The Captain of the Reward
by Mike Florian
The Reward lolled listlessly on the flat ocean. It was four in the morning and a sliver of light glowed green in the east. The crew sat at the galley table like a team of ghosts. Nobody talked. It had all been said during the last twenty-three days. Inside the wheelhouse, lined with wood, stained dark with years of touch, an old man ran his fingers over dog-eared charts. Confident in his choices, he turned and walked the companionway to the galley entrance. “It’s time,” he said.
One by one, the men, weary from the daily battles, stepped out on deck and slipped into their oilskins. The hold was full with sixty thousand pounds of cargo. The white-sided fish were iced and tucked away, but the old man wanted one more day. “Haul gear,” he shouted, and the deck boss, lean and hungry like a Casca, grabbed the first flagpole, switched on the hydraulics, and brought in the buoy line along with the anchor.
On the other side of the deck, the inbreaker, a young man with one trip left to his apprenticeship, pulled the same line through the gurdie, and coiled in a broad, fleur-de-lys pattern. The boy had learned the ropes well, but he was at the bottom of the pecking order, like all inbreakers.
He was tired too, this day. He was tired of the banter and stale jokes. He was tired of the dirty jobs, of doing dishes when the rest sat and smoked, of moving tons of ice down below when the boat heaved in a gale. He was tired of sleeping in the four-foot bunk at the tip of the stuffy, stinking fo’c’sle. Just like the rest, he wanted to go home.
Julius Johnsen, the old man and skipper, watched from the wheelhouse window. “Any mud on the anchor?” he yelled to Mu-yang, the deck boss.
“Nope,” came the answer. Mu-yang was not happy on this, the last morning of the trip. He and Julius had had words the night before. The men were setting the fishing lines late last night when the sea was choppy and the weather report forecast a gale. Mu-yang said it was time to go home. Julius disagreed and said the forecast was wrong, the signs and tides portended calm. They set the entire sixteen miles of longline gear. Their sleep was short.
This morning, to the consternation of both the skipper and the deck boss, and to the irritation of the men on deck, the line was coming in with the bait intact. It was to be a long day if the old man missed the spot, grumbled the crew.
“Get back and keep coiling,” snarled Mu-yang, fine spittle flying out of his mouth. “It was hung up,” he said under his breath.
“What was that?” asked Julius.
Mu-yang looked up alongside the wheelhouse. He saw Julius standing there, watching, in the strengthening light. I know more than that man, he thought. He himself had everything required of a skipper and fisherman. He had everything except the courage. “I said, the gear never reached bottom last night. Maybe there’s a snarl or we set over a deadhead or a log.”
Julius shook his head. “I never saw any logs or deadheads last night.”
Mu-yang rolled his eyes. The line, the hooks and the bait kept coming.
Skipper Johnsen was right, Mu-yang was wrong. The storm never came. The sea was flattening and only tide slop was left on the surface. The next slack water would calm the sea and make it shiny, with gentle western swells rolling in from the Aleutians.
The longline continued to be drawn in by the hydraulic gurdie. The line was strong and thin, maybe less than a half-inch in diameter. There were gangions, hooks attached to them, and still no fish. Not even sea lice touched the fresh-looking bait.
Mu-yang sensed the weightlessness of the line. He saw it coming in from a flatter angle, not from the deep as it should be. “Stay on the gear,” he shouted to Julius.
Just then the line heaved violently. “Hey” yelled Mu-yang. Again the line shook. A scream from the dark froze the crew.
“Don’t move,” said Julius.
“Get the gun,” whispered Mu-yang and shut down the hydraulics.
* * *
The sea lion liked swimming around fish boats. He had learned to keep his distance, and he had learned that the small, steel, shiny things that moved in the water sometimes bit and tore at his skin. He had the scars to prove it. He had also learned, a long time ago, that when the men on the boats ran quickly, he had better dive and disappear for a while.
Years ago, on the west coast of the Queen Charlotte Islands, when he was still a pup, albeit a six hundred-pound one, one of the figures had run around excitedly and come out with a gun. Seconds later, a bullet tore through his flesh. After that, he stayed with the older sea lions and dove when they dove.
This boat he was following in the cold waters of Alaska was particularly rewarding. His favorite food was close. He knew if he was patient, he could dive and take bites out of the white-sided fish being pulled up to the vessel. He especially liked the liver. He would tear at the flesh just behind the head and have his fill of the soft yellow stuff, full of energy and oil.
When he did take that occasional bite during the course of the many days of following this boat, and when he surfaced well behind it, he heard the familiar whooping and hollering of the figures. He kept well to the stern, hundreds of yards to the stern. There he would dive and feed on the rising, helpless fish.
Occasionally, as the sea lion ripped into the belly of a hundred-pound halibut he would get a mouthful of fresh king crab, and that excited him even more. It made him stay on those grounds as long as the humans did. He stopped caring as much about the dangers, about the killer whales that roamed those seas, about hooks and about bullets. The livers, fish and crab, found around this halibut boat let down his defenses.
During the evening of the fateful hook, the sea lion, as was usually the case, was drifting lazily behind the boat. He saw the line being fed off the stern and he saw pieces of fish, octopus, black cod, herring, all come shooting out of the chute.
He didn’t care too much for the herring. He liked the taste of the black cod bits. If he was fast enough, he could grab at a piece and take it carefully into his mouth. He was adept at avoiding the sharp silvery bite that came with the risk. He also knew that he had to be fast in order to beat the seagulls, liver birds and the albatross that were just as quick, if not quicker than he was.
Sometimes, as the boat was setting its lines, he would see a bird get caught. He watched the weight of the line carry the bird down into the darkness of the sea. He knew to be careful.
