On These Seas, Colors Wash to Gray
by Justin Bryant
The South Atlantic Ocean, June 1974
By nightfall, the near-fight between Francis and Randolph had been forgotten. The Barracuda pivoted from her anchor, the stern swinging in slow arcs near a pair of identical rock islands. In the lee of Dyer Island, the water was calm, but winds pushed the fifty seven-foot vessel to the length of her anchor line and into the jagged seas. Cape fur seals bellowed from Geyser Rock, fifty yards across the channel. The wind shifted and brought the ammonia stench of guano from the rocks. Lights from Gansbaai lay like a string of jewels low on the horizon. Just after sunset, sea birds took flight and wheeled away in severe arcs. Cold, dark water chilled the hull. Inside the cabin, the men pulled on sweaters and coats. Lucas caught Randolph’s eye as he was climbing into his bunk. Randolph smiled at him.
Though the fishing grounds were only eight miles off the coast of Cape Town, the cost of fuel meant they spent nights at sea, on anchor, and were not due to return to port for another three days. Their work day saw both sunrise and sunset. Winter had come, and its stinging cold prodded raw nerves and tempers. As a dockhand, Lucas took orders from everybody.
The narrow crew cabin, lined on either side with bunk beds, smelled of diesel fuel. Randolph hung above Lucas on one side. Francis and two brothers from Rhodesia took the three bunks on the other side. The brothers rarely spoke, even to each other. They were powerfully built teenagers, close in age but not twins. Benjani, older, was a full head taller than Dira. They were uncomfortable with conversation, worked hard during the day and ate together at sunset in the bow. “They’re refugees,” Randolph had told Lucas. “From the civil war. Leave them alone.”
The men lay in their bunks and listened to a rugby match on Francis’s radio, South Africa’s Springboks against the Lions of Great Britain, the first match of the 1974 Tour. The reception was poor, and Francis constantly adjusted the antennae. At halftime, with South Africa losing badly, he went into the head.
Lucas prodded Randolph in the bunk above him.
“What was that fight about, Randolph?”
“That wasn’t no fight.”
“What was it about?”
Randolph leaned his head over and looked down at Lucas. At forty-seven, Randolph’s face was ashy and deeply lined, and though he kept his thinning hair cropped short, he indulged a wild tangle of beard. He had blunt, square features, and his smile revealed crooked but gleaming white teeth.
“Goes back a year, before you was on board. He was stealing cans of lager for himself, socking them away in the ice.”
“You caught him?”
Randolph looked over his shoulder, making sure Francis was still in the head. “I told him he owed the rest of us. All he had to do was buy some rounds next time we were in port. But he got spitty about it, so I told Steyn, and Steyn fined him double the cost. Francis been spitty about it ever since.”
Francis came back from the head. Outside the wind rose and choppy waves ricocheted against the hull. The men retreated further into their bunks and covered themselves with thin blankets. The anchor line snapped tight with every swell. The rocks on both sides had seen to the end of three commercial boats in the last year. Randolph hated when Steyn anchored in the narrow channel.
“Hey Randolph,” said Francis from his bunk. “I saw Sister Sara yesterday. Said she was looking for you.”
“Liar. Nobody’s seen her for months. She’s gone somewhere else.”
“Oak, you got such a temper,” Francis said. “You can’t take a joke.”
“I don’t like anyone throwing things at me,” Randolph said.
“It was just a bait fish.”
“A bait fish slapping into my face on a cold day ain’t a joke. You should know.”
“Alright, oak. No need for World War Two.”
“Three. World War Three.”
“There’s already been World War Two, dummy.”
The radio blurred to static. Francis adjusted the dial, and the men listened to the commentary in silence for several minutes. After the final whistle blew – the Springboks lost – Randolph switched off the single light bulb. In the dark, the brothers whispered for a moment, and then everyone slept.
The men were up before dawn, setting gill nets. The winter sun rose weakly. Captain Steyn, watching the men working in the cockpit, pointed towards Robben Island, low and bleached white as a bone, on the horizon.
“Gonna drop you off right there, Randolph, if you give me any more trouble.”
Steyn tried to light a cigarette, but the wind snuffed his match.
Steyn called down from the flybridge. “Net’s fouled!”
Randolph leaned over the gunwale. “It’s a shark. A bronze whaler.”
“Get him out before he cuts the whole thing.”
Steyn watched from the flybridge as the brothers pulled the shark to the surface. It was nine feet long and close to four hundred pounds. “I think she’s dead, boss,” Randolph said.
Randolph looked over at Lucas. “Hand me that.” Lucas handed him a blunt-edged club. “Go on up to the bow,” Randolph said. “Make sure the anchor’s not dragging.”
Lucas started to protest. “Go on,” Randolph repeated.
Later, Francis said, “Oh cuzzie, that shark’s gonna haunt you at night, banging against this hull. And you’re the only one who’s gonna hear it.”
