Monday, 5 June 2017

Mackerel Trolling

I grew up by the sea; I went between reef and wave there for as long as I could remember. They are skilful seamen, where I come from, and no wonder, for they start early. When children learn to walk, the first thing they do in the morning, in nothing but their shirt, is toddle up on to the nearest rock to look at the weather and the sea; and if it is calm, they put their finger in their mouth and lift it up, to feel where the draught comes from. As soon as they can lift an oar, they are in the boats, and it is not long before they play with the dangers of the sea.

I was often together with a pilot down there, who was one of the most stalwart seamen I have known. The days I was together with him are perhaps among the best I can remember. Free and as happy as a bird, I flew out among the waves; in a light dinghy, we shot between the reefs, chasing ducks, eiders, and seals; with a decked boat, we laid to far out to sea, trolling for mackerel; and when he had a ship to pilot in, it happened that I sailed the boat home after the pilot. Since that time, I have always had a strong yearning for the salt of the sea.

But instead of losing myself in exclamations about the glories of the sea, I want to tell of a trip we made when I, a few years ago, was visiting at home. And it was then that my my old friend told me the story that I will now share.

It was such that we spent some days off the outer sea reefs. We sailed with a decked boat, a large whaler’s boat. There was Rasmus Olsen (that was my friend’s name), the pilot’s boy, and me. One morning, in the twilight, we set out to sea to troll for mackerel. There was a gentle breeze from land, which barely moved the heavy fog that brooded over the reefs and the sea-scoured rocks; the gulls flapped, alarmed around us, with hoarse screeches; the terns cried their “three eggs!” and the oyster-catcher mocked, “click click,” which has made many-a-shooter who has missed smile. The air hung damp and dense over the blue–grey sea; here and there swam an awk, a guillemot, a flock of eiders, or a porpoise, sighing.

Rasmus sat at the helm in the stern, while the boy went back and forth between the stern and the bow. Rasmus was a big, tall man with a brown, weather-beaten face. His expression was jovial, but behind his wise, grey eyes lay something seriously enquiring that witnessed that he was used to mortal danger, and to look deeper than the smile on his face and his jolly words might suggest he did. As he sat there, with his sou’wester down over his ears, in a long, yellow–grey canvas tunic, he appeared almost supernaturally big in the dense morning air; he looked like a revenant from the viking age—but the vikings did not use tobacco; Rasmus Olsen did, and very much so, too.

“There’s not enough wind to capsize a bark boat in a brook,” said Rasmus, swapping his wad of tobacco for a black-smoked chalk pipe, whilst looking out on every side. “Yesterday evening, when the sun went down, the sky was full of the strangest clouds, but now there isn’t a hatful.”

The pilot’s boy replied that he thought it was easing up ahead—he sat on the forehatch with the starboard oar, easing the helm, as the current went directly west.

“The devil! This is not sunset weather,” replied Rasmus; “it won’t come until longer out in the day; but then we shall have more than we bargained for.”

But there soon came a fresher breeze in the air; we did not need the oars to hold our course, and we made good speed out to sea. The fog dissipated after a while, and behind us rose the coastline of the outer naked holms; but before us lay the sea in its endless expanse, blushing in the morning sun. The wind from land still had power enough; but the higher the sun climbed, the clearer the sky, the fresher it blew in from the sea; the rising fog laid itself like a blanket across the land—now it was a stiff mackerel gale. We were soon in the midst of a shoal of mackeral; the lines came out, and there were continuous bites, so that the lines danced; with a wiggle and a squirm, one gleaming silver fish after the other was pulled up and thrown into the boat. But the joy was short-lived, as usual. As the day drew on, the gale increased more and more; the sea drew in, the waves grew; finally the lines stood taut, and the lead weights hopped across the waves, and the sea spray showered in over our little nutshell, sending foam and spray high up the mainsail. The lines were pulled in. The pilot’s boy sat in the main hatch, swinging his legs, and from old habit, gazed out, here and there. At times he was down in the hold, looking at his clock, which lay in a big, red-painted ship’s chest.

