Copyright is held by the author.
I KNEW the questions would come. Everyone on this damn ship knew about it. How news like that got around was anyone’s guess. It just sailed on the wind, from the doctor’s mouth to the ears of anyone who wished to listen.
The reflection of my face in the window of the wheelhouse is a sickly green under the glow of the ship’s instrument panel. The sea is calm tonight as we sail over it, cold and dull. There is no moon, and not a star to set the ocean sparkling. I am standing here, holding the ship’s wheel, peering into the darkness. She is constantly on my mind.
I had watched her that day on the dock, her face receding with each throb of the engine under my feet — the cold autumn wind penetrating us both. She had accompanied me to the ship. She never used to, but insisted on it this time. And she assured me she would be there when I returned. “I’ll stand right here and wave to you,” she said, smiling, and, though I hadn’t left yet, my heart yearned for her. I held her in my arms and kissed her.
The door to the wheelhouse opens and the second mate comes in, a bright red mug filled with steaming coffee in his hand. “Hello Patrick. Not a bad night, eh?”
I hold the wheel steady, keeping my eye on a point of light off to the starboard. “A bit cloudy, but it’s better than fog.”
The radar scans the ocean letting off a small blip, blip sound. The water around us is clear, no ships, no oil rigs, nothing.
“I heard your wife’s been ill. How is she?”
“She’s doing well now, in good spirits. The doctor says with treatment she’ll have a good chance.”
“Too bad you didn’t get this rotation off.”
“I have to do this shift. It’s only 10 days and then I can take as much time as we need.”
My eyes scan the ocean, scan the radar, return to the ocean. She had begged me to go. She said this was the best time. Later, she would need me so much more. And for now my brother Charlie, could take her for treatments. The first few would not be so bad.
The radio cuts in and dispatch asks for our position. “We’re 28 nautical miles northwest of the Funks, sailing north at 3 knots.”
“Okay. We just got a report of a craft floating around that area. No running lights, no signals. Keep an eye out on your radar. A small freighter coming down that way nearly ran into it.”
The mate goes to check the charts, and I see a boat appear on the horizon. He sees it too, and we look at each other. I comment on the sidelights and a masthead light.
The mate asks, “What’s a little boat like that doing out here?” But it has running lights so it’s not the one we’re looking out for.
“Who knows? Fishing? Running drugs? Nothing surprises me anymore.”
She had been gone for over a year — the separation had almost killed me ? when she decided to come back, severing her ties with Robert. She said she didn’t know why she had fallen for that man in the first place, except she’d been lonely with me at sea so much, and he was charming. God! Charming? Then she announced the cancer.
The small boat passes and falls from the radar. I keep scanning the ocean, while the second mate pours himself another coffee.
She cried and I held her. I held her tight, just like I held my tears, burning my eyes, just like I had held the pain, searing my heart. She said she had always loved me, and then I spoiled the moment by asking, “Why did you leave me then?” Angry words, more crying.
A new blip appears on the radar, getting closer and closer. What is it? Both of us peer into the darkness. “Where the hell is it? It should be right off the starboard bow but I don’t see a thing.”
I reach up and switch on the search lights. They pierce the blackness, around and around. The blip remains on the radar. Then we see the fat bloated carcass of a whale. The mate opens the side window and I readjust the light for a better look.
“Ahh, jeezus,” He slams the window shut, but not before a strong stench of decay invades the room and my stomach lurches.
The watch passes and we are relieved at 6:00 am.
I sit on my bunk, tired. Her words keep coming back. “Robert was upset, you know. His mother died of cancer. He just couldn’t go through that again.”
So did she really come back to me because she loved me? Or . . . ? I rub my eyes. I have to stop these thoughts or we will never be able to get past this, and move on to build something that lasts. Every day and night for the past nine days I have gone over this and now I need to sleep. I force my eyes shut. We will be in port in six hours and I want to be ready. In my mind, I can see her standing on the dock — her eyes that clear blue that always takes my breath away and her soft smile ready to inflame me with passion. I pray the weather will be good.
I awaken and the engines have slowed. I shower and dress thinking about her there, waiting for me. I go up on deck. The sun glistens off the water and I scan the harbour, the Southside Hills, the downtown traffic. We are so close I can almost feel her. The waterfront is not a busy place today, just some freight trucks, a few cars.
I see Charlie’s car parked near the entrance to the cordoned off area where only Coast Guard vehicles are allowed. He must have brought her. He was lucky to be able to find a spot so close to the ship.
I watch the deck hands secure the lines and put out the gangplank, and in one swift movement I reach down and pick up my bag, looking, looking. There’s Charlie. I hurry down the steps, which sway in rhythm with the gentle movement of the ship, and Charlie is standing in front of me. My sister Bridget is here, and her husband. What’s . . . ?
A freighter sails by, heading toward The Narrows, poised for the open sea. Didn’t we rescue that thing when its engines failed last spring? Bridget holds my arm; Charlie studies the hills around the harbour before he finally speaks, never making eye contact. My legs weaken.
But where is she? Where?
At the funeral home I identify her body; then I’m in a daze, sick and empty as I go through the motions of a funeral. I ask everyone who comes in, “How did she get lost in a place she knew so well?” But no one has a definitive answer.
I have been home for almost a month. I should get back to the ship but today, today they are going to show me where they found her. I want to see the place, to be sure that the police are right and that there was no foul play. I hear the whispered rumours in town. Suicide, they’re saying, but no, no, it makes no sense. Suicide is pills and booze ? well, for women anyway. Or that’s what I’ve heard.
I reach out and touch Charlie’s arm, and again I ask him the question, “Are you sure she was fine when you left her that afternoon? She wasn’t sad, upset, depressed?”
“Patrick, I told you, she was fine. She didn’t seem to be anything but happy. Said she was feeling better than she had in years.”
“But how did she get lost in a place. . .?” I can’t finish the question.
“Her car was found here.” Bridget speaks, her voice a gentle whisper. She takes my arm as we step on to the foot path.
Charlie asks me once again, “Patrick, do you really have to do this?”
“Hell yes! You know I do.” The anger comes in bursts, much less now than the first few weeks.
We had walked that trail so many times. And, we had gone off the path in every imaginable place, to pick berries, to cut firewood, to go fishing in the pond just over the hill. This was familiar territory for her.
I walk among the trees that are now bare; their branches like naked arms reach out to me. The smell of death is in the air — everywhere I go that smell follows me. Then Bridget leads me off the path and uphill to where the trees are mostly coniferous. They said she had left her purse in the car, the keys still in it. But, she never left the car unlocked, and she never left her purse in the car.
We are here.
“She was at the base of this tree, Patrick,” Bridget says. “She was just sitting here with her hands by her side. Her coat and gloves were here, right next to her. They were folded perfectly. You know how everything had to be so perfect for her.”
I reach down and caress the base of the tree. It took them only 24 hours to find her once they brought in the tracker dogs.
The young officer who came to my house that evening, only hours after I had reached port, rhymed off the message, explaining all that had transpired.
“No foul play suspected, sir. Seems she went off the trail on her own for some reason. We had a frost the night before last, and it went down to 5 below.” He never made eye contact.
“But she knew the area. Why did she . . . .?”
He breaks in before I finish, “Who knows what happened, why she decided to just stay there.”
“But she knew her way . . . .”
I sit with my back to the tree just as she had. How had we gotten so lost?