AT SEA by Luke M. Jones
from Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana
DEATH IS AT ALL TIMES solemn, but never so much so as at sea. A dozen men embark upon the wide, wide ocean. The lost man is seldom mentioned. There are no new faces to fill the gap. He knew his work and did his duty. God won’t be hard on the poor fellow.
Some had heard that he repented. Never having learned to swim, he knew he would meet his death by drowning. The cook believed few men die without warning, a notion he supported with stories of men’s premonitions. The cook also believed people from Finland are wizards with power over winds and storms.
We were roused from sleep by the cry: “All hands, ahoy! Man overboard!”
He was going aloft to fit a strap round the main top masthead. He fell and not knowing how to swim and being heavily dressed, sank immediately. We pulled astern in the direction in which he fell, and though we knew there was no hope of saving him, no one wished to speak of continuing the voyage.
To work hard, live hard, die hard, and go to hell after would be hard indeed.
We continued sailing with a fair wind and fine weather. At daylight, we saw the Island of Juan Fernandez directly ahead, rising from the sea like a deep blue cloud. Gradually, it turned to a deader and greener color, and I could mark the inequalities upon its surface. At length, we could distinguish trees and rocks.
The harbor was nearly landlocked, with a landing protected by a small breakwater of stones at its head. Near it was a small chapel distinguished by a cross and a long low building from which a dingy Chilean flag flew. A sentinel was stationed at the chapel, and a few soldiers, armed with bayonets and appearing rather ragged, waited at the landing for our boat to come ashore.
The mountains seemed almost to hang over us. At regular intervals, a loud echo that was hardly human issued from them. The mate, who had been here before, told us it was the Alerta of the Chilean soldiers. They guarded convicts confined in caves nearly halfway up the mountain.
He knew his work and did his duty. God won’t be hard on the poor fellow. All these things make death peculiarly solemn.
from the works of Herman Melville
HE WANDERS IN HIS mind, though with glimpses of sanity. Hovering, shivering on the verge, humming in his collapsing brain. Start her, start her, but keep cool, keep cool—cucumbers—easy, easy, start her, like grim death and grinning devils. Raise the dead from their graves. I see a ship, propelled as by mere madness toward an iceberg. The ship flies through the water like a shark, all fins. Sleek seals, dozing on ledges, never slip. Overthrown by its very inertia, the ship goes down. The clustering sailors cling to the shrouds like bees. Then the ocean clasps the weltering wreck. With a view of fishing, we lower three boats and find ourselves under the moon-shadow, the great Rock Rodondo of the Encantadas. The full moon burns low in the west, like embers upon a midnight hearth; along the east, the sun sends pallid intimations of its coming. I worry through waters called the Doldrums and growl at Sargasso. But now, I sense a languid impulse from the oar, plied by my indolent gondolier. Afar, in twinkling distance lost, Venice rises in palaces of reefs. Hey Gondolier, you sleep, my man. Wake up! Dying in the sickbay, the sailor swings in his hammock under the tiered gun-decks. In snatches, he sings his good-bye with the strange unconcern of wild things at the zoo.
from the works of Jack London
NEVER MIND WHY I was voyaging up the Yellow Sea during the month of February in below-zero weather. The titans of destruction—colossal menaces—they have no concern for me at all. They do not know me. They are unconscious and unmerciful. They are the lightning flashes and cloudbursts, the riptides and tidal waves, the undertows and waterspouts, the surf that thunders on rock-ribbed coasts and seas, that crushes humans to pulp.
Fallible and frail—that is all I am. I strike a light, backhanded blow to the nose of an obstreperous horse, and a bone in my hand is broken. I fall 20 feet through the air, and I am smashed. A few degrees one way and my fingers and toes blacken and drop off. A few degrees the other way and my skin blisters and shrivels. A drop of snake’s venom injected into my body and I cease to move. Forever.
The dawn was bitter cold. I was in an open boat on a rocky coast with no lighthouses and tides running from 30 to 60 feet. My crew consisted of Japanese fishermen who spoke no English. In driving snow, we took in sail and dropped our small anchor. The wind was howling in the northwest, and we were on lee shore. Ahead and astern, all escape was cut off by rocky headlands, against whose bases the unbroken seas burst. Windward a short distance, visible only between the snow squalls, a rocky reef lay low, while the Yellow Sea thundered around us. The fishermen and I crawled under a communal rice mat and went to sleep. We dozed for several hours.
The yacht club men were ordinary, flesh and blood and all the rest, but they did not break my dreaming. They were clean men, too, with a healthy tan on their cheeks. Together, we crossed a level, flashing sea, and I went ashore with them to a wonderful green land.
We landed on a tiny wharf, and the dream became more insistent. We walked across a spacious lawn, down an avenue lined with royal palms, and across more lawn in the shade of stately trees. Once, I turned my head suddenly and caught the line of palms swinging in a great arc across the sky. I saw the clouds tilt, too. But they stopped as soon as I caught them and returned to their correct positions. The air was filled with the songs of birds and was heavy with rich, warm fragrances—great lilies, blazing blossoms of hibiscus, and other tropic flowers. After my sojourn across the restless, salty sea, the dream felt almost impossibly beautiful.
Next, we came to a cool house with a great sweeping veranda, where lotus-eaters might dwell. Windows and doors were open to the breeze, and the songs and fragrances blew lazily in and out. The walls were hung with tapestries. Inviting couches with grass-woven covers spanned the rooms, and there was a grand piano that played, I was sure, nothing more exciting than lullabies. Servants— Japanese maids in native costume—drifted noiselessly, like butterflies. But I knew it to be a dream dwelling, for I turned suddenly and caught the grand piano cavorting in a corner. I did not say anything, as at that moment, a gracious woman, a beautiful Madonna, clad in flowing white and shod with sandals, greeted us as though she had known us always.
We sat at a table on the lotus-eating veranda and were served strange foods by the butterfly maids. But the dream threatened to dissolve. It shimmered and trembled like an iridescent bubble about to burst. I was glancing out at the grass dotted with trees and blooms of hibiscus when I felt the table move. The table, the Madonna across from me, the veranda of the lotus-eaters, the scarlet hibiscus, the greensward, and the trees lifted and tilted before my eyes, heaving and sinking into the trough of a monstrous sea. I gripped my chair convulsively and held on. I had a feeling I was clinging to the dream as well as the chair.
Then, the sea rushed in and drowned the fairyland, and I found myself deluged with icy water. There were several inches of snow atop the mat. The reef to windward was disappearing under the rising tide, and moment-by-moment, the sea broke more strongly over the rocks.
The fishermen studied the shore anxiously as did I, though I could see little chance for a swimmer to gain that surf-hammered line of rocks. I signaled toward the headlands on either flank. The fishermen shook their heads. I indicated that dreadful lee shore. Paralyzed by the hopelessness of the situation, they did nothing.
The extremity of our situation increased every minute, for the rising tide was robbing us of the reef, which served as a buffer between the sea and us. Soon it was swamping at our anchor. The sea splashed onboard in growing volume, and I baled constantly. Still, my crew eyed the surf-battered shore and did nothing.
Fallible and frail—that is all I am. I strike a light backhanded blow on the nose of an obstreperous horse, and a bone in my hand is broken. My head goes under water for five minutes, and I am drowned. Forever.
LUKE M. JONES hails from North Carolina and currently lives in Massachusetts where he is working on an MFA in Creative Writing at Emerson College. His poetry was selected for inclusion in the final issue of the HazMat Review.