Contrary to what his instincts taught him, he watched a flock of seagulls fighting and crying over one loose piece. He glanced over and saw a freshly cut chunk of black cod drifting by. It was on the surface for a few seconds, far away from the deadly hooks that took down birds and the occasional seal or sea otter. He grabbed it, and as he did, a sharp unforgiving pain tore at his mouth. He was pulled below the surface.
The sea lion knew he was in deep water. He spread his fin-like paws and feet and curled his body to stop the streamlined sinking. It was quickly evident that shaking his head free, was useless. He managed to twist his body under the line and swim towards the light. He fought his way to the surface. A stream of blood trailed from his mouth. The hook was lodged solidly.
He broke the surface and shook his head once again. Nothing. A new weight pulled him under. He didn’t see the splash of the second anchor. The sea lion maneuvered under the line once again and pushed towards the surface. This time, it was much harder.
He inched himself upward, dragging eighty pounds of iron and countless hooks, bait and lines. Minutes later he broke the surface with an exhalation heard easily over the calming sea. The animal struggled for its life. He didn’t understand what was happening, but he knew to keep his head above water. The pain was secondary. The sky glowed red in the west. The dot of a boat disappeared over the horizon.
Five hours later, as the dawn showed a green streak of light from the east, the sea lion continued his struggle. His breath came faster, his strokes, slower. His mighty head was not as high as it had been at dusk. His bloody nostrils hardly broke surface, and the small, incessant liver birds, with beaks like miniature eagle claws, hovered and floated about him, pecking at the congealing blood floating in the water. The whites of his eyes reflected the lights of the approaching fish boat. The sea lion continued the deadly fight.
Then, just as suddenly as the weight of the second anchor pulled him down below the surface so long ago, the same weight seemed to be lifted when the boat approached. He felt relief. Anxiety and fear welled up at the sight of the large vessel and its running human forms. When they closed in on each other he heard loud voices. He started to struggle against the pull. He realized what was happening, and he shook his head with such violence that the hook embedded itself deeper.
* * *
Mu-yang saw it first.
“It’s a monster of a sea lion,” he yelled. And it was. It must have weighed at least two thousand pounds. It hung on by one comparatively small hook, lodged deeply behind its front canine tooth. When it roared in fear, the mouth was foamy and bloody. Despite the blubber, a trace of a massive vein showed in its neck. Its bloodshot eyes shone white in the dawn.
Mu-yang inched the gurdie along and pulled the lion closer to the side of the boat. “Get the gun, Cap,” he shouted to the skipper at the bow. “This one ate a lot of fish in his day and he’ll eat a lot more. Let’s put him out of his misery.”
Julius quickly made his way along the side of the wheel house. He held a shotgun in his left hand and fumbled for a couple of shells in the pocket of his windbreaker. The sea lion was pulled closer to the boat.
Roaring again, the fear on his face overshadowed its fatigue. The men had hauled up drowned sea lions during their times at sea. They were smaller and weaker. They caught goney birds and seagulls, terns and the odd sea otter that must have lived in a kelp patch. Never had any of them seen a lion as big as this one. Mu-yang drew it closer. Only a couple of fathoms separated the sea lion from the Reward.
“Shoot him, skipper,” yelled one of the crew from the back of the baiting claim.
“Blow him to smithereens,” yelled the cook from the galley door.
“Might as well let him have it, Cap,” said Mu-yang quietly as Julius walked on to the slippery deck. A swell rolled the boat and soaked the skipper’s deck slippers. The lion roared louder. The crew smelled its breath, tinged with blood and fish.
The sea lion wanted to lunge at the men on the Reward. He wanted to rid himself of this foreign thing in his mouth. He wanted to get away, to swim to the safety of his kelp patches. He was so weary. He felt himself being pulled against the last of his will. He shook one more time and instead of a roar he let out a terrifying scream.
“Kill him,” yelled the crew.
“Shoot him, Julius. You can do it.”
“Blow his head off.”
Then out of the whoops and hollers, the inbreaker raised his voice. “Let him go, captain. He deserves to live. It wasn’t his fault. Cut the line.”
“No way,” said Mu-yang. “No way ‘cut the line’,” he sneered, glancing backwards at the young upstart. “That’ll come right out of your pocket, inbreaker.”
“Kill him,” they continued.
“No,” said the lone, youthful voice.
Julius was now standing square on to the sea lion. It didn’t make a sound after that last scream, only the whites of its eyes showed fear. Julius saw the beauty of the beast, the strength and power and resilience of this sea creature. So he eats a few halibut livers, he thought. More power to him out here. He had heard the yelling of the crew before. It was almost blood lust. He raised the shotgun to his shoulder and aimed at the beast now a few feet away.
“Way to go, Cap,” said the crew, “blow his old head off.”
“No,” said the inbreaker, knowing he would pay the price with ridicule over the next few days.
The shotgun blasted, and as it did, the pellets tore at the gangion holding the sea lion by the mouth. The sudden cut threw back the massive head. The men saw the animal rear backwards, its mouth still open. Hook and tooth flew out together in a slow dance. The crew stared. The tooth was visible, fluttering like a butterfly, until it hit the water with an ever so tiny splash. The huge sea lion shook his head one more time and sank out of sight.
“Never saw you miss like that before, Cap,” sneered Mu-yang.
Julius slowly made his way back up towards the wheelhouse. He put away his gun and the one shell he had left in his pocket. He slipped out of his wet shoes, turned and leaned out the window. He briefly saw his reflection in a cracked mirror, fixed for decades to the wall, and winked.
“Haul gear, boys,” he yelled back to the crew. “We still have a long day ahead.”
Off in the distance in the wake of the white vessel, a dark head broke the oily and bloody surface. The sea lion stared at the boat and then dove, never to look back.
Copyright © 2011 by Mike Florian