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The Colony of Unrequited Dreams: A Novelby Wayne Johnston
I begged my way off the court beat after a few months. I convinced the publisher of the Telegram, who each year purchased several berths on the S.S. Newfoundland and sold them to sealers in exchange for a percentage of their share, to let me have a berth so that I could write about what life was like on board a sealing ship. My publisher worked out an arrangement with the Newfoundland's captain, Westbury Kean, whereby I would file stories every day using the ship's telegrapher. Kean, saying he had no intention of being held responsible for anything that might happen to a boy who had never been off dry land in his life, said that I would not be allowed to go out on the ice but could watch the hunt from on board through binoculars. And he would read each day's story and convey it in person to the telegrapher to make sure nothing was published that reflected badly on him or his crew.
My family came out to see me off and to witness the annual blessing of the sealing fleet by clergy of all denominations. Miss Garrigus was the only woman among them. As the clergy, their voices magnified by megaphones, prayed God to safeguard the officers and crew of the fleet and to reward them for their labour with a bountiful harvest, I stood, imitating the crew, in the rigging of the S.S. Newfoundland, though not as high up as most of them were. There must have been ten thousand people gathered down below, jammed to the water's edge to see the fleet, which filled the harbour. Even with the vessels moored nose in, there was not enough room at dockside for all of them, so the rest had to anchor in midharbour, facing every which way. The pilot boats scooted about trying to organize the fleet's departure.
When the blessing concluded, the crowd cheered, and from where we stood we waved our hats. The first of the sealing fleet followed the pilot boats. I watched from the rigging of the Newfoundland as the crowd ran en masse along the apron to join another crowd already gathered on the heights of Signal Hill, where they would watch the fleet make its way towards the ice floes of the northeast coast. As each sealing vessel cleared the Narrows, the noon-day gun on Signal Hill was fired, a blast that echoed back and forth between the north and south side of the city. And also, each of the ships, as it cleared the Narrows, unfurled its expansive sails and was suddenly transformed to white. There came up to me from below, mixed with the old smell of the bilge-water harbour, the new smell of diesel oil from the engines of the biggest steamships. Oil and coal and sail together could barely move these boats now when they were empty of everything but men and boys. They would come back weighted down to the gunners, inching along with their cargoes of seal pelts and whitecoats.
At an order from Captain Kean to hoist the sails, I climbed down from the rigging. The men of the Newfoundland pitched in, straining on the ropes, in some cases jumping and hanging in midair to make a sail unfurl. A light cold rain was falling but there was not much wind. Still, as the sails caught the breeze, the massive boom came swinging round and the men ducked expertly beneath it as a sealer who shouted "Low on deck" pulled me down beside him just in time. I looked up. The great soot-begrimed expanse of canvas flapped loudly overhead, black smoke billowed backwards from the stack below midship and the Newfoundland picked up speed as it bore down on the ice outside the Narrows.
The crew was divided into four groups, watches they were called. I was assigned, at my request, to the fourth watch, which I was told rose at four in the morning. I fancied that the daily routine of this watch would most nearly resemble my own. Each watch was assigned a master, who supervised the men on and off the ship.
There were fathers and sons, brothers, in-laws, friends, little factions with distinctive accents, in some cases distinctively incomprehensible ones, who talked exclusively among themselves. There were a few "youngsters," young men my age on their first voyage to the ice, eager to prove they could keep up with the older men and incredulous with scorn when they heard of my confinement to the ship.
I had been worried how I would be received among the sealers. Most of them did not begrudge me having it "easy," as it seemed to them I did. On the contrary, one of the older men said quite sincerely that it was a credit to me that I had made something of myself. Most regarded me with a kind of shy awe when they heard what I was doing. They could not read or write and had never met someone whom they perceived to be the epitome of reading and writing, a newspaper man.
"What did ya write about us today, now?" they asked me the first few days, as we made our way through the ice to the whelping grounds. I would read them what I wrote.
"Sher if yer not goin' over de side of 'er," a young fellow from Catalina said, "'ow 're ya gonna know what goes on out on dee ice?" They all laughed when I took out from beneath my pillow my binoculars and scanned the sleeping quarters as I planned to scan the ice each day.
The sealers wore thick-soled leather boots, many of which bore the name of Smallwood. These boots were studded with sharp spikes called sparables. They dressed in thick woollen underwear and trousers and put on as many tattered shirts and guernseys as they could, but no overcoats, for they would have been too much of an encumbrance. Each of them had a set of oil clothes but never wore them or even took them when they left the ship unless it looked like it might rain or snow. They tracked out to the whelping grounds with their gaffs held horizontally like staffs in case the ice gave way beneath their feet.
From as high up in the rigging as I dared to go, I watched them work, swinging their sharp-pointed gaffs like pickaxes, killing the seals and swiftly pelting them with knives that gleamed like razors in the sun. Beginning a few hundred feet from the ship and extending as far as I could see, the ice was red with blood. They dragged piles of pelts back along the same route each time, so that a single trail of gore led like a road from the blood field to the ship. Most of the carcasses were left behind and only the pelts, the fat-lined fur, brought back to the ship. An ice-field after a day's cull was littered for miles with carcasses, which the next day were set upon by a flock of seagulls and other birds that followed us throughout the voyage.
