Lightning shattered the sky, and thunder crashed in answer. His feet slid on the drenched boards as he stumbled across the deck of his small boat, grasping at wet ropes. The angry water seethed, trying to shake him into its grasp as the little boat dove and tilted over the dark waves. He fumbled with the release for the anchor, blinded by stinging rain. The rope whirred and snapped taut, a single cord straining against the rage of the storm. He scrambled for a handhold as the boat pitched dangerously.
After thirty years, he should’ve known the sea was too placid that morning when he loosed the moorings and sailed into the bay. The water winked and sparkled under the sun, luring him unaware into its arms. Then the sky turned dark and unleashed her cold fury.
He pulled himself against the wall of the cabin and slid to a seat. Saltwater stung his eyes and soaked through his thick sweater. He hid his face against the rough wood, knees to his chest, curling up until he was a child again, hiding while the tempest of his father’s wrath raged through the house.
The sea wasn’t a woman; it was Poseidon, tossing on the waves of frustration, crashing from one room to another like flotsam on the waves, until the storm wore itself thin. When silence came, he crept shivering and timid to the kitchen where his father stood with an arm around his weeping mother, a calloused hand hiding his face, clinging to her like a drowning man.
There were memories of those hands tying knots and mending nets, scraping the scales from fish with a thin-bladed knife, but his father’s face faded from memory long ago, hidden behind that hand.
His mother’s face lingered, framed by the steam of a hot kitchen like morning fog on the waves, dark hair clinging to her forehead as she straightened his sweater with nimble fingers. She stood framed in the doorway, a baby on her hip and a hand raised in farewell as he hurried through the streets to school and later when he followed his father out to sea, drawn as inevitably as the tide pulled from the shore.
His mother hadn’t wept when they buried an empty casket in the cemetery on the windswept cliffs. The wind engraved her pale face on the black veil she wore. She stood, eyes vacant, with a baby on her hip and a small hand clasped in hers. There had been no tears, and he had gone to sea. Gone to follow his father.
The cold sea frothed around him, waiting for his weakening boat to drop him into the icy depths. Then there would only be darkness and cold and saltwater filling his lungs. An empty casket on a windswept cliff. A priest with a bible in one hand and a handful of dirt in the other. A cold wind, and she wouldn’t weep. No one wept for those lost at sea.
The kitchen had been cold for years. He ate alone to the scrape of silverware and the sound of his own chewing, picking bones from the flesh of a fish scraped clean with a thin-bladed knife. And before sleep, the scent of pipe smoke hung in the cool, salty air. But some nights he walked through the streets instead, to see her. A smile and soft gray woven into the curls framing her face, and he would self-consciously rub his jaw, a boy in an old man’s body.
It was always the same meal, and she always asked what else she could bring him, but he couldn’t force his tongue to do anything but lie. The sea breeze felt warmer those nights.
The boat rocked beneath him. The storm had rushed on, leaving white foam in its wake. He blinked up at the sun through the water dripping from his hair. The sea churned under the hull as he turned for home, the dark waves tossing and taunting. Waiting. Depths of coldness beyond measure.
He stepped with shaky legs onto the dock where the other boats were tucked away safe from the storm. His feet led him through the streets, past the lit windows where families and laughter and warmth lived. He stood, twisting his hat in his hands.
And when she asked if he’d have the usual, he said no.
By: R. E. Rule
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