Francis Parks swore to himself and God above that if by some mindboggling miracle he managed to survive this night he’d happily spend the rest of his days behind a desk in his father-in-law’s newspaper office. His wife Katherine had pleaded with him for years to give up the sea, but salt water ran through his veins, like his father and grandfather before him.
Cold briny water stung his eyes as he struggled to hold onto the wheel in the screeching gale that tore at his slicker through the broken window of his vessel. A powerful nor’easter had shattered the glass an hour ago, leaving him exposed to the increasingly harsh elements. Drenched to the skin, the woollen fabric of his soaking wet sweater thankfully shielded his body against the bone-chilling cold of the deep waters that assaulted him mercilessly on the Grand Banks of Newfoundland.
A fisherman most of his thirty-five years, he’d barely finished high school when he went to sea for the first time. From that moment onward he longed for the roll of the sea beneath his feet. Heart and soul, he belonged to the sea. She was like a forbidden mistress!
A fisherman’s life wasn’t easy, and not always a lucrative way to earn a living, but Francis couldn’t imagine doing anything else. The long liner lurched hard to port knocking him off balance, wrenching the wheel from his steely grip. The sheer force of the wave that broadsided the boat slammed him into the rail nearly throwing him overboard at the same time.
The taste of brine was bitter on his tongue, as he coughed up seawater. His red-rimmed eyes strained to see through the driving rain and wildly pounding waves! A giant swell had been hammering his thirty-eight foot fishing boat for a few hours and he feared her old hull would soon break under the brutal assault. The old girl had seen plenty of stormy seas, but he doubted she’d ever been through one like this. It was a nightmare!
Francis thought about Katherine again, wondering if she’d heard the updated marine forecast. If she did, he knew she’d be praying for his safe return to her and their five-year-old son. The thing with the Grand Banks is that there could be a raging storm at sea, while on land the weather might be calm and fair.
His boat “Katy” had been due back in port hours ago.
This storm slammed him virtually out of nowhere, steadily building in intensity with gale-force winds and turbulent seas the likes of which he’d never seen! Francis sent his two crewmates below over an hour ago. They were young men in their twenties, who’d never been through a storm like this, and they were justifiably terrified as well as deathly seasick.
The Grand Banks offered bountiful rewards to those who challenged her, but not without risk. Many a seasoned fisherman had been lost in her treacherous waters. Francis lost his brother Bob a year ago, and his father ten years before, to a watery grave in these, the richest fishing grounds in the world.
Like an angry banshee, the wind screeched, the Katy nearly disappearing in the troughs of brutal waves that rose and fell in rapid succession. Francis held her straight onto the waves, his muscle aching from the strain of holding onto the wheel. Physical exhaustion threatened to overwhelm him, but it would be senseless to have either of his two mates take the wheel and spell him. They were violently ill from the heaving of the boat and much too inexperienced to handle the stress. Putting them at the wheel would place all of their lives in far greater jeopardy.
Francis wiped his eyes with the back of his gloved hand, the rough woollen fabric scraping against his cheek. He thought about last Sunday, the day before he put to sea nearly a week ago. It had been a gloriously sunny, warm day and he and Katherine took Beau, their son, for a picnic on the beach below the cliffs not far from their house.
After they finished the sandwiches and cookies Katherine had made for them, he took Beau’s hand and strolled along the beach, while his mother rested. Beau loved the ocean, and always had a million questions for his dad about fishing on the Grand Banks. He answered the little boy’s queries as honestly as he could, unless Beau questioned him about the negative experiences he’d had on the sea. He was much too young to understand the perils fisherman faced on a daily basis.
Right out of the blue his son said, “I had a bad dream last night, but please don’t tell mom, it’ll just frighten her.” Francis chuckled at the grown-up image his little son was trying to project. “There was a storm, and the Katy was lost in big, ugly waves. I prayed and prayed with mom, but you never came home. There was a pretty woman, and she sang to me. She told me not to worry she would take care of you while she waited for me. ” His eyes glistened with tears and his bottom lip trembled.
Pulling his son into his arms, Francis wiped the tears that spilled onto his pale little cheeks. “Beau, it was just a dream son. Daddy will always come home to you and mother. There’s no storm on the sea that could keep me away from you. Besides, if there was a big storm, I would never go out to sea in the first place, right?” The little boy nodded wrapping his arms around his father’s neck. “I’ll bet that pretty woman you dreamt about was mom, wasn’t it? She takes good care of both of us.”
The boat climbed a huge wave and Francis felt an eerie chill up his spine as he remembered Beau’s dream. It wasn’t the first time the little boy had a dream about something bad that turned into reality. A year ago the child woke up in the middle of the night screaming. By the time Francis got to him, he was sobbing and almost hysterical. “Uncle Bobby can’t breathe, daddy, the water’s smothering him.”
