A Crew Comes Home to Port
by Michael S. Stewart
part 1 of 2
Captain Oleg Smythe looked through the window on the bridge of his boat and saw the light breaking through the clouds from the new moon. He could see his breath in front of his face while he looked out over the dark waves. The swells were thirty feet high and carried big chunks of ice floating off the starboard bow.
He thought about Captain Rogers and how he’d laughed the last time he’d seen him in port at the Hug-a-Mug. How he’d wished them both a healthy, strong season and some full loads of crab. He thought about the sparkle in Rogers’ eye and the way he laughed at the thought of a year bigger and more prosperous than the last one. Rogers smoked, like a lot of captains in the Bering Straights; it came with the territory.
Between Captain Oleg and Captain Rogers they had brought in half of the allotted catch for the season. When out picking up the pods, they had each other’s backs and it worked well for them. It wasn’t always like that, there was a time when Oleg had to work for Rogers’ respect, but after a few fishing seasons and a few rounds at the Hug-a-Mug, a few sturdy handshakes and few genuine smiles, a great friendship arose.
The flurries of ice and snow were blowing harder, and the swells grew bigger. A knock on the cabin door startled Oleg and woke him out of his reverie.
“It was the same dream as before, Captain,” Jimmy Williams said, coming into the cabin and wiping sleep out of his scruffy bearded face.
Oleg took a big sip of his stale and cold coffee sitting in front of him and scratched at his whiskers while looking at Jimmy. Jimmy was only a few years younger than Oleg, but Jimmy gave him the respect he felt he owed him and always called him “Captain,” even when they had been in port drinking together.
“Tell me about it, Jimmy,” Oleg said. He liked to talk to Jimmy. Jimmy was easy to talk to, never short of words and always a colorful expression on his lips.
Jimmy told him about his dream again. It was the third time he’d had this one. He told Oleg about seeing his two little boys and his wife in a park downtown with big evergreen trees and an old wooden picnic table with a built-in metal barbecue grill like the one they’d used every summer on the 4th of July at his home in Bellingham.
Then he told Oleg about how, in his dream, the boys appeared all “growed” up and healthy with their own girlfriends or wives. He could see his wife too: she was older with more wrinkles and grey in her long brown hair but still a pretty woman. In that moment everything was perfect, and he felt at peace, and it seemed like the moment lasted an eternity, and he felt perfectly content to be the observer.
When he awoke, he felt the eternity he had spent in his dream was amplified by his time on the boat. He knew it wasn’t so; he knew they’d only been out for four weeks since they had emptied the tanks full of crab and gone back out for the final catch. It was just a feeling he had deep within him when he woke.
Oleg looked at him, took another nasty sip of cold coffee and said, “I have no idea what to say about that, Jimmy.” He smiled at Jimmy. “I know it feels like a long time, I feel it too, but we’re on our way back in now. We’re going to leave that last string of pods. It’ll come out of our paychecks, but we’ve had a good haul, and we’ll still make more than most in the fleet this season.”
“Yeah, I don’t think we could find them anyway, do you, Captain?”
“I’m thinking if we had more time, we could probably find them, but we don’t have the fuel. And since the incident, we haven’t been able to use the radio. We need to get our asses to shore as soon as possible. We can try and recoup the pods next season. Don’t let the dream get to you, Jimmy; time can fold in on you and warp your brain out here, especially if you’re not fishing. You know that.”
“Have you gotten anybody on the radio, Captain?”
“No, I don’t think it’s working anymore, I only hear static, and normally I’d be picking up some voices from somewhere. A Japanese fishing boat, a Russian freighter, Coast Guard, somebody. Don’t worry about it Jimmy; tell the others we should be in port tomorrow morning.”
“Cool, I know the crew will be happy to hear that, but Jacque is still acting funny. I think he wants off the boat before we dock, Captain.”
“Why do you think, Jimmy? I tell you what: I don’t put anything past that guy. If I had contact with shore, I’d radio ahead and let them know we’re on our way.”
“I just think we should watch him,” said Jimmy. “He’s starting to freak me out. I wouldn’t be surprised if he bolted for a lifeboat tonight.” His wide blue eyes and medium-length brown hair were his only features distinguishable in the pale blue moonlight coming in through the cabin windows.
“Okay, I’ll keep my eye out for him. Don’t let him stab you in your sleep, Jimmy,” Oleg said with a chuckle.
