Rounding the Cape
© 2008 Carter Nipper
When you're in Kansas, you should pay attention to the blizzard warnings, I discovered. When the Alberta Clipper comes howling out of Canada, it sweeps across two thousand miles of open prairie, seeking to destroy anything that gets in its way. My car was only an insignificant insect under the boot of this Bunyan-esque storm, and only chance let me see the mailbox when the car finally came to rest in the ditch.
It was just a plain black mailbox with a number and a name 25773 and Moore, respectively but, since it was the only recognizable object in a sea of white, it seemed Heaven-sent. Beyond the mailbox, I made out the open end of a driveway and, by straining, I convinced myself that I saw the corner of a fence. Not having any better prospects, I decided to take the chance. At least my body would be found before Spring.
So, I started the trek. I guess the gods do watch over fools and madmen. It was a fence, and it ran right up the side of the driveway. By keeping my fingers on the fence, I guided myself along until a house loomed out of the solid white of the falling snow, if horizontal movement at high speed is considered falling. The lights in the windows looked like the lighted windows of a giant ship passing before my eyes, and I called out for a life preserver.
"Ahoy," I called. "Ahoy, the house!"
The door slammed open, and I saw the silhouette of a man. I was glad to not see a gun in his hand.
"Who's there?" His voice cracked, whether with fear or concern, I did not know. "Who calls?"
I stumbled toward the light and the sound, tripped on the steps, and sprawled at his feet.
"Help," was all the whisper I could muster.
He was instantly at my side and helped me to my feet with astonishing strength, for I could see that he was advancing in years. Farm work keeps you strong, I guess, and the constant sun and wind can make you look older than you are.
About an hour later, my belly was full of some mighty good soup, cooked up on a wood stove that had to be older than he was. This was plainly not his first time dealing with Great Plains blizzards, and I felt an awful lot better.
My host introduced himself to me as Benjamin Moore, "no relation to the painter," he said with only a faint grin. He appeared to be in his late sixties or early seventies, sun-darkened, wind-wrinkled, and life-hardened. His hands bore calluses as hard as horn, and he moved with the grace, confidence, and sense of his own strength of one who has spent a lifetime at hard labor.
As I wandered around the living room, a cup of coffee warm in my hand, I noticed a brass instrument on the mantelpiece. A closer look revealed that it was a sextant, and a very old one at that. Some of the engraving had actually been worn away with use. I wondered how many years of constant use it would take for a man's fingers to wear away solid brass. The piece of nautical gear seemed strangely out of place in this simple Kansas farmhouse in the middle of a howling blizzard. In the glow of the hurricane lamps electrical power was only a memory on this night it glowed with a nimbus of golden light.
"A memento of a former life," old Ben said, when he noticed my interest.
A strong gust of wind shook the windows just then, and he shrank back a little toward the fire. He developed nervous twitches in his hands, and his head moved from side to side as if he were afraid that something would sneak up on him.
"Never much liked storms," he said. "Never liked the wind at all. Especially the sounds that it makes."
We stood silent for a moment and listened to the wind. It moaned across the porch and wailed through the wires and shrieked around the chimney. Ben shook himself a little bit and seemed to awaken from a deep reverie.
"Sit down here by the fire, young man. Doesn't look like we're going to do much sleeping tonight, so I'll tell you a little tale."II. A Young Man and the Sea
It was a long time ago, he said, and maybe it never happened at all. It sure seems real to me, though, even after all these years. Since we're just passing the hours of the night, then maybe it don't matter so much what's real and what's not, but it's a story that needs to be told, nonetheless.
I was just a kid, seventeen, and I'd always been fascinated by the sea. Just like all kids, I guess, I had a notion of glamour and glory, or something like that. I'd always loved going out on sailboats, though we never had one ourselves, too poor for such, but I could just sail all day and have the time of my life.
So, naturally, I ran away to the sea. Times were different then, and a seventeen-year-old kid had no trouble hooking up with a berth. As long as you were willing to work hard and not cause trouble, there was always a place open.
I started out on the black gang on an old coal-fired steamer. The black gang is the guys that shovel the coal for the engines, and it's a job like no other. You can go for weeks, sometimes, just shoveling coal and sleeping and eating and never see the light of day, only the hell-fire from the boilers, and never smell the clean salt air, only smoke and sweat and coal-dust. It ain't no job for a weakling, nor anybody afraid of work, let me tell you. But it was a place to start and I was a sailor and that's all that mattered.