“Yes, that chest and that clock,” said Rasmus with a nod: “those he holds dear, and he is right to do so, too, for had they not existed, then he would now be lying, digging pebbles on the seabed.”

I asked for an explanation, and he told:

“It was October last year. It was difficult weather; I could barely hold at sea, but I stayed out. And he was with me. After a long time, I hailed a Dutchman, and came aboard her, too; but I was uncertain of the boat and the boy. My thoughts were not where they should have been, for every moment I looked for the boat and the boy; and finally I saw that he took in a breaker aft—and gone was he. We could not help, even if the skipper had wanted to, for it was too far off. I prayed for myself, and thought that I would never see him again. But the first person I met when I came home—it was the boy! He had come home a long time before I did. He took out the clock and showed me, and said: ‘I have salvaged the clock, father, and she still runs.’ Now, thank God, I thought, that you are saved; we can always afford another boat, even though it had cost me half the third hundred dollars; and brand new sails were on her.

“How was he saved?

“Well, it went like this… yes, yes, little-un,” he said to the boy, who laughed, swinging his legs even more. “He won’t drown who is to hang. A brig that belongs a little north of here came. Suddenly they heard a cry; a hand ran forwards, but there was nothing to see, for they thought least that it came from overboard; but just like that they heard a cry from before the bows, and when the captain himself came forwards to look out, the boy sat on the ship’s chest, holding a clock high above the waves. The captain just managed to signal to the helmsman, so they did not sail into him; they lay to, shoved out a pole and hauled him up.”

As the day drew on, the wind calmed, and now, once in a while, a fish jumped. “Well, well,” said Rasmus, shaking his head a little as he lit his pipe. “Something is brewing, down south there. The blast we had was just a morning dram. You’ll see how we are treated. Even the fish know it; they are not biting; and the birds are afraid—listen how they hiss and screech and seek land. It will be right witches’ weather tonight. Well, look at that! If she tumbles any closer, then God help me, I could…” spit on it, he was going to say, but at that moment my gun reported, which I had thrown up to my eye, and fired upon a porpoise, which had been frolicking up between the waves, close by us. When it felt the lead, it whipped up the sea with its fluke, so the spray reached us, up to the height of the mast.

“That witch will not be sending us any weather,” I said, seeing the sea turn red with the blood. Rasmus was not slow to hack the boathook in it, and we hauled it into the boat. He hummed, well satisfied at the prospect of all the train oil he would have, turned the heavy animal from one side to the other, stroked it as if it were a fox cub, and reassured himself that it was a fat, heavy brute, which would be welcome as boat grease and lamplight.

As we spoke about witches and witches’ weather, a strange tale of a witch came to my remembrance; I thought I had heard it from Rasmus, once in my childhood, but it was so unclear to me that I was uncertain whether it was something I had been told or dreamed. I asked Rasmus if he hadn’t told me such a story of three witches.

“Oh, that!” he replied, laughing; “that is of the kind they call skipper lies these days; but in the old days, they believed in it just like ‘Our Father.’ My old grandfather told me it when I was a small boy; but whether it was his grandfather or great-grandfather who was the cabin boy, I don’t remember. Enough about that; it went like this:

“He had sailed with a skipper, as a cabin boy, all summer, but when they should set sail in the autumn, he had qualms, and would not go along. The skipper liked him well, for even though he was still a youth, he had a good grasp of things aboard; he was a big, strong lad, and was not afraid of getting his hands dirty when there was work to do; he almost did the work of an old hand, and cheerful was he, too, and kept life in the others; the skipper would therefore rather not lose him. But the boy had no desire to ride the blue moor in the autumn evenings; but he would remain aboard until they were laden, and were ready to sail. One Sunday, the crew had shore leave, and the skipper was up with a forester, buying some timber and lumber as deck cargo—it was his own merchandise, I would think—and the boy was to watch the ship. But I must not forget this: this boy was born on a Sunday, and had found a four-leafed clover; he was sighted, therefore—he could see the invisible, but they could not see him.

