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The Treasure of the Tide Rips

by Mike Florian

The young sperm whale dove deeply. At 1,000 feet its echo sounder located a school of Humboldt squid and dove deeper. At 3,000 feet, the soundings were more frequent and more particular. At 4,000 feet, the whale was upon the squid. In the dark, the inky escape clouds did not make a difference. The whale chased and grabbed its prey.

An hour later, with its belly full, the whale surfaced. A plume of ocean spray and air signalled its return. In the distance to the east lay Puerto Montt, off the southern coast of Chile. The squid schools were heading north, and the leviathan was going to stay close.

Just before the next dive, the whale convulsed, as they are occasionally wont to do. Its massive frame bent ever so slightly, the thin-jawed mouth opened wide, baring scrimshaw teeth. This largest of earth’s predators convulsed again and expelled a mass of grey jelly. The ambergris, with squid beaks as a nucleus, floated to the top and began its journey.

* * *

The Oona R, an old halibut fishing boat named after the same-named village and adjacent river running into the ocean in the northwestern part of British Columbia, had been built by the men who lived there. She was a fine boat with oak ribs and cedar planking.

The hull and wheelhouse were painted white; the hardwood gunwales and trim were painted with the hard-wearing oxblood colour. The poop, main deck and foredecks were covered with dark, penetrating pine tar. The wooden flybridge contained secondary steering and a throttle. The name, OONA R, was written in block letters on each side of the bow stem and along the top of the transom.

The men who fished her were good men, salt of the earth, so to speak. They were experienced men with the ability to splice not only rope but eighteen-strand steel wire. They fixed broken-down engines, electronics, hydraulics and anything that could and does go wrong on boats when these boats are at sea. The only problem was they couldn’t catch fish. Or so the public thought.

When the big boys on the big boats put into Port Rupert after twenty-five days out in the Gulf of Alaska, or when they had been out for thirty days on a trip westward past Dutch Harbour and into the Bering Sea or fishing the Shumagin flats just this side of the Aleutians, they would come in with two hundred thousand pounds of halibut, sometimes more.

The crews off of these boats walked proudly down Third Avenue after unloading and washing up, with wives and families on the arm, spending money and buying presents. People would say, “There’s Joe, he’s got a chance on the Bounty.” Or, “There’s Sid, he’s cooking on the Dawn.”

These eighty- and ninety-foot boats with names like the Silver Bounty, Northern Dawn, Sleep Robber, Midnight Sun, Eclipse, Silver Dolphin, Attu were the backbone of the community, coming in with hundreds of thousands of dollars every fishable month. Then there was the tiny, fifty-five foot Oona R.

Who knew the age of the skipper? Jack Pearse had been old when they launched the Oona R, and he still took it out regularly. Ollie Olafson was even older. Ollie, the cook, always wore black. Even his pea jacket, worn to the bone at the elbows, was as black as his eyes. He lived on a small double-ender with a diesel stove for heat and an ancient Easthope for an engine. The other two of the regular four-man crew, Halibut Harry and Big Mike, had been around, single men with histories kept quiet except at the galley table.

When young men broke in on the big boats and made their inevitable mistakes, the full-share crew would taunt them with warnings. “The only chance you’ll get is on the Oona R,” they would say.

When the fleet headed north and out of town, up through the Alaskan Inside Passage, past Ketchikan and Wrangell and Craig on towards Tracey Arm and Juneau, the Oona R followed, much more slowly and at its own pace. The Bounty and the Dawn and the Dolphin would put in for bait at Sitka and highball it out towards Cape St. Elias or the Portlock grounds.

A few days later, the Oona R would sputter into the small community of Elfin Cove and tie up for a day or so. They’d walk up along the boardwalk and each pay a quarter, in those days, for a warm Icelandic sauna. Only then and after a good meal would they leave harbour and make their way out into the open Gulf. The odd time, Jack Pearse would use the public phone to make a call.

* * *

By now, after many years of drifting on the wind and tides, the young whale’s clump of grey ambergris had hardened and was floating like lava stone. This lumpy mass didn’t dissipate into the water like most of the others. The hard yet floating, porous whale vomit became the ocean. It absorbed its minerals and vitamins. It absorbed its energy. The grey, congealed mass took in the sun and the rain. Over many years it took in the ocean’s periodic table. The black beaks and the wild smell of the whale became infused in the mass. The chemistry of the ambergris changed over time, concentrating the power of this massive environment.