I moved out of the engine room, in time, and worked my way up in the ranks. Fifteen years it was when I first saw the Sweet Marie and met Captain Nick. Fifteen years at sea will make a man older and wiser, and I was starting to think about settling down somewhere and making a life. Sailing's a young man's life, unless you're a captain, and I had no hopes of ever rising that high. I figured I'd spend another three years, maybe five, at sea, and then start looking for a place to call home.
Then I heard about the Sweet Marie and Captain Nick Van Gelder.
There are stories that sailors tell only to each other, and I had heard enough about Captain Nick that I was intrigued. When I got a chance to sign on with him, I jumped at it. I had gotten pretty good at navigation, over the years, so they put me on the bridge crew as navigator.
Captain Nick was almost a caricature of a sailor: short, white hair sticking up all over his head in a kind of mane, except where his battered captain's hat held it down. His voice was more of a growl than anything else, and he rolled from side to side when he walked. If you saw him on the street, you would swear that he couldn't be real. But he was. I figured he was pushing seventy years old, about where I am today. At the time, that seemed so far away.
The Sweet Marie was Captain Nick's baby. She was an oil-fired steamer of about fifteen thousand tons. She was very much a tramp steamer, taking cargos of opportunity to most any port of call, but Captain Nick kept her in prime condition at all times. He had declared a personal war on dirt, and a spot of rust would send him off into a terrifying rage. We soon learned that cleanliness was the only way to survive on the Sweet Marie.
The first mate on the Sweet Marie was a man named Mister Talbot. I never knew his first name, or even if he had one. He was "Mister Talbot" and that was all there was to it. His skin was brown as old, polished teak, a deep, rich brown that looked like it went all the way to the bone. I don't think there were any Africans in his ancestry, though. I just think he had spent so many hours in the sun that the tan had become permanent, like a tattoo. He was a large man, well over six feet and all muscle, with a deep voice, who instantly commanded respect. I came to learn that he was also the best seaman that I have ever known, with an almost instinctive knowledge of the sea and all her vagaries. With Mister Talbot on board, we never worried. He could handle anything.
For the next eighteen months or so, we wandered the Atlantic. Though we never became close, and the captain and first mate kept their distance and their own counsel for the most part, we had a good ship and a good crew and we all enjoyed that time. We criss-crossed the ocean, Liverpool to Boston, back to Calais, back to Savannah, down to Jamaica, over to Gibraltar, Iceland to Rio and points in between.
Then one day, as we were unloading a cargo of bananas in Saint Augustine, the captain came rolling up the gangplank with a look in his eye that I had never seen before. On his face was a grin that spoke more of grim victory than laughter, and he walked with an unusual bounce in his step. We all stopped to stare, it was so unusual, but only for a moment.
As he climbed to the bridge, he yelled "Talbot!" and the first mate immediately left off supervising the unloading and climbed to the bridge himself. A few minutes later, he returned, and we again had to pause to take in the sight, for Mister Talbot, always as strong and impassive as a hundred-year-old oak tree, was wearing a smile of satisfaction on his face that was a mite disturbing.
Later that day, we found out that we had been hired to deliver a load to Lima, Peru. The strange thing was that the captain made it clear that we would not be going through the canal, but around the Cape. It seems like there are some people in the world who will trade time for money, since rounding the Cape can add weeks to the journey, or forever.
Cape Horn. The words raise goose-bumps on any sailor's flesh and strike a chill into his heart. No stretch of water on this Earth is as wild and savage, as unpredictable, as the waters off the Cape. It is the boneyard of the world, and Davy Jones keeps his locker full, there. The storms are frequent and always violent. In the days of sail, it was not unusual for ships to sail backward because of the violence of the winds, and dismasted hulks littered the shore like driftwood. With the advent of steam power, wrecks were no longer as certain to happen, but happen they still did, for the power of the sea will not be denied when she is angry, and she demands her sacrifices.
Cape Horn. Sailors said that it was always night when you rounded the Cape, no matter what time of day you started. Sailors said that no one ever saw Cape Horn in daylight and calm water, and we all believed it.
