wet with sea and rain and he doesn’t notice the rope clutching his ankle like a dying wish.
“Thomas!” I yell, but my voice is lost on the ocean. Without any sound at all, the rope tightens as Andrew signals for the pot to drop and the line is eaten by the sea.
I run to the other side of the deck screaming his name. “Thomas! Thomas!” The line is dragging out quicker now. It’s all happening in slow motion. “Step out! Step out!” I’m yelling, waving my hands in large X’s.
Thomas looks at me. His hands wide, his face stupidly smiling, gesturing to me as if he wants to prophesy more.
“Here to give me a kiss on the cheek are you, greenhorn?” he says and though I’m too far away I reach for his outstretched hand as the rope catches on his ankle. Before his smile can break his body is pulled sideways. His head slams against the railing and he’s taken out to sea.
“Man overboard!” I yell, my voice cracking, launching into hysteria.
“Man overboard!” Peter pulls the alarm and the crew rushes for emergency and there’s a hysteria of voices.
“Someone get the life vests!”
“I don’t know where they are!”
“The water is too cold!”
“Grab the line!”
“There’s a fucking crab pot attached to it you idiot!”
“What about the raft?”
“There isn’t one!”
“Pull the pot back up!”
“The line is tangled!”
“Goddammit! Where’s the Captain?”
“Jesus fucking Christ.”
We watch the water, looking for signs of life. But there are none. He’s gone, silently whipped away before I could catch him. A bloody indentation on the railing but otherwise there’s no sign that Thomas was even here. The severed, frayed piece of rope dangles on the edge of the block.
“Shit,” Peter says, hitting his hands against the railing. “Shit!”
The Captain comes down from his wheelhouse casual and nonchalant as if this were any other day. The crew shuffles their feet and look at me to speak. But I can’t. The words of what occurred are lost to me.
“Thomas’ boot got caught up in the drop rope,” Andrew says.
“True?” Captain asks, looking out to sea and not at me.
“I didn’t—the rope,” all these false starts, but only two words matter. “Yes, Captain.”
“Then nothing to be done,” Captain says and climbs the ladder back to the wheelhouse.
The crew waits for instruction but it doesn’t come. I stand at the side rail, unbelieving that only moments ago Thomas was standing here, not a care in the world. And now he’s gone.
“It was his own fault,” Peter says clapping a hand on my back.
“Sonntofabitch forgot to pick up his feet. Stupid mistake.” Righteous indignation burns in my chest. Peter shrugs. “So let’s go. Ain’t a lot of time for sentimentality out here. Got crab to catch.”
“He could still be alive down there.”
But Peter shakes his head. “That mark right there on the railing, next to your right hand? That’s where his brains got mashed in. He’d be a lucky bastard if it had killed him then. But if that didn’t do it then the shock of the cold already did. Guarantee. Nothing lives that hits those waters that God himself didn’t put there.”
My stomach is in my throat. I just make it over the railing before the nothingness comes up.
And all were weeping and mourning for her. But Jesus said, ‘Stop weeping; she is not dead but asleep.
Except I can’t sleep. Every time I close my eyes I see Thomas. He’s at the bottom of the ocean. Fish picking at his skin, crabs clawing at his eyes, his head bashed in.
“Your fault greenhorn,” he says, bubbles of blood capturing water.
I toss and turn most of the night, finally surrendering to the inevitable. I’m dressed and on deck before even Peter staggers out to knock on doors.
The stars are alight, the sunrise is just over the horizon but there’s still a darkened cover under which to hide. I lean against the railing, opposite where Thomas fell in. Words I thought I had long since forgotten spring to the surface. I say them quietly, feeling the awkwardness of the words against my tongue. “Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
There’s a sharp hiss and red glow as someone lights a pipe next to me, puffing and blowing as the tobacco catches. He turns his face, his body facing me and the light from the tip of his match illuminates the closeup grays and blacks in the Captain’s beard. He cups his hand puffing on the pipe a few times. He exhales the first smoke. “So you believe in God, do ye?” he says.
I place my weight on my forearms against the rail, clasping my hands in front of me to stop them from shaking. “Can’t say I know for sure. Just thought it seemed appropriate.”
There’s a silence. The soft lapping of waves and the easy calm of brine and salt. “Funny thing about God, lad, is how quickly the believers can become unbelievers.”
The wind picks up and I feel the cap on my head shift. He is watching me. A thin, red strand of my hair escapes from under the cap and waves in front of my face. I quickly tuck it back, hopeful that he hasn’t seen.