Jimmy was starting to slip down the steps to go back to the crew’s quarters. “Haha, you think it’s funny, Captain, but you didn’t hear what he told the rest of us before we hauled in that last load of crab. He stayed below so no one could see him from the packing ship, and told the rest of us if we said anything he’d slit our throats, so yeah, joke it up, but it’s not funny; that guy is nuts!”
“Sorry, I didn’t know it was that serious. So what did he tell you before we took in the last haul?”
“He said they might be looking for him on shore when we go to port, and he wanted to stay hidden. He wouldn’t tell us, but he looked pretty scared. You know that guy, Captain: he probably stabbed somebody in a bar fight or got in a fight with his ex, and she called the cops on him.”
“Yeah, sometimes I wonder why I keep hiring him, but he’s a hell of a worker, and not everyone can do this kind of work, and he’s reliable to get the job done.” Captain Oleg paused and took another draw from his cold coffee. “He’s caused issues with other crew members, but he always shows up to work. All right, I’ll keep my eye on him if he comes up for anything. Thanks Jimmy, can you send Daniel up here?”
Oleg watched Jimmy exit and slam the cabin door shut. He looked out the window into the big swells with chunks of ice floating in them and thought about their position in the straits. The navigation dial showed 200 miles northwest of port. This trip in particular he kept having a feeling of being lost or disoriented. He’d felt the same way as a teenager once, when he found himself driving to a friend’s house. That particular day he couldn’t remember how long he’d been on the road or where he was headed until he pulled his car over and let his thoughts come to him slowly. It was like he had woken up suddenly and found he was driving.
Whenever he felt that way, he would stop everything else he was doing and sit still and not think for a moment and eventually come around to the realization of where he was again. Right now they were 200 miles give or take a mile or two, northwest of port. He sat for a while and looked out over the dark swells rolling past the bow of his boat and then down at the navigation dials again. This time they said a bit closer: 195 miles northwest of port.
* * *
Time passed for Karilyn Smythe, at the home of Captain Oleg Smythe in Hydaburg, Alaska. Twenty years it seemed to her, but who was counting anymore? She got herself ready to go to the funeral of Captain Rogers.
She wore a dark dress, a parka, thick Ugg boots and a snow cap covering her ears. When she removed the cap, her grey hair was pulled back and tied in a ponytail, and she sniffed and wiped her nose with her parka.
Even though Karilyn Smythe was a bit older, she still turned a lot of heads. She was a handsome woman, despite the harsh environment that wore down all of its inhabitants. She had aged beautifully over the past twenty years and kept to herself. Her living room and bedroom had a beautiful view of the bay that hosted the port of Hydaburg.
She looked out into the fog almost every morning in winter and out over every endless day in summer. Out over the ocean where sometimes she could see her husband’s boat with TimeBandit written on the side. Or maybe she just wanted to see it. She’d heard talk of a ghost ship for years now. Fisherman coming back into port and claiming they could see a hazy fishing vessel miles away, and always in the predawn hours.
Sometimes, on occasion, she thought she could see a ship on the horizon in the morning too, but knew it had to be her imagination playing tricks on her because of her longing and loneliness for her husband.
The funeral services for Captain Kyle Rogers of the Valkrie were held at St. Mary’s Church on a Sunday. There were no clouds in the sky, and the wind chill was below freezing.
She gave an eloquent eulogy at the funeral and talked about not only Captain Rogers but about her husband Oleg and what had happened on that fateful day many years ago. She addressed the full church of mourners not only as wife of Oleg Smythe but also as the daughter of Captain Kyle Rogers.
In the past, Captain Kyle Rogers had often come over to visit Karilyn. He visited whenever he could; after all, she was his daughter before she became Oleg’s wife. They talked about how the fishing season was progressing, how it was going to play out, how things were changing with technology, and sometimes they’d talk about the day Oleg saved his life and those of his crew by bringing out fuel to a stranded Valkrie. The subject would always come up after they had had a few drinks on a holiday such as Christmas or Thanksgiving.
Kyle would ask her if she was okay and if she had enough to keep her busy. She always responded with a frown and a shake of her head, and then she’d look out of the big bay windows in the living room.
Karilyn died a few years later of congestive heart failure. She was lying on her bed that was propped up in her bedroom to look out over the dark waters in the deep bay of Hydaburg and beyond. The morning she died, she saw a beautiful sunrise of purple and crimson that gradually changed into gold, and it lasted forever.
* * *
Copyright © 2014 by Michael S. Stewart