Authors: Jon Keller
F+W Media, Inc.
I've seen the devil and you're not him.
âOscar Look Jr., lobsterman
Ebb tide and fog and three slashes with wooden oars. No land left only the fog and the oars like bones creaked in their locks. A single gull rode the skiff's bow. The tidewater drained fast and the lobster fisherman named Nicolas Graves leaned his shoulder and spun his skiff and rowed stern-first together with the tide and he and the gull both squinted into the fog.
He told himself that his boat was moored here somewhere. He told himself that after a lifetime on the Atlantic he could not be lost in this one small cove. He shipped the oars and ducked his head. He lit a cigarette. Water dripped from the oar blades. His sweatshirt hood was beaded with moisture and his hands were cold and raw. Fog like frost spread atop his gray beard and condensed on his glasses and trickled from the lenses to the coin-sized patches of skin above his beard. From behind him the gull watched and Nicolas turned to the bird and released a lungful of smoke and said, You tell me.
He smoked and allowed the ebb tide to draw him toward the mouth of the cove and when he was finished smoking he dropped the butt into the water. The gull circled and landed. Nicolas took a plastic bag of crackers from his sweatshirt pocket and removed one. He turned fully around on the bench seat to face the gull and held out the cracker in his cracked palm. The gull batted its wings and craned its neck and hopped on one foot.
Come on, Nicolas said. You like them quite well.
The bird flapped its wings in place and jumped into the air and hovered overtop Nicolas for a split second. It landed again on the bow. Nicolas rested his knuckles on the wooden gunwale. He wiggled his fingers. The gull stepped hesitantly from the bow to the gunwale as if understanding this beckoning and it walked the rail and in a quick lunge it took the cracker and returned to the bow. Nicolas smiled to himself and turned in his seat and took up the oars. The gull disappeared into the fog then reappeared like an apparition that hovered six feet above the surface of the sea. A few more slashes with the oars and he saw that the gull was perched on the bow of his moored boat. Then the entire hull shape of the boat emerged like the body of a centaur beneath a gull head.
Nicolas rounded the boat and tied the skiff's painter off to the pot hauler and climbed aboard and thought unremarkably that he'd done this same thing too many times. If he was to add up his hours aboard a lobster boat it would be nearing a quarter of a million and he did not want to think about it. More waking hours at sea than on dry land and he'd heard people say that life is short but he did not believe it to be so. The night previous he'd awoken from a dream with the conviction that death was a rock which he would one day grip and never release. Nicolas did not trust in anything he could not hold in his hands but even so he suspected his wife's death to be somehow behind the dream. She'd been dead for over twenty years and she was the exception to his rule because although he had not held her in so long he still believed wholeheartedly in her presence.
Nicolas fired the engine and let the boat idle. It was a big block diesel with over 600 horsepower and it hummed and growled. He untied the skiff's painter and pulled the skiff along as he walked the washrail around the wheelhouse and onto the bow. Both femurs ground like stone pestles in their sockets. He stooped and pulled the bridle over the bit and freed it from the chocks then tied off the skiff to the bridle and dropped the ropes into the ocean.
He flicked his two-way radio and GPS and radar on and he spun the boat 180 degrees. He piloted still deeper into the fog bank and he counted seconds out loud and veered north at sixty seconds and counted again and veered south at forty-five seconds and south again after seventy more. The seafloor was charted like music in his mind with the boat's movements like steps and he knew each ledge and each rock and he avoided all of them.
Soon he spilled out of the cove and into the gulf. He throttled up and watched his compass and he headed southwest between Two Penny and Ram's Head. He could not see either island through the fog but he watched his instruments and he watched the water. The ebb tide ran hard and stood in curling waves for both the pinching of the islands and the coming of the seas. He steered south around a series of half-tide ledges and watched a flock of purple sandpipers swarm in singular flight with white undersides flashing from rock to rock.
Nicolas glanced at his radar and the islands passed on the monitor. Also on the monitor was another boat which steamed toward him. He paused. It was December and the bulk of the traps were stacked on shore. A handful of lobstermen still fished but they fished their deep-water grounds 35 miles offshore so they left long before daylight. Nicolas himself left late and fished unhurried but he was old and he was a rarity. The dragging season was open for urchins and Nicolas knew there were draggers around but this boat came too fast for a dragger. He watched the scrolling numbers on his GPS. The boat came out of the east. To the south spread open ocean and to the north lay the mouth of a broad sound and further north rolled a river into that sound.
The dots on the radar closed. Nicolas throttled down and lit a cigarette and held it bitten in his front teeth. He stuffed his cold fingers into his armpits. The boat was a quarter mile off. He went to the stern and gazed into the fog. He heard an engine echo across the water and it grew louder and louder and the noise surrounded him and made him feel that he would soon be run over so he charged to the wheelhouse and spun the wheel and rammed the throttle. He faced his boat toward whatever danger came.
He tried to listen as if his ears would do what his eyes could not. He thought quickly of calling on his two-way radio but then suddenly there the boat was just a bow with spray flying and a radar spinning and a circular windshield wiper rotating around Osmond Randolph's face with its black mustache and long black hair. The diesel engine howled and threw smoke black and thick into the air.