The first few years, it floated northward along the South American coast and within the Humboldt Current. It floated past acres of sardine and anchovy schools, past migrating grey whales and Orcas, and up towards the equator. It took in the tides and winds of many El Niños. It floated on the upwelling of the cold water and the storms of the southern ocean.

Over time, it drifted out of the oceanic cyclones and made its way into the North Pacific. The ambergris rode out the many and terrifying southeast gales off the coasts of Mexico and California.

* * *

When Jim Rattray took the call from his contact in Alaska, he felt a rare rush of adrenalin. Looking out the long window of his penthouse apartment, he saw the joggers and strollers in Central Park. He also saw his own reflection in the glass. His white hair and smooth skin belied the years of stress and time.

Behind him, in the library, his wife sat calmly reading the Sunday Times. She, too, heard the phone. “Is it him?” Capucine asked after her husband had hung up and sat in silence for a few moments.

“Yes,” said Jim. “I’ll start the affair shortly, first thing in the morning. Frederick should be in the bank by ten. I’ll leave after that.”

“That’ll be good,” answered Capucine. “I’ll pack your things.”

“Maybe a week,” said Jim.

Capucine folded the newspaper and rose from her chair beside the round, heavy card table in the middle of the library. The walls of the library housed their books but also their life’s memorabilia. The wall held photos of Jim and her, alongside the titans of the fashion industry, of politicians present as well as alive during the forties and fifties of the previous century. Collectibles.

She walked out of the room, down the long hallway and into her private bedroom. She closed the door. In her powder room, from the drawer just below the Jerusalem-stoned countertop, she pulled out a bejewelled box. Rare wood, of course, with ivory and ebony inlays.

Capucine, tall and stately, opened the box and brought it up to her nose. She inhaled, her eyes closed. The base aroma allowed her imagination to travel. With eyes closed she was by the seaside in Monaco, on an island near Bali, adventures off Argentina and Africa, lounging in the harbour by Key West.

She opened her eyes and looked down on the ever so tiny morsel of ambergris. It was the last of her collection. She placed it in her small, marble mortar and, with the pestle, gently crushed the pumice-like material. She added a few drops of bottled water. She applied the compound to her face.

Capucine did not have a wrinkle. Nor did she have any scars from scalpels used to fight the corrosion of time. She was eighty years old and looked closer to fifty.

* * *

The boys on the Oona R let go the tie-up ropes, and Jack Pearse steered the little boat out of Elfin Cove. A short time later, they were steaming into the large, gentle swells of the open Pacific. Jack, Harry, Mike and Ollie knew the Gulf like the innards of their boat. They were familiar with the currents, the back eddies, the tides and the tidelines. They knew the winds and the wind shifts.

It was Halibut Harry who stood on the bow, hanging on to the forestay, looking to the horizon for the shiny, glistening glass floats. When the fog rolled in, it was Harry who would hail the buoy and flag, lost on the radar screen but visible in the soupy air. It was also Harry who could look into the flotsam and jetsam embedded in an island of kelp and spot the half-sunk shape of a chunk of ambergris.

“There she is,” yelled Harry. “Two o’clock,” pointing slightly starboard of the bow. Jack turned the boat and headed in the direction Harry had indicated. Only after a few hundred yards did the rest of the crew see the reflection in the distance. The long, twisting line of a tide rip stretched for miles.

A glass ball, a large Japanese float at sea for decades, would be picked up later and brought home as a souvenir. Now the Oona R followed the rip, slowly and calmly. The boat motored past the kelp patches, smooth cedar logs, a sea otter backstroking in the sun, a few seagulls sitting on the calm water.

“There, over there, Cap,” shouted Harry.

“I see it. It’s a nice one. Maybe twelve pounds,” said Jack.

Big Mike lifted the wide-mouthed fish net out of its place and stood by. Ollie, with a dish towel in his hand, leaned on the bottom half of the Dutch door. Jack Pearse threw the engine into reverse and then eased up on the throttle. In neutral, the Oona R drifted towards the tide line. The crew picked up the ancient ambergris and made their way back to Elfin Cove.

* * *

The chartered Beaver, from Juneau, gently and noisily landed on the waters of the cove. Jim Rattray disembarked onto the seaplane floats and walked along the lengthy boardwalk. He walked past the new general store and café, past the summertime cruising yachts, past the commercial fish boats with their long trolling poles and brass gurdies. In the distance he saw the Oona R. The four-year interlude between visits had made no difference to the looks of the boat or the crew.