His face embers, unreadable, an impenetrable block. “You’re on throw,” he says, taking a long draw on his pipe and walking away.
The sky is a mournful grey, clouds pooling closer on the breeze when the rest of the crew staggers out. Their eyes hungover and whitewashed. They find their jobs. There is a silence that holds Thomas’ place for a moment; a tribute to the speakable now being unspeakable. Then they look to me and I step to his place, his legacy living through my hands. And before I’m ready, Peter hands me the throw hook.
“It’s the last one we’ve got,” he says and nods, making me understand that, though I’m new, I’m here on false pretense—though I’ve as good as murdered a man—that he trusts me all the same.
“I’ve got it,” I say. Marking the words, marking my ability to do this job well. I step to the edge of the boat, ready to cast when the rain comes in.
“Here’s the storm!” Philip yells jumping up and down, tongue out, head thrown back. “God’s fury’s hath arrived!”
Sheets of rain pour down. Large pockets drenching me and getting in my eyes. I’m used to this. I’ve learned how to stand in weather like this. I’ve learned to let it roll off, the same way I know how to plant my feet and throw hook with my hips, the way I was taught so long ago. Back during better weather and better, easier days.
It’s an instinct at this point and so I circle the rope around my wrist, angling for better leverage as I throw. The wind is howling, echoing, screaming in my ears. The storm rolls in fast. It reaches under my clothes and pulls at my nakedness. Aching to get inside me the way it does to all who toll these seas. It will find me eventually, but not today. I push Thomas from my mind, knowing he will find me again tonight as I sleep, his haunting eyes preventing me from closing mine. But not now. My penance can wait.
I lose the hook and it sings my song through the air. It is a hymn against the raging sea. It hits the red buoy and catches the rope smartly. The rain pulses harder and the waves swell over the edge of the ship. We bobble on the surface, preparing to pull in the catch. The boat rides the top of the waves. The ocean bubbles and the waves crown, wrestling for control of the ship. I gather rope. Preparing.
“Pick up your feet,” Andrew calls out, needlessly reminding.
It’s time to pull. I place one foot against the ship’s side, bracing and the other goes behind me. Simon and Peter gather at my back, smacking their hands together to keep them warm, preparing to count the catch. Its three pulls till the rope is in the block and then there are tiny red tips of crab legs breaking the surface and scratching for freedom.
It’s effortless now. The pot comes aboard, the machineries of joy doing their job. A cheer erupts from the crew. I look to the wheelhouse to see if he saw. But it is as quiet as the grave. There’s no time to ponder on it. There is an anger rising from the sea, built up and and growing. It spits spray at us, gnashing its teeth of chopped ice and biting at us for revenge. But it forgets that I have proven my immortality. God was a fisherman only by name. I can rival him as I work the waters that he has abandoned.
I lace the rope around my wrist once again. “Ready!” I call and my brothers gather to help.
“Just like the last one,” they say. The hook sails through the air effortlessly and it hits the mark. No time to celebrate. The ocean confused at its boundaries. We pull anyways.
The pot crests the water but stops with a hard jolt. My hands itch for the knot, pulling at threads for more. I find it just as the line slips without warning. The pot drops hard and fast, the rope leaving a gash across my wrist. The pot crashes back into the sea, it’s top barely visable. The crabs prod at the surface of the water, eager for decision.
With a loud snap the rope breaks. Two frayed pieces fly apart and the half that matters is about to be lost. I act quickly, picking my feet up as I move and reach for the rope before the pot is lost. The rope waves, whipping in the wind, but I grab onto it. The pot’s weight threatens to pull me overboard, but the hands on my back are an anchor.
“Hold the line!” they say. “Don’t let go!”
The rain makes the rope slippery and the angry worn welt embeds deeper, angling its fingers into my wrist but I feel none of it. My sight is on the catch, my mind on the sea. The wind gathers. I’ve been in storms. I’ve been in squalls but this feels different.
“Don’t try to hold the pot up. Let it fall.” Peter yells. “Just hold the rope till the next wave.”
There’s danger on the horizon that looms of more. A fisherman does well to heed these warnings, superstitions or religion, we all have our ideals. But there’s no time. The waves shift and the air deadens. Gulls circle overhead, their cries swallowed and silenced.
“Steady,” Peter calls, his voice crackling on the wind. “Steady!”
