Firmly in the second half of the story now! Now comes the image of two ships tethered together, fighting their way through the storm. Now is the long, hard tow that wears them down until they finally break and the truth comes out. Obviously I want every part of my story to be executed well, but this segment in particular has a great deal that it needs to accomplish, and I will be paying close attention to anywhere that it is lapsing.
Oscar eased back a little. He didn’t want to hit tension on the rope too quickly and snap it. He watched as the last feet of slack pulled out of the line, and then his vessel shuddered from stem to stern and its boom groaned ominously. Nothing broke, though, and the boom gave a counter-groan as it settled into place.
“Alright,” Oscar called into the mic. “I’m going to bear a little starboard here. You keep going straight at first and let the rope pull you into line.”
“I know, Oscar. I know.”
If you know so much, then why are you the only one out here with a crippled engine? Oscar thought bitterly. Sure, bad luck hit them all, but it seemed to hit Harry a suspicious amount more than any of the other sailors.
Oscar turned the wheel, swiveling his stern twenty degrees. The most efficient route back home would be to make a wide turn right, continue until they were past the cape, then right again and back to the docks.
Of course making this turn meant that Oscar’s boat was now at a slant to the waves, and they were thundering against his hull and drenching his deck with their foaming spray. Oscar looked back-and-to-the right to see where the Broken Horn lay, but anything further than three hundred yards was shrouded in murky black, as if they had been submerged in an ink bottle, alone in their own, thick darkness.
A reverberating whine came from behind and Oscar saw Harry’s boat sliding to starboard, failing to keep up with the turn and pulling the rope at an angle.
“I said stay straight!” Oscar shouted into the mic.
“I’m trying!” Harry’s panicked voice shrieked back. “It’s just my motor can’t keep up! It’s too much!” Oscar bit his wrinkled lip and spun the wheel back to port. They would have to try a shallower angle into the waves, one that Harry’s waterlogged boat could handle.
He brought their angle-of-attack from forty-five degrees to thirty, then checked over his shoulder. No good, the rope was still moving the wrong way, scraping across the corner of his deck.
So he reduced down to twenty-five degrees and checked again. Still no. The rope wasn’t slipping anymore, it continually wavered back and forth, never settling.
Twenty degrees and at last the rope moved back to center.
“We’ve got it! We’ve got it!” Harry’s voice was flush with relief. Oscar wasn’t relieved, though. Far from it. At this shallower angle it would take more than twice as long to get past the cape, meaning they’d be spending twice as long in the heart of the sea.
Twice as long in the ink. The murky green glow from beneath the waves had extinguished, and somewhere beyond the clouds the last remnants of the sun had expired. All was pitch black now, and the men could barely see each wave before they were already upon it. And those waves had progressed from small hills to sheer mountains. Each yawned high above the sailors, tipping their boats skyward, then breaking across their bows in a fury. Then came the rapid drop down the trough on the other side. The wind seemed to shriek around their wheelhouses in every direction at once, and the rain pelted them sideways.
Well, they had arrived…. This was the full height of the storm’s intensity and they would be locked within this fearful epicenter all the way back to shore.
Oscar gripped his wheel with white knuckles, locked his knees in place, and stared ahead with unblinking eyes. Each successive wave was a new trauma heaped upon the last like an extra brick on his back.
This kept the same vein of how it was before, though with a good deal of fiddling throughout. Most of the changes were in the last paragraphs when I described the storm around them. A major critique from my first draft was how the escalation of that storm wasn’t very clear, and behind the scenes I’ve been putting a lot of thought into how to make a more intelligible progression out of it.
To that end I’ve decided that the storm is now at its strongest, and every point hereafter will be describing a different element or perspective of it. The escalation of danger now will be based upon their angle-of-attack and the damage to their boats. My hope is that by having a clear sense in my own head of what’s going on, that will come through in the written depiction of it.
Now I’m going to tackle a moment of introspection in Oscar, and this is one section I already know I want to make a few changes to.
“I can’t do this,” Oscar said hoarsely to himself. “I just don’t have it in me anymore.”
“I don’t think you have any choice in it anymore,” another side of him replied.
If at all possible, his weathered face grew even more wrinkly, his eyes shone with unshed saltwater.
“I should have quit after I lost James.”
“No,” his other side returned. “You should have quit before you lost your son.”
“I’m sorry,” his chest quivered and the tears finally dribbled down his cheeks. “I should never have trusted him to Harry.”
