Merganser

 

By the light of the swaying oil lamp he can see the weathered hands of his father, with his skin taut and puckered and the dark blue veins standing up like railroad tracks. He pulls from his pocket an ancient smoking pipe made of dark briar wood, the bowl all charred and cracked and the mouthpiece chewed down to a mere sliver. He puts the pipe between his teeth and reaches back into his pocket, this time pulling out a white tip match that blazes up in a flash as he strikes it on the side of the old cast iron shipís stove that sits in the middle of the galley. He cups his hands in the fashion of old sea captains and tokes rhythmically, sending gray billows of vanilla and whiskey scented smoke puffs curling up into his face and through his thinning hair, each puff stoking the rich Carolina tobacco and casting an amber glow on the manís face, revealing decades of salt damaged skin and sun lines and silver beard stubble and milky white eyes scarred by thousands of ocean glares.

 

The man reaches over for the speckled tin coffee pot simmering slowly on the stove, with itsí blackened bottom and dented sides, and pours them both a cup of thick black brew.

††††††††††† How do you take it, he says.

††††††††††† You know how I take it.

The manís eyes glare orange and narrow at him.

††††††††††† Thatís no way for a man to take his coffee.

††††††††††† How does a man take his coffee?

††††††††††† Black, he says. Black and thick, like the sea tonight.

††††††††††† Coffee doesnít make men.

††††††††††† No, it doesnít. The sea does.

††††††††††† Ah, the sea. I told you, Iím not taking it.

The man puffs on his pipe, leering, observing the boy, sizing up his face, his resolve.

††††††††††† When I was your age, my father gave me an old sloop. She was called Merganser. Her bones are out there somewhere.

He gestures toward something far away, beyond the hull of the boat, beyond the sea itself, to a place no man could ever go. The boy shakes his head.

††††††††††† Things are different now. I donít see things the way you do.

The man sits for a moment with his pipe clenched between his teeth, one eye shut tight against the smoke, his head cocked, looking like a wood carving of a myth. He gets up slow and hobbles to the front of the old stove and kneels down to open the vent hole. The oil lamp swings hypnotically in rhythm with the swell, casting a glow across the cabin that, in one second bathes the man in golden yellow and the next in cold blackness as the wooden timbers of the boat creak in time with the pendulous light, the lapping of the water, the steady flap of wet canvas and the sporadic cracking of rope against sail. The old manís back is curved and bony and when he stands again, he stands slowly like a street drunk after a fall. He wobbles for a moment, gripping the cool part of the stove for support, and almost slipping, almost failing to stay on his feet, and he stands there with his back toward his son feeling that there are no words that can be said that aren't already echoing throughout the cabin and beyond it, and knowing full well that he'll be the last in his line to call the sea his home. The wind his friend.

 

The man speaks, but he doesn't turn. He speaks to the sea, to the dark, to the night that lies between them.

††††††††††† You go then, he says.You go and see this country. I want that for you. I want you to grow strong on words and ideas, not salt and rain. And this. This life.

The man does not turn to look at his son, he turns instead toward the hatch and he walks there, composed and strong. He puts his foot on the step, and holds onto the cold brass rail with a grip that's still true ,and he pauses for a moment. He's steady like a rock there in the light and he turns to the boy.

††††††††††† Sheíll be here. Waiting. Weíll sail her in the summers. Iíll fit her out and keep her ready for you.

Then he climbs the ladder, slides the hatch cover open and goes out on deck, the low rush of the wind increasing to a howl for a moment until he slams the cover back closed and the boy hears the thumping of feet in the cockpit above him and the barking of his father and the rush of men across the deck. He sees the oil lamp lean far over on its gimbals as the old schooner comes hard about.

 

He stands and feels the water rushing beneath the boat. He feels the hum of the sea on the cabin wall with his hand. He watches the lantern flame dance. And in that light he surveys the cabin where he spent so many summers, the narrow bunk where he read a hundred books with a tin flashlight, the little folding table where he drank coffee for the first time and learned to read a chart, his father's worn arm chair, his pipe rack, the brass hook with his hat. He sees the black and white framed photo on the wall, a portrait of his father as a young man behind the wheel of Merganser. He sees the end of a man.. He reaches into the locker beneath the ladder and pulls out the yellow slicker that has his name written crudely on the back of the collar with a black felt tip pen. He puts it on and climbs the ladder. He opens the hatch with a whoosh that whips salt spray into his face and he tastes it on his teeth and likes the way that it feels. He stands alone on deck for a moment and watches his father pulling at the end of the jib sheet and he rushes to him and takes the line from his hands and the old man turns. There's fear in his eyes and there's love there too. His bloodshot eyes that see too much. The tiniest hint of a smile graces the man's face as he steps back to let the young men do the work. The rain falls hard. It whips sideways. The ocean blows veils of spray over the rail and the whole of the deck is awash with droplets of flying sea.

 

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