The First Time
William nearly cheered with the other men when the song started up again.
He’d first paid no mind to tales of how the rigging went moaning when the wind caught it right. He’d not even believed the letters his mother showed him, his father’s hand rising at a slant across the page telling how he went to sleep at night to the wailing in the lines and imagined it was her, sobbing for the wind to bring him home.
He’d not believed until he heard it for himself. That first time, he’d almost caught a flogging for keeping his chin up in the sails instead of on his work. But now, after a week with not a breath of air that didn’t come from one of the hands spitting curses at the sky, he was ready to believe the sheets could croon like a soft-handed lady if only they’d prove it with a note or two.
The whoop he’d been storing died before he could let it go when he saw the sails still hung limp against the mast. The air was calm, but the moan kept rising. It was an unearthly sort of noise, low and drawn, but with a high harmony that rode atop like a gull skimming over the waves.
The cries of the crew grew ragged, then died entirely.
The ship’s hands were rough men, and wary by nature. They had already been at sea for months, and the voyage had been a hard one. Weeks to cross the Atlantic, then down the African coast and all the way across to New Zealand before heading south to follow the winter pods. They’d run down a sperm whale one evening off the tip of Australia, their only catch so far. The boatsteerer, a big-armed Swede named Andrej, had filled it with darts till it floated, belly-up and still atop the water. They’d rigged the pulley crane rigged and the carving boards in minutes, lashing the beast to the side with heavy chains and swarming the bloody carcass. Lamps were hung, and the men used long knives and double-teamed saws to slice off great hunks of meat and blubber to haul up to the deck.
In a matter of hours the whale had been nothing but shining bone. The carvers climbed back onto the deck as stoop-shouldered golems, red from head to toe but for the stark-white stare of their eyes. The meat had gone to salt, and the fat to the rendering pots that boiled for days and laid a thick black smoke over the deck. William had worried briefly about the smell setting into his oversized, patched blue coat, until he realized that his father had surely worn it for years in the same grimy fog.
The pots hadn’t boiled for weeks, now. The southern currents were unseasonably warm, bringing bright clear skies and leaving the ship dead in the water. Some of the hands looked up now into the singing lines, squinting for any stir of wind. Others, those who had grown old at the rail, crossed themselves hastily and stared out toward the curved horizon.
William tugged on the sleeve of the taller youth at his side and whispered, “What is it, Charlie?” There’d been no call for silence, but he kept his voice down. The whole deck felt as hushed and trembling as a whore at mass.
Charlie Bottom shook his head, his face white and shining in the hot sun. He looked down at William’s fingers tight on the sleeve of his woolen jacket, and jerked his arm away. “Don’t bunch my clothes,” he hissed. “I got to serve tonight, and the captain expects his man to be as fine as hisself.” Charlie was always teasing William about his coat, about how he wouldn’t take it off except to sleep, even when they swung up into the tropics. But it was Charlie who got up early every morning to dip his shirt in lye water. William secretly thought him to be more a dandy than any of the ladies he talked so often about.
He was about to tell Charlie off for a cod, finery or no, but a commanding voice broke the stillness.
William jumped and scrambled his way aft. The call was for him. The captain never paid mind to Charlie except to tell one of the mates to give him a knock for one thing or another.
When he got to the stern the captain had his glass to his eye. William was surprised to find it not trained on the western sky, where the wind ought to be coming to shove them hard toward Australia. Instead the captain had it down on the sea, his lips working slow and quiet, like he was trying to read a letter from the blue-green swells that slapped slow against the side of the ship.
“Sir,” William said directly. He’d learned after the first time never to make a question of the address. The stiff old man with close-cropped gray hair was of the proper sort, and when he called you up, you came quick and stood for his pleasure till he made it known.
The captain kept the glass to his eye with one hand and motioned William forward with the other. “What’s your years, boy?”
The singing swelled up high, then sunk down low again. It reminded William so much of a gathering storm wind, pushing in steady and falling away quick, that for a moment he raised his head in anticipation of a touch of cool air against his forehead.
