By Chris Chambers
Few things stir me like the wreck of a ship. Not riches, fineries, the camaraderie of friends, nor the soft company of women. Just beyond my eyes, I see them. Masts split, exploded, snapped. Directionless sails wrapped around black rocks for any safety, and the boat herself–ribs come apart, up out of the water like a split deer. The rigging knotted, crazed–splayed out in every manner and direction. All her secrets laid about her, bobbing in the foam. Naked under the sky, it’s a delicate bargain each ship makes with the sea, and to witness it torn asunder, such a mighty, splendid thing brought low … I am not a devout man, but how could not such a vision bring me closer to my god?
Take the Gwendolyn May, hours out of Portsmouth, pennants snapping under gentle skies. Just past Prawley Point, the safest of passages, she was hit side-beam by a sudden storm so violent, the paint was stripped from her hull as though clawed away. When I came upon her, the keel had snapped clean in three places; the stout beams beaten soft as sea sponge. Her anchor chain, still attached to the battered bow, strung out beach-ward as though she had been dragged unwillingly by some great beast across the rocks.
I’ve seen hundreds like her in my work for the Harris Bay Company. Salvage from the Gwendolyn paid for an extension of my widow’s walk, a more suitable carriage, and a cellar full of fine Italian wine.
Each ship has a place in my ledger-book: remaining assets above waterline, estimates of salvage cost. Survivors. When I close my book and eyes I can never find them–just the ships. A man must find the pleasure in his work or he is lost.
At sea as on land, I keep to myself, but nevertheless am unpopular with the crew and captain of the salver ship, Merryweather who make no pretense of accepting my presence among them. When I am top-deck to take air they part around me, as though I were the Angel of Death. Some cross themselves, mutter. As if I had broken up each ship, and with my own hands, drown the crew. I am the left hand of the Devil, unlucky.
The presence of my hired hand keeps them honest. John Priddy, a tall pale Finn with a snarl of black hair and a neck scar where the noose had failed. In truth, in his second life he is a gentler man, but can row a skiff like no soul under heaven, and for this alone he is useful to me.
We set out two days before Christmastide under a brooding sky, with little hope of return before the holiday. The day before, I was strolling Highstreet market as is my custom in the early evening, and was eyeing a duck for my evening meal, when a young flush-faced boy–a runner for the Harris Bay Company–nearly ran me down. “Mr. Blackburn, sir.” He pressed me with a packet. Upon paying him and dusting off a bench to lay it out, I opened it and read the contents. A brigantine sailing from Montreal was a week overdue from port, and a ship matching her colors and description was spotted by a packet boat, foundering near the mouth of Skillet Bay, perhaps fifty miles east of harbor. As Skillet Bay is well known for its shoals, the underwriter of the Montreal venture wished the ship approached and assessed with all haste and engaged my employer in the matter.
Once we’d cleared the channel and the Merryweather raised her sails, the snows began. Light at first, melting as it lit on the rails, the brims of hats, darkening the shoulders of the sailors. By the time we’d passed the Slipper Isles and into open water it was coming down with grim purpose. Snow collected on the coarse sails in sheets, shaken off as they snapped and billowed in an increasing wind. The upper sails were dim outlines in the flurry, visible only through their movement, and before long, were out of sight entirely.
Though it were still day, the captain ordered fore and aft lanterns double- lit, and the ship’s bell rung at intervals, although with the increasing wind it were barely audible on board. As the day blustered into early evening, I remained at my cabin window, watching between swirls of snow and spray, stooped sailors with planks and barrel lids, struggling to remain upright as they pushed and shoveled snow over the gunwales. Midway down the quarter deck, a figure caught my attention. A short, stout sailor stood and adjusted his scarf, wound doubly about his head like an ill-fitting bandage. He wore what at first appeared a great-coat belted at the waist, though much too large to be at all practical. As I watched further, the crewman grabbed the hem with both hands and shook it vigorously, sending a spray of snow up and over the side, and revealing, even in the failing light, a brocade cranberry-red dress with flying petticoats. A woman on board. Another sailor rose beside and attempted to usher her aft, but she shook him off and redoubled to the task.
I turned to rouse Mr. Priddy but to no purpose. I am convinced that he will sleep through the celestial roll call on Judgment Day.