The original version of this conversation that Oscar has with himself was melodramatic and confusing. I felt it jumped from one statement to another with no obvious connection between them. I also felt it was obscure as tp who exactly “James” was.
But with this take on it there is a much clearer transition from not wanting to face great obstacles anymore to wishing he had quit before he lost his son. I had initially wondered about cutting the conversation entirely, but I think it is important to get across that Oscar’s son has died and that that loss is somehow connected to Harry, otherwise the later confession would come entirely out of the blue.
Next week I’ll be pulling the sailors even more through the wringer, come back as I try to maintain a clear line through it all!
The Storm is a very short story, and yet it still maintains three distinct acts. Thus far we have made it through the first, in which Oscar learns of Harry’s dilemma and sets out to find him. Now we come into the second, where he meets Harry and they begin their hard journey back to port. This act should feel very full and weighty, and should also maintain a steady escalation in the threat of the storm. Keeping these in mind, let’s forge ahead!
The waves did not merely rock Oscar’s boat now. They were long and deep, shallow mountains and valleys that his vessel now had to scale and descend in turn. And the longer he stayed out here, those mountains and valleys would only become greater and more treacherous.
Holding the wheel steady in one hand he grabbed the mic and began calling out through the storm.
“This is the Last Horizon. Repeat, this is the Last Horizon. Does anybody read me?”
Oscar reached to the throttle and pressed it up to full. Never mind the fuel spent, he’d have the surf to help carry him back to the shore. For now all that mattered was that he finish his duty as quickly as possible. Find Harry, or have done his due diligence and surrendered him to the sea, and then get straight back home.
With the extra clip of speed his trawler distanced itself past the point of the Broken Horn, to the point that he now turn back slightly north, cutting across the front of the cape. As he went by he roved the shoals and the cliffs with his eyes, searching for any sign of a freshly broken boat.
But again, nothing. Everywhere he looked, his vessel was the only white speck between that black abyss of rock vaunting up into the sky and that black abyss of water spinning below.
“Last Horizon calling Broken Wing. Broken Wing, do you hear me?”
A gust of wind picked up and Oscar let go of the mic as he used both hands to wrestle his boat back into its line. Being even a little bit broadside to the waves was becoming treacherous, and he didn’t like how much his boat tilted against each new crest. The gale subsided for a moment and he roared his frustration into the mic.
“HARRY! DO YOU EVEN HEAR ME?!”
All at once the crackle of static gave way to a small voice, timid and broken.
“Yes, yes, this is Harry here! I see you Oscar, I see you! Starboard side.”
Oscar turned his head from the cape and looked to his right. There, in even deeper waters, he could barely make out the outline of a white boat through the outer mists of the storm.
“What’s your status, Harry?”
“Engine trouble. It’s barely turning at all. I can’t make it around the cape, Oscar, so I’ve just been tryin’ to hold her steady for as long as I could. I don’t mind telling you I was real scared, Oscar.”
“Yeah, well I still am! Stay put, Harry.”
Oscar opened up the throttle and spun the wheel. For a moment his vessel rocked up and down without actually making any advancement, but then it built up enough momentum and lurched forward, pressing deeper into the storm.
The first layers of rain broke upon the windshield, large, heavy drops splotching across the glass. This heavy rain had a formed misty barrier around the edge of the storm, a wall to conceal its inner workings. But after a moment of clouding his vision the heavy rain subsided, and now that Oscar had pressed through those curtains, far darker forms were unveiled beyond!
It was a world of muddled black. Pitch skies hung low overhead, whipped by strong winds into long wisps, thin and fragile, but so numerous as to entirely crowd out the sun. Under that grim ceiling was a landscape of fomented waves, rolling in an endless agony. Oscar crested the outer ripples and saw leagues of the deep yawning wide. There was a great depression in the middle of that floor, pulling it down into a massive bowl some eight miles across. The water was the green-black of thick ink, the darkness of untold fathoms beneath. Seeing all at once the huge expanse of it and the under-weight of it was enough to make one agoraphobic and claustrophobic all at the same time! And across that rolling landscape several shocks of lightning bristled every second, each bolt immense but straight, efficiently shooting the immense energy above down into the darkness below. It was also the loudest storm Oscar had ever known. All about was the cacophonic din of sharp thunder mingled with crashing water mingled with screeching wind.