“Boy,” the captain said sharply.
William snapped his chin down and felt his warm face grow hotter. “Fourteen, sir,” he stammered. “Last spring.”
“And the other one?”
He grasped about for a panicked moment before the captain’s meaning came to him. “I think fifteen, sir.” Charlie was at least that old, William was sure, though he worked hard making himself out to be older. Every Sunday when the men hauled up buckets of seawater to scrub for the captain’s morning reading of the Book, Charlie always left the bottom of his face. William was convinced it was because the older boy still couldn’t grow more on his chin than what his mother’d call a “weed patch.” When William asked about it, Charlie just said that washing was for men who couldn’t stand the rasp of rope in their hands, and that the soft-handed ladies secretly wanted a man who tasted of the sea.
The captain lowered the glass and looked at him. He had good sight for his age – even the surlier hands spoke with respect of the almost supernatural way he could spot a blow leagues out in white-caps. But now he squinted, the leathery skin tight around his sharp gray eyes, almost like he was searching for whale-sign in William’s face. William remembered one of the mates telling how the captain used to be a navy man before he went to whaling, and he wondered if this was how the old man had looked at the first sight of strange sails on the horizon.
The captain clapped a hand on his shoulder. “Come, boy,” he said with a strange tenderness. His grip was heavy, and so tight it hurt. “Step with me. There’s nothing to fear in it, but it’s got to be done to know for sure.” He guided William to the rail. “They like the younger, you see. No telling the way of such predilections – but think of it like the fish, boy. You ain’t got to know why they bite, s’long as you remember when and what sort they prefer.”
The rail was smooth, absent of the salt that crusted the wood when the ship was moving well with the wind and the spray was high. Ten yards down, the sea was still and glassy like an aquamarine pearl; impenetrable, but with a murky luster that spoke of incredible depth. The captain pressed him down until they were both nearly doubled over the edge of the ship.
“Sir?” William ventured. His mother told him before she sent him off to never tempt his captain or his father’s bones would stir restless from the place they’d sunk him. But surely she couldn’t have seen a day like this, when the wind sang in the lines without touching the sails. Strange things happened to a man when the wind went wrong, and for all the captain’s oak he was still a man, weren’t he?
“Sir?” William dared again, louder. “You want I should get Charlie, sir? He’s fifteen, and he’s been working harder on his knots, I know he has.”
The captain’s hand tightened. “Quiet, boy,” the old man hissed. “Listen.”
William bit the bottom of his lip to keep from twisting away. He heard nothing but the slow slosh of the water and the low moan. But as the captain pressed him down over the rail, he began to pick up on something else, something in the way the sound redounded from the hull. With a start, he realized the sound wasn’t coming from the rigging at all. It was coming from the sea, rising from the water all around the ship. His father’s letters had never given mention of any such thing.
Taken by curiosity, he leaned even farther, till his feet left the deck and he teetered on the rail. The moan altered as he did, the high riding pitch gaining strength over the low tones. Something shimmered beneath the water, pale and quick. And then, with an abruptness that nearly sent him over the edge, a woman broke up through the surface.
She was white as milk, with hair dark and long that fell dripping to rest in coils upon her shoulders. Her skin was soft, not sickly despite its cast, and her lips were full and warm, gleaming with fish-scale iridescence. She was delicate in a way reminiscent of a bird, and bobbed pertly in the water as if at any moment she might dart with a flash into the depths.
She returned William’s gaze with unwavering pale blue eyes. After a moment she smiled at him and leaned back in the water, arms spread slightly as to display herself for his curiosity.
So happy was her appearance, and so fragile the moment, that William was suddenly taken by the fear that she might vanish as quickly as she had come. He stretched out a hand to prevent her, but the captain hauled him quickly back up onto the deck.
“Abraham,” he shouted. A middle-aged officer of halting gait stepped forward from the crowd which had gathered to watch the curious scene. William tried to edge his way back to the rail, but the captain’s grip was iron on his neck.
