by Sam Ivey
Table of Contents|
Part 1, Part 2, Part 3
appeared in issue 222.
Glossary of nautical terms
Chapter VII: Quest’s End|
part 1 of 4
“Alone on the raging ocean, alone in my craft I ride,
Alone on the foaming billows, in all their crested pride,
No man before hath ventured, alone, so far to sail;
Nor mind hath ever yet conceived a ship so small, so frail.”
Sydney Punch - February 17, 1883, Sydney, Australia
The year had turned, and on this third day of January 1883, a frigid, northerly wind blustered through the darkening streets of Buffalo, New York, driving the already fallen snow ahead of it. Trees along the sidewalks — stripped of their leafy flesh and looking like gaunt, blackened skeletons — thrust their naked, ice-encrusted branches skyward against the paling light of the late afternoon.
Underfoot lay the heavy snow — some six or eight inches of it — crunching with a crisp squeakiness as William Guilboy put one foot ahead of the other, making his way doggedly toward the home of his daughter-in-law. He leaned against the wind, his breath condensing in visible puffs that exuded from a gray scarf of heavy wool muffling his face. Having been wrapped twice around, it still allowed for a long tail that hung over his shoulder. His gloved hands were jammed deep in the pockets of his red-plaid mackinaw.
Up the steps he went; up to the porch where he knocked at the door while stomping the snow from his boots. The door opened.
“Dad! What are you doing out this afternoon? Come in; come in. Get yourself in out of that wind.” Catherine Gilboy stood aside, waving him into the warmth as a flurry of wind blew a ghost of snow into the room, sending it swirling round her feet. “Lord, it’s the Devil’s own day out there!”
“Aye, ‘tis that, Catherine, but I just had to come by and see about you and little Mary.” His words came partly mumbled through the scarf as he pulled it off. “Mother and I think about you both so often.”
“Oh, you worry too much, Dad,” she said, smiling as she helped him out of his jacket. “We’re just fine. Mary’s still sleeping. I put her down for a nap a while ago. Go on in by the fireplace.”
She turned and hung the jacket on a hook by the door as she gestured toward the living room. “Mary’s got a bit of a cold; but hasn’t everybody this time of year. Would you care for a glass of port? I was just about to have one.”
“Yes, thank you, Catherine,” he said, calling after her as she headed for the kitchen. “That would please me a great... You have port?”
She stopped and turned. “Yes, why?”
“Well, I know Bernard didn’t drink, and I thought that...”
“And you thought I didn’t either. Is that it?”
“Well, yes. I... I just assumed...
She smiled. “Of course I don’t drink much, and when Bernard was here, not at all. Isn’t it curious though? In all the time that he’s been gone — over a year now — that there hasn’t been an occasion for it to be mentioned between us?”
She turned again for the kitchen, and Guilboy nodded thoughtfully, rubbing his hands together as he headed toward the fireplace. Reaching the hearth and turning his backside to the flames, he called to her. “Faith and this feels right proper, Dear.”
A few minutes passed before she returned with the wine, its deep ruby color sparkling in two handsome cut-crystal glasses. Handing one to her father-in law she gestured to a chair.
“Sit down, Dad. Here, by the fire. Take this chair.”
It was a high wingback — its polished, cherry-wood arms protruding from a floral covering; a comfortably worn chair that invited sitting.
He settled into it and held his wine up to the light. “Beautiful glass.”
“Wedding present,” she said. “The Murphy’s.”
“Ah, yes. I remember now.”
As he sipped the port, his eyes swept about the room. Not a lavish house by any means, but very comfortable. Oil lamps — three of them with burnished brass bases — shone brightly from thoughtfully placed tables, their little white-amber fires combining with the crackling hearth to brush the entire room with a glowing aureate patina. Catherine seated herself on the sofa across from him, close by one of the lamps. In the warmth of its radiance, her white hair, in a stylish bouffant, took on the aspect of spun gold. The book she had been reading lay on the table at her side.
Their quiet conversation continued: about the Buffalo winter, and about the family. He was happy she had not gotten herself involved in the suffrage movement.
