9/20/2013

The Old Mariner (Short Story)


The Old Mariner

When his boat sailed away from the dock, there was an illusion of complete calm. One lone soul occupied the vessel, and never more. His name was known by few, and those who knew it, they never dared to speak it. There were some who said he was searching for something, others were merely afraid of him. He never had any visitors, he was alone on that boat, and the whole town knew it.

I sat on the dock watching the ancient boat leave at sunset each night. It was always back by sunrise. Watching the sunset was a nightly habit for me, and the boat was always leaving during my ritual. He was on his boat at port all day; out at sea all night in mystery. Nobody ever talked to him, but everybody always talked about him. After he was out of sight, I went back inside to grab dinner. Pondering curiously the old mariner’s nightly duties.

Once I had the idea, it was almost the only thing I could think about. Besides that one other thing that constantly destroyed me. Don’t worry about it. The other kids in my grade worry about where they were going to college. I’m going no where. College just isn’t for me. I don’t have the focus to keep my grades up. People think I’m stupid. I don’t care. I don’t even talk to anybody at school, but I listen. I hear what they say. 



My Pops owns the marina downtown. We don’t have any cars, only boats. Lots of boats. My house is at the end of a long rock driveway. There’s a gate and Larry, the security guard to work it. I don’t really talk to Larry, either. I know him because he wears a name tag. He knows me because Pops told him who I was. The main floor of our gray house is for business. We fix and store boats in the warehouse. We live upstairs. Just me, my twin brother, and Pops. 

Pops says he doesn’t know Mom anymore. That he doesn’t even know her name anymore because she’s changed it so many times. He says he hasn’t talked to her in years. I’ve never seen her before. My brother’s name is Eric. There was an accident in the warehouse when we were younger. He doesn’t walk, and he’s finally figuring out how to talk again. I really don’t like to tell anybody about it, so please don’t ask me any questions.

I waited until the sun started to set before walking down to the dock. I was barefoot, as usual. The old mariner was pulling up his sail. It was a typical evening at the marina. I watched him from a distance, trying to keep my cool. It was hardest to stay calm when I went past the warehouse. I had the keys to the Boston Whaler in my pocket. His boat left the dock as I walked down it, towards the Whaler. The sun was setting, causing a shadow on the water in the shape of his boat. His white sail contrasted with a sky that was slowly fading to a deep, dark purple. 

He sailed further away from the marina, and eventually I could barely see him anymore. That’s when I started my engine and left to follow him. I kept my lights off and kept sight of the faint glow coming from his boat, making sure to keep at a safe distance. He must have been burning a candle; I could see the flickers on his sail. There was no way he could know I was following him. I crept through the darkness, skimming across the surface of the water.

It’s strange being out there alone at night. Your thoughts have a chance to creep up on you, but only if you let them. I was thinking about the time Pops taught Eric and I how to sail. We used to race against each other out in the harbor. Pops would drop two marks: one upwind, one downwind. He would make a little starting line, and me and Eric would race. Eric was starting to get better than me, he was wining almost all the races. Until that one day. I shuddered. I’m not so good at fighting off my thoughts. The waves lapped hysterically on the side of the hull, mocking me. The more I thought about it, the louder the sounds of the silent night around me became. 

When I saw the other boats, I stopped the engine. The night was again silent, but I was far from at peace. I let myself drift a bit closer, but not too close. They couldn’t see me. I dropped an anchor, careful not to break the tension in the air. I opened the box under the center console and pulled out the binoculars. Pops always keeps a pair with the flares. He says you can’t be too careful. I looked through the lens and saw boats tied together in a circle. The old mariner was lowering his sail to join the circle of who appeared to be his friends. The lights from their boats bobbed up and down in the water. 

They were quiet out there. Every boat had one sole mariner aboard. Their beards were long and mangled. Their hair, if they had any, was thin and as long as they could grow it. Fishing rods dangled over the sides of their boats. Some had hammocks on the deck. They all had aged wooden boats. A few of them were patched together quite a bit. Others looked as if they came here straight from the Royal Navy. Just because a boat is old doesn’t mean it has to be sinking. I dared not go any closer, but I was driving myself absolutely insane with curiosity. 

My hands were shaking uncontrollably, it was hard to focus through the binoculars. It was so dark out here. It was time to go. The anchor came up easily and quietly. I started the engine again and made my way for home. I couldn’t see any land from out there, but I knew exactly where I was going. I followed my gut until I could see the familiar pattern of lights growing brighter on the shoreline. I was glad to know my gut feeling was enough to get me home. The bright light from the water tower at our marina showed me where the mouth of the harbor was. There was something about that old mariner that perplexed me, and I needed to know more. 

