It snows at sea. Sometimes I forget that. Or, I try to, anyway. Frozen white on an endless field of black. It feels alien out there when it’s snowing. Maybe I’d feel differently if it hadn’t been snowing that night. But it was, and I don’t, and I’ll never know otherwise.
Dad was a crabber. A real man’s man. Exactly the type you’d expect to find in some tiny Alaskan town. He captained a sixty foot ship that disappeared out to sea for weeks at a time. He’d be gone for most of October, and then January, and we’d try not to spend most of the time waiting by the window. It was rough work, dangerous, and more than one man was lost every year.
Not Dad, though. He always came home.
From a young age, I wanted to follow in his footsteps. Grow the bushy beard, earn the windworn skin, carry myself with the rolling steps of a man with sea legs. Dad refused.
“You’re better than this. Smarter. This town is for folks like me, son. Not like you.”
But I didn’t want to be “better” and I certainly didn’t feel smarter. I wanted to be like Dad. We lived comfortably and everything he did just seemed so cool. So every season, I’d beg and plead to go out with him, just to see what it was like.
“Dangerous,” he’d say. “Cold. Wet. Miserable.”
He could be a grim man, my father. I also worked on my mom and my three “uncles”, his deckhands who had been on his crew since he’d gotten his own boat. Sometimes there was a fourth, but that was rare and I’d never met any of them.
“Your father said no,” Mom would say.
“Sorry, kiddo,” my uncles would say.
I only took it for so long. When I was seventeen, I put my foot down at dinner one night shortly before October.
“I’m going with you,” I said. “I know how to clean the cages, I can help haul and sort. I won’t get in the way!”
Dad regarded me a stone face, his fork and knife clutched in his hands. Finally, he sat back. His expression didn’t change. “You know how many men go out there every season, boy?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
“You know how many come home?”
“Edward,” Mom tried to cut in, but he kept staring at me.
“Well,” I started up say.
“A man a week is lost out there, or so they say. Seems about right, by my count,” Dad continued.
“Yeah, but you always come back! And Benny, Levi, and Dom.”
“But not Carl or Sergei or Christopher. And those were just my boat in the last decade. Go ask any of the other captains, they’ll tell you the same. The water is unforgiving. One mistake and you’re gone.”
“Edward, please,” Mom said more insistently. “Not at the dinner table.”
“The boy wants to go, Clara. I’m not going to sugarcoat it.”
“If you don’t let me, I’ll just sign on with one of the other crews!”
I’d done it. Played my final hand. The threat I’d been holding on to for just this moment. Mom paled and looked pleadingly at Dad. She was always the worrying kind. Dad tugged the end of his beard sharply, an unhappy, angry gesture.
“No one’ll sign a greenhorn like you,” he warned.
“They will. They’ll see my name, know I’m your son, and they’ll take me on,” I said the words exactly as I’d rehearsed them in my head for so long.
Dad dismissed me from dinner then. When I tried to argue, he slammed his fist on the table, making our silverware jump. There would be no more talk. I shoved my chair back and stalked to my room, where I left the door open a crack and waited.
“You can’t take him, Edward,” I heard Mom say not long after.
“I know,” came his gruffly mumbled reply.
“You have to tell the others, spread the word. No one can take him on. Not our Frank.”
“He’s determined, Clara,” Dad said softly.
“You know what’s out there!”
“Better he’s with me. Better he learn now.”
There were footsteps and a door slammed and I smiled.
In the few weeks remaining before season opened, Dad taught me all he could. We went over processes and procedures, everyone’s roles on the boat, and what would be expected of me. I was signed out of school, as were many boys my age, and I shadowed Dad everywhere he went. Mom sulked around the house, watching us with hooded, haunted eyes.
“I’ll be fine,” I assured her.
She just hugged me in return.
The morning of our departure arrived and Mom clung to me and cried.
“You be safe, Francis,” she whispered. Her grip was fierce.
“I will, Mom.”
“You bring my boy back to me, Edward Calhoun,” Mom twisted her hands in the front of Dad’s wool sweater.
He kissed her forehead, whispered something, and we were off.
The boat, Calhoun’s Folly, was moored among a hundred others like it. We were the first of our crew to arrive and Dad led me around to start preparing. My uncles showed up not long after. They clapped my shoulder and congratulated me on breaking my old man down, but I caught the curious, concerned looks they shot Dad out of the corner of their eyes.