In the evening, the Cape fur seals returned to Geyser Rock and began barking in annoyance at the men. The seas flattened as the wind fell. Sunset was quick and colorless. The Southern Cross rose above Table Mountain and wheeled slowly overhead through the night. Tiny waves slapped against the hull.
The men were exhausted and slept heavily.
The winter fog burned off early, and the morning passed in a flurry of activity as the nets were set and pulled, set and pulled. While the men rested and ate lunch, a curious Southern right whale, thirty-five feet long, edged into the channel and rolled to look at them. It blew and raised its head, covered with barnacles.
“Don’t look him in the eye,” Francis said.
“Ach, don’t be superstitious.”
“It’s true, Randolph. You look at him today, you’re swimming with him tomorrow. Every man of the sea knows it. You want a mouthful of sand though, you go right ahead.”
Benjani, sitting with his brother on the steps up to the flybridge, frowned. He whispered to his brother. They got up and walked around the pilothouse to the bow, and finished their meal there together.
Randolph tapped Lucas on the shoulder and pointed at the whale. “Got bite marks, you see, Lucas?”
“Those long scratches on the head.”
Randolph put down his plate and shielded his eyes with both hands.
“Killer whale, maybe.”
The whale blew again and rolled away into the blue deep. The water closed above him with a fizzing sound that lasted a full minute.
Steyn called down from the flybridge: “There’s two more.” He pointed off to starboard, a hundred meters.
The whales blew. The spray arced up in fleeting rainbows that were quickly carried away by the wind.
Lucas and Randolph sat on the bow, watching jets on approach to Cape Town International in the setting sun.
“DC-10,” Randolph said, pointing. “You can tell, it’s got an engine in the middle of its tail.”
The jet passed over them, red lights blinking from the ends of its wings, and vanished into the mist gathering around the coast.
Captain Steyn was below decks in his small, private cabin. The brothers sat in the cockpit, mending nets. Lucas stood and walked around the pilothouse and waved down at them. They returned his wave. He walked back to the bow.
“You think they were soldiers?” Lucas asked.
Randolph lit a cigarette. “I seen one of them had a ZANLA bracelet. Zimbabwe Liberation Army. He wore it their first day, must of hid it away since then.”
Lucas slapped a fly on his elbow and flicked the crushed insect into the sea.
Another jet passed low on its approach. “747,” Randolph said. “Four great big engines on the wings.”
“You ever flown on a plane, Randolph?” Lucas asked, but Randolph didn’t answer.
An alarm blared and woke the men. Steyn stuck his head out of his cabin door. “Someone who thinks he knows what he’s doing, check it out.”
“Bilge pumps have gone out again,” Randolph said, jumping from his bunk. “I bet the fuse is burned out.”
Francis was already on his feet. “Ya, Randolph. I got it.”
“Wait, cuzzie. You gotta replace them in the right order.”
“You think you the only one who can do it?”
“Shut up, Francis,” Steyn said, still at the door. “Let Randolph do it.”
Randolph shrugged at Francis and opened the door to the engine compartment. The alarm continued to blare for a moment, then stopped. He emerged a few minutes later. Steyn had gone back inside his cabin, but Francis was still standing in the narrow alley between the bunks.
“I could have done that,” he said.
“You think you’re something special. Too good for everything.”
“Too good to be on this boat with you.”
Francis frowned. “You shouldn’t say that.” He climbed back into his bunk. “Not even as a joke.”
Moonlight fell through thin clouds and spattered across the wavelets. Randolph stood with one boot on the cockpit steps. He reached down and peeled at flaking white paint.
“Last week when we were in port, I walked through the shops on the waterfront and saw some old-timey dress-up clothes for sale. Big wide suspenders, coats with tails. I saw a tie that had green sparkly crystals all over it. Clothes like that aren’t for regular life, just for dress-up parties. For fun. Whatever party you could go to wearing a tie like that, that would be some good time.”
“Ya, it would be,” Lucas agreed.
Randolph offered Lucas a cigarette and they smoked in silence, looking south across the dark ocean. Lights blinked from big container ships churning around the horn of Africa. Randolph stubbed out his cigarette before he’d smoked half of it.
“I didn’t like killing that shark the other day,” he said.
In the morning, when Francis went below decks to the head, Lucas approached Randolph. “He’s making a blade,” he whispered.
“You mean a knife?”
“Well, a straight razor blade, with a handle. I saw him putting it together when he was supposed to be mending nets.”
Randolph wiped his hands on the front of his trousers. “It don’t matter,” he said.
“Just be careful, cuzzie.”
“It don’t matter.”
Steyn called down from the flybridge, “Don’t be japing off.”
The men worked the nets from the cockpit with grim efficiency. They sang call-and-response songs for awhile, with Randolph leading, but in the rising wind the men missed their cues, and eventually they fell back to silence. The stench from Dyer Island was overpowering. Francis stayed in the bow, working alone on the windlass.
“How come we have to be so close to these islands?” Lucas asked.
“Steyn likes it that way. He don’t want to be in the middle of the channel with the rough water. He gets seasick,” Randolph said.
