"I postpone death by living, by suffering, by error, by risking, by giving, by losing." - Anais Nin
The ship moves into the bay through the disturbed waters. The velvet black of the night and the faint rain are all reflections of my mood.
"Sun, wind and water! It's chilly!", a voice rises and I am momentarily distracted from my somber thoughts. I turn to see our boatswain make his way towards the bow. The sea is calm but moody, the deck is rocking gently. I observe him with curious attention, trying to see if he's already had to drink as usual. But his gait is unaffected by the motion of the deck and it appears he is standing still, oblivious to the shifting frame of world around. He's busy giving out orders in a clear, strong voice. The deckhands move to follow his instructions, aided by promises of pay cuts and threats of ravenous sea beasts that await those who seek to avoid honest, hard work. "We're not on land yet. The ship may sink still. Get busy!", he yells from somewhere behind his beard and finishes with a learned genture of his hand - takes a sip out of a flask.
His silhouette turns towards me and I know he's noticed me. The rocking motion of the deck is in perfect balance with his own peculiar alignment and it appear he is walking straight. As he comes closer, I decide that he is most definitely drunk. All the same. A hard, strong character, with big hands, bigger beard and a good heart, he is of the mystical breed that speak clearer and fight better when drunk. A certified sea wolf.
"How's the night treating you, son?" he greets me with a strong handshake and a broad grin. "This port knows we're coming. The weather's just playing hard to get", he leans on the railing and catches the a few drops with his palm. "Barely a rain", he nods with satisfaction, rubbing his palms together in anticipation of some joyous occasion.
I try to place his accent once more and come to the same conclusion that I've reached every time I thought about it during the trip: I know it, I speak it myself. It's not as distinguishable as one might assume, but you can generally tell the way people speak where you're from.
"You're from around here", I nod my head towards the shoreline.
He laughs. "Took you that long to figure out, huh?". His face softens as he looks to the city lights. "Yeah. Born and raised. You know, all the traveling and sightseeing that we get to do, and this is still the best part – coming home."
"You have a family waiting?", I ask, more out of politeness than of genuine desire to keep the conversation going. I enjoy good natured repartee, but my current mood is somewhat averse to it.
"Hell, yeah. A wife and two daughters to boot."
"A family man. How's that working out for you?", I inquire with a chuckle.
"It's been working out all right for the past two decades, thanks for asking", he replies mockingly, head tilted to the side. Making a point of appearing genuinely surprised at hearing a child speak of higher matters. What a funny guy. "You know, you're old enough to date my youngest. Not that you should get any ideas", he shakes his finger at me.
I concoct an offended expression and scoff. "I'm not that young. Tied my own shoelaces the other day. Got enough saved to marry both your daughters."
He smiles. "I'd think twice before getting tangled with an old pirate's daughter, so don't flatter yourself".
My mood lightens and I venture a question. "How's the city? Haven't been here in...", I pause as the realization hits me. "... nearly four year."
Boatswain takes another sip. "Well, it's not the same it used to be", he replies after a pause. "You know, I come and go, so I guess I see it the way a stop motion camera works. I notice changes from one visit to another. It's allright. As long as you stay out of Auburn. That place just gets stranger."
"You don't say". I can't help but frown.
"You know how it is. At some point people stop going there because other people have stopped going there."
"I heard it was more than that."
He chuckles and says something, but I'm busy looking back into my own memories. A second after I sense the pause and look at him. He gives me a long attentive gaze.
"Ah. You're from around there", he repeats my words.
"We used to live there", I smile. "My parents decided to move out when I was twelve. I think it was the worst year for them. Economic downturn or some such", I finish with a shrug.
"Yeah, I sure remember those times", he mutters and rubs his chin.
I can't help it. "I bet you do".
He squints at me and grins. "You just wait a couple of years. Won't be a trace of that cockyness left once you get a taste of real life."
"Easy for you to say. You have it all figured out."
"I'd be strange if a man my age had no anchor. What's there to figure out anyway? You live your life the best you can and don't waste time on things you can't change. What about you?", he turns to me, hands at the sides. "Why the gloomy face? You're too young to have any real problems."