“Note the date and time,” the captain said. “Six days of fallow wind, sighted the maids.”
Abraham nodded and tapped his sunburnt forehead with his fingers. As he walked away to find the log, the murmur went up from the hands that the maids had come.
The captain pulled William near, till he was pressed close against his side. His eyes were set as steady as ever, but as the song pitched another step higher William thought he could feel the old man’s heart quicken.
There was no hope of any work being done the rest of the day. The captain, normally a man for the rod when the lines ran slack, paced the quarterdeck and remained quiet.
The maids circled the ship. They spoke no words, but sang without ceasing. It was a beautiful noise, with a slow and steady melody that could be discerned only over long minutes of patient listening. Every now and then, a high strain would separate to fly out in perfect harmony above the rest.
Astonishment had quickly given way to fascination, and the men gathered at either rail to watch their new visitors. They gestured and called, wordless noises like they might give to a dog, but with little effect. From time to time a sudden quiet settled over the whole deck, and they did nothing but stare.
The maids were bare to the waist, where slender hips turned to scales that glimmered in blues and golds, and the occasional glint of twilight scarlet. They tended to fair hair that clung long about their bodies, though some kept it gathered in loose braids or plaited with fronds of deep green sea flora. They darted quickly through the water, at times little more than a glint of color and pale flesh like the underbelly of a fish. Others burst upward into the air like a dolphin to hang glistening in the sun for a tantalizing moment before falling back with a laugh and a froth of green foam.
The captain had not released William back to duty, and he stayed by the old man’s side. He stood ready and present for a long while, but when time had passed and it seemed as if the old man had forgotten him, he risked leaning against the rail to watch.
He noticed that some of the maids drew nearer the ship when their course took them aft. He could not count their number, but they were distinctive enough that he was sure the same few were visiting the stern, flitting away only to come round again a little later. He strained to discover the maid he had seen at the first, the lovely one with the dark hair, and soon found her holding place afar back from the rest. She drifted gently, only her sky-blue eyes above the surface, watching him. When she noticed his attention, she lifted her head out of the water, pursed her lips, and sang a high clear note over the rest. The sound so filled him with beauty and delicacy that he pushed himself up onto his toes, stretching with all his might to fill himself to overflowing with her music.
“Hey now,” exclaimed one of the mates, “little William’s gone and snared himself one.”
The men rushed toward the stern in an eager mass, but the captain stepped quickly to the wheel. “Salute the quarterdeck!” he shouted.
The men froze in their steps, seized by long months of schooled obedience to the master of the ship. For an uncertain moment they eyed the old man, straining forward like hounds at the leash. Then they straightened, doffed their hats toward the captain, and flowed back to their spots at the midship rail. Laughter bubbled out as they returned, bawdy calls of “Fine show, lad,” and “Make her sing good, Bill.”
The captain said nothing. He stood rigid at the wheel, hands clasped tight behind his back, and stared fire over the deck.
That night, William was called to serve for the captain’s meal. A table had been lowered from the ceiling for the officers to dine in the cramped stern quarters. Pewter and porcelain clinked loudly.
Though he’d been told he was to serve, he hadn’t been given anything to do. He stood against the wall with his hands at his side. Charlie, his face red and soaking with the steam rising from the large carafe he held, sent him sour glances when the officers weren’t looking.
Charlie had taken William aside before dinner, grabbing him and pulling him down to the hold where he’d drawn pictures of naked women on the hull with a piece of charcoal. “Soft-handed ladies ain’t like your normal port pot,” he said as he touched the pictures with a grubby finger. “They like it when you touch ‘em here,” he moved the finger, “and here. But they won’t ever tell you. A fellow’s got to figure it out for hisself.”
William was thankful for his evening’s unemployment. He wasn’t sure he would have been much use, anyway. He couldn’t expel the image of the dark-haired maid – the way she sang high over the others, the way she leaned back in the water as if just for him. Even below decks the maidsong crept muted through thick oak walls. He wasn’t sure why, but he thought also of his father, a faceless figure he couldn’t recall but for his letters and the smell of rancid whale-oil.