Cape Horn. We looked at each other in dismay, then at the captain and Mister Talbot, practically beaming with delight at the prospect of rounding the Cape, and we did not understand. Not until later. Not until far, far too late.
The captain made it clear that any of us could leave the ship and he would give us a good recommendation. He also told us that there would be a bonus in Lima for those of us who stayed on. We lost four crewmen that day, but they were quickly replaced and we began to load.
Forty-eight hours later, we were under way and heading south. South to the Cape.
All the way down the east coast of South America, the captain practically bounced with anticipation. Mister Talbot worked and supervised our work with a sense of calm satisfaction that seemed to sink deep into his being and did much to calm the crew's nervousness. We all laughed a little bit at our anxiety when the weather stayed calm and clear the whole way.
They say that no sailor ever saw the Cape in daylight or calm water. I intended to test that theory, so I laid my course very carefully, allowing for currents and tides and prevailing winds, so we would round the tip of the Cape at exactly high noon. I checked often to confirm that we were exactly on course and on time, but sometimes the captain would walk by my station and look at my charts, so carefully prepared, and then walk away, chuckling very softly to himself. That bothered me. It began to bother me very much as we turned west and approached the Cape. Though we were still exactly on time and on course, I began to get very anxious.
Sure enough, as I stood watch, peering ahead through my glasses to catch the first glimpse of the dreaded Cape Horn, I saw a line of clouds approaching from the west. Mister Talbot saw them, as well, checked the barometer, and began to issue orders to secure for bad weather. By the time that the ship was secured, hatches closed, cargo checked and secured against shifting, everything stowed, the line of clouds had darkened the western sky, and the wind had picked up considerably. The storm rushed down upon us with unnatural speed and broke suddenly with a fury that surpassed anything that I had ever seen, even the worst that the North Atlantic had ever had to offer.
Bad weather! Pah! Might as well say a gentle summer breeze! This was a storm that staggered the imagination. It pounded reason into helpless, blithering idiocy and stressed the senses to the breaking point. The day turned as dark as midnight. The waves were so high that the Sweet Marie was literally climbing up them and falling down the other side. The rain was so heavy that it was often impossible to see even the bows of the ship, and it sounded like hail hitting the glass on the front of the bridge. Lightning struck, no, sheeted, across the sky and sea in a continuous flame, and the wind shrieked through the rigging like the wails of tortured souls eternally lost.
I clung to my chair, which was bolted to the deck, with both hands as the ship pitched and rolled, but the first mate stood like a rock at parade rest at his post, as if passing for review. The captain relieved the helmsman, who scurried below, and took the wheel.
I came to have a deep appreciation for Captain Nicholas Van Gelder that day, and what I saw still affects me deeply. The way that he handled that ship was unbelievable. He barked orders to the engine room in a clear, high voice and spun the wheel like a race car driver entering the fourth turn at Indy. He anticipated the motion of the waves and kept the ship's bow pointed straight into them. The waves came from all angles, but we never broached. We always hit the wave head on and were turned for the next one, whichever way it came. It was a glorious and masterful performance from a seaman whose like I'll never know again.
How many hours I watched the captain calmly matching strength with the storm, I don't know. I do know that my arms were burning and trembling from grasping the chair. Through it all, Mister Talbot remained rooted to the deck, rolling with the ship and staring ahead as silent and impassive as if he were carved from stone.
The storm seemed to take affront at the captain's calm mastery and the first mate's impassive indifference, for it began to build. Incredibly, because it was already wilder and stronger than any storm that I had ever seen or heard about, the winds rose higher, shrieking like a chorus of hell-damned banshees and the rigging sang like guitar strings, adding a bass note to their ear-piercing keening. The thunder became an unceasing roar that rattled the glass in the frames, and the lightning lit that hellish night with an arc-light glare.
I may have lost my mind for a while, that night, for I still cannot credit what my mind remembers seeing. As the storm's intensity increased, the captain began to glow. I mean that sparks literally began to surround him. All sailors are familiar with Saint Elmo's fire, and I guess that's what this was. As the glow increased, my skin crawled with static, and the hairs on my arms stood up. I smelled the ozone and heard a faint crackling as the captain was slowly engulfed in a storm of red and green and blue fire that played over his skin and clothes without burning him.