And there, caught within it all, was Harry’s vessel, twitching and swaying erratically, almost entirely at the mercy of the storm, but on occasion coming to life just enough to jerk back to a nearly perpendicular line to the rolling waves. The boat must be taking on water already, growing more sluggish every minute, growing ever more difficult for Oscar’s vessel to haul out of the foment.
Oscar’s heart fell, but he only allowed himself a moment’s dread before he grit his teeth and grabbed the mic. “You gotta hold it more windward, Harry! I can’t come up alongside just to have you swing into my hull!”
“Okay…” came the timid reply. “I’ll try, Oscar.”
Oscar spat and shook his head. It was a hard thing he was asking, even if it had been of a good shipman, but it was absolutely necessary. “Yeah, you gotta hold her straight. And I’m gonna come up on your starboard side and throw you a line as I pass. You be ready to catch it, and then run like anything to get it through your bow cleat.”
“Okay, Oscar. Okay. I’ll try.”
Apparently that was as good as Harry was going to give.
Almost all of today’s text was either completely new or heavily modified. If you would like to compare it to the original version you can do that here.
By far the greatest change has been how I have developed a sense of Oscar breaking through the outer layer and into the storm proper. I’ve been trying to stretch out the escalation of danger, with each act of the story presenting greater threats than the one before. In my original draft there was very little text between Oscar seeing Harry’s boat floundering in the storm, and then already being alongside of him, throwing out a line. With this second draft I’m really taking the time to describe how the stakes are being raised. This has the added benefit of making the reader feel the passage of time while Oscar closes the gap to the troubled vessel.
But given that I am writing so much new material, I wonder whether it will feel unpolished when laid alongside the earlier parts of the story. I also worry whether I have escalated the storm too quickly already, for I need things to get even more dire later on. So I’ll be very curious when I read the second draft as a whole to see whether these new parts already fit with the rest, or if I will need to polish them a fair bit more. I guess I’ll just have to see.
Here we go, continuing with the edit of my short story The Storm. So far I have made it through the introduction, and now will work on Oscar’s journey to find the missing seaman Harry. This is an important segment, where Oscar extends himself further and further into waters that he is uncomfortable with, alone and wondering why he’s putting his neck out for a man he hates.
The Start of the Journey)
Oscar sighed, then slowly began to turn the wheel. There was that brief moment of delay between cause and effect, then the boat responded to his steering. Now his entire world shifted. The happy view of pier, berth, and road up to Lenny’s Tavern slid away to the left, giving way to the long, low coast, the rising point of the cape, and finally the bleak, open sea yawning wide.
Oscar spun the wheel back, steadying himself towards the storm. Where before he had only given the mounting clouds a cursory glance, he now held them in serious scrutiny. The muddled gray had grown darker since just a few moments ago, making it truly impossible to discern sky from sea, save for when a spike of lightning split the void. Oscar became aware now of the wind whistling around the wheelhouse, a constant, low, forbidding moan. And now that he was moving against the tide it rolled under his feet at doubled strength, raising and lowering him in a constant rhythm. All these particulars had had no weight on him when he was headed back to berth, but now that he intended towards them they were daggers of dread in his mind.
It was nearly enough to turn him back landward right then and there! But he gave himself a little shake and occupied himself with his work so that he didn’t have time to think about it.
“Back a little north,” he said to himself, “keep a steady and brisk pace for the cape.” So saying he turned the wheel until the cape came back to the forefront. Of course this made the oncoming waves buffet more strongly against the starboard side of his trawler, trying to push him homeward, but Oscar stubborned his hands against them. Never mind the discomfort, the fastest course was the best. These waves weren’t yet tall enough to roll him.
And so Oscar quickly advanced on the cape. The Broken Horn it was called, and it rose quickly from the otherwise flat coastline. Too quickly, in fact, for the grass and trees to keep up, thus its promontory point was naught but black, jagged rock, broken in a thousand places by the brunt of the sea. An ominous sigil to be sure.
From time-to-time he worked the radio, trying to raise Harry, but all to no avail. The man must still be around the rock, and something must have gone wrong with his journey.
Of course, it wasn’t the first time things had gone wrong in a storm for Harry.
Oscar had nearly made it to the cape and he quickly spun the wheel to the right. He didn’t dare draw any nearer to the Broken Horn, for there were treacherous shoals at its feet, and if one snagged their boat on those they would be quickly overrun by the endless flow of water. Or if not swamped, the constant surf would push the vessel past the shoals, then pound it into the jagged edges of the cliff beyond, tearing it to shreds in a single instant! If Harry had run into trouble anywhere else Oscar might have left him to run aground and wait out the storm on a rain-soaked beach, but here there was no “aground” to run into.
