In which we wait out a storm.
Ernest started giving me jobs soon after that first day. He kept me busy doing this or that. Mindless tasks. It was monotonous but I didn’t care. It kept my hands busy, and my thoughts at bay. There was nothing I was more afraid of than my thoughts.
The first time, it was a shoe.
I was sitting on the top of the cabin, (the metal was crusted and scratchy with salt) knees to my chest. Watching the bobbing horizon, I started when the shoe thudded next to me. Brown. Ugly. And then a brush followed it. Clank.
Frowning, I leaned down over the edge. Ernest stood directly beneath me, hands on his hips. “Polish it. You’re given me the creeps, sitting up there so still. Aren’t you cold?”
He peered up through curious, blue eyes. “You’re a strange one, Vincent.” And he left.
So I picked up the shoe and the brush and let my hands work.
Many different tasks followed after that. Rope braiding, net sewing, cleaning of all sorts. And none of it was because Ernest particularly needed it done, or wanted me to do it. It was simply a distraction. I was grateful for it, as strange as that sounds.
Days blended together only punctuated by certain conversations and events.
One day found me on the roof again. I liked it up there; feeling the rush of the wind and the sun all at once. Lying on my back, I imagined purple ink staining the sky. Drip. Drip. Drip. Ernest was inside, muttering at a small radio. It scratched and squealed.
“I don’t think it’s going to work,” I called down.
“Aw, shut your trap.”
I opened my eyes and blinked away the sleepiness. Being on this ship had a way of lulling you into relaxation. Sometimes the only sound was the slap of the water against the hull. I’d close my eyes, and, for a moment, I was just Vincent on a fishing boat. I’d imagine that Ernest was a friend of mine, or an uncle, and that he took me out here on summer vacation. That was easy.
But then I’d open my eyes and look down at hands I didn’t recognize.
It was a strange thing; wanting to remember and wanting to forget at the same time.
Now that my eyes were open, I moved to hop off the roof, my fingers brushing the cool metal. But something gave me pause. I cocked my head and squinted at the horizon. In the distance, and growing steadily larger, was a black mass of twisting, grey clouds. It rushed toward us, howling and growling, I thought.
Quickly, I slid down onto the deck, nearly tripping on a coil of rope. My feet thumped sporadically on the wood. “Ernest!” I opened the cabin door wider. Ernest was still at the kitchen table, tickling the radio.
Sighing heavily, he put the item down. “What is it no-”
He stopped. Having looked up from his broken radio, his eyes fell behind me. To the horizon. Suddenly eyes that had been mildly irritated became deadly serious. He stood abruptly, startling me. “Quick, gather anything loose and tie it down.”
I obeyed. Starting out of my shock at his sudden swing of emotions, I backpedaled out of the cabin and jogged about, grabbing knickknacks, tying down boxes. “Is it a storm?”
Ernest gave me a look like I’d drooled on my shirt, With a shake of his head, he continued working, not bothering with a response.
Right. Then, obviously a storm. And given Ernest’s dark glances toward it, this was not some summer rainshower.
“We’ve got twenty minutes before we feel that son of a gun,” Ernest said. He plopped a life vest (yellow, old) in my arms, and my eyes widened in alarm.
“We’re not going to need this, are we?”
“This ship has lasted more than fifty years of storms, boy,” Ernest replied, almost offended. “She can ride this ol' thing. Just put on the ruddy vest. I’m not about to save you only to let you get your sorry self drowned again.”
Frowning, I put the vest on, more concerned that this was a fifty-plus year old boat than that it had lasted fifty years. The older something was, I thought, the more likely it was to break in half. I was in no mood to swim in the ocean’s salty depths once more.
But all of these thoughts I kept to myself, hearing only the satisfying click as I buckled the vest shut. Ernest clapped a hand on my shoulder, which I knew from my few glances in the mirror, was thin and boney. “That’ a boy.”
We spent the next few minutes rushing about, tying and strapping and buckling. My fingers were raw and shaking. Nervous? Was I nervous? Was that how I acted when I was afraid?
In irritation, I withdrew from the thoughts. I hated the detached way I was able to consider my emotions. (So this is what I do when I’m angry, how interesting. That may be useful if I ever need to describe…)
A jarring wave suddenly pitched the boat to the side, and I lost my footing. Ernest caught my elbow, righting me, and I nodded in thanks. “Time to move down,” he said. His lips were so tight, it was remarkable any words spilled past at all.
