Becalmed by Ethan Hedman
Captain Robert Hadlow woke in the night and rose from his bunk, taking a long moment to steady himself against the adjacent desk. He expelled a medley of a sigh and growl; the troubles that accompany a venerable age had come faster than he had imagined possible. With feeble knees and poor sight serving as daily frustrations, he resented the added irritation of sleeplessness.
When his legs were stable enough for him to stand and stretch without aid, it became clear why the captain been unsettled from his rest. His ship, the Venture, was perfectly silent. When Robert had embarked the bunk, the ship had been her usual self, softly creaking and groaning. It was her sweet song of travel, and it had lured him into a peaceful sleep. Now, all was quiet, and the floor beneath him was far too solid and forgiving under his fickle legs. Damn it all, he thought, we’ve been becalmed!
It’s a terrible thing for a ship to lose its wind and sit still in the middle of the sea. A becalmed crew finds itself restless with prayers and promises to deities and spirits for swift breezes that may never come. Supplies must be rationed, tensions quickly rise, and each man among the madness hopes to survive and meet a fate kinder than a tedious death brought by hunger or thirst.
Robert trudged to the door, tugging on his ragged coat and contemplating his forthcoming orders. He’d have Symon Stokes, the ship’s quartermaster, ration the crew’s water and rum as half-portions. He’d need to assemble the crew in the morning for a vote on whether or not to begin rationing their meals. The Venture had taken casks of mutton aboard at their last port that were meant to be traded elsewhere for fruits and cloth. The crew deserved to have their say as to when the casks should be broken; a fair number of the men would surely rather keep them stowed for the moment, and salted meats would only serve to worsen their looming thirst.
Worn wood and rusted hinges creaked through the silence as he opened the cabin’s door. “Fetch Mr. Stokes,” he called out to the darkness, leaning against his doorframe while massaging his sore eyes. Upon receiving no answer–not so much as the expected aye, sir–he strained to scan the deck, hoping to spot who was on watch.
There was only one figure he could make out, leaning against the mainmast. As he strode slowly forward through the night, the soul’s form was made clearer. To his shock, it was a woman. She was adorned with a sheer white gown and had dark hair that shone brilliantly in the light of the moon.
“Hello, Robert,” she said, leaving the mast. “I’ve been waiting for you.”
The captain flinched, taken aback, agitated by the unexpected caller. “You, there!” he barked. “Where are my men?”
“Don’t worry. They’re all perfectly safe in their hammocks, lulled into a deep and tranquil sleep. You can go below and see for yourself, if you like.”
“And just who are you?”
“You may not recognize me, but we know each other well. I am the sea,” the woman said. She wore a warm, confident smile to enforce her claim while the captain gawked at her bizarre declaration.
“I am the flowing waters beneath your ship and the shifting gusts above. In this case,” she said, gesturing at herself from head to toe, “I appear as such so that we might speak.”
“Nonsense,” he scoffed.
The woman cocked her head slightly to the side. “Do you find it easier to think that I, who you believe you’ve never met, managed to swim to a place with no land in sight, only to board your vessel and greet you by name?”
This gave Robert pause. He was hardly the sort who believed in phantoms and specters, and so he had taken her for a stowaway. Yet it was all but impossible to think that she could have come and stayed aboard unnoticed; as an experienced merchant, he demanded a thorough inventory of his vessel just before leaving port. On a methodical ship of commerce such as the Venture, an inventory amounted to a highly effective search. If she truly was a stowaway, she should have been found within an hour of departure just as others before her had been.
“Fine, then. Say you are the sea.” He couldn’t grasp the circumstances of her presence, but saw little harm in indulging the intruder. She hardly seemed dangerous and was clearly not armed. “What is it you want with me? I’m no-one of consequence. Not a Lord with a post in His Majesty’s Navy or a pirate king in command of a terrible fleet.” He shifted his weight and tugged at the fraying cuffs of his weathered coat. “I’m just an old merchant, nothing more.”
“I know just who you are, Robert Hadlow. You’ve spent so many years rolling on my waves and being carried by my wind. You even tried to make a home on dry land. It was intolerable, too stable for a man suited to a life of chance and opportunity. Land was unworthy, and so you came back to me. Life, for you, was a voyage.”
“That much could be said for any seasoned sailor who tried to live ashore.”
“True, but we have more than just that. We shared a moment. A moment which I consider intimate.” She drifted to the ship’s starboard side and ran her hand gently along the rail. “Right here, and in the depths below, nearly two years past. I will never forget it.”
The captain moved to join her, his bony hand gripping the lacquered wood. “I don’t recall.”