“I had a hand once,” one of the officers said. “Old fellow, been ‘round the cape three times, once to the north after narwhal. He had this old cane made out of the horn, all twisted round like a taffy stick. He said he’d talked to a fellow once who’d seen them – not that he seen ‘em himself, mind. Just talked to one who had. Said the man weren’t right in his head. Said he took to quiet for long hours, and staring in corners. Said he hadn’t known the man afore-hand, but he was convinced it was ‘cause of the maids.”
A few heads nodded shrewdly. The captain sat at the head of the table like a statue, his dinner untouched.
“I heard they only been seen in the south,” a second man said. “Off Antarctica when the currents bend warm, maybe as far west as Prince Edward.”
“They can’t have been that far,” said another. He pointed with a knife. “Not with reg’larity. They’d have been seen by a mite more than Eli’s addled old hand.”
“He weren’t addled,” Eli said. “T’was the other man was addled.”
“Going to be all of us addled, soon enough,” said the man with the knife. “If they come back on the morrow.”
“They’ll be back,” the captain said quietly.
The clinking fell silent, and every head swung his way. If the captain noticed the disruption he’d caused, he gave no sign of it. He stared stone-faced at his untouched meal.
One of the officers cleared his throat. “You seen ‘em before, sir?” he asked. “The fisher-women?”
The captain brooded for a long moment. The table kept graveyard still, as if straining to hear the old man’s thoughts. Even the maidsong quieted. William found himself holding his breath.
“They’ll be back,” the captain finally said, “because they don’t know any better. They don’t know what a man is like when he’s been out a long spell and he’s got an empty belly.”
A few of the officers chuckled, as if to applaud a joke.
“I don’t think there’s any harm in it all,” Richard ventured. “There’s not a man aboard after today that isn’t more spurred than the day we left port.”
“They’re hungry,” the captain repeated. “They came for a hunt, and all they’ve got for their desire is one finback and sails full of dead air.”
Richard shrugged. “We’ll work it out of them quick enough, soon as the wind finds us again.”
“You can’t sweat hunger out of a man,” the captain said. He glanced at William. “Can’t talk it out, nor beat it out. You got to let it work its own way, till it gnaws out through the middle of him.”
William almost worked up the courage to ask him to explain, but the old man looked down at his dinner, grimaced, and pushed the plate away.
After the meal, while the men slept in hammocks slung from the ceiling, William crept down to the bottom hold. He lit a stub of candle and looked at the pictures Charlie drew. He wondered if his father had known any soft-handed ladies. He wondered if his father would have known what the captain meant.
He wet his thumb with his tongue and scrubbed away at the crude parts of the drawings, softened the hard edges. When he was finished, he was left with a lithe figure, dark at the head, that melded into a charcoal smudge below the waist. He sat back on a barrel and pulled his father’s coat tight around his shoulders, watching the image in the flickering light until the candle burned down.
He was certain the dark-haired maid would not have sung for Charlie Bottom.
The next morning, the men lowered one of the boats into the water without asking permission from the captain. He didn’t protest, but simply watched as they strained with sun-darkened arms, holding tight to the lines until the little skiff landed with a splash. They spoke then, but only to select the strongest and swiftest for the crew, and to tell William that he was going with them. They did not tell him why.
The maids were already out as the men pushed away from the ship and pulled hard at the oars. They splashed and dove in the water, watching the boat with disinterest, if at all. Their song was gentle and vibrating over the placid sea, but the men soon overtook it with a chant of their own, rough and steady, shouting on the pull in time to the boatsteerer’s call. Around their feet they had stacked piles of things they’d traded for on their long voyage: a bag of scrimshaw carvings from a gam with another whaler, ivory from Africa, a belt of colored beads from New Zealand.
Andrej the Swede, who Charlie Bottom swore could toss a lance thirty yards if it were ten, pulled William forward. He held him tight and leaned over the bow. “Show yer pretty face, boy,” he said thickly and pulled the collar of William’s coat up around his neck. “And make sure to let ‘em see that blue, so’s they know it’s our Billy. Let’s haul us one in, yah?”