“Oh, you needn’t worry about that, Dad.” Her words came in company with a soft laugh. “I suppose Miss Anthony and that other lady — what’s her name — Stanton? They feel strongly about their issue, and that’s all right. But I’ve got enough to do here with taking care of Mary and the house. Besides, it doesn’t appear to me to make any difference who’s in office. Some like the president — some don’t; it’ll always be like that. And if they really don’t like him, they shoot him; like they did Mister Garfield a couple of years ago — or Mister Lincoln.”
He looked at her intently, evaluating the incisiveness of her inescapable logic before coming to his next point.
“I hope you won’t take offense, Catherine, but like I said, Mother and I think of you often. We aah... we worry about you, and we just can’t get over how white your hair has become. Don’t get me wrong, now.” He held up an open palm. “It’s quite attractive, really. Indeed, it’s very attractive — perhaps devastatingly so for all of its unusualness on a lady of your young years. In fact, having been with you at times — you know, shopping and the like — I’ve seen young men turn and look at you with... well, look at you with... with what I would have to say was something akin to desire — if not lust.”
She looked down at the carpet and blushed before looking back at him, a broad smile illuminating her handsome face.
“That’s very flattering, Dad.” She tilted her head, pushing at the Gibson-like roll of hair. “I don’t understand what’s happened to its color. It just started to turn white and... and now here it is. Some have said that I ought to dye it, but I don’t think so. I just think I’ll let nature take its course.”
He sipped his port before saying quite softly, “Is it Bernard’s absence? Is that what has caused it?”
She looked away from him, immersing herself in some inward thought before she said, “Perhaps. I do miss him a lot. Of course you know that. And Mary misses him too, as young as she is. You wouldn’t think so, but she does. Of course, I don’t think it’s actually him so much, because she really doesn’t know him. But I think it’s just that she misses a father. I think children sense that there should be a mother and a father, don’t you?”
“I never thought about it, I guess. You could be right.” Then changing the subject and gesturing toward the book with his glass of port he continued: “What are you reading there?”
“Poetry. It’s a collection of several different writers.” She picked up the book, turning it in her hand. “Keats, Shelley, Burns; all of the great ones. And Longfellow. Couldn’t very well leave out Longfellow, now could we.” She laughed, a musical little giggle. Then she said, “May I share something with you, Dad? It’s something that reminds me of Bernard. It’s about boats — about ships. It’s by Longfellow. It’s titled: ‘The Building of the Ship’.” Would you mind?”
“Oh, not at all, not at all. I’d be pleased to hear it.”
She opened the book, turned a few pages, and then looked at him. “I like this... very much. Listen:
‘Day by day the vessel grew,
With timbers fashioned strong and true,
Stemson and keelson and steerson-knee,
Till, framed with perfect symmetry,
A skeleton ship rose up to view!
And around the bows and along the side
The heavy hammers and mallets plied,
Till after many a week, at length,
Wonderful for form and strength,
Sublime in its enormous bulk,
Loomed aloft the shadowy hulk!
And around it columns of smoke, upwreathing,
Rose from the boiling, bubbling seething
Caldron that glowed,
With the black tar heated for the sheathing.
And amid the clamors
Of clattering hammers,
He who listened heard now and then
The song of the Master and his men:
Build me straight, O worthy master!
Staunch and strong, a goodly vessel,
That shall laugh at all disaster,
And with wave and whirlwind wrestle!’“
It was quiet for a moment, and she sat with the book in her lap, still staring at the page. He looked at her over his untouched glass of port.
“That makes you think of Bernard?”
“Uh huh, yes.” She looked up. “I wonder where he is, Dad, and I know how he loves the sea. Do you suppose that... do you suppose that he’s gone to sea again? Because if he has — and I believe that he has — I hope that he’s in a boat like this one.” She tapped the page with a slender finger. “One that laughs at disaster.”
Sadness glistened in her eyes.
He drank the last swallow of his wine, rose, and took the few steps that separated them before setting the empty glass on a table. There he bent over her, kissing her softly on the forehead.
With a sigh of resignation he said, “And he’s my son.” Then straightening he added, “But I could near curse him for his leaving you and Mary like this.”
“It has been difficult,” she said, nodding, her voice little more than a whisper. Then looking up at him, and with a smile: “Thanks for coming by.”
