The Wreck of the Frederick W. Danby
THE FREIGHTER tears apart and men fall into the breach. There goes Costigan, now Bobek, now the Williams brothers. They’ll be crushed or drowned and either way buried in the silt at the bottom of the lake. The taconite from the holds will go right down on top of them.
This is a dream. Please.
Burke is curled up like a shrimp in the stern of the lifeboat and in the bow another man lies tangled in a white wool blanket. Trough to crest, trough to crest, the boat rides the waves and the wind is merciless, skinning the water alive and flinging star-sparkling pelts onboard the little boat. Neither man moves.
In a sort of vision, Burke sees a woman on the water walking toward him. He cannot remember where he is or why he is there, but he is on the water. He does know that. But maybe only because he has been on the water ever since he was born, his blood transfused so that what pumps through even his tiniest capillary is the ancient water of the Great Lakes. Coal, ice, limestone, ore: his body parts. The woman says she is his wife, with long brown hair, but she’s not his wife. She misses him. Please come home, she says. Don’t you miss me?
Burke is shocked awake. He bangs his head on the underside of a thwart and the blood runs into his eye. Lake Superior in all directions to infinite horizons. Blue sky above and the sun a bright hole, but all is frigid and the wind screeches over the boat. He tucks himself below the gunwale. Up front is a white woolen pile with one white-socked foot protruding, and the wind flapping the blanket so hard it cracks out a rhythm. He finds his knees have frozen and he cannot crawl or stand, so he grabs his pea coat tight at the collar and shoves out the words, “Hey, in the bow,” feeling his Adam’s apple bob against his knuckles.
Burke clenches his jaw until his teeth grit, tightens all the muscles he can feel, then flops his body over the thwart. He clunks onto the floorboards and, landing in the pool at the bottom, gasps, then splashes up and over the next thwart, then the next until he is beside the pile of blankets. Burke peels them back until he finds a gray face—but both eyes are plum-like mounds with crooked incisions for eye slits. Burke shakes him. It’s Torres, a Mexican, one of the Danby’s oilers. He isn’t dead. Torres counted on another Mexican and a Puerto Rican to speak and listen and tell.
“Are you okay?” Burke shouts anyway.
Torres rolls his head away so he is facing the sky.
How many men were on board? Thirty whatever it was. Must be in 500, 600 feet of water. Probably 600 feet. They know about us by now in The Sault and we’ll see choppers anytime. Wouldn’t be surprised if we wash up on shore somewhere before they have a chance to find us. Hope it ain’t Canadian shores. The boat up and sunk and I’ll be damned if I didn’t grab my passport before I got off.
“I’m getting under there with you,” Burke says, “Me and you are going to spoon like high school sweethearts.”
Torres groans and stirs, the blanket shifting like skin with a worm underneath. His mouth is pulled down at the corners in a flat-lipped grimace.
“For both of us,” Burke says, “We have to. I know you don’t know what the hell I’m saying.”
Burke maneuvers his body against Torres’, tugs at the blanket and starts to heave himself beneath, but he feels Torres’ arm stiffen with more strength than he imagined Torres had, feels the arm pushing into his belly. From Torres’ still tightened jaw, half-words in Spanish come hissing out with great, wasted pressure behind them so his speech sounds like a broken boiler popping with consonants.
“No hablo espanol, amigo,” Burke says, and Torres screeches, a high whine that peters out in the cold and falls plinking into the boat.
“You worried I ain’t going to kiss you goodnight? No besos?” Burke says, “I’ll buy you a big dinner when we get back on land.”
Torres hammers his fist into Burke’s gut.
“Asshole—” Burke starts, but looking down between their bodies, sees a dark pool on the floorboards of the lifeboat. Burke scrambles back. Torres’ slicker has been sheared away and a long slash runs from his up-facing left side, traversing his back and disappears under his down-facing right side. The white of the backbone peeks through the cut as it widens and pinches shut with the rocking of the boat.