She stared down towards the still water. “It was when Percival was laid to rest.”
Robert swallowed hard, remembering the somber occasion. Percy had been the ship’s cat for well over a decade. He was brought aboard the Venture as a scrawny kitten by a cook, Devin Ballard, to hunt for rodents that had been sighted in the ship’s galley. “He’s black as darkest night, this one,” Mr. Ballard had said of the tiny recruit, “and so much the better to creep up on our vermins, sir, you’ll see.” The kitten had taken to the captain at once, swishing between his boots and mewing for attention in the hopes of being rubbed or held. It wasn’t long before Robert liked the cat as much as Percy liked the man.
Percy had made a habit of sleeping between the captain’s feet on his bunk, coming and going as he pleased through a hole that had been freshly cut through the door. He slept and woke from his chosen spot until the day finally came that he did not wake. Bearing the loss had been a miserable task. Robert often caught himself glancing at the spot between his ailing legs when he woke, feeling the friendless space between them as if it were a pit.
“Percy was dear to me,” the captain said. “I committed his body to the deep.”
“Yes. After all of his years with you, he was given over to me. He died of old age, as every cat should, and you sent him to the depths with honors as though he were a member of the crew.”
“It was a mournful day.”
There was a heavy pause before the woman spoke again. “Your men didn’t see you weep for him.”
“No.” His eyes watered at the thought of it. “No, they couldn’t. To see their captain cry would be to see no captain at all.”
“For them, perhaps, but not for me. As Percival slipped below, I felt your sorrow. I tasted the tears you spilled over the side. I am the sea, and so that part of you became a part of me. In that moment I felt your pain and your love.”
Robert gazed at the woman, mystified that she could know his heart. She simply smiled back at him. “I care not for admirals or pirates,” she said. “I care for you, and the time has come for me to grant you your share of peace.”
“I have peace enough. The life of a merchant captain suits me.”
“It did, and quite well; there can be no question that you’ve lived the life you were meant for. But that time has passed.” She backed away from the railing, heading slowly towards the captain’s cabin. “You could never resist me before, Robert. I never had to beg for your company, as I knew you would always return. Now,” she said, stopping just inside the doorway and extending a hand, “I stand before you and ask for your trust. Will you trust me?”
The captain stared into her eyes, stepping forward to accept her invitation. “Of course I will.”
She took the captain into his cabin and gently shut the door behind them.
* * *
Captain Hadlow had been found in his bunk at midday, having made no appearance to break his fast. He lay just as still as Percival had, his body spent and lifeless.
“Poor bastard,” Mr. Stokes muttered, staring down at the corpse. “He hadn’t even thought to retire. He’d’ve wanted to keep on with the trade for another half-dozen years, at the least.”
“Aye, retirement weren’t for him” said Bryan Lobb, a common sailor and friend of Mr. Stokes. “Ask me yesterday and I’d’ve said he’d live a good while yet.”
“I would’ve said the same.”
“Well, best we call for a vote soon. Ain’t right to have no wind and no captain. Terrible bad luck, this is.”
“We’ll have a vote soon enough.”
“It’ll be you. I’ll wager on it.”
“Might be.” Symon shook his head. “It doesn’t matter, not now. Go and fetch some lads to stitch and weigh the bag.”
Everything had been prepared within the hour. The Venture‘s crew assembled on the deck as Mr. Stokes began the solemn ceremony. As the traditional words were intoned–“We therefore commit his body to the deep,”–the sack that held the remains of Captain Robert Hadlow was sent sliding from the tilting plank it had rested on into the waiting sea.
At that very moment, the wind came.
It was a matter of minutes before the promptly-elected Captain Stokes christened his new role with a flurry of orders to make sail. Amid an outbreak of toasts celebrating the wind and mourning the previous captain, the Venture left its short-lived resting place and sailed onwards to her next port.
Beneath the departing ship, in the darkness of the depths, a shining spirit stood grinning and laughed as a weighted sack struck the ocean floor. He was young, entirely in his prime, and had an excitable cat sprawled over his shoulder.
I don’t know how to thank you, he said, or thought, or felt, in a manner that expressed his heart without the clumsy use of spoken words.
But you do, his newfound world replied. You and Percival aren’t the only two below. There are others. Others whose souls are of the sea. You are you, and I am me, and we are all an us. Go and meet us. Be us. Be free.
He could feel them, and could feel the vastness of all around him. He was Robert Hadlow, to be sure, and the cat in his arms was none other than his dearest friend Percy. But they were both so much more. They, too, were now the sea.