So Oscar pointed his vessel due east, letting the cape slip by him on the left. Of course due east also meant that the he was pointed back at the face of the storm, and here the water ran much deeper than before.
When I revised the very beginning of the story I cut the number of words by a very great deal. Here I am actually adding more in. This segment of Oscar turning from the docks, making for the cape, and turning deeper into the storm was originally 507 words, now it is 591. I do like the change these extra words bring. One of the things I knew I wanted to change was to make this journey to feel much more epic and exhausting.
You can view the original version of this piece here if you want, but my main changes were to stress the transition from cozy pier to stark sea, and to paint the way that Oscar’s mind is flooded with all the details that previously had had no bearing on him. I also added the detail of the waves buffeting the side of his ship and him having to hold the wheel steady, to communicate the constant physical exertion that will only increase as the story rolls along.
One thing I dialed back on, though, was the intensity of the storm at this point. I removed references to the cape looking like ink and shrouded in fog and the clouds being whipped by the air. I want to set this up as the beginning of a marathon, and I want the audience to be able to feel the escalation of the storm late on, so better to not have it be at a fever pitch just yet.
The first of those escalations will occur now as Oscar turns himself back into the face of the storm, but there will be many more to follow. Come back in a week as we continue that journey.
“Alright, I’m ready to go now,” Harry’s voice broke from the radio.
“I’ll pull forward until the line gets tight,” Oscar explained. “Then you throw your engine on and you give whatever you’ve got just to keep us level, understand? I’ll do the pulling and I’ll warn you for every turn, you just make sure you stay right behind me and maintain the tension.”
“Of course Oscar. And Oscar…thank you, I really didn’t think anyone was going to come for me.”
“Don’t mention it.” It wasn’t a polite deference. It was an order, and Oscar surprised himself at how much of a growl it came out with. He shook his head and pushed the throttle control forward. His engine churned back to life and his trawler lurched forward once more.
Oscar eased back a little, not wanting to hit tension on the rope too hard. A few yards more and he felt his vessel shudder from stem to stern and his beam groaned ominously. He didn’t hear anything break though, and a quick glance backwards showed the line running out straight and true to Harry’s boat.
“Alright,” Oscar called into the mic. “I’m going to bear a little starboard here. You keep going straight at first and let the rope just pull you into line.”
“I know, Oscar. I know.”
If you know so much then why are you the only one out here with a crippled engine? Oscar thought bitterly. Sure, bad luck hit them all, but it seemed to hit Harry a suspicious amount more than any of the other sailors.
Oscar turned the wheel and turned himself twenty degrees. This put him at a slant to the waves, and now they were beating like Poseidon’s drum against his hull, drenching his deck with their foaming spray. The air around him had gone from that deep gray to murky black, like he had submerged himself in an ink bottle. He had to squint to make out the faintest edges of the Broken Horn’s outline, soon he would have nothing to go by but his instruments. If they could only make it around the cape then they would be able to see the lighthouse and could flow up to it with the waves at their backs. But that prospect of getting around the Horn was enough to make Oscar grit his teeth in apprehension.
What had he been thinking? Was it so important to prove that he was not the sort to let another man be lost to the sea?
A reverberating whine sounded from behind and Oscar glanced over his shoulder to see Harry’s boat sliding starboard, pulling the rope down at an angle.
“I said stay straight!” he shouted into the mic.
“I’m trying!” Harry’s panicked voice shrieked back. “It’s just my motor can’t keep up! It’s too much!” Oscar bit his wrinkled lip and spun the wheel back to port. They could try a shallower angle into the waves.
15? He glanced back but the rope was still moving the wrong way, scraping across the corner of his deck.
10? Now the rope held almost steady, wavering back and forth.
8. And at last the rope moved back to center.
“I’ve got it!” Harry’s voice called in relief. But Oscar wasn’t relieved. At this shallower angle it would take more than twice as long to get across the cape, pushing deeper out into the heart of the sea and giving the storm that much longer to bring its full wrath upon them.
Oscar looked ahead into that ink. He barely saw each of the waves before they broke across him and his small vessel. Each one raised high above his cabin, tipping his boat skywards, then breaking across in a fury and leaving him in a sheer drop down the trough on the other side.
These were tense moments, ones where a sailor would grip his wheel tighter than he knew. Oscar’s eyes stared out, unblinking, each wave rolling into him a miniature trauma.