He threw back his head and laughed, a high cackle, and then began to sing. The words of the song were in a language I don't know, Dutch, probably, but by the sound of it, it was probably a drinking song of some sort. Between verses, the captain laughed that eerie cackling laugh again, and my spine froze.
Scott Weems, third mate, let out a yell, and I tore my eyes away from the captain and looked out ahead of us. What I saw then chilled my very soul, for a face had formed in the clouds, a face straight from every schoolboy's conception of Hell, the face of the very Devil himself. It leered evilly across the sky, and His tongue was made of lightning. It was the only time since I was crawling on the floor as an infant that I have ever shit my pants, but I am not ashamed, for no man should ever be asked to look into that face of evil and remain sane.
The captain roared with laughter and shouted at the Devil with an insane glee, while he steered the ship with the most consummate and delicate skill. He still spoke that strange, Germanic-sounding tongue and was, to all appearances, having the time of his life.
The Devil leered and shot his forked tongue directly at the ship. The lightning struck the front of the bridge, and the thunderclap was deafening. I fell to the deck in shock and curled my body around the pedestal of my chair. The captain howled with laughter. And through it all Mister Talbot stood, massive and silent, unmoved by man or Devil, as if completely unconcerned.
Weems swore, and I lifted myself off the deck to see what could be coming next, though I really did not want to know.
Through flash-dazzled eyes, I saw that the lightning bolt had blasted open one of the cargo hatches on the main deck. Weems and I looked at each other in dismay. With the volume of rain falling and the waves breaking over the bow of the ship, we could easily fill and sink. It would have to be closed. I think that he saw that I was in no shape to do anything about it and grabbed his slicker from the hook by the door.
The deep voice sounded like the very voice of God and shocked us into immobility for a moment. We turned as one and stared at the immovable figure of Mister Talbot. His head slowly turned and he fixed us with a look like a harpoon.
"Leave it," he said again, and his voice rumbled like the thunder outside.
"But Mister Talbot" Weems began.
"Leave it." The sound was the tolling of a great iron bell, and his head turned forward again, having apparently said all that he was going to say about the matter and considering it closed.
Weems and I exchanged another look, and then he was out the door without another thought. I crawled to the windows and pulled myself up to watch.
The captain and first mate had no monopoly on courage that night. Weems covered himself in glory, as well. No power in Heaven, on Earth, or in Hell below could have convinced me to go out onto that heaving, flooded, blasted deck, and the sight of Weems making his way from one hand-hold to another, a puny figure of a man daring all of Nature's might to perform an act that might save his fellows from death, was and still is today a glory and a marvel and a testimony to the Universe that some men cannot be cowed by displays of power.
Somehow, he made it. Timing his move carefully, he used the movement of the ship to help him slam the hatch cover closed and dogged it down. He slipped and fell to the deck, and I held my breath as he slid across the deck, but he grabbed hold of a winch as he slid by and saved himself from falling overboard to a certain death by drowning, for no one could have rescued him. He rose to his feet and began to make his way back across the deck.
Through all of this, Mister Talbot stood immobile and unmoved, watching impassively and never uttering the smallest sound after his three warnings.
As Weems lurched toward another hand-hold and another step closer to safety, another bolt of lightning streaked down and threw a circle of fire around his waist. His mouth opened in a scream, though the sound was lost in the fury of the storm, and his body arched and bucked in agony. The lariat of fire drew him upward from the deck of the ship and held him suspended before us, jerking and shuddering and smoking, pieces of his slicker dripping molten to sputter onto the deck, before pulling him upward into that hideous mouth that was open now in a great, triumphant smile.
The captain threw back his head and howled. There is no other word to describe that sound. He howled with all of the lost and lonely heartache of the wolf, with all of the sorrow and longing of the coyote, and with all of the soul-deep agony of a man wandering friendless through all eternity. I hope I never have to hear such a sound again, for I think that I would die of heartbreak if I had to hear it again. I whirled around and sank to the deck with my back to the wall. The captain had his head flung back, and cords of muscle and tendon stood out on his neck. Then he lowered his head and began to steer once more, grimly, this time, determined and angry. My eyes were drawn to the first mate's face, and I wondered and was afraid as I saw the track of a single tear make its way down that brown granite mountain and fall from his chin.