In the night there are more stars than he has ever seen before, maybe more than any man has ever seen. With light so bright it casts shadows. Burke moves his hand over the white blanket and watches a black hand wave back. He thinks about Indians and Indian raiders and broad-bladed flint knives with thighbone handles. Then about dead animals, carcasses half-buried in the leaves with antlers like pitted spindles sprouting from the forest floor. He is in the forest then. There is nothing to eat and nothing to drink, so he crawls into a deerskin, licks lichen and the salty minerals oozing from sandstone boulders and becomes a deer and lives.
Burke checks Torres, whose chest is rising and falling still, barely. He unhitches the belt, his own belt that he’d looped around Torres’ belly and which he’d used to bind his own wadded-up Henley against the gash. Burke squeezes out blood into the lake, shakes the shirt, and rebinds it to Torres. Then Burke sits on the gunwale, unlaces his boot, and pulls off his wool sock. His foot is white, all the toes stuck together, and he cannot feel any of them. He dips the sock in the lake and rings it out, dips it and rings it out, dips it again, but this time doesn’t ring it out. He hobbles one-footed to Torres and holds the sock above Torres’ mouth.
“Agua,” Burke says, and squeezes the sock so a bead of the freezing, clear water falls onto Torres’ lips. Torres’ tongue peeps out, flicks at the drops of water, then slips back inside his mouth.
“Mas,” Burke says and squeezes the sock again. This time Torres opens his mouth and the water goes in and does not come out.
“Bring me a fish, lake. A nice, big muskie. I’m starving. Let him jump right into this boat. And then let it rain fire, the kind that doesn’t burn up little boats. And a doc for Torres here. He’s in bad shape.”
Just before the sun is finally drawn into the lake and the lake swallows up every lick of its fire, the woman returns, this time hovering above the lifeboat.
“Now where have you been?” Burke laughs.
She says she’s been there the entire time.
“Well, how come I haven’t seen you the entire time?”
Sometimes she can’t be seen.
“Because you’re a hallucination.”
The woman’s eyes roll back. She opens her mouth and her throat erupts with a swarm of tiny orange and white helicopters, mini Jayhawk choppers like the Coast Guard uses. They fly at his eyes, nose, mouth, ears. He swats them, yells, covers his face, ducks turtle-like into his pea coat collar and when the silence returns, they’re gone, she’s gone.
Torres dies. Sometime when the sun is highest—a day or two or a decade or two after the wreck—his heart quits. Alive and dead, he looks the same. Who do we tell and how do we tell them? Burke reclaims the belt, the Henley, the sock. The belt he loops back around his own hips and he lays out the shirt and sock in the sun and has to keep banging the granules of ice off. When his patience is gone he puts them back on, the sock first, then the Henley.
Does the body stay? In the prow like a figurehead? Or does it get wrapped in the blanket and shoved off into the lake? Torres is Mexican, so does that mean Catholic too? Burke says half an Our Father, forgets the words, starts over, comes to “on earth as it is in Heaven” and can’t remember anymore.
It’s not necessarily sleep he drifts into and out of—more like he keeps floating between two dream fields. Blown between them—one of cold and ice, brilliant light and brilliant dark, now death too, never-ending water, and a boat pointed to every speck on the horizon all at once. The other much more uncertain—warmer, unreal. So, when he sits up one night after Torres dies, the boat still rocks in the water, but next to the corpse he sees a fish and a deer and the fish speaks: “Let’s eat him.”
“Who?” Burke croaks, “Me?”
They ignore him. The fish unhinges its jaws, swallows Torres, and snaps its jaws shut, a little tail of white wool blanket hanging from the jaw’s V. The deer bends over and out shoots its pink tongue with machine gun rapidity on the gunwale, licking, licking, licking up all the metal until the boat is nude the boat drifts apart in pieces the boat spreads out generously on the lake.
“Me too,” Burke croaks, “Eat me too.”
Paul Luikart's MFA is from Seattle Pacific University. He lives in Chicago with his wife and daughters.