The crew shifts their feet, widening their stance for the oncoming hit. The silence is a great and terrible thing. It is not welcome. It speaks all the things that could go wrong. The rope could break further, the crew could falter, we could all be swept overboard and drift into an eternal slumber.
I won’t let these things happen. I tighten my grip on the rope and wrap it around my right wrist. Tawny fibers snare into my palms, bitting for flesh, leaving scars that won’t soon shake. There is a gnashing of the teeth and I don’t know if it is me or the sea that is fighting harder against the internal balance. My tongue bleeds where I bite, dripping the taste of metal into my throat.
“Hold the line!” Captain yells through the wheelhouse window. His instructions small and clear as the storm prepares for its worst blow yet.
“With the next push of wave use the momentum to pull the rope into the block,” Peter says. “The machine will do the rest.”
The ship rocks. The sea surges and groans. The waves swell in painful agony, growing larger with each outward cry. I dig my feet down, pressing my heels into the soul of the ship. My brothers hold me tight. There is a loud creaking and a sudden snap as the waves pound into the side of the ship. They continue to come, God reigning blows upon us, His hands are tied to the helm and we can only but endure it.
My thoughts are singular. Hold. Hold. Hold. The rain is pounding and etching its way into my bones, creating crevices and pathways that were never meant to be forged. My boots are full of water, halfway up my shin already.
“Now!” Captain yells and spins the ship wheel in time to ride the oncoming wave. But even God has a limit here. His reflexes not what they used to be. His thoughts and actions slower, dragging sand as they attempt to come together. The ocean is smarter, quicker, trickier, it knows all his ways. The ship shudders and the wave does not rise but crashes into the deck of the ship. Long, watery claws reaching for us before being sucked out again to try once more.
Wood boards on the deck snap, airborne explosive shrapnel flying overhead. Water pools in the broken bits. The wind is roaring and trumpeting, its plan succeeding, the walls of Jericho cracking.
The crew is pushed about like buoys with no anchor, but I’ve still got the rope. I’ve still got the line. I won’t let go. I said I wouldn’t let go. I can’t let go.
With an intake of breath I pull into the wind, a last ditch effort to pair strength against strength. But the wind does not fight fair, and the hood of my jacket flies back. My cap is gone in a flash of darkness. Wind unwinds the braid and whips my long, red hair around. The curse of my mother rebounded, reliving, rewrought.
For there is nothing hidden that will not be revealed, and nothing concealed that will not be known and illuminated.
The hair bites at my eyes, flagellating me for my sins. Pride. Like the ten lepers who didn’t return. She’d wanted nothing to do with either of us. And he’d wanted nothing to do with me. When everything has been taken, it was the only thing left and I wore it proudly.
I’m blind as I pull now. The sea has made quick work of my vanity, turning it to long, lank, wet tendrils that suck at my skin. I tell my hands to work, that they know these works by heart, but they’re slow moving, labored as if they too have been betrayed by my secret.
The storm is above us now and it is winning. Captain looks to us, his eyes clouded determination. I look to him for guidance. And He sees me. For the first time in my life He sees who I am and his resolve breaks. The clouds part and I see the blue sky. But as quickly as it comes, it is lost. His mouth moves to a line and the crevices along his brow return, furrowing deeper than the trenches of the sea.
There’s no time for apologies. There’s no time to stop. The wind speaks my shame, telling me the words He’s thinking—-how he’s punishing me for walking on water. God’s favor has been lost. God is angry that he has been fooled. I hear the crew whisper it. The rope slides tighter on my wrist.
From the depths I hear Thomas prophesy. His mouth black blood and his body etched in decay. “And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off and cast it from thee.”
There is a quick tightening and then slack as God fulfills scripture in this storm. I cry out, the pain of sin hard to bear, but the wind hushes me. There is a hovering moment, a brief respite while I gather my loss and watch as the rope glides away, a silent slink into the night. My free hand drops away, tumbling overboard. A small drop into the sea and its gone. The future is uncertain, the cold wind smiling as it creeps its way through the danger I’ve created. Eager to steal me away and gain an inch.
I grasp for something to hold onto, but there’s nothing. The ship is drenched, the wood planks crying oversaturated tears of ice and salt. Without the weight of the pot to steady us, Simon and Peter fall forward, slamming me against the metal railing and cracking bone.
It humbles me to my knees and I pray. Hollowed words that should’ve come sooner. The ship lurches on the crest of a wave, groaning in pain and agony as it urges its master to ease its burden. Men flounder on deck, grabbing for sky like the crab we catch. I keep steady as long as I can, my hand clutching the remnant to my chest, dripping watery blood down my jacket.