“Well, well—it will be bad weather,” Rasmus interrupted himself; he got up and shielded his eyes with his hand, so he could look southwards without being blinded by the glare of the sun, which had just come out through a split in the clouds. “Look how it is winding up; there will be thunder and lightning. Best to turn in time. We haven’t a puff left, now; we sit here in dead water, drifting like a sack of hay, but we must reef before it falls upon us. Come, John!”

While the reefing was done, I took the helm and looked out for the weather. It was smooth, and almost still; the wind had stilled, but the boat rocked on the swell. Far to the south, a dark bank stood in silhouette; we had first seen it as a narrow edge that blended into the sky and the sea, but afterwards, it rose like a wall or a blanket, with a border of heavy, straw-yellow, rolled-up thunder clouds on the top. In parts, the blanket of cloud was lighter, or more translucent; it looked as though there was a light behind. There was no flash to see, but we heard a distant, faint rolling, that I first thought came from the sea.

“Now,” said Rasmus, when he had lit his pipe and taken the helm again. “So the boy was sighted, and just as he was sitting forward in the berthdeck, he heard talk from the hold. He looks through a crack, and there he sees three coal-black ravens on the ’tween deck beams in there, and they are talking about their husbands. All of them were bored of them, and now they would kill them. It was easy to understand that they were witches who had transformed themselves.

“‘But is it certain that no one can hear us here?’ said one of these ravens. From its voice, the boy could hear that it was the skipper’s wife.

“‘No, you can see,’ said the other two, which were the wives of the first and second mates; ‘there is not a mother’s soul aboard.’

“‘Well, then I will tell it; I know some good advice to get rid of them,’ the skipper’s wife began to speak again, and hopped closer to the other two; ‘we can make ourselves into three breakers, and wash them overboard, and sink the ship, with man and mouse.’

“Yes, yes, the others thought this was a good idea; they sat for a long time, speaking of the day and the waters.

“‘But I don’t suppose there is anyone to hear us,’ said the skipper’s wife again.

“‘You know there isn’t,’ both of the others replied.

“‘Yes, well, there is some advice against it, and if it were followed, it would be dear for us; it would cost life and blood.’

“‘What advice is that, sister?’ asked one of the mate’s wives.

“‘But are you sure that no one can hear us? I thought I saw smoke from the berthdeck.’

“‘You know we have looked in every nook. They have forgotten to turn the heat down in the galley, that’s why there is smoke,’ said the mates’ wives. ‘Just tell us!’

“‘If they buy three clutches of wood—but it has to be full-length and untrimmed—and throw one of the clutches out, log by log, when the first sea comes, and the second clutch out, log by log, when the second comes, and the third clutch out, log by log, when the third comes, then there is no hope for us.’

“‘Yes, it is true, sister; then there is no hope for us, then there is no hope for us!’ said the mates’ wives. ‘But then, there is no one who knows!’ they shouted, laughing. And when they had done this, they flew up through the main hatch, and screeched and cawed like three ravens.

“When they were to sail, the boy would not for the life of him go with them, and no matter what the skipper said to him or promised him, it did not help; he would by no means go along. Finally, they asked if he was afraid, since the autumn approached, and perhaps he would rather sit in the corner by the stove, behind his mother’s skirts.

“No, said the boy, that he was not, and he did not believe they had ever seen such a side of him. This he would show them, too, for now he would go with them; but the conditions he set were that they should buy three clutches of full-measure birch wood, and that he would be allowed to command as if he were captain, on a day that he would decide upon.

“The skipper asked what manner of mockery this was, and whether he had ever heard of a cabin boy ever being trusted to command a ship.

“But the boy replied that it was all the same to him; if they would not buy three clutches of birch wood, and obey him as if he were captain for a single day—and day the skipper and crew would hear about beforehand—then he would not set his foot on the ship again; and even less would his hands smell of pitch and tar there.

“The skipper thought this was curious, and that he was a strange boy; but he finally gave in, for in the end, he wanted him to come along, and he thought too that he would clear his head in the braces when they were at sea. The first mate thought the same: ‘Oh, let him have command! If it gets too much, then we can give him a hand,’ he said. Now, the birch wood was bought, measured well, and untrimmed, and they sailed.

