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By Allan Weisbecker
“Come with me and I will make you fishers of men.”
Jesus of Nazareth
The Springs, Long Island, New York, 1922
Malcolm Stewart had no idea how long he’d been curled up under the seine but it sure seemed like forever. His legs’d cramped up on him and no matter which way he adjusted himself, something – a cork float or a lead or a knot or something – would poke him in a way that hurt, especially when the wagon hit a rut in the road and the dory shifted in about five directions at once.
The twine was damp and frosty from overnight dew and its cold weight made Malcolm shiver. He wished he’d thought to wear his heavier sweater butt when you’re all warm in bed you tend to forget what it’s like outside, before dawn in late October. He’d other things to think about, too, like the beating he was going to get when Papa found him. Malcolm hoped that’d be after they’d gone off and were outside the sand bar and Papa wouldn’t go back to the beach just to put him ashore.
Malcolm wanted to stretch his legs, maybe work the cramps loose but Scun Bennett was sitting up in the bow chewing tobacco and Malcolm didn’t want to take the chance at being found, especially by Scun. Malcolm’d had a fight with Danny boy Bennett, Scun’s nephew, the week before and’d kicked Danny Boy all over the school yard, making him cry in front of everybody, so Malcolm’d taken to avoiding the Bennett men, which wasn’t easy since there was about a million of them between Southhampton and Montauk.
The Stewarts and Bennetts had never gotten along, never even married one another, not in over two hundred years, going on three hundred, of being neighbors, and Malcolm figured if Scun happened to find him he’d probably give Malcolm a kick in the head and claim it was an accident. (Malcolm also figured Scun was feeling the gaff about having to ride in the dory instead of up in the wagon, but it was Papa’s rig and Scun didn’t have a choice the matter.) But Malcolm wished Scun’d quit farting every time they bounced, making Malcolm clinch his teeth so he wouldn’t laugh.
Malcolm heard Papa say Hoooo! and old Left Eye whinnied and pulled up; they must be at the Lester place. Through a fold in the seine Malcolm could see Scun sitting up on the bow thwart and even in the dim starlight made out the knot of chew in his cheek as he looked for the Lester brothers to come out of the house.
Malcolm heard hinges creak and a door slam, then the crunch of boots on the sand and broken clam and scallop shells on the Lester’s front lawn. Old Left Eye snorted and Papa called out, “If you boys don’t pick ‘em up and lay ‘em down a little faster, the Edwards boys’ll catch all the fish in the damn ocean and then where will we be?”
Malcolm felt the dory shift and groan on the trailer as one of the brothers, probably Ted — he was the younger Lester by a good bit and’d have to ride in the back with Scun – climbed on up and when he threw his legs over the gunwale and down into the dory his left boot came down no more’n a foot from Malcolm’s face.
“Mornin’, Scun.” It was Ted all right.
Please don’t sit on the net, sit on the thwart, Malcolm thought, but it didn’t work. Ted sat right down on the seine and Malcolm thought he’d cry out from Ted’s weight. Ted shifted around and tried to make himself comfortable, and Malcolm’s breath slowly leaked out of him. Then Ted commenced bouncing up and down with his rear end, trying to make an indentation that would fit it. Each time Ted bounced Malcolm felt more air going out and a little moan along with it, which he couldn’t help, but neither Ted nor Scun heard him.
Finally Ted got up and sat back down on the midships thwart where he should have to start with. He said something about the twine being too damp and lumpy to sit on while Malcolm breathed in shallow gasps; he wondered if this was the way a striped bass felt, lying in the bottom of the dory with his mouth and gills moving as he drowned in the air.
Meanwhile, Papa’d said Yooo! and the wagon was moving again. It’d soon turn onto the highway, which was a lot smoother and’d someday be paved like it was up in Southhampton, or at least that’s what everyone said, though Papa doubted it and so did Malcolm.
Malcolm’s breath was coming easier now but the cramps in his legs were even worse and the cold felt deeper, down in his bones. Then, suddenly, his teeth started chattering.
“What in ‘ell is that?” It was Ted, who was only maybe four feet away and his voice sounded like it was coming from inside Malcolm’s head, it was that loud and clear in the cool, windless morning.
“What was what?” Scun was farther away, working his chew and spitting about every two seconds. He was a noisy fella in general and didn’t tend to pick up on things. But Ted, Ted paid attention to the goings on around him.
“That clickin’ sound.” Malcolm felt the seine stir; Ted was poking around. “Sounds like something in the twine.”