“I can’t do this,” he muttered in a voice that was barely audible. “I don’t have it in me anymore.”
“You don’t have a choice anymore,” he said back to himself.
A spasm crossed his face.
“I’m sorry James.”
“It wasn’t your fault.”
“Isn’t it? I let him go with Harry. I wasn’t there for him.”
Oscar had his wheel cranked as hard to port as possible, but was still losing ground. The waves were pushing him sideways, trying to get him broadside where they could swallow him all at once. His boat was sluggish in responding, likely due to the weight of water beginning to collect in its hold.
Oscar spat in frustration. Sometimes you had to tease the ocean into thinking it had won, sometimes you had to play along to catch it by surprise. And so as he crested the next wave he threw his wheel to the right. His boat swung easily, tipping to starboard as the water in its hold rushed to fill that side. His boat pitched down the sloping back of the wave and he swung the wheel back to port. With the aid of gravity and the momentum of the water rushing over to that side he found the extra push he needed to pull back into line.
“Oscar…” Harry’s voice was halting and unsure. “We’re far enough out. You could get around the cape if you turned now…if you weren’t towing me that is.”
“Well I am towing you Harry.”
“Oscar I knew it would be you who came for me. I just knew it would be. The sea knows I’ve done wrong by you…and it’s brought you here to make things right.”
“Harry, I’m not interested in talking. At all.”
“I lied to you Oscar.”
The next wave stretched up twice as big as any previous. They were definitely into the heart of the sea’s vast depths. Oscar let go of the mic, fastening both hands to the wheel and bracing for impact.
Harry continued. “James…did not forget to tie down a safety line when that storm caught us all those years ago. We both secured them as soon as we knew we were in trouble. Then we dashed around the boat trying to tie everything else down. I went up to the stern and he went aft. The boat just kept keeling side-to-side, each time seemed for sure it would be the one that threw us in the drink.”
A mighty crack sounded as one of the lines on Oscar’s boat snapped. He wasn’t sure which one it was, he didn’t check to see. Still Harry went on.
“Each wave swamped us, took our feet out from under and half drowned us. I was praying and cursing with what breath I had left. Made my way back to the mainmast and still kept throwing knots off and on at every turn.”
The next wave pushed hard against Oscar’s boat. He broke through its crest and his boat rolled on its starboard edge. Oscar flung his arms to the side, trying to maintain balance as the boat sought to right itself. A moment later and the towing rope jerked his boat back onto its hull with a thunderous crash.
Each of Harry’s words tore violently from the inside out. Yet the man continued. “Then the next wave washed over us, the biggest one yet. It was a froth. I couldn’t see. It seemed like an eternity but finally it washed away. I was facing towards the rear of the boat and…and I saw nothing. Just nothing. James… wasn’t there.”
A tide of water swept into the cabin and Oscar slipped to his knees. He still gripped the wheel, and unseeing tried to hold his way through the wave.
“I undid his safety line, Oscar. I–I don’t know how, but I did. Somehow in all my blundering I pulled it up with the other knots… I–I killed him!” Harry’s voice was shuddering heavily and his words gasped out between heavy sobs. “And ever since then I let you believe you lost your son because of his own mistake…” Harry’s voice was finally lost entirely in the screeching of the wind, a phantom screaming over all the sea.
Oscar’s eyes flowed steady streams. His mouth was open but silent, his whole body heaving empty air. He gripped the wheel tightest of all now, holding onto it for dear life.
When Harry’s voice came back it was stiller, muted by stony shock. “I undid the wrong lifeline that day Oscar. And fifteen years later I’m still waiting for someone to undo it for me because I’m too much a coward to do it myself… So why don’t you let me go now?”
Oscar’s heart beat inside him again. Beat like it would tear him right in two. His eyes were pointed towards the waves but he did not see them. They pounded over his boat and he did nothing. They pushed him, turned him, slow degree by slow degree they pointed him back to shore.
A faint light tore the night and shone right in Oscar’s eye.
“Sam,” he croaked. He lifted his left hand back to the wheel. He was surprised to realize it had been floating over the control to release the beam’s rope. How had it gotten there? Oscar adjusted his feet, planted himself firmly, and straightened his boat out for its final approach.
Now with the waves and the wind behind them they pounded forward with all the fury of the sea gods. The cape slid by them on the starboard side, just barely a safe distance to squeak by without tearing their hulls on the shoals.