“And him a Captain.”
“Don’t let him catch you laughing.”
Randolph pulled a small bait fish from the nets and flung it onto the rocks of Dyer. Several cormorants scrambled for it.
“I tell you, young oak, I been so close to that island right there my whole life, and I never once stepped foot on it. It don’t seem quite right.”
Lucas surveyed the island, five acres of sharp rocks and oxidized red sand.
“Not much to it. You’d be lonely out there.”
They were quiet for a few moments, until Lucas said, “You gotta watch Francis, oak.”
“Well, we go home tomorrow anyway.”
“But we come right back out two days later.”
“It don’t matter.”
The wind rose to an unearthly howl as it rasped across the jagged rocks of the island.
“It’s a terrible island, really,” Lucas said.
Randolph leaned on the railing and propped his chin in his hand. “I guess that moaning wind would probably drive you crazy in the night.”
A storm blew through the Western Cape. Rain flattened the waves in the channel, and leaden clouds fell until the sky and sea were indistinguishable. A winter southeaster; the temperature plunged. Francis spread a tarp across the cockpit. Lucas bent over the gunwale, his hands splashing in the water as he pulled undersized fish and debris from the nets. The seals rolled and snuffled on Geyser, then suddenly froze. The sea foamed as penguins propelled themselves onto the rocks. A boil of upsurging water spread across the surface right next to the boat, forming a large, round, slick spot. Randolph took Lucas firmly by the arm and pulled him back.
The brothers lifted their heads and looked into the black water. Another boil of water spread across the surface. “She’s under us,” Randolph said.
Lucas, with Randolph still holding him by the arm, peeked over the gunwale and tried to look under the boat.
“I don’t see her.”
Another squall of rain washed across the boat. Randolph wiped the water from his eyes. Lucas scanned the water.
“No such thing as no Sister Sara,” Steyn said from the flybridge. “Great whites coming through here all the time. Can’t tell one from another.”
“Sister Sara’s different, boss,” Randolph said.
The men watched the water for a few more minutes, but nothing came, and they went back to their tasks. Lucas rubbed his hands together vigorously, but couldn’t summon any warmth.
“Was it true what Steyn said? There’s no Sister Sara?” Lucas asked.
“You ask every man who fishes these waters, he’ll tell you he seen her,” Randolph said. “All say the same thing – twenty feet long, six feet around, dorsal fin bent at an angle.” He paused for a moment. “But, I have to tell you honest, young oak. I never seen her.”
“Seen plenty of great whites. But not one like that.”
“Maybe it’s just a story, then. Maybe it’s not real.”
“No,” Randolph said. “Sometimes you see the way the seals go flying back onto the rocks. It’s got to be something big scaring them like that.”
“Maybe we’ll see her one day.”
“Maybe,” Randolph said. “But there’s a lot of dark places down there for her to hide.”
Morning came bright and warm. The seas ran flat and reflected a clear blue sky. The men blinked in the bright sunshine, smiled dumbly at it, almost unbelieving. Table Mountain stood tall and clear on the horizon, its blanket of white cloud hugging it beneath the expanse of blue. Francis stood with his hands on his hips and said, “Well, this is a day, oaks.”
They sang while they worked, with even Steyn joining in at times. Midway through the morning, they took a break, the sun now positively beaming down on them, sending waving shafts of light into the still, clear water. Randolph told a joke. Everyone laughed, even Francis.
“Look,” Randolph said. The men followed his finger to a large, oval shape moving under the water alongside the boat. It paused and surfaced: a loggerhead turtle. Its shell was covered with barnacles, and it looked directly at the men with glossy black eyes.
“What’s that, girl? You come to say hi?”
The turtle tread water with its front flippers, its mouth slightly open. Benjani stood and walked closer to it, leaning over the gunwale to stare. Randolph tossed it a bait fish and the turtle plucked it from the water as soon as it hit the surface.
“That’s a pretty girl,” Francis said.
“Yes sir, it is,” Randolph agreed.
For the rest of the day, the turtle circled the boat, snapping up bait fish thrown by the men. The day passed in sunshine and song and laughter. Even the brothers joined in.
Just before sunset, the turtle turned a slow circle, looked at the men one final time, and slid beneath the water. Randolph felt a sharp pang of loss he wouldn’t have been able to explain. He scanned the water, but the turtle was gone. He looked at Lucas and smiled, but this time it was forced.
A storm beset them overnight. When they began work again, cold rain fell and winds frothed the sea. They could not see land. The men coughed and sneezed and nobody sang. They worked the nets as the sun pushed unseen through the clouds, the light not changing, and when night came, they knew it only by their exhaustion.
Justin Bryant‘s fiction has appeared in Thin Air, The Iconoclast, The Ampersand Review, VLAK Magazine, and others. He is the author of the 2013 memoir Small Time, published in the UK by Bennion Kearny. He is a 2008 graduate of the MFA program at New York University, and lives in Raleigh with his partner Sarah and their dogs Roxy and Bryce.