Spearfish Lake Tales
Contemporary Mainstream Books and Serials Online
Though it had been a fine morning in St. John’s harbor, once Matt and Mary had taken the Mary Sue past the sea buoy and turned to the northeast, the weather began to deteriorate. The waves picked up a bit, the wind came up, the temperature dropped, and the fine blue skies turned to gray. Off in the distance there was the fuzzy gray smudge of a fog bank; it was impossible to tell the distance, but it was clear that it was getting closer.
“Looks like we’re in for it already,” Matt commented.
“Aye,” Mary replied, casting a practiced eye at the conditions. “A wind that direction is never good. We’re in for it for a while. Have ye ever been out in bad weather much?”
“Some,” he replied. “Not as much as I’d liked to have been, but I should be all right.”
“D’ya get seasick when it’s rough?”
“Not much,” he admitted. “Usually the first time out in the spring I get a little urpy, but it goes away after a while and I never seem to have much problem with it after that. How about you?”
“Naw, no problem,” she laughed. “If rough seas along with the smell of dead cod and burnt coffee can’t get me seasick, I guess I’m not likely to in this little slop.”
While they sat there casually talking the Mary Sue bucked into the wind and the waves close-hauled, rearing up and plunging down over them, throwing up clouds of spray and throwing some of it over the cockpit each time. It would have seemed rough to a landsman, though things were still under control enough that there was no thought of reefing the sails. Eventually Mary went below long enough to grab one of her seabags, which proved to have her foul-weather gear in it; as soon as she appeared back on deck, Matt went below to get his and change out of the already-wet sweat shirt he’d been wearing.
It seemed a bit like overkill to put on the whole outfit, but the air out there was chilly and damp, and the spray even colder. He was well aware that a trip like this was going to be a continual battle with cold and damp, so there was no point in starting out that way; for the time being it was better to be too warm than too cold. He’d already had his sea boots on, which made it a bit of a struggle to pull on the waterproof bib overalls. Still, thanks to practice, he was able to get them on fairly quickly despite the movement of the cabin.
While he was pulling on the jacket, he took a glance around the inside of the cabin to discover that everything seemed to be riding well, just as it should have been. The cabin, though tiny– about the space that would be found inside a minivan with the seats out, although laid out differently– was in no way cluttered. There was a place for everything, and everything was in its place; even all the food and water that had been packed aboard. That was no accident, but the result of several years of planning and modifications to make sure there was a safe place to store everything he’d need. There were few luxuries; space was limited and had to be devoted to what was really needed. It would make for a primitive life, but a simple and satisfying one; while he may never have crossed an ocean, this was one thing he knew for sure.
His eye lit on the tiny galley area. It had been a while since his breakfast, and that had been nothing much; now it had to be getting close to lunchtime. He stepped to the companionway and stood up in the open hatch, to see Mary sitting on the windward cockpit seat, a huge smile on her face. “Mary,” he said. “Would you be up for some coffee, and maybe some lunch?”
“Aye, I just been thinkin’ about that myself.”
There was a small gimbaled stove on the bulkhead next to the companionway, powered by bottled propane; he’d mounted it there so he could have easy access to it from the cockpit in times he’d have to mostly be out in the weather. Now, he filled the stove’s fitted pot with fresh water, lit the burner, and set the water to heating. He moved to the kerosene-burning main stove, opened a couple cans of beef stew he considered to be single-serving sized, and set them to heating in a pan held onto the stove by fiddles.
It would take a few minutes for the things to heat, but there were a few other things that could be done while he waited, occasionally stirring the stew. He opened the logbook to the most recently used page and made a brief entry under the date: “Departed St. John’s NL about 10:30 local time with Mary O’Leary, who I met on the dock at the last minute. Course 050 true. Wind N, ca. Force 4. Sailing close-hauled, sea mildly rough. Expect worse to come.” He glanced at the entry, wondering if he should add more to it, but decided not to. It said enough.
He put the logbook away in a safe place and tended to some other chores around the cabin while he waited on the stoves. He didn’t worry too much about Mary; he could tell from the heel and the motion of the boat that little had changed topside.
The water for the coffee was done first; he shut off the stove and poured about half of it into a stainless-steel mug, tossed a couple coffee singles into it, snapped on the plastic cap and handed it out to her with a “Here you go. Coffee packs, just take them out and toss them overboard when it’s strong enough for you. Lunch will be ready soon.”
“That’s nice a’ ye, b’y,” she said, taking the cup from him.
He turned back to the water pot. Deciding he wasn’t in the mood for coffee just then– he often wasn’t– he filled his own cup with powdered beef bouillon. By then the stew was ready; he scooped half into a plastic bowl, added a spoon, and handed it out to her. Aware of the fact that washing dishes was going to be a pain in the neck, he just added a spoon to the pan and went back out to the cockpit. “Is the stew all right?” he asked.