He patted her reassuringly on the shoulder before turning and walking to where his jacket was hung. He shrugged it on and wrapped the great muffler around his neck.
“Do you need anything from the store, Darlin’?”
Her answer was wordless, only a shaking of her head.
“Sure now, and I’ll be by tomorrow,” he said.
She kissed him on the cheek and said, “Good night, Dad.”
“Good night, Catherine.” And he stepped out into the cold.
For a brief while she stood in the open doorway, the ill-tempered wind biting at her. And she watched him as he trudged off down the street. It was dark now, and it was snowing hard again.
* * *
Little Pacific, on a broad reach, was responding to the warm southeasterly that was shoving her across the vast blue emptiness on this Wednesday morning, January 3rd.
He had breakfasted on a bit of the birds that had been left from yesterday, and he felt there was little else he could allow himself to eat, hungry though he was. Mentally he was balancing the need to eat — to maintain a reasonable level of physical strength — against the spartan store of food that remained, and against an unknown number of days that must still be spent at sea.
The stark reality that he might die within the next few days was now ever present with him, and he thought often of home. In spite of the balmy airs that caressed him daily, he somehow wished that he could feel the sharp bite of winter’s teeth; wished that he could sit, on a cold day, with a steaming cup of coffee and with Catherine close by, and with little Mary on his lap. He wished that he could hold his family in his arms, for he loved them very much. He thought, too, of the dichotomy of reasons and actions that had brought him to where he was. He wondered if — given the opportunity to relive the past several months — he would have done things differently.
In his log today he wrote: “I have, to-day four pounds of beef, one quart of alcohol, and ten gallons of water left.”
The very words were ominous. But the day wore on, and before he went to bed, allowing the boat to sail through the night by itself, he permitted himself about a quarter-pound of beef and some water.
Thursday came and passed with its usual routine, a routine that now seemed to be more and more devoid of purpose. The radiance of the quest had grown dim, the laurel of accomplishment — if there should be accomplishment — was no longer of any great moment; and the somber specter of failure overshadowed all that he did. Both he and the boat had endured brutal punishment. The little vessel’s wood was, by now, bleached and bruised; her sails were mottled and stained with salt.
Had he possessed a mirror, he would have seen that his heavily bearded face was thinned, its heavy, rather squared roundness having given way to a drawn angularity. His eyes were sunken and tired-looking. But there was no relief from his trial; there was no discharge from this war — except to die.
He was up at sunrise the following morning, after being hove-to overnight out of sheer necessity, fatigue demanding. He adjusted the sheets and got underway. In minutes the little craft was bucking along in a sprightly fashion, under a fresh trade blowing from a splendidly colored dawn. Behind him, the horizon was effulgent with delicate colors that were nameless, each blending with infinite variation into its neighbor. The weather was fair, as it had been over the last few days, with the wind inclining a little to the north this morning. He was deeply grateful for the agreeable wind and skies, as they served in some measure to alleviate his despondency. There was, as it were, an element of hope in them.
By 8:00 a.m., however, the wind was freshening to a large degree, all the while continuing to back, until it finally stood due north. Not a foul wind, but strong; one that could possibly put unbearable strain on his jury-rigged vessel. So he hove-to in a rising sea, with the wind remaining very heavy throughout the day. He was torn between making some necessary westing — wanting very much to make a landfall somewhere, to acquire food and water — or possibly damaging the vessel. And since the latter seemed to be a high likelihood under the circumstances, he chose to remain hove-to and frustrated all day, with Pacific drifting easily to the south.
In the course of these stagnant, impotent hours, he ate another few ounces of beef, and drank more of his water. While they meant nourishment to him, he felt as if each bite was like a bite out of his life’s span; a bite that meant one less hour, one less minute to live.
In a meteorological choreography, passing rain squalls moved round him. He could see them against the horizon, their dark gray columns standing between sea and cloud as they poured themselves onto the heaving ocean. And when one would chance to pass overhead, he would go below. Then, leaving the hatch cover off to allow daylight to filter into the dark interior, he would read his Bible, sheltered from the downpour.
Copyright © 2006 by Sam Ivey