David was the last to arrive. He was a young man, a greenie, like me. Even still, he looked at ease crossing the deck toward us and I felt a stab of envy.
“I hired him before you pulled your stunt,” Dad said.
We stowed our belongings in the quarters below, finalized the departure checklist, and we were off. The shore faded into a heavy mist behind us and the sea opened up, gray water against a gray sky. The salt spray was like icicles against my skin and I huddled against it in my parka. It was, as Dad had said, cold, wet, and miserable.
I loved it.
It snowed that first night. I watched the tiny flecks of white pass my porthole window in the spotlight Dad kept on to mark us. It was the first time I’d seen snow at sea. It was short lived, a flurry, and I crept up on deck when it was done to see how much had collected on the boat.
I was surprised to find Dad standing in the bow. His back was to me. His gloved hands clutched the rail. He was staring outward, into the darkness. There was something about his posture, a rigidness, that kept me quiet. I didn’t know what he was looking at. It didn’t feel right to ask. He was very still, even against the unrelenting icy winds. After a moment, I turned around and slunk away again. Something told me it was best to leave him be.
This strange nighttime behavior continued. During the day, it was business as usual, but at night, Dad would go up on deck after everyone else had gone to bed and stare out to sea. I wanted to ask him about it, but he was less my father out there and more my captain, so I went to my uncle, Benny.
“Let it be, Frankie,” he said. “Some things are better left alone.”
He tried to keep his tone light, but there was a strange note to it. Not quite ominous, but not quite far off either. My other uncles, who’d overheard, just nodded along and returned to their work. David, the other greenhorn, knew better than to ask questions.
For two weeks, we sought out the spots Dad felt would be best for finding crabs. My hands had grown dry and cracked, my lips were chapped, my skin felt rough and always cold. I pulled my weight, though, and was out beside the others every day for however many hours were needed. David and I got along well, despite my previous jealousy. He was good company when I wanted someone closer to my age to talk to. Sometimes we’d see other crabbing boats, but the sea was otherwise an empty, barren place.
And Dad was getting stranger.
His nighttime vigils had turned to prowls. Up and down the deck, bow to stern, his hands clenched into fists at his sides. Sometimes he’d pause, stare over the side, and mutter to himself. The snow seemed to be getting heavier every night.
I was beginning to worry about him, but I told myself that this must be his way. My uncles weren’t bothered, after all. He was probably concerned about our haul, the weather, his crew. He was the captain. It was his job.
We were truly out in the middle of nowhere the night it happened. We hadn’t seen another vessel in days. Dad has become quieter, my uncles more somber. Only David seemed to remain the same. We had become friends and were in the cabin, playing cards. When the others came in, we mumbled our hellos, but barely looked up.
Benny and Levi stood behind David, one on each side. Dom had stayed by the door. I only looked up when I heard Dad inhale, slow and deep. He nodded once.
David was pulled to his feet. He looked at my uncles holding his arms and then at Dad. I’ll never forget that uncertain smile on his face.
“What’re you doing?” He asked.
Dad motioned for them to follow him and Dom held the door open.
“Dad?” I started to stand.
“Stay here, Frank,” he said without meeting my eyes.
He walked out and David, who’d started to struggle, was dragged after him.
“Hey, hey!” David protested. “What the hell!”
I scrambled after them, on to the deck, where a thick blanket of snow had built up. Dom rested a hand on my shoulder and gave it a squeeze. When I tried to shake him off, his grip tightened.
“Easy,” he whispered.
“Dad!” I shouted.
He ignored me. David cried out, demanding again to know what was going on while he was half carried in front of my father. They were standing beside the railing. Waves lapped hungrily against the Folly’s side. Snow continued to fall in fat, heavy flakes.
“Forgive me, son,” Dad said to David.
He placed his hand on the back of David’s neck and the other two released him. David relaxed slightly, like he thought this was some kind of joke.
“What’s going on, Captain?”
The words had barely left David’s mouth before my dad shoved him as hard as he could over the railing. David’s surprised, frightened scream ripped through the night and followed him into the water.
“No!” I tried to lunge forward, but Dom held me in place.
From below, there was coughing and sputtering. An attempt to shout through a throat frozen over. Dad stayed at the railing, staring down. His face was blank, expressionless. I shook Dom off and slid across the deck to slam into the railing. Dad caught me roughly by the collar before I toppled over it.
There was no sign of David.