The next day brought more of the same, and though I looked and even ventured from my cabin I saw no more of the previous night’s phantom. I told Mr. Priddy of the vision and he appeared unimpressed.
I retired to my bunk early and, as the weather had lightened, attempted sleep.
I woke with a start to the thump, then sawing whir and rattle of the anchor chain let loose. What little I could ascertain from our previous pace, we were some good way yet from the entrance to Skillet bay. I struggled opening the door which appeared sealed in a drift, and in short order was assisted from the other side. When I emerged I found the captain there. Sailors were all about the deck–staves and gaffs, knocking ice from the rails and sidings.
The snow, although now barely falling, coated every surface. The deck was covered in drifts, and in the places where it had been scraped clean, showed a dark film of ice. The riggings and fronts of the masts were encrusted with wild crystals, and the sails held strange shapes as though frozen suddenly in a wild wind. Sometime in the night, the seas had calmed to gentle, almost imperceptible swells. An ice fog hung gray and low, and there was a sense of being in some vast, low ceiling cavern.
“This is as far as we go, Mr. Blackburn.,” said the captain. “The rigging is iced up, the tackle is seized and we’re running top heavy. We don’t address it soon, and we’ll be keel to sky and swimming home.” His breath smelled of salt-pork and gin.
“Mr. Findlay, are you drunk?”
“I am. We’re no longer underway, and if I got my figures straight, today is Boxing Day. Didn’t have any boxes for the mates, so bottles will have to do.” He procured a long green bottle from the inner pocket of his weather coat and gave it a slosh.
“You are overly familiar, sir …You are under contract with Harris bay.”
“Ah, don’t get chapped now,” He slurred, “Your betters at the Harris Bay Company didn’t forget you. Sent you a Boxing Day present, they did. It’s down in the skiff,” he thumbed toward the side of the boat, “waiting for you.”
Stunned at the turn of events I walked carefully to the rails and looked over the side. There, bobbing in the water was our skiff. Mr. Priddy sat mid-bench clapping his hands against his thighs for warmth, looking much like an unhappy cat, and in the front of the boat, which dipped heavily in the water, sat the cranberry woman, who appeared much larger in the better light and waved cheerfully when she caught sight of me.
“Mr. Blackburn–come, come! We must make use of this window in the weather.”
I looked about me. This was less a window than an in-breath. A still sea is naught but the tautness between storms. Madness. I turned to the captain “Who the Devil?”
“We ain’t going nowhere, not for a day at least,” he smiled. “Best be getting on with your business.” A few of the larger mates walked over and stood beside him. “Your man’s down in the craft with her effects. Go on. You…have a corpse to pick.”
What was there left to do? I climbed down the icy ladder and into the boat. As we pulled away I looked up at the full complement of crew lining the rails, and even from the water I could see their faces. A few lifted bottles and toasted our good health.
It took mere moments to ascertain that the woman, Clemencia Downes-Martin, was the recently widowed wife of the Montreal underwriter, and therefore sole owner of the cargo ship we were to survey. And as she trusted no one with the contents of her vessel, insisted on accompanying the survey as a pre-condition of hire. That she loved cheese–any cheese, although goat cheese made her gouty and phlegmatic, which wouldn’t do as it interfered with her work in light opera, which was the supreme heart and center, after all, of any civilized society. “And one must attend to one’s figure.” That she enjoyed the traditional fox hunt on St. Stephens Day, and wasn’t this the very day, last year, that her children had first been allowed on a hunt. “So proud they were, almost prancing”
Already ahead, in the thin passage between fog and ocean I made out the great thumb of rock that that marked the entrance to the bay, a pillar linking the low sky to the sea. Gulls and kittiwakes flocked the sea-ward cliff face like a fine mist. The water just past took on a lighter color, heralding the outermost shoals of Skillet Bay.
“My late husband, bless him, died 11 months ago, and his associates preserved him in a barrel of juniper spirits for the passage home. He would have liked that, I believe, as he had been working toward a state of complete alcoholic saturation for most of our married life. The only way possible to have an open casket, I’m afraid. Reynard hated the ocean, unlike myself, although I find crustaceans positively unbearable.” She glanced nervously at the dark water skimming past. “Like something skittering on the edges of a bad dream . . . or a naturalist’s lens. Titanic louse.” She shuddered, vibrating the entire skiff.