Malcolm gritted his teeth to stop the chattering. Scun spit and said, “Prob’ly a crab clickin’ his claws,” then they hit a deep rut and Scun farted something spectacular. Malcolm almost laughed and thought maybe he’d made a noise trying to hold it in. He found it hilarious when grownups farted.
Then suddenly there was Ted’s face, sideways, and he was looking
into Malcolm’s eyes. Even in the near darkness Malcolm could see Ted
was surprised to find Tom Stewart’s kid hiding under the seine.
Now Malcolm figured he wouldn’t get to go fishing this morning and’d have to put up with the beating too. But Ted didn’t say anything. He just stared at Malcolm and now instead of looking surprised he was looking curious, his brow all furrowed and lower lip sticking out in a comical way. “Yep, you’re right, Scun,” Ted called out. “It’s a crab clickin’ his claws in ‘ere!”
Malcolm was so surprised he let fly a bout of teeth chattering right into Ted’s face. It was so loud Ted laughed, and it went on and on and got louder and louder until Scun told Ted to kill the goddamn thing; he’d finally heard the racket over his chewing and farting. Ted said Okay then reached into the seine and covered Malcolm’s mouth until he chattering passed. He called out to Scun that he’d killed the damn crab, ripped his claw off good, then his face disappeared but he put his boot, the right one this time, down in the bottom of the dory where Malcolm could see it. Then Ted started up a conversation with Scun and Malcolm listened. “Amazing that crab survived in the twine since yesterday,” he said.
“Tom Stewart don’t take care to clean his ‘quipment,” Scun said, but he kept his voice down, no doubt so Papa, driving the rig, wouldn’t hear. “Otherwise ‘ere wouldn’t be no crab in ‘ere.”
Ted said, “The Stewart’s is over-rated as fishermen, if you was to ask me,” and he tapped his boot on the dory’s planking to let Malcolm know he was trying to stir Scun up so Malcolm’d be in on it. Malcolm knew that Ted, all the Lesters in fact, had nothing but respect for Papa, as a fisherman and neighbor both.
Scun said, “Goddamn right they’s over-rated,” but he sure was keeping his voice low.
Malcolm was pleased as could be about what was going on. Ted was almost a grownup – he was fifteen and had been on Papa’s haul seine crew since the spring – and here he was sharing a rib with Malcolm, who wasn’t even close to being a grownup, and hadn’t been fishing, at least not real fishing, ever.
Malcolm didn’t figure he had any close friends, aside from Willie Long and maybe that girl Rosie, but Malcolm hated her, and he pictured for a moment how great it’d be if Ted became his friend and ally.
Ted tapped his boot again to let Malcolm know the conversation would soon get hilarious. Ted said, “I heard Malcolm Stewart and your nephew went at it the other day at school over whether the Bennetts or the Stewarts is better fishermen.”
Scun said, “Yup, and Danny Boy beat hell out of the little sonofabitch.”
Malcolm came so close to saying something that a squeak leaked out but Ted coughed real loud to drown it and tapped his boot like mad, so Malcolm held his tongue.
Then Ted said, “Why don’t you and your brothers start up your own crew, Scun? Show them Stewarts how to set an ocean seine for striped bass?”
Scun said, “Been thinkin’ ‘bout it,” but Malcolm could tell Scun’d never thought about it, never in his life.
Ted said, “Me an’ my brother, we was talkin’ jus’ the other night ‘bout how we’d rather fish with you than Tom Stewart anytime.” Ted didn’t tap his boot on that comment, he was probably too busy trying to keep himself from laughing at the ridiculousness of it.
Malcolm could hear Scun working his chew like crazy and spitting and no doubt thinking about what it’d be like to have his own rig and crew. Then he said, real huffy, “Maybe I will just do that.”
Malcolm heard the squeak of the trailer hitch and old Left Eye snorted again and the clop-clop of his hooves changed their rhythm. He felt the dory shift and lean a little and knew they’d turned onto the highway. Ted called up to Papa, “Where do you figger we’ll make the daybreak set, Tom?”
Papa called back, “Down in front of the Napeague shanty, ‘less someone got a theory what makes more sense.”
Ted said, “Sounds ‘bout right to me,” then he lowered his voice and said, “What do you think, Scun?” He tapped his boot.
Malcolm grinned. Scun didn’t know one piece of ocean from the other, but Ted had gotten him all worked up with the thought of having his own crew and Malcolm wondered if Scun’d come up with something stupid.