My mind raced as I came into the mouth of the harbor. He sleeps all day. His boat is big enough to hide on. I was going too fast. The dock was approaching too fast. I pulled the throttle back into reverse, trying to slow myself down. The engine roared despite the muffler. I slowed to a halt, gently tapping the side of the dock. I turned the Whaler parallel and hopped off holding the bow line. When my thoughts take hold I never know what I’ll get myself into. I tied up extra securely and ran to the house. I couldn’t walk. I had to run.

I mapped it out in my head all day at school. The place where I should have been taking notes was filled with scribbles of high seas and ominous looking sailboats. My plan was going to be risky, but I knew I could get away with it. I’ve done plenty of sneaking in my life. The very thought of being sneaky gave me anxiety. I was reminded of my lonely moments spent following the old mariner out to sea. I won’t tell you anything about it. Don’t even try to guess, nobody knows but me. 

When I got home from school I headed straight for the dock. Pops was at speech therapy with Eric, so he wouldn’t ask me to do any work. They say he’s improving, but I’ve yet to understand a single thing he’s said. I knew the old mariner would be sleeping, he always is when it’s light outside. I snuck on board with as much stealth as I could. I crept around, looking for a safe place to hide away. The old mariner was asleep peacefully on a hammock in the cabin.

I went down the two steps inside the boat, just to look around a bit. There were fishing poles and spears all around me. Coiled lines of various color and thickness were hung up all over the walls. There was a sink and a small countertop, an ice box, and knives. Enough knives to make me uncomfortable. I went back out of the cabin and noticed that there were slits in the ground right behind the steering wheel. I lifted a metal latch and an empty storage compartment opened up. There was a bit of water in there, but it was fine by me. I didn’t even have shoes on. 

An hour before sunset, the old mariner methodically rose from his sleep. He didn’t even set an alarm, he doesn’t need one, he does this every day. He followed his routine in rigging the boat in preparation for the night’s journey. He opened the ice box and pulled out a bundle of frozen fish. Way more than he could eat himself. It must be for the other mariners, I thought. When the sun was sinking low, he untied himself from the dock and fully raised his sail. It caught a puff of wind as he trimmed it in, and we accelerated. He stood directly above me holding the steering wheel, pulling lines and tying them off. He lit the candle when the boat was out the mouth of the harbor.

The wind was blowing steadily tonight, with the occasional puff of strong wind. The old mariner was loving every second of it. I could hear his grunts of pleasure coming from above. The puffs brought big rollers along with them. The people spoke of a terrifying old mariner, but he seemed to be nothing more than a sailor with a love of the night journey. I thought of the speech therapy. I wondered if Eric could say my name, or anything I could understand yet. Sadly, I assumed that he could not. The boat tipped sharply in a puff of breeze, startling me nearly to death, but out of my darkness. 

I sat below the old mariner in the stagnant salt water, clenching my fists with every rolling wave. My stomach turned itself upside down underneath that deck. I did everything I could to stop it, but the troubles in my mind just added to the unsettling experience of the rough seas. I was terribly seasick. The fear of being discovered made me even more sick. My thoughts became loud and violent. I puked all over myself in the storage compartment of the old mariner’s boat. 

He looked straight down and into my eyes without a hint of surprise. My feet were submerged in a puddle of salt water mixed with my own vomit. I was drenched with cold sweat. The end of my life was surely near. I expected him to stab me with one of his spears. His grungy faced peered at me though the grated floor of the below-deck storage compartment. He stooped down and lifted the latch, opening the door above me. 

The deck creaked open, revealing more stars than I had ever seen. For a moment I was left in awe, forgetting that he had just caught me aboard his boat. A rush of fresh air hit me and I was reminded that the world is more than just the storage compartment I took up residence in. The stars in the clear night sky put me into a sort of trance, I spent a few moments taking it all in. Until the seasickness caught hold of me, and snapped me back into reality as I expelled what remained of my lunch. The puddle around my feet was getting deeper.

The old mariner’s voice completely evaporated the deathly sickness that I was struck with beneath the deck. “You’re missing the view,” spoke the old mariner. I was shocked. I felt worlds better and the old mariner wasn’t trying to filet me with the fish he took out of the ice box. The fresh night air felt great all around me for the first time as I rose out of that decrepit little compartment. The stars took up my entire field of view. The old mariner shut the compartment as I came out.