William didn’t like the smell of oil on the big man’s breath, and he didn’t want the maids anywhere near the hungry-eyed hands in the boat, but there was nothing to do. He stood in the bow, uncomfortable in the sun and his father’s long coat. The maids flitted this way and that, never coming closer than a few yards ahead of the bow.
The men drove after. The sun rose high, and they pulled at the oars till sweat dripped from their faces and they glowed from the heat. They called out loud promises, holding their gifts over the gunwales with fervent solicitations in many languages, but always the maids stayed easily ahead of the bow.
William picked out his dark-haired friend almost immediately. The maids moved together like a pod, the edges of the group forming and dissolving almost at random, but somehow she was always at the center. He noticed that when she moved the rest followed, and when she stayed the rest circled round the patch of water where she floated.
She looked at him as he watched her. There was something playful in her eyes, some knowing shared between them. When she led the maids closer to the bow, and the men revived tired arms and aching backs to pull with new vigor, he could almost see the teasing glint in her pale eyes. And when, at the moment it seemed the boat must overtake the maids, she pulled them back and smiled at him in secret amusement, he had to hold himself from bubbling over with delighted laughter.
By the time the sun was close to touching the horizon the men had rowed themselves to exhaustion. They languished at the oars, unwanted gifts tossed disgustedly at their feet. Andrej was in foul mood. He jerked stiffly at William’s collar as he spoke. “Let it down, lads. They’ve played us good today; let’s not give ‘em no more to tug on.”
At his words, the men rowed stiffly for home. The maids followed, gliding lazily alongside just out of reach. Some of the men summoned the breath for a few more pleading cries. Others glowered, and cursed low at the maids as they pulled.
When they had almost reached the shadow of the ship, a red-faced hand at the stern stood up, threw his oar to the bottom, and leapt over the side.
Andrej shouted and stirred the men into action. William was pushed down to the bottom as they stowed oars on one side and pulled hard on the other. The bow began to drift in a maddeningly slow turn. The men shouted, calling the lost hand’s name as they probed at the water with the oars.
The maids watched curiously from a distance, singing sweetly over the splashes.
“He couldn’t swim,” stated one of the men flatly. Andrej ordered him silent and the search continued. But after they had beat the water for as long as a man might be expected to hold his breath and seen not a stir, he ordered them to stop. He stood at the bow and commended the hand to the deep as the men slumped back onto the boards, chests heaving. They cursed bitterly at the maids between breaths while Andrej prayed. The maids sang on.
Back at the ship, William looked for the dark-haired maid while he waited for his turn to climb the net up the side. The twilight was low and he could make out no forms in the water, but he was certain he could still pick out her voice, clear and calling over the rest.
That night he lay awake long into the watch hours, staring up at Charlie’s sagging hammock. He wondered if his father had ever seen the maids. He drifted to sleep imagining his father tall and strong, kicking off his shoes and waving him forward on a smoke-thick deck, before diving gracefully from the bow. Outside, the maids sang softly in the dark.
He woke some hours later. The single brazier in the stern hold had burned low, and no light filtered down from above. It was still night.
Someone tugged on his shirt. “Awake, boy.”
It was the captain.
William jolted up with bleary eyes. He swung his feet down to the deck and reached blindly for his boots before he noticed that the old man hadn’t moved. He sat crouched at William’s side. In the dark he somehow seemed a small figure, thinner and frailer than he ever was on deck.
“Sir?” William asked, forgetting in his drowsiness to avoid making a question of it.
The captain held to his shirt for a long time without making a sound. William waited awkwardly, trying to sit as straight and stiff as possible.
“I’d stop it if I could, you know,” the captain said. “I don’t like it any more than you do. But there’s naught to be done.”
“Stop what, sir?” William asked.
“Nothing to be done,” the captain repeated. “It’s bad enough when the maids come teasing. They don’t mean nothing by it, you understand, but men as been on voyage for so long don’t know it. And when they’re already put to edge from the wind hanging back for such a damned eternity – why, there’s nothing to be done for it at all.”