He did. He said, “Maybe a little further east, Tom.”
Well, Papa said Hooo! and actually pulled up, he was so surprised Scun’d said that. It got real quiet and Scun stopped working his chew and spitting and Malcolm knew Papa was squinting at Scun, waiting for him to explain his theory of going further east to make the daybreak set.
Malcolm knew Scun had absolutely no theory about anything and it took all his will power to keep from busting a gut. Ted was tapping his boot to let Malcolm know the situation was even funnier from where he was sitting.
It was Malcolm who let Scun off the hook but Malcolm couldn’t help it. His teeth erupted in a chattering fit, so loud this time that even Papa heard it, up in the wagon. Papa said, “What’s that noise?”
Scun’s voice went deep, like he was in charge of the goings on back in the dory. “It’s a goddamn crab in the twine, Tom.” Then he got even more serious, like it was dangerous or something to have a crab running loose in the seine, and he said, “I told Ted here to kill damn thing.” You could tell Scun was mainly relieved that the subject of going further east to make the daybreak set had gotten changed.
Ted mumbled he was sorry for not obeying Scun, then there he was again, squinting at Malcolm through a fold in the twine. It was closer to morning now and Malcolm could see Ted was all wound up tight from trying not to laugh.
Ted yelled out, “It’s another crab, Scun, a big ‘un!” and he stuck his hand in the seine and grabbed Malcolm’s coat, flopping around like he was in a battle to the death with a monster crab from prehistoric times.
Malcolm’s teeth wouldn’t stop chattering so Ted stuffed a piece of the cork line into Malcolm’s mouth to deaden the sound. Ted yelled, “I kilt ‘im, Scun!” then backed himself out of the seine.
Malcolm bit down hard on the cork line and silent laughter came in waves that shook his body. Malcolm was cold and his legs hurt and he expected a beating, but he didn’t think he’d ever felt as good as he did at that moment, sharing a rib with Ted Lester at the expense of Scun Bennett.
Malcolm felt old Left Eye straining and his snorting and louder breathing and the heavier feel of the trailer meant they’d reached the soft sand of Napeague Beach.
The air was different, too. It wasn’t any colder than it’d been on the road but it breathed in crisper and made your thoughts clearer and more hopeful. The beach and the ocean did that to the air.
Malcolm tried to picture where they might be. He saw in his mind the Stewart’s fish shanty — first built by Great, Great Grandpa Joshua and rebuilt after storm surges by subsequent generations — in its dune nook, driftwood fashioned, battered and blasted and scoured and bleached by the sun, sea and wind-whipped sand. He saw the rig toiling on by the shanty to the spot where Papa, by habit, liked to stop for a look-see at what the ocean was up to in the mornings.
Malcolm thought about Napeague Beach, how the Stewarts past and present felt a kinship for the wild fragility of its windswept dune hills and the delicate life that somehow flourished on those arid, salty slopes. He thought of Grandpa Eli, gone now, or as the old man’d say, Shifted Yonder; how he’d explained that nothing more permanent or disturbing than a shanty should be struck upon dunes, not ever. It was hurtful, the harassment of dunes, and Grandpa Eli saw them, as with the Indians he’d shore whaled with, as magical things to be touched only lightly and with respect.
Malcolm heard old Left Eye whinny, and finding he’s closed his eyes
to be better see times and people not of the present, opened them and
squinted through the web of the seine. He could see Ted and Scun pretty
clearly now, dawn wasn’t far off, and they were both looking up ahead
and not saying anything.
A seagull flew over and Malcolm heard him cry out, likely ruffled at the intrusion of men into his fine domain. Papa said Hooo! and pulled up. Old Left Eye whinnied again and Malcolm felt him shifting around nervously, which was unusual. He was an old horse and a calm one.
Then Malcolm too got a nervous feeling, a deeper sensation than the cold or even the fear of Papa’s anger, and suddenly Malcolm knew what it was, and why the men were so quiet.
The waves’d come up big during the night and the men were watching them roll in.
Malcolm focused on the sound of the ocean. At first it was like a fire burning too hot in the belly of the kitchen stove after you’d put in too much green wood. It was a roaring and a hissing like that. Then there’d be a crack, like a log splitting open and the hissing would get louder as the insides of the wood caught. Malcolm figured that was the sound of a wave breaking on the outside bar and charging in toward the beach. The hissing would fade as the white water died in the depths between the bar and the beach. Then another outside wave would break and the rhythm would repeat itself.