I was still too ashamed to speak, I just sat there staring up at the sky. I waited for him to say something else. There was a very long silence. My head was turned up toward the stars, the old mariner stood at the wheel.  “I saw you following me last night,” he calmly stated, without looking at me.  Those words sent a freezing chill down my spine. I took every precaution to not be found, yet he caught on. 

“I was curious.”

“This happened sooner than I thought.”

“What do you mean?”

The old mariner shot me a glance that looked straight past my eyes. He was looking straight at my thoughts. He could read a transcript of the words flowing through my mind. I knew this, but I don’t know how. I could feel his intrusion, but I allowed it. I didn’t have a choice. “I know more than just what you think,” he said.

That made me uncomfortable. I couldn’t speak. There are some things that nobody should know about. His boat’s been at the port for as long as I could remember. I felt him directing my thoughts toward the topic I avoided the most. The most painful memory that exists in my mind. He was a taxi driver, taking me to a place that I did not ask to be taken to. I knew he was going to bring it up before he even said a word. “I watched what you did that day. That’s how I knew you’d be here today.”

My gaze froze on a single star in the sky. Time around me stopped. The breeze died, and I was a child in the warehouse again. Eric could still walk and talk. He was always bigger, tougher, and faster than me. Pops always gave him the fun jobs when we did chores. Which was all the time. I really didn’t mean for things to end up how they did. I’m terrible.

Pops told me to take out the trash while he let Eric use the sander on an old boat in the warehouse. Pops always told me I was too weak to use the sander. I was jealous. That’s why I did it. The extension cord ran along the dock next to the water. The two ends connected in the middle, and the place where they connected was conveniently close to the edge. On my way back from taking out the trash, I kicked the extension cord into the sea. 

Sparks flew and I loud boom along with a scream were heard from inside the warehouse. I ran over with a deep sinking feeling in my chest. Eric was a mangled mess. He was pinned up against the wall. Shards of fiberglass covered him in a layer of dust. His hands were badly burned, and the remained pieces of the hull sat atop the unconscious bloody Eric.

I shook my head and felt the nighttime breeze once again. He shared the memory that I thought was exclusive to me. The calm night around me was opposite the hurricane raging in my mind. Nobody ever knew I kicked that cord. It was my best-kept secret, or so I thought. I didn’t know how to react to the old mariner’s knowledge.

The other boats in the raft up were approaching. Their dim lights climbed over their sails, growing more visible as we got closer. The circle of boats was some sort of sanctuary for these aging men of the sea. They smoked cigars, drank beers, sipped rum, and talked of times past. Time they would never get back. Even with all the time that’s gone by in their lives, they still chose to do the same thing every night. The raft up is their lives.

The old mariner told me I would enjoy myself out there. I buried the memory so I could at least try to prove him correct. I was used to keeping it buried. Whenever it crosses my mind there is complete chaos. To avoid the chaos, I actively try not to think about it. Just because you know about it doesn’t give you a right to ask me questions about it. I still don’t want to talk about it. 

We spent the night fishing and grilling up the catch from the night before. The old mariner put the live fish straight into the ice box. He says they cook up the best when you freeze them live. He must be right, because the fish that they cooked for me was the best thing I’d ever tasted. I think I could get used to the lifestyle of the old mariner. 

Things started to wind down on the raft up. The men talked of how it was getting early, and how they wanted to rest. All of them spend their days sleeping on their boats in marinas somewhere. When sunset happens, they sail out and meet in the same spot every night. Their nightly routine is the same as the old mariner’s. They don’t have maps, they just follow their seaworthy heart and reach the correct location. It’s been the same place for years. They told me I’m welcome anytime.

There was a faint orange glow forming on the horizon. The men took this as a signal to part ways. One by one their sails rose high into the early morning. The vessels that were connected by lines untied from each other and drifted apart. The old mariner grabbed the wheel and set his course for the marina. We were downwind the whole way home. His sail was out all the way, and he calmly stood at the wheel. He told me the sunrise is the best time for thinking.

As I quietly ruminated on the bow of the old mariner’s boat, the stars gradually faded from view. With each passing moment the night inched toward day. Land was clearly in sight. The old mariner locked the wheel into place once we could see the water tower. Our course was set, and he took a seat next to me on the bow. I was thinking of the mind reading from earlier, and he must have picked up on it. “You thought it was just your little secret,” he said.

