I could’ve said no to the old man, the time-worn sailor with withered skin that hung loosely on his cheeks, and wispy, salt-spun hair that created a snarled halo around his head. I could’ve turned the other way, and gone on without ever knowing what approaching him would mean. I could’ve…but I didn’t.
He sat on the edge of the dock, swinging his legs over the peaking waves, sucking on a hastily wrapped cigar. I was a penniless and broken wanderer, with nowhere to go and no one to go to. I watched him kick at the waves from my spot on the beach.
The moan of a fog horn penetrated the early morning quiet as I scaled the dunes. It was a forlorn sound, the call of a lonely, bygone drifter…a sound I recognized all too well. Salty wind whipped around my neck and stung my cheeks, and my hair was sent dancing out behind me. Before me rose black arches of murky water. Bleeding fingers of foam branched out from the clashing waves, the remnants of its eternal struggle. The black sands beneath my feet shifted with the wind, glistening like hot coals.
The old man stood, tapped out his cigar into the sea, and stretched out his ancient bones. He turned to his boat, a nicked and battered old beast that strained against the ropes keeping it tied to the post. I watched him walk up the dock, and an inexplicable emptiness sunk within me. I wanted to cry out, “No, don’t go!”, but I didn’t.
Then he called out to me. His voice was warped by the sound of the surf, but I knew he was calling to me.
My bare, calloused feet adhered to the spot, and I strained my ear towards the dock.
Without turning to look at me, he shouted out again, louder. “Well, what’re ye doin’? Get yer britches up here!”
I was confused, but I crossed the beach and stepped onto the dock for curiosity’s sake. He turned, revealed a mouth full of bronze teeth, and said, “Storm’s settin’ in the east. If we want to beat it, we best be ridin’ the waves before dark.” He clapped a hand laced with blue veins on my shoulder, and clambered over the dock and into the boat. I opened my mouth in question, but he spoke over me. “Are ye comin’ or not?”
But where? I tilted my head back to look at the empty beach. Past the rolling dunes and bowing grasses was nothing for me. What life I once had was gone. I had used up all my second chances; I’d drunk any money into the gutters. My clothes were tattered rags hanging off my knobby shoulders, and I had nowhere to call home.
So I swung my leg over the side of the boat. “Yes.”
A crooked grin etched across his face. “We’re off on an adventure, Sullivan!”
I didn’t know who Sullivan was.
We set off on the bucking waves, heading directly towards the swirl of black clouds and white water on the horizon. All the while the old man called me Sullivan.
With his cigar dangling in his fingers and one hand on the mast, he talked about my mother, an elegant ex-noble woman with hair like a thousand chalky icicles. He told me how I had her nose, and that my spidery fingers reminded him of how beautifully she played the harpsichord. He chortled as he managed the sail, and reminded me about the time when I was fifteen, and I stowed away in the neighbor’s carriage to the market. I had wanted to see a girl, he said, a pretty one; she worked at the bakery with her father, and made my favorite kind of sweet rolls. Her father caught me with her in the closet, he said, and he chased me out of the marketplace, threatening to bash my brains in with a rolling pin. My mother was so angry at me that she locked me in the cellar for a week, but she was even more furious with the baker. In her exasperation, she boycotted his bakery until a guard escorted her out of the village.
As the waves dipped and rose and the wind picked up, he talked about my uncle, a husky naval officer who shared my sense of ambition. His eyes glinted with pride as he told me about how his son earned his medals. “Dove in after a comrade durin’ a frightful raid,” he said, his colorless lips stretching as he recounted the memory. “Saved the man’s blessed life. Would’ve drowned if hadn’t have been for yer uncle.”
A smattering of icy rain drops diced my skin, and he brought me below deck, where we feasted on stale bread and stinking cheese as the boat lurched and groaned. He asked after my sister, and without thinking, I said she was fine. “Well, I ‘spected as much!” he said, taking a swig of ale. The drink slopped onto the front of his rough-spun shirt when a monstrous wave rocked the boat, but he didn’t seem to mind. “What with her bein’ married to that duke! Must have gold spillin’ out of her ears, I always say.” He offered me his canteen, and when I refused, he waved it in my face. “Oh, don’t be that way! I never knew ye to refuse a drink, Sullivan.”
So I drank from the canteen, even though my whiskey sodden stomach frothed at the bitter taste.
That night, the howling wind lashed against the boat, hissing through the cracks in the ceiling, and the churning waters boiled and belched around us as we slept in our cots. I drifted into a shaky slumber, but was awoken when I heard whimpers coming from across the cabin.
He was trembling in his cot, clutching to his chest a ceramic vase with swirling shades of blue and green. I asked him if he was alright, and he looked up at me with a sagging brow. “She was the prettiest gem ye ever did see,” he said in a thick voice. His arms tightened around the vase. “Never did no wrong, had the heart of a doe…but they took her. They took her from me.” His eyes shone with a buried melancholiness in the light of the swinging lantern, and his face contorted with the shifting shadows. “She always wanted to sail ‘round the world, to see all there was to see. So I take her with me, so she can see with my eyes.”
He planted a light kiss on the urn, and hid it away under his cot. Then he fell asleep.
The next morning, the storm still raged, and the rain had turned to hard beads of ice.
He told me stories about when I was a child and he’d take me out on the sea in his row boat. He chortled as he told me about the time I fell into shark-infested waters to go after a fishing line, and he had to dive in after me. “Scared ye skinny, it did,” he said, the crinkles at the corners of his eyes creasing. “Ye swore off swimmin’ from that moment on, but yer a sailor’s boy at heart…I knew ye’d never truly give it up.”
He nearly choked on his cigar when he retold the time when my sister and I hid under the banquet table during a family feast and went about tickling the feet of each and every guest. Smoke billowed up around us, hanging near the ceiling like a hazy smog. “Yer uncle threatened to tan yer hides when ye got ‘round to his feet! Said he’d feed yer liver to the goats when he caught ye! Yer poor sister; she was scared stiff. Cried for a good hour straight, but was as plump as a peach at the end of it all.”
That night I found him on the deck, braced against the wind and rain, leaning into the torrents with his eyes closed. His clothes clung to him, and his beard was stippled with rain drops. I rubbed the sides of my arms and hunched against the downpour, calling out to him. My voice was lost amidst the shrieking gusts and grumbling thunder.
He blinked back the sheets of rain as he looked at me, and my heart sunk when I saw his lips wilt. I approached him, and he said in a soft, broken voice, “It was a storm like this that did it for him. The night before a battle, too..and the sea devoured him.” He stared out at the angry, black water wistfully. “Took his whole crew. Swallowed them up like wee minnows.”
I took his shaking arm and led him below deck, where he met the warm embrace of sleep.
The next day dawned with the winking sun, and we spent the morning on the deck, warming our icy feet and drinking from his canteen.
He told me how much he had missed me. How lonely he’d been without my sister and me, how he prayed every day that we’d show up at his doorstep or send a letter or at least attempt some contact. And it was true; his face would bloom into a metallic smile when he’d see me emerge from the cabin, and he always gave me the larger portion of bread and cheese.
I felt like a monster. I was a fraud.
On the fifth day, as the sun melted into the sea, he approached me on the deck.
“Yer not Sullivan, are ye?”
My heart dropped into my stomach, and I blinked up at him with sore eyes. “No.”
He smiled sadly, turned, and without saying a word, disappeared into the cabin below.
The next morning I woke to an empty boat. The urn beneath his bed was gone.
I wished I had never said yes.