The clouds began to break up immediately, as if satisfied with the sacrifice of the third mate, and the face broke up and disappeared, if it had ever even been there in the first place. The lightning ceased almost at once, only a couple of weak bolts between the clouds, and the wind and rain eased by the minute. The waves calmed and the storm was over just as suddenly as it had begun.
The sailors say that, no matter what time you round the Cape, you always reach the other side at dawn. And we did. The sky behind us, clear, now, was rosy, pink, and yellow with the rising sun as we sailed into the fading stars and the calm waters that earned the Pacific its name.
III. The Real Story
Mister Talbot and I took the job of cleaning the deck that day. We did not have to talk about it; we just knew that we had to do it. And, let me tell you, scraping those gobbets of rubber off the deck was one of the hardest jobs I have ever done in my life. Tears streamed down my face as I worked. I don't know if Talbot cried or not. I couldn't bring myself to look.
It was during a break about mid-morning that I finally learned the whole story about what had happened and the history that goes with such bizarre and unnatural events.
"It's not like they say about him," Talbot said suddenly. "He's not really bad luck, like they say."
I suddenly knew what he was talking about, and the icy feeling of the night before washed over me again.
"And he didn't really curse God like they say, either."
"What, then? What really happened?" I was proud that my voice was so calm and even.
Talbot looked at me in a way that seemed like he was searching inside me, my soul, and maybe he was. "You know what I'm talking about, don't you?"
I nodded. "What sailor doesn't know about the Flying Dutchman?" I know it sounds incredible, but I believed it, after the events of the night before.
He nodded in return. "I just want you to know that it really isn't like they say, that's all."
He settled back against the bulkhead and stretched his legs out in front of him.
"We were rounding the Cape when it happened. Of course, in those days we had real sailing ships, three-masters, you know, and the storms off of Cape Horn were deadly dangerous.
"We were carrying a load of rum to San Francisco on that run. England and Spain were at war a lot in those days, but third parties like the Dutch could still trade with both parties, and we were doing well carrying cargo back and forth.
"Well, we ran into a storm, not really unusual in these waters, you know. And it was a bad one, real bad. The captain was bad to drink in those days, too, so he was in no mood for hardship.
"At the height of the storm, we were all badly scared. The ship was taking on water, and the masts were not far from breaking under the strain of the wind and the side-to-side whiplash of the rolling ship. The captain was afraid, as well, but he was also getting really angry. He felt like somebody up there was picking on him, I guess, and he began to curse. Some really foul ones.
"Finally, he just snapped. 'Why don't you leave us alone,' he cried. 'Just let us through.'
"But the storm didn't let up, and he really let loose. 'Damn you, then! Not even the Devil himself will stop me making it around the Cape this time!'
"Well, we all know that statements like that can get a man into deep, deep trouble, and it did. Only the captain and I saw what really happened. The rest of the crew saw and heard nothing. That's the way of these things, I guess.
"It seemed like time just stopped. The spray hung in the air, and everything just stopped moving where it was. A man stood on the bridge. He seemed like just an ordinary man, only dressed in a nice suit, so he was really out of place, and his voice was a little rough and husky when he spoke, almost like he was not used to speaking nicely.
"'Gentlemen, I believe that I can offer you a way out of your current crisis,' he said.
"We just stared with our mouths open, of course. It was remarkably strange.
"'My master is often open to making wagers in situations of this sort and would entertain any offers that might have in that regard.'
"The captain recovered his wits before I did. 'A wager? What did you have in mind?'
"'My master understands that you would like to survive this storm and is prepared to make you an offer for that consideration.'
"'What's your offer?'
"'The life of one of your crew for safe passage for the rest. In addition, you and your mate, here, will live for as long as you keep up your end of the bargain and continue to sail the oceans and to sacrifice one life every time you sail around Cape Horn. If you ever break our bargain, you will begin to age again and will die soon after.'
"Eternal life! That's what he offered us! Not just a chance to survive the night, but to live forever! God help us! Oh, God help us, we took the deal. The man disappeared, and the storm was suddenly back in full blow, but a man was immediately washed overboard, and the storm abated, just like it did last night."