Then there was a heavy sound, like the thud of someone far off blowing a stump and it made Malcolm’s heart pound. It’d seemed to rise up from below, up from the beach, up through the wagon and the dory and it was the earth itself shaking from the power of a wave when there was no more water to carry it and it fell onto the sand. Malcolm put his hand on the dory’s cedar planking and felt the ocean stirring and angry there in the wood.
Then Scun Bennett spoke and his words seemed directed at Malcolm. Scun said, “We shoulda stayed in bed.” The tremor in Scun’s voice made Malcolm shiver and he felt Scun’s fear.
Ted didn’t say anything and neither did Papa or Bill.
Again the thud, louder and harder and deeper and the oar on the portside vibrated and the blade slipped off the thwart and fell into the bottom of the dory. Old Left Eye snorted and shifted around and Papa said Easy boy to settle him.
Scun said, “It’s too big to go out, Tom,” and Malcolm was hoping Papa’d say You’re right, Scun. But Malcolm’d never seen Papa afraid and he couldn’t imagine it, not now, not ever, no matter how big the waves got.
Papa said, “Seems fishy out there.” Some said Papa had a way with the striped bass, a way of knowing when they were nearby, like Grandpa Eli’d had with cod, even though he’d claimed the right whale as his fish. (Malcolm believed the school books were right about the whale not being a fish, but he kept it to himself, out of respect for his ancestor, who was no longer around to argue the point.)
Malcolm remembered Grandpa Eli’s thoughts on the matter of certain Stewart men knowing when fish were about when there were no outward signs of their presence, a subject of much debate amongst the clan. It was a gift, the old man’d said, like being able to navigate the dream world rather than just being tossed around in it, which he claimed the Indians could do. Papa’d argued that that notion was a dory-full of nonsense and maybe even blasphemous, and pointed out that if a man knew there were fish out there, it was because there were outward signs, even if the fellow was only half aware of them. Papa’d gotten riled in his opinion on this but Grandpa Eli hadn’t said anything back. He’d just looked at Malcolm and winked in a strange way, like he and Malcolm shared something apart from Papa.
Hiding there under the seine, Malcolm felt himself shiver and it was not from the cold or the fear. It was from the recollection of Grandpa Eli’s wink.
Ted bent over and fiddled with his boot. He looked at Malcolm and whispered, “Your dad’s thinkin’ ‘bout goin’ off. If I was you I’d sneak myself outta there and run myself home while ever’body’s lookin’ sea’ard. Thim waves’s big.”
Malcolm didn’t want Ted to know he was afraid so he shook his head, but in his mind he saw himself running for the dunes. He shook his head harder to rid himself of that picture and kept right on shaking it as Ted frowned, but Ted’s eyes were bright, like he was excited about what Malcolm was doing.
As Ted straightened up and looked seaward again, at the waves Malcolm felt but couldn’t see, Papa said, “Come on boys, let’s give it a try.”
Bill said, “All right, Tom,” but he didn’t sound real eager about the prospect.
Malcolm looked at Scun. It was light enough now to see his face clearly as he turned from the ocean and looked back toward the dunes. He said, “I don’t know, Tom.” Scun spit but hardly anything came out.
Ted said, “I’ll go. You tend to shore this time, Scun,” and Ted did sound eager. He was the youngest of any of the haul seine crews and Malcolm figured he was hot to prove himself.
Papa said, “Okay then. Let’s go.”
Ted sprang over the gunwale and Malcolm heard him land on the sand. Scun got out much slower and said, “I don’t know” as he lowered himself onto the beach.
Malcolm felt the wagon lurch and groan as Papa turned the rig toward the water. Old Left Eye whinnied real loud and Papa said Easy to get him to back down but old Left Eye didn’t want to go closer to the waves shaking the earth under his hooves.
Papa said Okay boy then Malcolm felt the stern lift under him and the men were grunting and the dory was moving, sliding off the trailer with a terrible scraping and Malcolm’s heart pounded at the sound of it. He felt her ease down then fall hard onto the rollers and the side of his face hurt from smacking the planks as it landed.
Papa said, “Those waves’s comin’ in threes, boys,” and the rumble of the ocean deepened and echoed in the bottom of the dory. There was a gurgling and Malcolm felt the wash rush up and the dory moved a little on the rollers. Scun Bennett tried to spit, it sounded dry, and said, “I don’t know, Tom. This don’t seem worth it to me.”