“Ahoy, there,” he shouted when he approached the older, wooden boat. The crew made their way out of the galley. They had heard the plane fly around the mountains and come to rest on the water. They watched the man from New York make his way towards them. They had been through this before. After polite greetings and exchanges, Ollie, Big Mike and Harry made themselves scarce. Skipper Jack and Jim Rattray sat down to business.

Each man knew what to do and say, as per past practice. The Oona R owner never charged more or never charged less over the years. The price was what it always had been. The quality and rarity of the ambergris was never questioned.

The less appealing portions of the grey mass had been previously cut off and discarded. Jack Pearse handed three and a quarter pounds to Jim Rattray. Jim opened his briefcase and pulled out four hundred thousand dollars. He slid the money towards the captain. They shook hands and promised to be in touch should the occasion arise again, as it always did.

When he left the galley, Jim made his way out on to the deck, hopped on the dock and walked back towards the plane. By the boardwalk café he gave a slight nod to the three crew of the Oona R.

At twilight time, after the roar of the Beaver had faded among the mountain tops and after the galley lights began flickering among the cruisers tied up for the night, and after the blue glow of the satellite televisions was turned on, the men of the Oona R sat down to dinner. The small galley table was painted white on top. The walls were painted an industrial green, easy to clean and long wearing. Overhead was a round light hanging low above the table from a thick dowel. Atop of the light was a revolving spice rack that held not only spices but canned butter, hot sauces and other stuff.

Ollie fixed dinner. The day was his birthday. He cooked some black cod with mashed potatoes and took out strawberries and cream for dessert. The four men sat quietly, two on each side of the table.

“We’ll cut her loose tomorrow and get some halibut into the boat,” said Jack. “That way we’ll stop the gums from flapping in town. In the meantime we’ll celebrate today’s settlement. Pass me some of that fish.”

After supper, and after the strawberries and cream were chased down by very old tawny port, Jack spoke a toast to Ollie. “It’s your birthday, Ollie, by golly,” he said. “All the best to you, ol’ timer. How many years is it? Have you hit a hundred yet?”

“Ya ya, a hundred and eight,” said Ollie.

“A hundred and eight? How about you, Harry, have you hit a hundred? I’ve stopped counting,” said Jack.

“A hundred and two,” answered Harry. “Him over there,” pointing at Big Mike, “he’s the baby.”

“I’ll catch up,” said Mike.

“Well, let’s cut into it, boys,” declared Jack. With that he got up, reached into the fridge and took out a piece of the ambergris. With a sharp knife, he cut shares for each of the men. As they slowly ate the material and washed it down with the port, all went quiet. Each felt the energy inside. Their eyes closed and, with smiles on their faces, they slowly chewed the ambergris and swallowed the decades of minerals and vitamins accumulated on the ocean. It wasn’t a hallucinogenic but it satisfied the soul.

Next month they would do it again and every month after that. There was an easy ten pounds left in the fridge. Jack and Harry always knew where to find more. Every day was a good day on the Oona R, but today was even more so.

* * *

Capucine was pleased when her husband Jim came back with the new shipment. She already missed her weekly treatment and had became ever so slightly agitated as the days wore on. Now, in the quiet of her parlour, she ground up her concoction of the ambergris pâté. She applied it thinly but evenly across her face, her eyelids, her forehead, onto the ever so slight laugh lines about her eyes. She applied it around her lips, adding a little extra on her upper lip, continuously keeping time at bay. It was her little secret, Jim’s and her little secret.

Everyone wondered at Capucine’s genetic miracle. How does she do it, they asked, when they talked among themselves. Capucine continued to apply carefully and hopefully. She especially was careful around her lips. Once, years ago, a small amount oozed inside and touched her tongue. She hated that taste. It was fishy and lingered for hours. The last thing she wanted was to get the ambergris into her mouth.

* *

[Author’s note] I’m sure you are familiar with ambergris’ being used in the perfume industry as a base, mostly in bygone days. It is still very, very valuable. When I was fishing, I always teased the crew to keep an eye out for “whale puke” so we could all retire and live in a house on top of the hill. Ambergris is almost impossible to find, but it does exist. I have taken some liberties with it in this story.

Copyright © 2015 by Mike Florian

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