Talbot fell silent, and I regarded my shoes intently. Incredible! Unbelievable! But I believed it. After what I had seen the night before, I was ready to believe.
I looked at him, and a sudden realization ran through me like an electric shock. "Weems! It was a setup!"
Anger surged through me, and I was ready to throw myself at him, though I knew I had no chance against him in a test of strength. Then I saw his eyes, and the anger ran back out of me. His eyes were full of tears, though none dared escape.
"No, Ben," his voice was soft and low. "No, it's not like that at all. Eternal life, Ben. Every man's dream, right? But you don't stop to think. How would you like to be doing this, sailing ships across oceans, three hundred years from now?"
Three hundred years! The words echoed in my ears and inside my head, and I was weak with awe and pity. Three hundred years. Every one that I knew and cared about would be dead. Long dead. Dust to dust. And I would still go on. Endlessly working, toiling, slaving, a slave to the sea and the ships that sail on her. Three hundred years. The words were like a dead knell tolling in my mind.
"The captain wants out," I said. "He's trying to beat the Devil so he can get out of the game."
Talbot nodded. "We tried everything else. Not even suicide is a possibility."
He pulled his clasp knife from his pocket, opened it, and suddenly thrust it deep into his neck. I jumped to my feet, then sank back down, as the initial spurt of blood stopped and then died to a tiny trickle. He smiled, and that smile was the saddest expression I have ever seen on a human face. He pulled the knife out, wiped it on his pants, closed it, and returned it to his pocket.
I nodded my head. "So the only way out is to beat the Devil at his own game."
"Yes. If we ever make it around the Cape without losing a sailor, we win, and we will die. What was it Shakespeare said? ''Tis an outcome devoutly to be wished?'" He sighed. "It's hard, Ben. There are rules, you know."
"Yes. I have to warn them. But it never helps. They always go."
My eyes filled with tears, as well. Weems. He was only trying to do the right thing, not even thinking about being a hero; just trying to do the right thing. And his sacrifice had been in vain. And Talbot and Captain Nick were doomed to do it all over again. And again. And again. For you can't beat the Devil at his own game. He makes the rules, and you can't win. They knew that, but they had to try. Being human, they could do nothing else. Hoping against all hope is the human way, and, who knows, even the Devil has to lose sometimes.
After that brief encounter, we went back to being first mate and navigator, and we never spoke again as friends. When I left the ship in San Francisco, Talbot handed me a heavy wooden box, and inside it was that sextant. I believe it is the original one from their first ship, and it means more to me than anything else in this world. When I look at that sextant, I feel the weight of all those years that weigh down on their shoulders. All those years and all those lives and how many more to come?
When I got off the ship, I headed inland. And when I got to Kansas, I figured I was about as far from the sea as I could get and I settled here. Been here ever since.
You don't have to believe this story, young man. After forty-some years, I sometimes don't believe it myself. But when I look at that instrument, I know. And when the wind blows, I sometimes hear the voices of all those souls howling for their vengeance on the ones that killed them. And then I believe.IV. Dawn
After the old man finished speaking, we just sat for a while. The storm had died sometime during his story; exactly when, I had not noticed. He fixed us another pot of coffee and some breakfast, and we looked out the kitchen windows and watched the dawn break as we ate. The tail end of the storm was passing, and the broken clouds glowed brilliant pink and red and orange against a sky turning a heartbreaking blue.
"I'll get the tractor out of the barn. After the plow passes, we'll pull your car out of the ditch, and you can be on your way."
We walked out onto the front porch and the cold shocked my breath from my body.
"Turned off a mite chilly, I would say." His voice had in it the air of gentle fun that country people sometimes poke at the city folks.
He headed toward the barn, and I looked out over the featureless landscape. It looked like a frozen sea, with snowdrifts for waves. I noticed marks in the snow that seemed to lead away from the house. When I looked more closely, I saw that they were hoof-marks, a double line of them, and large ones. It looked like they would have been made by some two-footed creature coming toward the house through the storm. They led all the way up the steps and across the porch to the living room window, where they stopped. There were no tracks leading away. I suddenly felt a lot colder than I should have, bundled up as I was, and I hurried along behind my newfound friend. Suddenly, I didn't want to be alone.