This is a new and everlasting covenant. For here is my blood, here, partake.
Waves. Wind. Water. I feel the hands grabbing at me, reaching for me, eager to pull me into hell. Fire and brimstone fill my heart. The fear of God is upon me. The ocean knows no master. The God of the Old Testament rules these waters and he demands a sacrifice.
“Get down!” They’re screaming.
But I know it’s too late. I know little of religion, but I know that the answer to sin is a sacrifice. I stare from across the ship at Him, pleading for something, I know not what. A sign perhaps? A signal? A token? That he knows me, that he has not forsaken me. But there is nothing. He does not see me anymore. God’s eye turned away.
I know now it’s over. I sense the conclusion as the storm reaches its peak. I know what must be done. I stand. Eager to move into the afterlife with dignity. I will not die on my knees.
I see my future and the wind wipes my eyes, a friend now that I’ve accepted my fate. It takes its anger and builds the wave. It gathers energy, stalwart strength and looms slowly, growing in confidence and groaning as it approaches.
Death is waiting for me on this wave. He approaches with open arms. The balance of the world in each hand. One clutching the dismembered head of Thomas. The other, the red braid of my hair.
I hear yelling, I see Him pointing at me. Screaming against the storm for his way. But he’s powerless here. He may have the seas respect but he is not its master. I bow my head as the wave hits and let it sweep me overboard.
The water is a fiery lake. It takes my breath away and I cry out in shock. My legs swing at desperate nothingness below them, eager for a stable backdrop but they find none. Cold daggers stab at my sides, slicing me apart and taking my voice away. Water fills my lungs and stomach with each turn of the wind. My strength is failing fast. The waves pull me further from the ship, taking me to the other side of the world where another fisherman has his hook in me. He is reeling me in now and the universe is balancing itself out.
An eye for an eye.
A catch for a catch.
Peter asks if he too can walk on water? I see him yelling, pointing, shaking his head but God is stalwart and moves the ship on. There aren’t enough life jackets. There are no lifeboats. There are no more hooks.
My legs tire quickly, my arms loose themselves to numbness. The sky is so vast, the ocean so deep. The water caresses my face. Small gentle upwards brushes, the way she brushed my hair, combing it back, loosening it and lacing it together with her comforting hands.
I’m the lost lamb, but no one will come for me. I lean into the waves, letting them carry where they may, creating paths through chaos to destiny. Perhaps it’s better this way, how could I ever be welcomed back? Judas. That’s what they’d call me. A secret keeper, a lie bibber, trading another’s worth for pride.
I close my eyes, but prayer won’t come. He wouldn’t listen anyways.
Jesus said to her, I am the resurrection and the life, the one who believes in me will live, even though they die. And whoever lives by believing me will never die.
I try to believe after so long.
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…
God calls me home. I hear him now. He doesn’t say my name as He doesn’t know it. No one ever told Him. He never asked. But He is here. He is with me. I can feel His warmth around me. He has swum out to greet me, to pull me back in and to calm the storm.
He raises his hands to the square. “Have faith, child,” He says and ties the rope around my waist. I’ve turned the water around me to wine, but He gives me a lifeline and says to hold on. “Stay still.” He ties a tourniquet around my wrist. God gathers fishers of men unto him. He calms the seas.
“Stay on your back, child, I will bring you in.” I hear the panic in His voice. His feelings for me naked and raw. Ten disciples watch. Their hands over their mouths, comprehending the miracle before them.
There is the smell of salt and strange lands on the horizon. The sun breaks the storm, I see its rays claiming the throne of the seas once again. The boat looms in my vision, a larger than life object that I’m unsure is real or unreal. He pulls me to His chest and signals to drop rope. The crew lay their hands upon us, blessing us and pulling us to safety.
I fall to the deck, land on my knees but am pulled to my feet. Death or life. The world blinks in and out. Hell or Heaven. Old scripture or new. There’s a slap across my face. Was it Him or someone else? Payment for betrayal or a measure of health?
I’ve brought the sea with me, but I’m no longer drowning. He brushes the hair from my face and He leans in, leans down and looks into my eyes. “You must stay awake,” He says. “You have been baptized today, my child. You must be alert, you must not sleep. There is much to do.”
A mantle is placed on my shoulders. The crew murmurs and scuttles for surgery.
How quickly the believing become unbelievers. How quickly the unbelievers can become believers.
In the name of the Father
And the Son.