“Mr. Priddy,” she shouted at the back of his head. “Are you fond of shellfish?” He glanced at me, waited until he was sure she would not leave the matter, then shrugged the smallest of shrugs. “Wretched creatures, and I can’t say I blame you. Although their relatives, the crayfish . . .”
“Mrs. Downes–Martin,” I said, “other than the remains of the departed, what else does the ship carry. We were given no manifest, and little else but directions to the last sighting. If we are to have any hope of conducting our business we must attend to the original bill of lading …contents of the berth, etc.” Her face fell. For the first time in a half hour she was silent, just the mild sound of the oars dipping, the faint but growing surge of the approaching shoals. “Mrs. Downes-…?”
“Children. The boat contains our children, Mr. Blackburn.”
John Priddy’s face went slack. Children. Something clamped around my innards, squeezing all breathe and blood and sense. I have seen drowned men before, sailors all. Some as young as 14, and their short time in the sea was not kind. Her endless chatter–her insistence made a sense to me now.
An apple floated by, and another. The wind, which had been slack some time, began to rise as we rounded the great rock. Insistent swells carried more, and soon we were surrounded on all sides by hundreds of apples–a loose raft of them blowing out to sea. Ships rats scrambled from one to the other, balancing and slipping. Some, improbable in the approaching danger, were eating.”
“Float and starve, or feast and drown,” said Mrs. Downes-Martin, her voice a whisper. She reached out towards the nearest and as I rose to stop her, I saw it. Ahead of us loomed the ship, not 300 yards from shore. Though she were on her side and caught on the reef, it was clear that she was beautiful. Blond scrollwork covered the focsle and graced her sides. Some trick of the wind made her appear at full sail. Through my glass, the name Clemencia was visible in delicate silver script across her bow. The entire aft 1/3 of the ship was missing.
“Your ship is there, Madam. We must take you to shore.” Mr. Priddy bent to the oars, and as we passed under the shadow of the wreckage it became clear to our passenger the true nature of the business. I jumped free of the skiff and pulled well up onto the black gravel as the swells increased. Indeed, farther out near the mouth of the bay the white water bands of the outermost shoals were disappearing one by one as the previous storm, having fully inhaled, threatened to exhale its vehemence once again. Mrs. Downes-Martin refused my hand and scrabbled out of the boat on hands and knees.
“Mr. Priddy, help me move the skiff higher.” We dragged and pushed the heavy skiff, our clothing whipped by the breeze, til we reached a higher dune. From this vantage we could see the entirety of the bay–its beach littered with shattered wood and bright debris. The hulk of the Clemencia with its shattered end shifted in the rising water. Everything was visible, but Mrs. Downes-Martin was nowhere to be seen.
“Mrs. Martin . . . Clemencia.” I shouted, but the wind just threw it back. We searched the high dunes for any sign or track, but found no trace. Searched and searched until eventually, beaten by the wind and exhausted, we collapsed on a dune.
“She swam to them,” croaked Mr. Priddy. We watched as the ship, now free of its mooring lifted on a titanic swell and rolled in the surf, disintegrating like a child’s toy until there were nothing left.
Just sticks and paper in a breeze – such fragile things. It is in such moments of great strain the oddest thoughts may enter through cracks in the mind. A Christmastide carol from my youth: “Three Ships,” and though it seemed most incongruous in this moment–near to the point of sickness, yet I found myself mouthing the words, until I realized that this song was not a phantom within my head but without. I turned toward the sound as best I could make it in the wind and a woman’s voice drove through the gale, operatic and strong. And moving toward us from the direction of the upper bluffs walked Mrs. Downes-Martin leading three horses. Sand smeared and kelp covered, but horses none-the-less.
“My children,” she cried, when she caught sight of us. “Alive. Gaspar, Melchior, and poor Balthazar; my breath, my body, and my spirit.”
Chris Chambers is a librarian and field archaeologist based in Salt lake City. Chris mentors the King’s English Writer’s Group, and is co-director of Simple Simple Storytellers, a seasonal storytelling troupe.