Oscar didn’t touch the mic. Harry’s voice didn’t rise again from it.
Oscar’s boat moved straight past the docks. He didn’t have it in him to try and navigate a proper landing, indeed he had had nerve enough for one task only: the beach. His boat shuddered as it scraped across the turf, then it keeled to its starboard side. Oscar stumbled out of his berth, pitched over the railing and flopped onto the wet sand beneath. Still the wind roared and the rain pelted but he didn’t feel them. It didn’t even register as Harry’s boat crunched across the sand right next to him, almost crushing him with how near it came.
“Oscar!” a voice shouted out, Harry up on his deck. “Oscar, where are you?!”
Harry flung himself over his own railing and onto the sand, almost running straight into Oscar before he finally saw him there.
“Oscar, speak to me man!”
Another voice was calling out from the distance. Sam’s lantern swinging through the dark in their direction.
“Oscar?” Harry said softly, putting his hands under the man’s armpits and raising him to his feet.
“I–I don’t know what to do Harry,” Oscar finally mumbled out. “I just don’t know what happens now.”
A long silence.
“I don’t know either.”
A short silence.
“Oscar, let’s go talk to Sam. He’ll know what to do.”
“Alright, let’s go talk to Sam.”
Harry put Oscar’s arm around his shoulders, then they turned their backs to the sea and hobbled towards the swinging light.
This brings us to the conclusion of The Storm, and also to the end of our current series. As I explained a few posts ago, the theme for this series was that of “the chase.” In this story Oscar is chasing after a man missing in a storm, but more so he is chasing for closure and peace, though he himself does not know it.
I mentioned before posting this story that my ambition with it was to provide two chases. One that was linear and which could progress to a state of resolution, and another which was cyclical and never-ending.
At first there only appears to be the one cyclical chase, one of grief and resentment. Oscar is aching for the loss of his son. That ache leads him to despise both Harry and himself for the parts they played in that loss. Though he does not know it, he has been chasing for vengeance, but passively. He has not sought to kill Harry directly, but he harbors hate for him and at times wishes that the man would just meet an untimely end.
Then, in this story, he learns that Harry was even more culpable in his son’s death than he had realized, and is at last given the perfect opportunity to end that man. Rather than desecrate his son’s memory with a murder, though, he determines just to go home.
From my author’s perspective I would say that Oscar had not previously allowed himself to process his grief. Blocking that grief has been an abiding hate, one which has grown a husk over his hurt, like the barnacles clinging to his ship’s prow. He needed to be broken down so that he could get back to the raw and childlike bewilderment that he had buried beneath.
And so now the cycle of grief still remains for him, that chase will never fully end. The chase of hate, though, has at last been brought to its end.
But as I explained last week, all this characterization did not even exist in the original concept for The Storm. Oscar’s obstacles and the way he deals with them and what exactly goes on in his soul are all elements that would not have existed in the game that I originally intended this story to be.
Yet it still would have had a central character, that of the player. And my ultimate hope would have been that the experience would have served as a mirror to show the player where they were in their own journey with burdens of grief and hate.
In this way Oscar’s character may have turned out for one player to be someone tender and forgiving, and for another someone harsh and vengeful. Both manifestations of him would be as true as the person behind the controls.
In any case, this brings us to the end of this series. Next week we’ll be off to something entirely new. I look forward to seeing you then!
Oscar regarded the mounting storm behind him, then turned his attention back to the docks ahead. He was less than a quarter-mile out, and he’d be moored and warming his boots in Lenny’s Tavern within the hour. Younger fisherman were often frustrated when a storm arose sooner or heavier than the weather forecast had predicted, but old salts like Oscar knew that these things just happened from time-to-time. Today he had to cut his trip short and return empty handed, another day he would manage a double haul. Fate ebbed and flowed like that. If you waited long enough it evened out it time.
If ever an auditor endeavored to tally the sum total of all the givings and takings of the ocean, they would no doubt find that the scales were tipped slightly in favor of the sea. It kept both the ledger and the terms, so who could be surprised that it pressed its advantage? Penny-by-penny a man found himself a little poorer each year for trying to live by it.
The locals knew this truth. They had even come up with a term for it, they called it the “slow toll.” When they spoke of a fisherman being weighed down by the “slow toll” they meant how he had begun to develop the same brooding brow and the same cynical sensibility that they all eventually came to. It was what the old fishermen meant when they said that the ocean had “etched its salt into their bones.”