Papa dealt with Scun’s opinion by saying, “Let’s wet her, boys,” and Malcolm felt the dory sliding over the rollers then onto the sand. The bow dropped and she was sliding easier, down the steep slope and into the shallows where suddenly she was free of the beach and Malcolm was aware of the hands all around on the gunwales, steadying her movements in the spent white water.
Ted and Bill climbed back in and Malcolm saw their boots through the seine as they unshipped oars up forward and the locks creaked as the brothers set up their rhythm.
No one spoke as Papa and Bill and Ted and Scun – Malcolm could hear their hard breathing all around – waited for a slatch, a lull in the cycle of the waves.
Then Papa yelled, “Go, boys!” and Malcolm felt the dory moving seaward and Papa and Scun were pushing her and the Lesters were pulling hard for the outside and with each oar stroke Malcolm’s fear rose and tightened.
“Pull, boys! Pull!” Papa was in the dory now, standing aft by the net and the oars banged in the locks as Ted and Bill pulled. Malcolm could see Ted’s face through the twine, against the reddening morning sky, and Ted was straining as Papa called out, “Pull, boys!”
“Put your backs into it, boys!” and Ted somehow pulled even harder, his lean body rising off the thwart, back angling toward the bow with each stroke, eyes intent on Papa, as spray from the bow and splash from the oar blades rained down. Then the dory struck a wall of white water and she shuddered, every plank and rib of her, and Malcolm shuddered too, at the might of the sea.
Above the pounding and the roaring Papa’s cry rose again, “Please pull for me, boys!” and Malcolm knew that danger lay ahead on the shoal of the bar.
“Pull, boys! Pull harder!” and water was rising in the bottom of the dory and Malcolm felt a warmth spreading down there and he knew he’d wet his pants from the chill and the fear.
“Pull, pull for your lives, boys!” and the rush of the water and the banging of the oars and the Lesters’ fierce breathing and Papa’s hollering were so loud Malcolm thought his ears would burst.
The bow was rising now and there was a slowness to it, as if the dory were climbing a mountain of such towering loft that there was no hurry and the water up forward flowed aft and sloshed into Malcolm’s mouth as he tried to cry out for help. Malcolm’s eyes roamed wild and fretful and they found Ted through the tangle of the twine but even in his panic Malcolm knew that Ted could not help him, not now, for their only hope lay in Ted and Bill’s muscles, in their will to Pull! to Pull hard and take them beyond the wave to the safety of the deep outside the bar.
Up further the dory rose, up that mountain wave, she was nearly vertical now and Malcolm could feel her, with each pull from the Lesters, trying to burst over the steepening mass of moving ocean, but she had so far to go to reach the top.
Malcolm felt himself sliding aft and with a great clamoring and banging and yelling, men and gear, a boot, an oar, a bucket were all mixed together in the seine and Malcolm tried to cry out he was sorry for the bad things he’d done in his life but no words would come. Malcolm heard Papa over the outcry and tumult and Papa was saying, “By God, boys,” his voice dispirited now and somewhere Mama was crying for her young son, gone now, lost at sea.
Malcolm opened his eyes. He was gripping the left gunwale and he was free from the seine. Over the easterly horizon, the freshly risen sun shined ever so bright and Ted and Bill were stroking the dory though its golden wake.
The dazzling light and sudden expanse of unbroken sea made Malcolm blink. As the fog in his mind lifted, he realized that the Lesters’ last desperate oar stroke had propelled the dory over the back of that rogue wave and the impact on the calm water behind it had flipped the seine, freeing him from its snarly grasp.
Then Malcolm felt Papa’s arms around him and he wondered why Papa was hugging him so hard and why Papa was saying Sorry son when Papa should have been beating him for what he’d done, for hiding under the seine. Papa shook his head. “Scun was right, boys,” he said, and his eyes were sorrowful. “It weren’t a day to go off.”
A silence fell over them and as it grew so grew a sensation in Malcolm, unlike any he’d ever felt or imagined. It started as a tingling in his scalp, which spread downward until his body seemed all awash in a faint electric charge. This faded, dissolving into a general sense of well-being and optimism, which itself grew, and it was stronger than his thankfulness at being delivered from the sea’s cold clutch with his bones unbroken; stronger even than his love for Papa and Mama and Grandpa Eli, Shifted Yonder now. The feeling surged and swelled and as Malcolm stared down at the gently rolling blue, his mind was transfixed but clear in its purpose, in his purpose.
He had to see to the setting of the seine, for striped bass were stirring the depths, unseen, all around him, moving as one and whispering a hushed shimmering sweetness Malcolm heard and understood.
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