Everywhere there were patches of open water, massive pools of green slush that the sealers crossed, "copied," by jumping without hesitation from one floating ice pan to the next, often having to snag a pan with a gaff to pull it closer to them. The few that fell in and were hauled out hurried back to the ship, their clothing frozen stiff by the time they arrived.
My watch, which hit the ice at five in the morning, did not come back to the ship until eight at night. I was not used to a workday near that long, and so I was incredulous when I found out that they had several more hours of work to do on board before they were through.
They gathered fresh ice for drinking water, covered the pelts, shifted coal from the hold to the bunkers near the engine room, disposed of the ash from the coal already burnt, tipped great cauldrons of it over the side.
At about eleven, they were at last allowed to eat, which they did as swiftly as possible, for there was by this time barely four hours before their watch began again. They cooked seal meat over a barrel that, with its top cut off, formed a kind of spit. The only part of their meal I could not bring myself to eat was "lop scouse," half oatmeal gruel, half seal stew, which they dipped into with rock-hard cakes of "tack" bread, washing the whole vile mixture down with tea.
The last thing before bed, they filled the ship's lanterns with seal oil, the smoke from which smelled faintly fish-like and burned my eyes so badly that I lay face down in my pillow, coming up to breathe only when I had to.
They crawled into their makeshift wooden bunks and most of them were instantly asleep, which was a blessing, for unlike me they seemed not to notice that our sleeping quarters hung so heavy with coal dust it was barely possible to breathe. The floors, their bunks, their clothing, which they did not waste sleeping time by changing out of, were smeared with blood, fat, soot, ashes, coal dust.
While the fourth watch slept, the other watches worked. There was never a time when the ship was idle. The hatch by which the coal was raised up from the hold passed within a few feet of the bunks, which were therefore exposed to the open sky and whatever might be falling from it. By way of another hatch, which also went straight past our bunks but on the other side, seal pelts were dropped down to the second hold, some falling off the chute and straight into the bunks of the sealers, who were so deep in sleep they did not stir and often woke up in the morning covered with the bloody pelts.
All night long as I lay in my bunk, coal went up and pelts came down, the coal winch grinding loudly, the seal pelts spattering gore everywhere as they went sliding down the chute.
I went three full nights without a wink of sleep and finally decided that I would sleep during the afternoon, when all the watches overlapped, when the fourth watch was most likely to be out of range of my binoculars and when the sleeping quarters were empty and the coal crank and the pelt chute in least use.
At night, I lay awake on my bunk, as did some of the sealers who, in spite of their exhaustion or perhaps because of it, could not get to sleep. I think some of them resisted sleep just to experience the luxury of idleness, of doing nothing but lying on their bunks while others worked. They lay with their hands behind their heads as, in the darkness, they puffed reflectively on cigarettes or pipes. They cocked their heads in acknowledgment when they saw me looking at them, but that was all. Despite all the noise, talking was forbidden after midnight.
Sometimes the men were on the ice until well into the night, as long as there were enough seals to keep all the watches busy at once. I remember the eerie sight of the sealers setting out across the ice bearing lanterns and torches. On each spotlit patch of ice, one sealer, crouching, held a torch that illuminated a seal over which another sealer stood with gaff upraised.
When enough seals had been killed to sustain them, bonfires were built with carcasses doused with seal oil until the air was filled with the smell of roasting seal meat, on which the men covertly feasted while they worked. It was an elemental, soul-disturbing sight, yet I longed to somehow be a part of it, to feel something other than the planks of the S.S. Newfoundland beneath my feet. But Captain Kean was adamant that if I set foot on the ice, I would no longer have the use of his telegrapher.
It was just as well, I decided. Even if I were to forsake my purpose for coming and go over the side, I would have no idea what to do and would either soon look foolish or be dead, never having copied in my life. I might wind up on some strand of ice and have to be rescued, or have a gaff thrust in my hand and be unable to kill a seal, to raise the gaff and bring it down with the kind of resolve necessary to the task. Captain Kean was right. Better I confine myself to some pursuit where words alone would do and leave to others, like these men, the deeds that I would write about.
I sat on the gunners, one hand on a rope lest I fall over, a puny, bespectacled spectator. And out of the lantern-lit darkness came the sound of the seals, a sound as if a hundred yelping hounds had flushed a fox.
I wrote stories that made sealing sound like hard but wholesome work. It was the only kind of story I could get by Captain Kean. But the men didn't seem to mind. They listened intently when I read aloud and afterwards said, "That was very good, sir, very good," as if I had described their life exactly as it was. Or, as I eventually realized, as if they believed the point of writing was to render the world in a manner so benign that to read about it would be a pleasant way to pass the time. Because I was the one writing the stories, and because I was not sure how they would take it, I did not try to set them straight.