But was that really so much worse than anywhere else in the world? Didn’t they say there were sharks in Wall Street, too? The world was just as askew wherever you went, the only difference was that the hustling and bustling metropolis sold you dreams while it robbed you blind. The ocean might be a thief, but at least it wasn’t a liar.
“The ocean doesn’t try to make a fool you,” the would say. “It makes no bones about it, the house will always win, same as anywhere else. Only the ocean has the decency to let you play for a while first, dries you out slow and regular.”
Oscar knew better than most that in sudden, greedy moments the ocean took more than could ever be excused. At times he hated it for that.
That you, Oscar?
Oscar fumbled for the mouthpiece of his radio. “Yeah, Sam, it’s me.”
“A little, but I had to let it go. Woulda just spoiled during the storm.”
Sorry to hear that, Oscar.
“It all evens out.”
Sam was a good lighthouse keeper. Where some fisheries rotated whose turn it was to watch, all of the boat-owners in Brynnsdale contributed a part of their profits to put Sam up permanently. He knew all of the fishermen by name and could recognize them by their boats. Whenever they made a good haul he cheered for them, whenever they didn’t he gave just the right amount of sympathy without becoming pandering.
“Everyone in already?” Oscar asked. “I can make out Bart’s and Joe’s there.”
All in but Harry.
Oscar’s radio crackled static, signifying that Sam had released his mic button. Signifying that Sam had nothing more to say until Oscar spoke first.
Oscar sighed heavily, dropping his eyes from the lighthouse to his feet. He saw the way his legs swayed to the movements of the sea. He reached over and grabbed the mic.
“Do you know which way he went?”
Went for mackerel, around the cape. Probably why I haven’t been able to raise him.
“He woulda seen the storm coming even so.”
“He shoulda made it back far enough already that we’d see him now.”
Crackling static again. Sam wouldn’t say it. He wasn’t the sort to try and tell people what they ought to do. He was the sort to let them decide it do it themselves. And what if Oscar said no? What if he said Harry was a fool for having gone around the cape even when it was just a low storm warning, and that if he was caught in a gale that was his affair? If Oscar said that Sam probably wouldn’t even hold it against him. Sam would know as well as anyone that Oscar had reasons enough for it.
“I suppose I better go after him,” Oscar rasped into the mic.
If you think that’s best. I won’t blink an eye until the two of you get back.
“I know you won’t, Sam.”
Oscar sighed once more and began to turn the wheel. Away from the safety of his berth he now swung back to face the rising storm. Where before he had only given those mounting clouds a cursory glance he now held them in serious scrutiny. The muddled gray of the sea was lost in the muddled gray of the low sky, the line between them only occasionally discernible when a fork of lightning split the void. The clouds were as whipped by the wind as the water was, all strayed out in longs wisps, yet so numerous as to crowd out the sun entirely.
As now he set his boat against the tide he felt the beat of the waves increase twofold beneath its prow. Those waves weren’t so tall that he had to worry about being tipped yet, and he turned his boat at a slight angle for a more direct line to the cape.
The Broken Horn it was called, and its rocky form was looked black as ink beneath the shrouds of fog. Intermittently Oscar pulled for his radio tried to raise Harry, but all to no avail. It really seemed the man was still around the rock, and if so then something must have certainly gone wrong.
It wasn’t the first time things had gone wrong in a storm for Harry.
Oscar adjusted his approach to steer well clear of the shore as he neared the Broken Horn. There were treacherous shoals that reached out from it, and the last thing he needed was to get stranded out here himself. That meant steering directly against the waves and that was proving to be a more difficult prospect now.
The wind was howling and the rain drove straight against the boat’s face. The waves looked black and came in like choppy spikes, trying to break anyone fool enough to be on them now. Oscar began to tip backwards and pitch forwards, moving in time to those waves. He kept a steady hand on the wheel, watching for when his craft started to stray to one side or another and righting it as quickly as possible. If he got turned sideways then the waves would swamp him in an instant.
If only fools willingly chose to ride in waves like these, then perhaps Oscar was a fool. For still the storm was not at its worse. He turned his motor up as far as he dared, trying to squeeze every possible yard out of every possible second and get himself out of this foment as soon as possible. Now and again he glanced sideways to the lump of the cape, gauging how soon he could turn back and cut across the front of it.
That front was nothing more than bleak cliffs with jagged edges. If a boat didn’t snag on the shoals then they were torn to shreds by the cliff. If Harry had run into trouble anywhere else Oscar probably would have left him to run aground, but here there was no “aground.”