He held the child in his arms, rocking him gently. “It was just a bad dream, Beau, Uncle Bobby’s fine.” But the boy sobbed until he fell asleep in his father’s arms. The next morning Francis got the news his brother’s fishing boat had been swamped and found adrift with no sign of the four men who’d set out on her a couple of days before. He’d been so distraught at the time that he never even thought about what his son had dreamt, until now that is.
The long liner shuddered as she settled back into the trough of a monstrous wave. Francis looked up at occasional patches of a clear sky filled with stars through clouds that raced by as if being propelled by the devil himself. With enormous relief he felt certain the storm was beginning to abate, even though the sea itself still churned and seethed all around the Katy.
A half hour later the clouds disappeared completely and a bright full moon caught the tips of white-capped waves that were calming at last. Every muscle in his body was on fire as Francis openly wept tears of relief.
They’d been on a south by southwest heading before the storm hit, but his compass had been destroyed and he had no idea where they were now. It didn’t really matter though, because at least they’d survived the storm. His father had taught him enough about navigation, using the moon and stars, to get them back to port eventually.
The Katy rocked back and forth in the now gently rolling sea. Francis went below to check on his mates. He found them curled up pitifully on the floor, both of them soaking wet and covered with vomit. “We’re out of the storm boys, we’ll live to see another day. I’m going to chart a course back home for us.” They barely acknowledged him, too weak and miserable to be thankful they’d survived the storm.
Francis went back up on deck, shaking off his slicker as he drew out his charts from the waterproof canister in the cabin. As exhausted as he was, he felt elated looking up at the bright yellow moon. “I’ll be home soon Beau. Daddy won’t let you down. And Katherine, I’m through with the sea. If your father will still have me, then I’ll take that job and never leave you and my son again.” By saying it out loud, he knew he couldn’t go back on his promise.
Somewhere in the distance he heard a strange sound, like the scream of a woman in great distress. Looking up from his charts he scanned the horizon, but there was nothing around except the dark sea. He heard it again and decided to go out on the deck and check it out.
Squinting into the darkness he searched the water, maybe another fishing boat had been in the area and was in trouble. All of the sudden he saw pale arms flailing just off the port bow. There was a woman in the water and it didn’t look like she was wearing any clothing or a lifejacket. He could see her pale breasts in the moonlight. She was only about thirty feet from the Katy, but she was slowly drifting away.
Without thinking he dived into the frigid water. Francis was a strong, well-built man, and a powerful swimmer. He figured he could easily reach her and bring her back to his boat before they both succumbed to hypothermia. God knows how long she’d been in the water he thought as he pushed through the waves.
She was back on to him when he reached her, and he quickly wrapped his left arm across her naked chest as he struck out for the Katy, the helpless woman in tow. He figured they were about forty feet from his boat, but so far the cold water hadn’t weakened him to the point where he didn’t think he could make it. What the hell was a naked woman doing in these waters! He prayed she hadn’t been the victim of foul play.
He’d just about reached the side of his boat when the woman began to sing a haunting melody. Francis had never heard anything more beautiful! Her long dark hair was tangled around his arm, and as he reached for the side rail on the Katy, he pulled the woman up beside him and saw her face for the first time.
She was gorgeous, with dark eyes and the face of an angel, to say nothing of what he could see of her body from the waist up. She was womanly perfection! “Let’s get you aboard now little lady. You’re going to be okay.” He thought it odd that she was perfectly calm even though she’d been in such a perilous position for who knew how long. He figured she was in shock.
His teeth were chattering, and his legs felt numb, as Francis placed his big hands at her waist preparing to lift her onto the boat. She smiled at him, wrapping her arms around his neck, pressing her lips against his. Her lips were soft and warm, her full breasts firm against his chest.
He knew she must be relieved he’d rescued her, but Francis was freezing, and desperate to escape the cold water. He tried to push her away, but her strength surprised him. He suddenly felt her pulling him down into the water, and realized he was powerless to stop her.
She spoke to him, in a voice inside his head. “You belong to me, Francis. I am your mistress. I will never let you go.”
Somewhere in the back of his mind he wondered how she knew his name, but his lungs were on fire as she sucked the air out of them. Deeper and deeper into icy blackness they sank.
He’d survived the most devastating storm he ever encountered, and now he was going to die anyway. She pushed him down beneath her, and through the last air bubbles that escaped his tortured lungs he saw her long, powerful tail.
Beau thought about his father as he loaded his gear onto the Katy II for his very first trip into the waters of the Grand Banks. His dad would be proud of him. The sea was in his blood too.
© Annabel Sheila