The boat circled Nicolas's boat
once and once again and the sea itself rose and surged with the boat's wake. Osmond backed his boat
up so the boats aligned stern to stern. Both sterns were open to the sea so that a man could step easily from one boat to the other. The two men faced each other. Osmond Randolph wore a black oilskin barvel that wrapped his body like a dress. Nicolas had once teased that he looked like a warlock but Osmond was not one to be teased. He stood six and a half feet tall and his entire body was tight and strung hard as rope and right now he tucked his greasy hair behind his ears.
Nicolas, he said.
Decisions regarding the pound are made by the two of us, not by you and you alone.
Nicolas faced the fog. His boat had an underwater exhaust piped out the stern. The exhaust bubbled and belched with the rise and fall of the sea. He had nothing left to say to Osmond Randolph.
Nicolas, Osmond said. I have invested time and energy into negotiations, and only the Lord knows why you have undermined that. I do not understand. We do not want to jeopardize this lifetime. Explain yourself, Nicolas.
Nicolas took his glasses off and worked a section of his shirttail from beneath his belt and wiped the lenses dry. He put them back on. He watched the water begin to shift and roil and spread between the sterns. Osmond watched too then stormed the length of his boat and slid
into reverse and came alongside Nicolas. He dropped two red fenders over his gunwale and tied a line fast between the boats so they were rafted side to side then stepped aboard the
He stood in front of Nicolas and when Nicolas looked from the fog to the man he saw Osmond's throat with its skin like a turkey neck and he smelled that skin like something reptilian.
Explain yourself, Nicolas. Here and now. I have a family and my family will have a future. Explain what you've done. I cannot change things unless you tell me your reasoning.
Nicolas said nothing. He felt a line of blood leak into his heart as if into a bilge. His heart flexed and his temples throbbed and he wondered if he should be scared but instead he thought of his dead wife. Her name was Jennifer. Jennifer Regan when he'd met her. Next he thought of his son Bill followed by his other son Joshua who he'd not spoken to for so long. But he did not think about the man who stood before him.
Piss off, Nicolas finally muttered.
You have pushed, Nicolas, and I do not recommend you continue to do so.
Osmond stepped forward so their chests nearly touched.
Back up, Nicolas said. His voice was calm. He stepped back and sat on the washrail with his back to the sea. Water sloshed between the hulls and Nicolas's exhaust bubbled and belched with the sea's surges. From time to time the hulls together squeezed a wave and sent a waterspout into the air. A curtain of fog blew between the two men and Nicolas thought he must be very old to allow all of this and the thought was like threading the tail of a rope through a loop and that was it.
The hell with you, Osmond, Nicolas said. I got final say and you know that good and goddamned well. Now get your fucking boat off here before you stove both to shit.
Osmond held a palm out to the sea as if to still it. Nicolas, he said. I have been patient with you for twenty years and for twenty years we have operated as you've wished. We will not survive, not on this coast, not without evolving. That is a fact. I am over seventy years old, Nicolas, and what I do now I do for my grandchildren and for them alone. This is bigger than you and me.
Good, Osmond. Finest kind. Take care of them kids.
Listen to me, Osmond barked. Hear me.
Osmond took a step toward Nicolas and like a crow he loomed. Nicolas felt the hairs on his neck prickle. He stood and said, I won't have it. How many times do I have to tell you that? I seen what will happen to the harbor. He dismissed Osmond with a wave and added, Get off my boat. I got traps to haul.
Osmond's face was blank but he had coal in his eyes.
Nicolas took a mouthful of air and tried to rally the strength that used to exist but his words felt empty. This settles it. This horseshit right here. It's been a long time coming.
Osmond's body quaked. With the heels of his hands he wiped at his cheeks although no tears fell. Nicolas, he said. You must have faith. You must listen. Please.
Osmond's voice was quiet and hurt and Nicolas had never heard anything like hurt from this man. It stopped him. He understood that he was the closest thing to a friend that Osmond had ever had but so too did he understand that to Osmond Randolph friendships were finite whereas bloodlines were not. His was no blood of this man's. He felt bad for Osmond but his pity was scant and brief.
I've had enough, Nicolas said. All your happy horseshit. Enough. You're done. You go piss a ring around someone else.
Osmond looked at his feet. The boats rolled with the sea.
Nicolas said, Get off my boat.
Osmond's voice was a whisperâ
but before he finished and before he could pause or hesitate a charge inside of him dropped and he surged toward Nicolas. Nicolas met him and the two collided. Nicolas's two bad hips ground bone to bone. His head reached only to Osmond's chin and Osmond outweighed him half again. Osmond pushed him back until his thighs braced against the washrail and behind him Nicolas felt the stretch of cold empty sea. He swung once at Osmond's face but Osmond caught the fist as if Nicolas were a child and squeezed with a crushing strength that shot pain like blood flow through Nicolas's body. Then Osmond's hand wrapped around Nicolas's throat like a collar too tight. Nicolas saw sudden blackness. He could not breathe. He fought the grip and tried even to scream but could do nothing. He heard Osmond's voice out thereâ
You will help me, Nicolasâ
but Nicolas was conscious only by fury and the pain suddenly vanished so he braced his legs and gritted his teeth and launched himself into Osmond. Osmond was a wall that forced Nicolas backward until Nicolas's feet slipped and his legs went out. The two stumbled but Osmond caught himself as Nicolas flipped into the sea.