Missing: Part Four.

by | Mar 12, 2024 | Uncategorized | 1 comment

He counted twenty on one hand and one extra on the other.

Blisters erupted on both of Jean’s hands, in every imaginable place. He counted twenty on one hand and one extra on the other. They became his babies, to nurture and care for.

Every pull on the rope stung like the tentacles of a Portuguese man o’ war, combined with an anxiety that, at any moment, one of them would burst.

“You must not allow them to rupture,” his father demanded. Contrary to the appearance and texture, the soft liquid-filled afflictions would be his saviour.

However these same deformations of the outer skin could become his enemy. Breaking the skin and allowing a liquid to escape would mean that the calus could not form, exposing the living skin beneath. The consequent risk of infection could see him idle for days or even weeks. The crew could not afford to be one man down. The balance between hard work and caring for his hands was a tightrope walk. Jean had seen men returning with missing fingers. One of his great uncles even lost his hand.

Infection was the evil twin of frostbite; the latter would not trouble the young fisherman for several weeks yet. When it eventually greeted him he would never forget it. Jean had so many challenges in this inhumane environment. Where he was heading was not favourable to human existence he pondered as he worked. Like the deep Ocean beneath his feet and a star filled sky above his head, those were places on Earth where man was not welcome.

As he rubbed the special mixture on his puffy hands at night, he challenged his presence on the boat. Unlike his elders and peers he didn’t follow without questioning the old ways, even though he had been desperate to go to sea. The land surrounding their village was fertile and bountiful however it was controlled by the landowner and those who worked the fields barely scraped a living. Change had taken place in the form of three revolutions but the Third Republic was no better than the monarchy had been.

Their journey was long, hard and dangerous but the rewards of a safe round trip were huge. The cod or Bacalhau as the Portuguese called it was dried and salted. The resulting product was eaten all over Europe.

Jean’s mind turned to the Portuguese. His father had told him of their long seafaring history. They were expert sailors and their kin had discovered half of the new world. Competition was tough in the Icelandic waters and there was no love lost between the two sets of rivals.

Every day, the temperature dropped another degree. Soon ice formed on the rigging in the shape of long white daggers that could cut a man’s head open, if one of them fell. The chill was like nothing he’d experienced, seeming to come from deep within his core. Worse was to come nevertheless as the weather, which had, until then, been anonymous, suddenly introduced itself.

Jean was wrapping his thumb in a clean rag where frostbite had nipped him. Suddenly the boat tilted violently, throwing him across the cabin. Immediately, he made for the deck. Something serious was happening. As he poked his head through the hatch, he saw his cousin Pierre lifted by a giant swell and carried overboard. His horror at that momentary scene was surpassed by the screams of his uncle Bernard as he witnessed the death of his son.

The world they had entered was more cruel than any tyrant at home. There was no place for emotion as the older man began pulling on the ropes that held the mainsail.

“Here man! Hold onto this. If we don’t get this sail down, she’ll capsize for sure.” His voice was harsh and rasping. Spray soaked his beard. Jean stood motionless trying to work out if there were tears in that salty deluge.

“Jean! Snap out of it now! Or we’re going down.” A huge hand smacked the side of his face which turned numb. He came around and grabbed the rope tightly. He felt the skin tear on his hands and the slippery liquid ooze from the broken blisters. Gripping the rope tighter, he ignored the searing pain which shot up both arms. Another massive wave hit the deck and his uncle was no longer there.

The next few seconds seemed to stretch out as a gust of wind grabbed the exposed sail. The destructive force flipped the boat over like a crêpe on the griddle. Air was replaced by water. Freezing, salty water. Then numbness, then darkness. Darker than the blackest sky.

1 Comment

  1. Kenneth Childs

    I feel seasick.

    Reply

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