“When the day came that the cabin boy was to be skipper, it was beautifully calm weather. But he bid all hands to reef and take in sail, so they showed nothing more than the close-reefed sails. And it was just as the dog watch ended and the first day watch should come on duty. Both the skipper and the crew laughed and said: ‘Now we know who has command; shall we take in the rest, too?’

“‘Not yet,’ said the cabin boy, ‘but in a little bit.’

“Just like that a squall came over them, so hard and strong that they thought they would overturn, and had they not struck and reefed, then there was no question but that they would have gone under when the first breaker hit the ship. The boy commanded them to throw out the first clutch of birch wood, but log for log, one at a time, never two, and they must not touch the other two clutches. Now they were ready to obey, and they laughed no longer at him, but threw out the birch wood, log by log. When the last went, they heard a groan, as from one who lies dying, and at once the squall was over.

“‘God be praised!’ said the crew.

“‘I would say so, and stand by it for the owners, too, that you have saved both the ship and the cargo,’ said the skipper.

“‘Yes, that is well enough, but we’re not done yet,’ said the boy, ‘it’s coming in worse,’ and he commanded them to tighten each cleat, as close as the rest of the topsail. The next squall came even harder than the first, and it was so wild and infernal that they thought it would cost them their lives. When it was at its roughest, the boy said that they should throw the second clutch of wood overboard, and they did so. They threw it out log by log, and minded that they did not take any of the third. When the last log went, they heard a deep groan again, and then it stilled.

“‘Now we have one left, and it will be the worst,’ said the boy, and commanded all hands to stations, and the ship sailed under nothing but its tackle and rigging. The last squall came worse than either of the others; the ship lay over so that they thought they would never right again, and the seas broke over the aftcastle and the forecastle. But the boy commanded them to throw out the last clutch of wood, log by log, and not two at a time. When the last log went, then they heard a deep groan, and when it calmed, the sea was coloured with blood, as far as they could see.

“When they came over, the skipper and the mates spoke of writing to their wives.

“‘You may as well not bother,’ said the boy, ‘for you have no wives any more.’

“‘What talk is this, you pup? Have we no wives?’ said the skipper.

“‘Have you made an end of them, perhaps?’ said the first mate.

“‘Oh no, we have all had an equal hand in it, all of us,’ replied the boy; and then he told them of what he had seen and heard, that Sunday he was baboon, when the crew had shore leave, and the skipper had bought some timber from the forester.

“When they came home, they heard that their wives had disappeared the day before the bad weather, and no one had either heard or seen them since.”

Rasmus remained sitting, telling one story after the other. As evening drew in, the bad weather approached slowly, and rose in the sky, like a dark curtain. Bolts of lightning shot down towards the sea, or they went horizontally like snakes, and ran like flamezones around the richly folded clouds, or they made the whole thing translucent like lace or muslin. The storm was still a good distance away; the thunder crashed weakly, and the sea rolled nothing but long, smooth swells, as far as the eye could see; but it was the colour of blood and wine, for the sun went down in red storm clouds, and the colours were taken up in the mirror of the sea. But it was clear enough that we would not escape the weather; the sea grew, the current set us towards land, and it was only now and then that a gust of wind filled the sail. By the last of the daylight we saw, far away by the edge of the sky, a black stripe; as it approached, a white edge of whipped-up foam went before it, and the storm and the night were upon us. As an arrow, the boat shot on its way, and it was not long before we were by the outer reefs. The screams of alarmed sea birds sounded hoarse and weak through the breakers. The holms and the reefs took a little off the violence of the sea, but further in, where the full force of the sea hit, it grew again, and in the flashes of lightning, we saw tall, foaming breakers along the shore, and the roar sounded like thunder. Rasmus kept a keen eye in the darkness, that which appeared impenetrable to me; I could not see anything but the broad, white band of foam which we approached at alarming speed. After and long, long time, I became aware of a small dark point that we were headed for. A few minutes later, we sailed through the narrow sound beneath Ullerhodet, and were happy to reach the safety of the harbour, where tall mountains calmed the wind and weather.

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