Oscar spun the wheel and made his way around the point of the Broken Horn. His boat was the only white speck between the black abyss of the rock vaunting up into the sky and the black abyss of the water spinning below. Holding the wheel steady in one hand he grabbed the mic and began calling out into the storm.
“This is Last Horizon. Repeat, this is Last Horizon. Does anybody read me?”
“Last Horizon calling Broken Wing. Broken Wing do you hear me?”
A gust of wind picked up and Oscar let go of the mic as he used both hands to wrestle his boat back into its line. The gale subsided for a moment and he roared his frustration back into the mic.
“Harry do you hear me?!”
All at once the crackle of static changed to a small voice, timid and broken, yet tinged now with fresh hope.
“Yes, yes, Harry here. I see you Oscar, I see you! Bearing 80.”
Oscar looked to his right and barely made out the light outline of a boat against the pitch black sky.
“What’s your status, Harry?”
“Engine trouble. It’s barely turning at all. I can’t make it around the cape, just been tryin’ to hold steady for as long as I could. I was real scared there, Oscar.”
“Yeah, well I still am. Stay put there, Harry.”
Oscar opened up the throttle, making his away across the choppy tide. His little vessel churned forward, throwing up spray that covered his vision, offering only brief occasional glimpses in between of his progress.
“You gotta turn a little more windward, Harry,” he called into the mic. “I’m gonna come up on your starboard side and throw you a line. You be ready to catch it and then run like anything to get it through your bow cleat.”
Harry glanced behind to his beam. He punched the release and dropped the net off of his line. Then he pulled the lever to let the rope out, and it slowly unfurled itself on the deck. He waited until he had about fifty feet of line and then locked it in place. As he did all this he came up closer and closer to Harry’s trawler.
“Alright now, Harry,” he called into the mic. “You ready!”
Harry didn’t respond, he was already out on his own deck, waving his arms so Oscar would see him. Oscar turned the throttle up again, pushing to just a little ahead of Harry’s boat. Then he locked the wheel in place and sprinted back to his rope. As quickly as only a weathered seaman could he coiled its end around his hand as he leapt to his port side. He barely made it there as his vessel slid backwards into line with the other, and with a mighty fling he arced the rope out into Harry’s waiting arms. Harry pulled his hands to his chest, securing the rope, then sprinted towards the front of his own boat to run it through his bow cleat.
Oscar dashed back to the wheel and spun it rapidly to make up for its drift. Now there was nothing but to wait for Harry to secure the rope, get back to his own wheel, and radio him that they were ready to go.
Then the true challenge would begin. Towing another boat was dangerous even in fair weather. One had to be able to maintain constant tension or else something would break from the intermittent slacking and tightening of the line. One had to be careful to maintain enough distance between the two boats so that the one behind didn’t come careening into the back of the other. One had to account for the fact that Oscar’s boat would be riding up the crest of one wave while Harry’s was down in the valley of the previous and vice versa. One had to be careful to stay in line, not letting the wind blow one boat off to an angle from the other. If that happened one or both might be pulled sideways into the drink.
There were many things that could go wrong, that probably would go wrong. For any other fishermen in their small town Oscar would have faced those dangers gladly. But for Harry? Well, evidently he would face them, but that was all.
And why was it Harry? Of all the men that could have been caught out here, why did it have to be the one he could never forgive?
Last week I wrote about the narrative tool of the chase, which takes many different forms all throughout literature. Almost immediately in this story a form of chase begins. Oscar is racing out to rescue another seaman before the storm catches and drowns them both.
But the more we hear his dread about doing this, the more we understand that in his heart he is chasing into another storm, one he has otherwise always chased away from. Chasing into hurt and anger long suppressed. What he is really chasing for though is peace, even if he does not know it himself. And ironically that peace can only be found, if at all, in the heart of deepest conflict.
Next week I will post the second half of The Storm and in that his reasons for bitterness will become clear. An important element of storytelling is knowing when and how to reveal information to the reader. In this first half I have disclosed Oscar’s feelings, but not the reasons behind them. You may find it interesting to know that when I first conceived of The Storm I had not intended to communicate anything of Oscar’s feelings at all. Indeed it was an entirely different sort of experience I had in mind then. Come back on Monday when we’ll take a look at that original idea, and the pros and cons of the changes that I have made. Until then, have an excellent weekend!