They were too tired to pay much attention to me anyway, too caught up in the delirium of sealing, the endless hours of work, the noise and confinement of the ship, which provided only the illusion of comfort and asylum, the stark white icescape that, if not for their wooden goggles, would have blinded them. At bedtime, bottles of patent medicine were passed around, but that was all the drinking that was done. You could not drink much and hope to keep up the pace, let alone survive. They appeared to be caught up in some profound reflection as they ate and as they drank their tea, though I doubt they had the energy to sustain a line of thought.
I got to know barely a dozen of them by name before the time for learning names was over. But they all knew my name, and they still smiled when their eyes met mine. They liked to have in their midst a kind of mascot layabout from whose life of ease they could derive some vicarious relief.
I think they were whelmed into self-absorption in part from being the agents of a slaughter of such magnitude, killing constantly from sun-up past sundown. This was not like fishing, which is what most of them did the rest of the working year, not a mass capture of insensible creatures from another element. The death of each seal was individual, the result of a single act committed by a single person at close quarters, an act in which I was certain they took no joy and which they would happily have forsaken if to do so would not also have meant forsaking the few pennies that stood between their families and starvation. "Over the side," Captain Kean roared when a patch of seals was spotted, and over the gunners with their gaffs the sealers went. I had the feeling it was an order they would no more have refused than they would an order to attack in time of war.
The storm came up about noon, seven hours after the men of the fourth watch hit the ice. I saw it coming, a slow encroachment of white so gradual that it blended with the sky and looked like fog. The captain saw it, too, and sent out a party of six men to find the fourth watch. At first there was not much wind, just heavy snow and sleet, ice pellets clicking and gathering like rock-salt on the deck. I watched the six men as they followed the gore-trail out of sight. The storm worsened quickly, as the wind, having changed direction several times, blew with great conviction from the east. An hour later, the search party returned, without the watch. The storm was in so close, I did not see them or hear them until they were a few feet from the rail.
The first mate took me below, telling me I could stay with his watch until it was time to bunk down, when I would have to go to my own watch as there were no spare berths in any of the others. I didn't complain that this would mean sleeping alone in quarters that could hold a hundred men, or ask him why he could not send half the men from his watch down to mine. I knew he did not want me to be with the men unless he, or one of the mates in front of whom they would not dare speak their minds, was there as well.
We were too far from open water for the wind to cause enough turbulence beneath the ice to rock the ship, but the entire ice-field drifted west until, its far edge having hit the land that was sixty miles away, it could go no farther and it began to press together and to close about the ship, whose wooden hull groaned and creaked and at times snapped loudly as if it were giving way, though as none of the sealers looked too concerned, I pretended not to be. For the first time on the voyage, the hatch was closed and it was warm enough in the ship to wear what you would around the house. The sealers stripped down to their coveralls, drank tea, smoked cigarettes. For the first time, too, the din of the coal crank and the sound of seal pelts chuting down into the hold stopped. There was not much talking done. Everyone knew the fourth watch was not on board. There was speculation, stifled by the first mate, that they might have made it to the Stephano, a ship skippered by Captain Westbury's father, Abe Kean. But this ship had no telegraph, so there was no way to be sure.
The first mate declared lights out at nine o'clock. If the storm let up, he said, a search might start as soon as three.
I went back to the sleeping quarters of the fourth watch, the door of which the first mate closed emphatically behind me as if to say, "Stay put."
I sat on my bunk. At first, all I could hear was the droning of the wind, which at times rose to a shrieking whistle and stayed that way for minutes, a gust so long you forgot it was a gust until it passed. Then I was able to make out the strange noise the rigging ropes made at full vibration, a whirring that would have made it impossible to sleep even had I not been wondering where the men and boys might be.
FIELDING'S JOURNAL, MARCH 30, 1916
You may be safer in that ship than I am in this house. You must be warmer, for a ship as drafty as this house would sink in seconds.
The electric lights are out. And it's freezing. Because it's not safe to light the fires, all the chimney flues are closed. With each upsurge of the wind, the lantern flickers and the papers on my desk, though weighted down, turn up at the corners.
I asked my father if he thought the sealing fleet was safe. He said that as far as he knew, the ice-field extended for a hundred miles from shore, so it was doubtful that any of the ships were riding out the storm in open water.
But so many ships have sunk because their hulls were crushed by ice. What if you were forced to abandon ship? You might as well be sheltering from fire.
There seems to be no limit to how hard the wind can blow. It's hard to imagine a wind like this with nothing to impede it, no hills, buildings, houses, trees; hard to imagine it screaming along unresisted for a hundred miles or more before it hits your ship.
Sealing ships often batten down and wait out storms like this, my father told me. "Why are you suddenly so concerned about the sealing fleet, anyway?" he said.
He doesn't know. I hardly know myself. I snapped at him, asked him how any decent person could be so unconcerned. "There's nothing I can do for them," he said.
There's nothing I can do either. I will not be bullied into praying. Why would any God raise such a storm? Can it be that you will perish in a storm at sea before the age of twenty? Why should the wind blow so hard if all it wants to do is sink a ship?
I can't believe you are out there.
I can't believe anyone is out there on the ice tonight.
From the Hardcover edition.Copyright © 1998 by Wayne Johnston
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