"Nothing specific. Travelled after college, saw the world, worked. I guess this was my wanderlust stage. After four years I figured it was time for me to come back, feel the home soil. Problem is I don't feel like I should be coming back."
"But you want to?", he almost states it.
"I do. Let's just say, I'm not expecting a lot of people will be celebrating my return."
"Well, you look like a good kid." He thinks for a moment. "Tell you what – forget about this crap. Not a single person in the world who can tell you how to live your life. And not a single person in the world can stop you from doing what you want to do. If you think you're wrong – you can always stop to check. If you're right – you just keep on going." He gives me an encouraging smile and a wink and leans back on the railing.
I take a few seconds to process his simple advise. "You know, as strange as it seems, your words kind of fit to my situation. You must trule have a lot of experience. Damn, you must be really old". I know I'm asking for it, but he only smiles at my quip and hands me the flask.
I take a sip and laugh. It's water. He looks at me confused. I finish laughing before taking the trouble to explain:"I half expected this to be Rum."
He smiles. "So did I!"
The flask is returned to it's owner and disappears inside the coat.
"Well, gotta get busy", he mutters as he fixes his coat. "Someone has to run this ship, and the captain's too busy being the captain."
Just as we shake hands, my radio crackles and a rushed voice almost yells:"...quick! Doc needs you in the infirmary! Something's wrong with Reed."
The yelling is heard all the way in the dimly lit corridor. Several crewmen stand at the door with improvised weapons. Their weathered, experienced faces expressing uncommon worry. I enter into the infirmary just in time to see Reed swing wildly at the Captain. The veteran sailor evades the attack with ease, but Reed is careful enough not to loose his guard. The Captain has to retreat, his eyes never leaving sight of Reed's hands. Our ship doctor stands next to him, his hands raised high, as if Reed is handling a gun.
"Easy there, Reed", doc attempts to persuade the man in the calmest tone possible, articulating with his hands. "No one needs to get hurt."
"Stand back! Or I'll cut him! I'll cut myself! Stand back!", Reed's voice raises to a hysteric high pitch. I notice a man laying on the floor behind him. He's pale, struggling to remain conscious. His hands are clutching a bloodied gauze at his side. It's Ronald, our helmsman.
"Give it up, Reed. A few months on this tin can...easy to go nuts...", Ronald lets out a barely audible whisper.
"Shut up! Shut up!". Reed turns on the spot. "You don't know it's like!", he grabs his head, his body contorted by pain. "She's in my head! I can't get her out! We need to turn around!"
A man distraught, wrenched by excruciating pain, immobilized by terror. Blind to the world around him. I can see his wild eyes, bloodshot, terrified. He's panting, sweating heavily like a chased animal.
"Get her out!". His scream fills the room.
From the corner of the eye I see the Captain looking at me. He makes the slightest motion, barely discernible. It is more of a signal than an actual impulse. He moves, and Reed reacts with another blind swipe, slashing at the air. This time he makes a step, turning his side to me.
I jump and tackle him. Our bodies collide and in the next few fractions of a second I come to regret my impulsive reaction. He is strong, far stronger than any man I've seen. Terrifyingly strong, as if some fear gives him power, feeds him, so that he can fulfill his goal – survive. He does not even loose balance. Instead he switches his feet, fast, like a cat, and I can already see him raising his knife for a strike. Less that a second has passed since I tackled him, but I'm not nearly fast enough to attempt a block or redirection. Only enough time left to realize that all I can do is watch and wait.
Other objects come into view. One, two, three pairs of strong arms, pulling on his wrists, bringing him down. We fall on the cold floor, a roaring mass of human bodies. Six of us barely manage to hold Reed down. Doc appears, syringe in hand. A hand flies out, knocks it out of his hand. "I can't sleep! Don't make me! NO!", Reed pleads amidst his roars of effort. Our efforts are tripled, all of us now entertaining the thought of being unable to subdue a single man. But Doc was prepared, and another syringe comes into view. He manages to get a hold of Reed's hand, agile fingers inject the dose. A few minutes pass before we can release our grip.
We sit on the floor, breathing hard, as if we've just wrestled an elephant. "Holy shit! Did we just wrestle an elephant or what?", someone exclaims and others respond with an uneasy laugh.