“Down?” I asked.
Ernest did not explain. He pushing me toward the cabin, and shut the door behind us. Beneath the table was a metal trapdoor. With a grunt, Ernest lifted it up. “Best to just wait out storms like this. We’ve done all we can. Down you get, Vincent.”
Inside the depths of the trapdoor was a murky, thick darkness that I had no desire to be united with. I bit my lip and clambered down a short staircase.
It was very black down there. Like ink. Like we’d tried to paint but drew over the scene with fury. I gulped. So this was me, then? Afraid of the dark, of all things. Ernest’s heavy steps creaked behind me, and I stepped out of the way, grateful for his presence and slightly embarrassed. He couldn’t know that the dark had made me nervous. What was there to be embarrassed about? I shook my head, irritated, and Earnest stretched his arm to reach a cord attached to the ceiling, which I could see in the rectangle of light from the door.
Suddenly, a loud boom shook the boat, rocking it from side to side. Without further ado, I sat down on the floor. No use falling about. With a hiss, Ernest stretched, and pulled the cord, which lit a small, dangling light bulb. He shut and locked the trapdoor, and, with a frown, found himself being jerked about in the rocky boat. The storm had hit us and it was not leaving any time between waves. Finally giving up on standing, Ernest sat down amid several boxes of fishing tackle, food, clothes and…
Running his hands down his face, Ernest looked at me with tired eyes. He seemed very old right then, with his heavy mustache and beard, speckled white, and his shadowed eyes. We were silent. The storm crackled. Eventually, “Relax, Vincent,” he said with surprising gentleness. “It’s just a storm.”
I didn’t realize how tense I was until I tried to do as he said, which was difficult given the abrupt rocking of the boat. I wanted to tell him that is wasn’t just a storm. Nothing was ever “just” anything anymore. At least, it felt that way.
I was probably paranoid, but I swore I could hear shouting from outside. Which was ridiculous. “Do you hear that?” I asked Earnest, after a particularly long shriek.
Ernest frowned. “What?”
“It sounded like shouts”
“Just the wind.”
I nodded, and my eyes fell to the floor. My fingers were tangled in my lap, and I tapped them each in turn with my thumbs, faster and faster.
After a moment, Ernest growled, “Vincent.” He was looking at me with a mixture of irritation and amusement.
“Hmm?” I looked up. Just in time to see him throw a book in my general direction.
I caught it, surprised.
“Read. It’ll keep your mind off of the storm.” It was not a suggestion. Ernest settled back into one of the boxes and closed his eyes, prepared to listen, it seemed.
I hesitated. Read? This?
It never occurred to me that I did not remember ever reading in my life. It was obviously ingrained well enough that it did not matter. I turned the green book in my hands carefully, and then opened it to the very beginning. “He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish….”
I read all night long. The storm raged. It was impossible to sleep. So I read out loud. It came naturally, and I did not tire. When I finished the first book, Ernest threw me another. And another. I had an irking sense of deja-vu as I continued, which built up higher and higher. Ernest tossed me a book by a man named Rudyard Kipling at around twelve in the night. I stared at the first words, oddity washing over me. “I… I know this book,” I said, quietly. As each second passed, I became more sure. Yes, I had read this before. Where, or when I had read it was anyone’s guess. But it was a start.
Ernest perked up, eyebrow raised. “Really? You remember?”
“Doesn’t the boy live with animals? Wolves? In the Jungle?”
Ernest nodded approvingly. He held out another book. Dickens, the title said. I took it and opened the book. Again, familiarity washed over me. I nodded, excitement bubbling in my chest. “I know this one too. It’s about a little orphan boy. Oliver. His mother died just after he was born.”
Ernest nodded. I could see the excitement in his eyes as well. We had found something. Something familiar to me. Finally.
Book after book passed through my hands. I was familiar almost all of them. After a while, Ernest let out a low whistle. “Well, whoever you were, boy, you were ruddy well-read.”
I smiled, a bit sadly, and picked up one of the books at random. “Enough for now.” Instead, I read aloud for a long time. Until Ernest’s eyes were closed and the light bulb ceased to bounce about.
And then, in the dewy morning, which I could feel even from within the boat, the storm finally stilled.