William’s eyes began to adjust to the dim, and he saw that Charlie’s hammock hung limp above his head. The sleeve of Charlie’s woolen jacket flapped empty over the edge. The rest of the hold was deserted.
The captain tugged hard on his shirt again, pulling him close. “Your father came to me, afore you were born.” His eyes caught some errant ray of light, and glistened in the dark. William was startled to realize that the old man’s face, always oak and iron every inch, could look so stricken.
“He came and said his boy was going to be a sailor like his da. Glowing proud with it, he was. Said he wanted me to take you out when you was aged, take you out a boy and bring you back safe a man. He was a fine hand your father, and I gave him my pledge on it. The good God knows I’m a man of many faults, but I keep my promises. I wanted you to know. I wanted you to know I did what I could. I let you sleep and made them take the other. I did what I could, boy, but with the men so riled there weren’t hardly nothing to be done.”
It was then that William noticed the maidsong had stopped. He threw the captain’s grip from his sleeve and dashed across the boards. The old man remained behind, curled in the dark of the hold, as William scurried up the ladder.
The top was a patchwork of fire. Lamps everywhere hung bright from the lines, and the air was full of black oil smoke. The officers stood in an uneasy cluster at the stern. The hands were deep about the deck, sweat-slicked faces shining in the red and dancing light. They had got open the armory in the bow hold, and some of them held pistols and short-rifles.
Charlie Bottom stood at center, next to Andrej the Swede. The older boy was wearing William’s patched blue coat. His eyes were wild and ashamed, and tears streaked clean lines down his soot-darkened cheeks. Andrej held his lance, his arms red to the elbows.
It was then that William smelled the copper tang on the air and saw that the pulley crane had been rigged.
High in the tops, a maid hung suspended from her tail. Her head rested against one arm, hair failing in curtains toward the deck. A few dark strands still clung stiff and matted to her slender neck. In the flicker of the lamplight her delicate ribs almost seemed to be moving, her mouth still curled in a half-expectant smile. But at her waist, soft flesh met a mangle of blue-gold scales around a ragged wound that quickly dispelled the illusion.
When William stepped forward, the men parted for him. They did not meet his eyes. Even Andrej looked down, and scratched at the crusted blood on his wrists.
William stopped in front of Charlie Bottom and said, “Give me my coat, Charlie.”
Charlie wiped at his face. “I’m sorry, Will,” he said quietly. “I didn’t think it was gonna be like that. I just wanted to see what it was like, that’s all. I wanted to see if she’d smile at me, too.”
“Give me my coat,” William demanded. “It’s my father’s.”
Charlie quickly shrugged out of the coat and handed it over.
William held his coat and watched her, while the eastern sky kindled slowly to a furnace red. Storm sign, his father’s letters had told – a bad omen, unless you were looking for the wind. The warm hues washed the maid’s soft skin, cleansing away the violence done to her body and dressing her in rose-petal pink. He waited for her to sing again. He hugged his father’s coat and prayed. He begged the man he knew only in letters, pleaded as hard as could, if perchance he might take pity on a son he’d never met. But there was nothing to be done.
The hands helped him let her down, and stood aside while he wrapped her in the coat.
When the captain came up he ordered that gifts be gathered for the maids. The men collected the beads from New Zealand, and the scrimshaw, and someone suggested they leave a few gold coins as something that would stay pretty even in the salt. They stitched it all together in an old canvas and tossed it over the side.
Andrej helped William lower her into the water while the men doffed their hats and the captain read a prayer. She fell away into the sea, and William shivered in his shirtsleeves. The rising breeze was chill, and smelled of colder currents. He hoped she would be warm. He hoped his father was waiting for her down in the deep, and that he would recognize his old coat, and ask about his boy.
Christopher Dodson graduated from the University of Southern Indiana with a B.S. in English and a minor in Creative Writing. He enjoys stories of insight and purpose, regardless of genre.