Fire in the Water
by Mike Florian
The laden fish boat sat calmly atop the flat ocean in the middle of the Gulf of Alaska. Its long stabilizer poles jutted out of each side, amidships, at forty-five degree angles. Inside, a lone figure walked past the galley window on this dark summer night. The man opened the engine room door and made his way down the ladder and into the fo’c’sle.
“It’s time,” said Ollie as he shook Sam roughly in this midnight hour of the day. “It’s time,” he said once more to make sure Sam heard. He stood in the stinking room until Sam’s leg dropped over the sideboard of the upper bunk.
Only then did Ollie turn and make his way back up the engine room ladder. He pulled himself into the companionway adjacent to the captain’s bunk and walked quietly past the sleeping skipper. He waited for Sam in the wheelhouse.
Ollie did a quick check of his surroundings; the oil pressure gauge, the strobe light on the mark buoy bobbing a quarter mile away, the steady beat of the Detroit diesel, the tide table.
Ollie heard the sounds from the engine room being muffled by Sam climbing the steel rungs. The sliding door opened and closed. The skipper continued to sleep like a dead man. In the bunk above him, John, the cook, snored softly, his wig stuck sideways on his balding head.
Ollie still had a few minutes left on his watch, and he let Sam pour himself a cup of fresh black coffee. Mug in hand, Sam entered the wheelhouse. The two men stood quietly side by side. The small strobe light stood out from the stars shining brightly along the horizon.
“Nothing exciting,” reported Ollie. “I jogged to the buoy once in the last hour and we haven’t moved for twenty minutes. The old man got up a half hour ago. Engine’s fine. I think the tide is slack as we speak.
“You might want to check out the starboard stabilizer. There’s fire in the water tonight and we’ve got a companion with us. He’s been hanging out by the kelp wrapped around the wire.” He paused. “It’s nice to see the boat sitting low in the water. Tomorrow’s catch should put us in the main slaughterhouse and then we’re off for home.”
“That main slaughter takes a long time to fill,” answered Sam, looking about, trying to accustom his eyes to the darkness. “It’ll take two more days, I bet.”
“I think Cappy put us on the spot tonight. We’ll be home soon. It’s been sixteen days.”
“Get yourself down below, Ollie,” said Sam. “You’re already up here into my watch. Don’t dream of home yet. A couple of more days.”
Ollie turned and made his way back through the companionway. Sam heard the engine room door slide open and close, letting in the noise of the motor. The lead sheet lining on the door muffled the sounds of the diesel.
All was as quiet as it should be, thought Sam. He nursed his coffee and checked the gauges on the back wall of the wheelhouse. The small compact room was dark save for the light burning red over the brass Atlas compass. The bow of the boat pointed northwest by north.
A shooting star flamed on the western horizon, its smoky tail dissipating as quickly as its flash. Sam checked the watch on his wrist. He enjoyed these nights. There will be plenty of time to sleep on the way home. It was at least a three-day run down the coast.
“Oh,” Sam started as he remembered what Ollie said about the starboard stabilizer. He took his mug with him, topped it off at the stove and then stepped out of the galley and onto the deck. He quietly closed the Dutch door behind him.
The heavy boat lolled in the gentle sea. Every time water spurted through the scuppers and washed over to the other side, phosphorous plankton stuck to the deck and shone like opals.
Sam walked over to the starboard side. All he saw were swirls of plankton where the wavelets lapped against the hull. He stood at the side of the gunwales. The fire danced and shone. Then he saw it.
A small form, a sea otter, swam at the surface, keeping close to the stabilizer wire. Sam glanced over the deck to the port side just in case this little otter had a partner. Nothing over there, but here, the animal frolicked in the middle of the night. Its body would leave a trail of light behind as it dove and rolled in the ocean. Sam watched, keeping his eye on the strobe. He took another sip of coffee. The otter played on.
This made it all worthwhile, thought Sam. He had been doing it for years. He had raised a family and fishing had been good to him. Nights like these made him forget the bad trips and storms that inevitably came his way. He had never wanted to own a boat, but he worked hard and always landed a chance with a highliner.
At sixty years of age, he knew this halibut fishing was a young man’s game. He was even-keeled and unflappable, and all good skippers wanted Sam on their boat. Like most men of the sea, having survived big events made Sam confident. He had seen almost everything there was to see and had shipped with almost all types of men. Rarely was there an exception.
Tonight as he stood on deck with the fish hold a few days from being full, he was thankful that this was how he had made a living. He visited the otter a little more and wondered if it would be here in the daylight. He did remember seeing a few large kelp patches, little floating islands. These should be safe harbors for the friendly animal. As he turned away to make his way back into the galley, he spotted something strange under the horizon.
In the distance, an underwater glow slowly approached the boat. The man stared, confused. The sea otter continued to twist and frolic. Sam kept his eye on the developing form. It was now a hundred yards away. He stood quietly looking. The sea otter stopped moving and hung onto the stabilizer wire. It wanted to make itself small. The blue-white glow, now bulbous in form, moved like a slow-motion torpedo.
As it approached, he saw plainly a quiet form with a long, turbulent stream of plankton and fire trailing behind it. A massive head appeared just below the stabilizer. The form kept coming.
Sam looked into the water as he saw the whale swim under the boat. The otter didn’t move. Finally the animal’s fluke came into view and it too passed under the little, sixty-foot boat. The comet tail was endless. Sam kept watching. He ran to the other side, wishing for a few more seconds of this miracle, and then it was all over. He ran back to the starboard side. The stream of fire was gone. Everything was still. He sat down on the hatch combing. The coffee was cold. A short distance away the strobe flickered.
Minutes later, near the end of his watch, Sam noticed the otter treading water near the stabilizer. It cautiously approached the fish boat. Its friendly neck extended, the otter stared directly into the fisherman’s eyes. The exchange was longer than it should have been.
With a streak of blue light appearing on the horizon, the night was over. Sam had better rouse the cook and get him going on coffee and toast for the boys. He made his way toward the galley. As he did so he glanced at the starboard stabilizer. The otter was gone. The fire was out.
Copyright © 2011 by Mike Florian