The Sea

I hire on aboard a tramp freighter. As a nautical know-nothing I work in the galley, with the cook. The cook is a dipsomaniac with tangled hair and bloodshot eyes. All day he paces and swigs, and then stares out the porthole for long stretches, muttering to himself. It unnerves me. The muttering turns into babbling; ranting. Finally one evening he goes berserk. I drop my potato peeler and scurry off for help. Potatoes roll about everywhere behind me as I rush out onto deck, shouting the alarm.

I cower in an angle of the cramped, hot galley, pressed in with the captain and a gang of panting seamen who've done the subordination. We stare at the spectacle of the cook, somehow minus his shoes, tossing about on his knees by the stove. He thrashes the chains of his manacles and croaks away deliriously, a man possessed. In the veering smoky light of the overhead lamp, the most astounding things are bellowed, spit flying: pidginized classic epithets invoking the grandeur of "wine dark seas," huge rambling blocks of apostrophic romantic poetry about the "billowing, mothering deep," snatches of tuneless chanteys, with a sputtery tongue-and-lips simulated instrumental accompaniment.

"How-bizarre," I stammer, when it's over and the cook has slumped on his side like a bag of unsorted laundry. "How-gruesome!" I add. "Yes, a terrible tragedy," mutters the captain. "Bone-jarring, ugly stuff. But I'm not surprised," he declares. His brow darkens emphatically. He shows a fist. "You can't gaze out at the sea like this fool did," he cries, "and not expect to suffer the consequences!" He looks at me. I stare at him. He drops his fist and puts his arm around me confidentially. He points with a nod of his braided cap. "The porthole-you notice the tarpaulin over the porthole," he murmurs. I turn and look. Bewildered, I turn back. "Wait a minute . . ." I begin, confounded. "Isn't that just like what's been done with all the other portholes?" "Of course-every single porthole on this vessel!" he replies. "And every man on deck has his cap over his eyes, strict orders. Because if that weren't so," he declares fiercely, "this whole crew would be foaming at the mouth inside a week!" He stares at me. He leans close. "Up on the bridge," he confides, his voice dropped to a whisper, "I look only at my hands on the wheel. That's right. Never as much as a glance at the tides. Why? Because," he answers: "one minute's peekaboo and your brain's hooked and the nightmare's here. That's how dangerous she is, the sea: the terrible sea!" he hisses, jostling me in his arm. "She'll drive ya mad-in a trice!"

I stare at him. I swallow. The cook's low groans and gulps resound about us. "But-gee," I have to protest. "Isn't it just sort of a bit, you know, dangerous-I mean, not looking ever, even when there's lots of, say, other ships around, or rocks, or things like that?" The captain shrugs. He unhooks his arm from me and strokes his trim grey beard. He looks away. He looks back. "Some things, you've just got to take the chance," he says. "It all works out."

"Really," I reply. I swallow again.

That night I toss and turn in my hammock. I hear the faint paroxysms of the cook having a relapse. I think of our ship churning along blindly through the waves-of the terribleness and menace of the waves, of their vastness lying all about us, fathom after fathom. I push away my mildewy blanket. I clamber swaying out of my hammock and squat down by my newly purchased secondhand trunk. Silently as I can, I open it up in the bleary glow of the all-night lantern. I contemplate there the concertina I was going to teach myself to play; the books of nautical yarns I had collected for my leisure; the charts I was going to puzzle over up on deck, trying to match the watery nowheres beyond the taffrail to the dotted clarities fluttering in my hands.

An old salt looks down at me from exploring the holes in his socks by lantern light. He wears dark glasses and a low cap. He shakes his head grimly. "If that's sea lore, we don't want it on this ship," he informs me. "Don't you know it's ghastly thing, the sea!" he demands. "A ghastly thing," he mutters. "Oh, a ghastly, ghastly thing . . . ."

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Barry Yourgrau