Doctor orders Reed tied up and rushes to Ronald's side. The Captain is breathing hard, looks tired, but gives me a smile of acknowledgement: "Good job". He extends his hand to help me up on my feet.
I nod and smile back. I'm not tired, but grab the Captain's hand out of respect. I'm not surprised to find myself a bit jittery. It's a rush, a normal reaction. But there's more. This was not my first scuffle, but was certainly the worst I've ever been involved in. This was the first time I felt death near, and it had nothing to do with Reed's strength. The death was in his eyes.
I'm in the infirmary, which is now quiet and empty. I've cleaned up and nothing reminds of what went on here a few hours ago. I sip my coffee, compiling a report of my account, in case there is a formal investigation. We've been told that Reed's wife and daughter were killed in a car accident, when a drunk truck driver plowed into their SUV. Overcome with grief he stormed onto the bridge and attempted to force Ronald, our helmsman, into steering the ship into the harbor at full speed. He was refused, struck Ronald with a knife and tried to wrestle control, but was subdued by other crew members. He came to his senses in the infirmary and again attempted to force the crew carry out his orders, having taken Ronald hostage, until he was finally incapacitated. Ronald was stabilized and rushed to a hospital as soon as we made port. So was Reed, still heavily sedated.
Someone said they heard the doctor promising Ronald a full and speedy recovery, that doc pulled some strings to get Ronald into a private clinic. There was no police and the Captain assured the rest of us that Reed would probably not be charged with assault due to his mental condition, even if Ronald did want to press charges. Considering he was getting a great deal with the free treatment and, no doubt, a salary bonus, it was not unnatural if Ronald to let the whole incident slide.
It was obvious to all, that the parties involved wanted to play the incident down, citing Reed's previous mental condition, the streets of seaborne life and the terrible loss of his family as unlucky, random factors. The incidents would be considered two separate, different occurrences and it was better if everyone could return the their lives as soon as possible. The crew, eager to see their loved ones after a six month long voyage, were uniformly and unofficially supportive of this settlement. The matter has effectively resolved itself.
Even so, as I sit in the darkened, quiet room, I have my doubts. I try to understand what could drive a man to the brink of madness, to break down completely so. I'm neither husband nor a father and I can not fully comprehend what it would be like to loose own family and be powerless to reverse it. I imagine it could be akin to loosing a father, a mother, or a sibling, but not quite so. It should be like loosing a part of yourself, an act that robs you of any desire to live. I have lost people dear to me, but never I felt an absolute, overwhelming emptiness. Perhaps it's something I could understand only if I was in a similar position. All loss is horrible, no matter what some people say about it being natural. And so I sit and think, and hard as I try, time and time again, in the process understanding and accepting the situation I stumble upon the same feeling that I had on the bow of the ship – something bas is going to happen. Or, as it stands, has already happened. Something that is obscurely wrong, and I can't explain it. It is just a feeling.
"What are you doing here? I thought you finished the inventory an hour ago". My grim thoughts are interrupted by the doctor's cheerful voice as he walks in. "Don't you have, uh, things to do, girls to meet?". He gives me wink, then notices my report and picks it up.
"I'm not in a rush. Just been thinking about what happened to Reed, sir", I lean back in the chair, awaiting for his reaction.
"Uh-huh, a terrible thing that", he mumbles absentmindedly, as he glances over my report. A frown flashes across his face and disappears. He chuckles. "You know, there won't be a formal investigation", he waves the sheet in his hand. " What happened to Reed was unfortunate but understandable. Especially if one considers his situation. I'm sure you understand", he gives me an encouraging smile.
"I do sir", I nod my head in agreement. "I do. I was just trying to make sense of it on paper, I guess. With Reed, I mean. I feel like we should do more."
"You have a good heart and a sound mind." He gives a satisfied grunt, then crumples the sheet and launches it into the trash bin. "Rest assured, though, I'll take care of him personally, seeing as he is, after all, my patient. I'll be recommending him for psychiatric evaluation and counseling. Now, your contract expires at noon, so you technically still are my employee for a few more hours", he continues to speak in his chair. "But considering the incident the crew has been let ashore earlier, and you are welcome to go as well. Just don't forget to sign out and clear your locker... oh, and don't forget the keys", he disappears, obscured from the view by his desk. He searching his desk drawers and his voice is muffled. "If you ever decide to take another voyage, I'd be happy to have you as my assistant again. And I think you enjoyed the work yourself... the recent incident notwithstanding, of course." His head reappears above the desk for a second.