Only bloodless white faces, dozens of them all around us, staring up from beneath the waves. Their eye sockets were empty, their mouths opened into furious, silent screams.
The wind had picked up. It whipped around us in a wild frenzy. The snow was falling harder, obscuring all but those terrible faces.
I wrenched my gaze from them and turned to Dad. I tried to speak, to ask what was going on, but nothing came out. Dad was jerking his head back and forth, as if in denial. He leaned over the railing and shouted down at the faces.
“I gave you yours! I did what had to be done!”
The snow gave way to small, sharp hailstones. They fell like jagged marbles against the Folly.
“I did my part!” Dad yelled into the black water. “What more do you want?”
My uncles were backing slowly toward the cabin door. The color had gone from their faces and they were trembling. I pulled at Dad’s arm, trying to get him to follow. To explain what was going on to me!
The wind howled its response.
“Blood for blood!”
Dad gaped, open mouthed and horrified, down at the faces. They’d twisted, still furious, but they appeared to be laughing now. I’d become a child again, afraid and uncomprehending. Blood rushed in my ears, my stomach rolled violently. I wanted to scream and beg my father to make the ugly, bloated faces go away. I held on to his arm, my fingers digging into the thick sleeve of his coat.
“No.” I barely heard Dad over the roar of the wind and the waves. “Not my boy!”
“Blood for blood!” The rasping wind shrieked again.
Dad looked at me. He searched my face. His expression was lost. He pulled me into a tight hug and then, before I had had a chance to get my arms around him, he shoved me backwards. Uncle Benny caught me.
The last I saw of my father was him climbing over the railing of the boat. He swung his leg over and glanced back. Our eyes met. And then he let go.
The wind died down. The hail slowed and then stopped. The sea calmed. And when I ran to the railing and looked over, my father and all those faces were gone.
It was a long trawl back to port. I was despondent for most of it, lying in my bunk. My uncles took turns keeping me company. It was Benny who explained.
“Our” land hadn’t always been ours. Before the first European settlers, it had belonged to the Inuit people. They had been fishermen, like us, and mastered the craft long before any outsiders arrived. When the first settlers started to appear, they formed a truce with the Inuit. They aided each other, taught one another their various skills, and attempted to live side by side.
It lasted until crabbing became a lucrative trade.
The natives knew the best spots and had time honored skills, while the settlers struggled. They convinced the Inuit to teach them, promising to share the wealth that the crabs were sure to bring to the community. For a time, it worked well enough, but greed has a way of taking hold. The settlers wanted more. More land for their growing families, more sea to hunt in, more money. The Inuit demanded their fair share, though. After all, they’d taught these outsiders everything they knew.
The settlers swore they’d make things right. They invited the Inuit to join them on their larger boats for the final hunt of the season. They called it a peacemaking venture. Most of the able bodied men joined the settlers, believing in their good will.
None of them returned.
The remaining tribespeople were driven from the area under threat of death. With little in the way of protection, they were forced to flee. In their wake of loss and tears, they left a curse.
Blood for blood.
Every year, a sacrifice must be made by the fishermen to appease the spirits of those that still linger in the freezing waters. If it’s ignored, tragedy will befall the town built on the ruins of the Inuit village. During years that they attempted to ignore the curse, disease and fire swept through the town.
Every captain knows it. Every deckhand knows it. The greenhorns don’t.
Hundreds of men come in droves to Alaska every year to try and make their fortune off of crabbing. It’s a cold, wet, miserable job. Dangerous. No one is surprised when a few don’t make it back.
They take turns, I learned. Every year, the captains rotate. They take one or two new men on. Take them out on to the open sea. And then they offer them up. They know the time is right when the snow falls hardest.
There’s a reason most don’t sign on their children.
Blood for blood.
Love is the ultimate sacrifice.
It was my father’s turn that year. He’d hoped if he treated me the same as any other crew member, kept his distance, I’d be spared. He’d thought they wouldn’t know. Mom begged him not to take me, but he couldn’t trust that another captain would throw me over. He’d promised her I’d make it home.
He kept that promise.
I never went on another boat. I left home shortly after. Moved far away from the ocean and the cold. They follow me, though, even now. Those awful, pale faces. The pain and torment they endure. The pain and torment they cause. I dream of snow, of frozen white on an endless black field, and I see them all.
And in the middle of them, a familiar face, weatherworn behind its bushy beard, screams up at me from beneath the rolling waves.