I searched his face for an answer. The right words would never come to mind, only the right actions. I knew what I had to do next. The accident will eat at me no longer. The omniscient old mariner saw through my veil but I wasn’t bothered by it in the least. He knew what I did, and he didn’t seem to think I was terrible for it. I thought I was terrible for it. “Thank you,” was all I could mutter. 

We reached the marina. The old mariner smoothly fastened his boat to the dock. It looked as if he could do it with his eyes closed. It was daylight now, and Pops was probably looking for me. The old mariner, my new friend, wished me luck as I departed his floating home. His sail lowered fully and he rolled it around the boom. He slipped a fading cover over the sail and disappeared into the cabin for his daily rest. I was tired too, but it wasn’t time for sleep yet.

It was the longest walk up the dock I ever took. My slow trot felt even slower with the weight of my conscience dragging me down. The weight was about to be lifted, but it felt heavier than ever. I went toward the warehouse and stopped at the spot where I kicked that wire so long ago. I heard echoes of the explosion, Eric’s scream came at me from all sides. Entering the warehouse, I saw the chars on the wall from the explosion that left Eric crippled. 

I stood there, motionless for a few moments. Time had stopped on me again. I remembered seeing Pops rushing out the back door to see what happened. Me, standing there pretending not to know. The screams continued to echo. I could feel the heat from the flames on my palms, and it was causing them to sweat. I’ve pretended not to know for too long.

I left the warehouse and walked past it, further up the dock toward our gray house. The windows of the warehouse were angry eyes that watched me as I walked past. My feet were caked with remnants of the previous night’s sickness. I rinsed off at the hose before going inside. I was almost free of the filth that plagued me. My heart was trying to jump out of my chest, but my shirt was holding it back. 

I could barely make it up the stairs. Faces formed in the walls, laughing at my weakness. They divided and multiplied like cells, their laughter grew exponentially louder. The doorknob was sneering at me, telling me how I was going to rot in hell. I stopped at the door and closed my eyes for a moment, taking a deep breath. The noises around me quieted themselves. I used my right hand to turn the knob, with my left hand around my wrist to steady it. 

The door was heavy, as if made of steel. I pushed it open with all my force, barely budging it. The room flashed in my face like a camera, and I  saw the scene. Pops and Eric sat there eating breakfast. Eric had his usual, Cheerios with powdered sugar. There was a fountain of sugar coming from his bowl, overflowing all over the table like a waterfall. The sugar formed a puddle around Eric’s wheelchair. Pops spoke.

“Where were you last night?”

The fountain disappeared, leaving a bowl with a bit of milk at the bottom. My usual spot was there at the table, unoccupied. I pulled the chair out and carefully sat down. Beads of sweat dripped down my face, causing a gentle but irritating tingle. I must have been red as a tomato. Pops wore an expression of bewilderment, and Eric’s was the same as usual. A blank stare. The only life in his face came from his eyes. “I kicked the wire when we were kids!”, I blurted, furiously fanning myself with my shirt.

Pops clearly had no idea what I was talking about. “What the hell did you take last night?”, he asked. He was utterly confused, he thought I was on drugs. I was profusely sweating. Eric was watching me closely, listening intently. I could feel his glare, it burns every time he looks at me. 

“The explosion. I’ve kept it bottled up since it happened.” 

Pops’ eyes went wide. He was being hit with waves of memories that all made sense to him for the first time. He never connected the aspects of my behavior. He always wondered why his trusty old sander blew up in his favorite son’s face. Now he knew.

Pops went outside and let me sit there with Eric. He probably couldn’t think of anything to say. That’s who I get it from. I had to settle things with Eric anyway, so I’m glad he left. 

“Eric, I hope you can understand me. I feel terrible about what happened when we were kids, and I really hope you’ll forgive me.”

He looked at me, and the faintest smile appeared on his face. He spoke. What he said is unknown, but it isn’t important. He smiled, and he held out his fist for a pound-it. The smile was enough to tell me he forgave me. He still couldn’t say my name, but he finally knew why, and that was good enough for him. I gave Eric a big hug, and a single tear rolled down each of our faces. Eric’s smile never faded after that day. 

A lifetime of guilt was lifted from my mind, and I felt as if I could finally sleep through a night without waking up sweating. Sleep wasn’t going to happen yet. It was only the morning, and Pops needed me in the warehouse. I was strangely wide awake despite my sleepless night. The first thing I did when I got out there was clean the chars off the wall. Then, I took out the new sander and got to work on an old boat. Eric sat there watching me, still wearing his smile. The wire ran along the dock in the same way as it did the day of the explosion, but I knew Eric wasn’t jealous.

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