“Just fine, b’y,” she said, obviously glad to have it. “It beats boiled cod any way ye look at it. That’s more’n likely be what we’d have on a fish boat. I was feelin’ a mite hungry.”
“I was getting that way, too,” he said as he settled into the cockpit seat next to her. “I guess we ought to plan on trading off the cooking, but there are a couple things I’ll need to show you about using the galley, like where stuff is kept.”
“Probably would be helpful,” she agreed. “I figure the watch below ought ta do the cookin’, at least while we’re watch-and-watch.”
“Sounds good to me.” He took his spoon to dig into the stew pan; there was no point in letting the food get cold out in the open. It didn’t take long to get through it; he’d been hungrier than he thought.
Satisfied for the moment, he took a sip of the hot bouillon and felt the warmth of it course down through him. Now, while still aware of the boat and Mary, he could sit back and contemplate things for a moment. He glanced back over the stern to see nothing but the rolling waves and no hint of Newfoundland back there.
“Well,” he said to Mary as he felt a huge wave of relief wash over him, “it looks like we’re on our way. If Newfoundland is back there, you can’t prove it by me.”
“It’s back there,” she told him. “It’s just the fog is getting thicker, so we can’t see it now. So you’re glad to be at sea, are ye?”
“You can’t believe how glad I am,” he exulted. “Newfoundland may be a nice place for what I saw of it, but this is what I’ve dreamed of doing for years, and it was all but impossible for so long that I can barely believe it’s really happening.”
“So how long have ye dreamed of doin’ it? Ye said ye’d had the boat for four years, and bought it to make a trip like this.”
“Oh, it goes back further than that,” he said, flipping a nickel in his mind. Things weren’t so wild that they couldn’t have a good conversation, and there was something inside that made him want to explain his feelings to his companion. “It had to go back to when I was in the hospital.”
“The leukemia, right?”
“Yeah. Mary, up till that point I was just a normal kid. I mean, I went to school, did stuff with my friends. We used to talk about the big things we wanted to do. I had plans to play football, since it was a big deal in our school. Then I got sick. Not all at once, just a little at a time. I got feeling weak and just generally sick. I was losing weight and couldn’t keep food down, and I didn’t feel like I wanted to eat anyway. Well, finally Mom started to take it seriously and took me to a doctor. He said it was just some kind of bug going around and gave me a shot and some pills.”
“They didn’t work?”
“No, if anything they just made me feel sicker,” he sighed. “There’s no point in going through all the hassles I went through, other than to just say that I kept feeling crappier and crappier, and the doctor kept saying nothing was wrong. Finally, he came to the conclusion that there might really be something wrong with me, and I went in for some tests. It was a blood test that showed I had leukemia. The next thing I knew, I was in the hospital.”
“Not fun, then?”
“No,” he shook his head, remembering those days; it was a time he preferred to shove from his mind. “Not fun at all,” he added after a moment. “Don’t get me wrong, I knew I was sick, but I didn’t think I was quite that sick, if you know what I mean. But I just kept getting worse and worse There were times that I could get my strength together to where I felt almost like I was all right, but they never lasted very long, and those good times kept getting shorter and further apart.”
He took another sip of his bouillon as he looked for the words he wanted to say; Mary was silent, listening to him intently.
“Mary,” he finally continued, “It just really sucked. Mom was there quite a bit for me, and I was aware that seeing me like that was hurting her. Dad came pretty often too, not as much as Mom, but quite a bit for him since he had his business to look after. For the first few days some of my friends’ parents would bring them to see me for a while, but as time went on and I got sicker, that tailed off, and eventually they stopped visiting. Most of the time I was sick and just generally in pain, just a dull pain that never went away.”
He took a long, deep breath as he chose his words again. “Remember, Mary, I was just a little kid, and little kids believe they are going to live forever. All I can say is that I slowly began to realize that it wasn’t going to happen for me, and that I didn’t have much chance of lasting very long.”
“Aye,” she replied softly, just loud enough that he could hear it over the sound of the wind and the waves. “That must have been hard to believe.”
“I don’t know,” he shook his head. “All my memories from that period are pretty muddled and fuzzy, but then so was I. I, uh, well, it was a cancer ward for kids, after all. There were other kids around, some in better shape than I was, others worse. And some of them died. In fact, a lot of them died. It was never talked about very much by the nurses and doctors and visitors, but I always knew when someone else had gone. Sometimes it was a kid I knew a little, although none of us were much for making friends, because while most of us had some hopes of getting better, we also knew we had a good chance of it being a death sentence. I could feel it in the way everybody spoke, in just the atmosphere around the place.”
“’Tis not a place I’d care to be,” she said sympathetically.