"I'll think about it", I chuckle.
He disappears again. "Ah, don't think too long, we're not holding here forever. The voyage is long but the money is good. And the experience you get is a reward in itself...You're young and you'll need it. Ah, got it!", he fishes a binder out of his desk, locks it and gets up to leave. "Well, I've got to go over something with the Captain, so I bid thee adieu."
As we leave the room I decide to share my thoughts. "Aye, sir. There's just one thing."
Even though he's clearly in a rush, he stops and makes an interested face. "Yes?"
"Sorry to take up your time, but you know, I studied psychology to some extent. And I'm no professional, but I do work with people. And understanding them is part of the job, even thought it's not always in the job description". He shifts balance from one foot to the other, managing to disguise his impatience. Except I know better. In the six months I worked with him I learned him to be impatient and even somewhat condescending at times. Still, I came to respect him greatly and learned quite a few things from him. I cut to the chase. "It's Reed, sir. When I tackled him, it was like I ran into a wall. And the thing I saw in his eyes..."
His face remains politely attentive, but I think I notice a spark of genuine interest in his eyes.
"It wasn't madness, or delirium. He wasn't truly acting like a man beset with grief...I didn't really quite fit. And the thing I saw in his eyes was fear. It's like he was being chased by a pack of wolves. It was beyond the paralyzing fear of immediate danger. It was the fear that makes you run like mad, climb any tree or kill anyone who stands in your way. He really wanted to live."
A crooked smile come on his lips, his eyes now studying me with open interest. "Interesting...Would you say he was driven mad with that fear? Could you say he was fearful of never seeing his loved ones again? Fearful of what he learned about them actually being the truth?"
It sound logical but I still frown. "I suppose. Perhaps I'm just not that good at understanding human psyche. Maybe I haven't seen it all. But I know what I saw in his eyes. That's one thing that does not quite make sense."
He utters and intrigued "Huh" and crosses his arms on his chest. His rush now forgotten, he takes a few moments of pause, as if arriving at a decision. "Have you ever thought of continuing your studies? Becoming a doctor?". He cocks his head, as if he's uttered a challenge.
I raise my eyebrows, this turn in our conversation catching me off guard. "Uh... Not really. I mean, I did, but other things came up. I wanted to work, get some experience first...."
"Uh-huh. But you find human psychology...captivating", he pauses for a specific word. "I think you could do more. No, I know you could do more. And it's not just based on this conversation. That was a brave thing you did for Reed, and everyone's noticed it, including the Captain."
This sudden acknowledgment surprises me even more. "I did not really think about it. Just acted within the situation.", I scratch the back of my head.
"Yeah. I'm glad you did and I'm glad I called you down. You did it quite nicely too, gave the rest the time to wrestle him. I doubt others would have been as precise as you were. I meant to talk to you about something before, but...Oh", he looks at his wrist watch. "But there's no time. Um.. Do you plan to stay in the city?"
I reply automatically, before I have the time to think. "Yes, actually, I was planning to stay a while."
"Do you have a contact here so I can reach you?"
"Not really". Not really true either.
"Most unfortunate. Tell you what", he reaches into his pocket and brings a business card out of the wallet. "We need to finish this conversation, but I can't hold you here any longer and, frankly, I need to run. But give me a call in the next couple of days, and I might have an offer for you. It is quite an opportunity", he assures me.
"Sure, doc", this time I give a neutral answer. I'm not so sure I will be staying after all.
"Be sure to do so."
He hurries off, leaving me to ponder this new development. Outside I run into the boatswain, surrounded by a greeting crowd of three women. After a short introduction, I'm invited for dinner and offered a ride. I politely take a rain check on both, since a friend is supposed to pick me up. I wave at my new found acquaintances as they drive away. In reality I just need to take a long walk, get my thoughts in order. I put up the collar to cover my neck. The sky is cloudy but it's not really raining. Perhaps I'm just imagining the cold.