“It’s not something I’d wish on anyone,” he said. “Bear in mind, most of us were more or less stuck in bed to one degree or another. Like I said, my memories of the next while are pretty fuzzy, except that I was mostly in bed with a lot of tubes and IVs and stuff plugged into me. Nothing the doctors and nurses did seemed to help, and I just got worse and worse. There was a period that had to go on for a month or two that I just have no memories about other than being sick and hurting when I was aware of anything at all. I just remember that after a while I was having periods when I didn’t feel quite as sick, and I didn’t hurt as much. Those periods weren’t long when I first remember them, but slowly I began to get better.”
“Something finally worked?” she asked.
“A bone marrow transplant, although I wasn’t aware of it at the time. Like I said, I wasn’t terribly aware of the time passing, but I do remember that when I started feeling better I was a little surprised that I wasn’t dead yet. But that came later. The first thing I really remember as I literally came back to life was hearing a man’s voice reading to me. I had no idea who it was, outside of the fact that it wasn’t anyone I knew. But just hearing that voice and knowing that someone cared meant a lot to me right then.” He again paused for a moment and said, “Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but I don’t suppose it’s too much to say that it somehow gave me the strength to carry on.”
“What was he reading?”
“I honest to God don’t know, at least at first. It was just the fact that he was doing it.” He got a smile on his face, the first one in a while, and almost laughed, “I suppose you’re going to think that the next part of it made everything snap together for me, but really it didn’t. Let’s just say that my first memory of what he was reading was the fact that it was about an old man, a fisherman, out in his boat, trying to catch a fish. It wasn’t until some time later that I discovered that he was reading The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway.”
“Aye,” she grinned. “I’ve read it, too. I was likely about the same age the first time I read it. It was on my cousin Alfred’s bookshelf down in Blanche Tickle. I remember reading it by lantern light in the middle of a winter storm. Stirring stuff for a child that age.”
“To tell the truth, I don’t remember all that much about it,” he said. “At least at the time, although I read it later and I have to agree with you. Anyway, I do remember this stranger asking me if I’d liked it, and if I’d like him to read me another one, and of course I told him yes.”
He paused again seeking words, and went on, “Like I said, my time sense and my comprehension was pretty limited just then, and only slowly got better. I found out later that my new friend couldn’t be there every day, but that he usually spent the better part of a couple of days a week with me, just reading to me, another sea story, this time about a man sailing a boat alone.” He turned at her and grinned, adding, “Like I said, don’t read too much into this, but it was Joshua Slocum’s Sailing Alone Around the World.”
“I’m glad you warned me b’y,” she laughed. “’Cause it would seem to me the seeds for this trip were planted right there.”
“Well, maybe a little,” Matt conceded. “Anyway, I slowly got better. I don’t know how long it was, maybe a month, maybe more or less, when it finally came to mind that I had no idea who this guy reading sea stories to me was, and finally I got up enough curiosity to ask. He told me, ‘I’m your Uncle Jake, Matt.’ I just lay back and let him read to me, and finally it came to me that I still had no idea of who he was, so I told him that I didn’t know I had an Uncle Jake. ‘You do now,’ he told me.”
“He sounds like a very kind man,” she nodded. “This is the Uncle Jake who helped you with this boat?”
“The same,” Matt smiled.
Again, he was silent for a moment, gathering his thoughts, long enough that Mary had to ask softly, “Matt?”
“Oh, hell,” he said. “I might as well tell you now, because it’s pivotal to what happened afterward. I didn’t find out much more until I was quite a bit better, and then I only found out part of it, and there’s plenty I still don’t know. Uncle Jake saved my life in more ways than one. He was the man who was my bone marrow donor. What’s more, he was really my father.”
“Your father? Instead of, well, who you thought was your father?”
“Yes,” Matt said proudly. “And the man who the last several years has been more my father than my father ever was.”
“An’ how did this come to pass, b’y?”
“Like I said, long story, and I don’t know all the parts to it. Mom and Dad and Uncle Jake have told me what they think I need to know, and I’ve picked some of it up from some friends of Uncle Jake. To try to sum it up, Mom and Uncle Jake were high school sweethearts, but they drifted apart when he joined the Navy and she went to college. After some years, Mom decided she wanted to try to get back with him, and it’s pretty obvious that having sex was part of the deal, but in the process they discovered that they’d moved too far apart from each other. Well, Mom was heartbroken, and she wound up turning to a guy, the first one to try to console her, which turned out to be Dad.”
“She was pregnant and didn’t know it?”
“That’s the story,” he nodded. “From the this and that I’ve picked up over the years, I’ve come to understand that all this happened in a day or two. No one ever had any doubt that Dad was my real father until I got sick, and it proved that neither my father nor my mother were close matches for a bone marrow transplant. It was only then that Mom and Dad started to suspect what had really happened, and I guess it was real embarrassing for Mom to have to approach Uncle Jake to get tested. He agreed as soon as Mom managed to get it out, and as a result I’m alive today.”