I returned to the town on the west coast from which I had started before my journeys. I took a job in the office of an import, export business. I oversaw the merchandise at the unloading and loading on the docks and kept track of the inventory in the warehouse.
I frequented a restaurant at the harbor. There was a beautiful, young waitress there who waited on me. She seemed to give me special attention, always filling my coffee cup. She asked me if I wanted raisin bread for toast even though she said the cooks did not like her running raisin bread through the toaster. She said the raisins got stuck in the toaster. I said yes more to please her than myself. I was generous to her with my tips since her attention to me was rather flattering. Sometimes she would give me a glass of orange juice for free. She was going to the local junior college and studying business.
I lived in a cozy but tiny apartment in the harbor with a view of the docks and ocean from my window. I loved to wake up in the morning, drink coffee and look out of the window. I loved to breathe in the fresh, sea air. My whole life was in the harbor.
I decided to take classes at the community college after work. I took a beginning business class and a creative writing class. When I told the blonde waitress that I was taking classes at the city college she looked at me strangely.
It cost a pretty penny to take these classes. I struggled with my finances. The students in my creative writing class appreciated my work but the teacher was overly critical. I tried to satisfy the teacher’s criteria but I felt that he was jealous that he did not have the experiences to be able to tell the stories that I did. At one point he said words that implied that my stories were too fantastic to be believable. I suppressed my anger. I had to remind myself that my goal was to just make it through the class. To my surprise he gave me an A in the class despite his criticisms.
I had hoped that by going to the city college I might run into the blonde waitress and actually see her someplace else besides when she was working at the restaurant. This never happened. It was a little depressing going to school at night in the winter when it was dark and cold. When I awoke in the morning all I could do was drink some coffee and try to make it to work on time. I had to grab whatever snack food I could to make it through the day. Fortunately the harbor had its amenities. There was a hole in the wall restaurant close to work where I loved to buy fish tacos.
I told the blonde waitress that I had finished my classes. She seemed very interested in the things I had to talk about. She seemed especially interested in my creative writing. She would ask me questions about it.
After a few more months of working and trying to save money I started to pressure my bosses to let me take two weeks of vacation so I could visit my mother. They weren’t happy. Finally they agreed to one week. I took it.
Soon I was on an eastbound train. I arrived in the little, land bound town with rolling green hills. I had spent a lot of time wandering in the woods here all alone. When I found the house she was not there. I was told that she had passed away. I returned back on the train with a little package she had left me. In it were my birth certificate, baptismal certificate, some report cards from school, honor roll certificates, my baby book and photographs. I stared out the window of the train at the countryside passing by. Would I ever pass this way again?
I reported back to my job on Monday morning. I was told I was not needed. When I asked why I was told that my job had been given to someone new. This was not an answer to my question but the real reason was obvious. I had dared to stick up for my rights and ask for some vacation time. When I had previously asked for a raise I had been told that business wasn’t so good. I knew that this was a lie because I had overheard the owner telling his brother that their accountant had told him that their profits had never been better. I knew this was because of me and my high level of professionalism. My knowledge of the import, export business from my years of working the freighter ships was what made me so valuable.
I went to the harbor restaurant. The blonde waitress was not there. I returned to the restaurant the next morning for breakfast. She was not there again. I thought this was unusual. I asked about her. I was told that she had graduated from school and had gone back to the inland town that she came from.
I found myself on the same familiar pier again looking at the ships and gazing out to sea. I found myself once again wandering aimlessly along the narrow lanes of the waterfront. I came to a narrow lane and looked along it to my right. There was the curio shop, three shops down, on the left side of the lane! I wasn’t in a mood to question. My mind had been sullen. I walked toward the door of the curio shop. Inside I saw the oriental carpets, tapestries, silk, carved wooden figurines and beads. These were things I now knew too well from my travels in the Orient.
The elegant, Oriental lady was there again standing behind the counter. Once again I looked at her with her perfect oval face and curious smile with her lips sensuously turned up slightly at the corners of her mouth. I gazed deeply into her dark eyes. She did the same with me in response. I don’t know why but I reached into my inner coat pocket and pulled out the talisman. I asked her if I could sell it back. She nodded and said she could only give me half of the original price that I had paid. I said, “Okay”. She took the silver talisman from my hands. As she put the bills and coins into my hand she held the soft skin of her hand against mine for a moment while looking into my eyes. Then she drew her hand back and said, “It always comes back”. She smiled and bowed her head a little. All I could think of to say was, “Thank you”. She nodded twice and smiled. She looked off to the side so that I admired the beauty of her face in profile. I walked away to the door looking back at her over my shoulder. I went through the door to the world that was waiting for me outside.
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Perhaps it was the talisman but I took my savings and signed up to join the merchant marines. Soon I would be leaving everything that was familiar behind. People said I was still a young man so it was a good thing to see the world. I wrote a letter to my mother who was in the land bound town I grew up in, the place I left because I couldn’t stand the thought of always wondering what was over the next hill. This thought had vanished when I found the open sea stretching out before my eyes.
Before I was to leave I went back to find the curio shop where I had found the talisman. It wasn’t there. I traced my exact steps from the pier that day when I had encountered the little shop with the beautiful, oriental lady. I knew these little lanes along the waterfront by heart. I tried to find the corner I turned but only found the same familiar lanes and shops. There was no oriental curio shop. There was no vacant shop in its place. It was as if I had imagined it or dreamed it but the talisman was in my possession. I had it in my inner coat pocket. I felt delirious. Had I been lost? I wandered farther in surrounding areas but these places, also familiar to me, did not make sense with the memory I had of that day when I found the shop, the lady and the talisman.
With the merchant marines I traveled the world over and over. I realized the dream of mine to visit the South Seas and the Orient. This was only after many a cold journey in Northern waters to places like Finland and Sweden. I enjoyed England, France and the Mediterranean. My first storm at sea was the most incredible display of the power of Nature, beyond my imagination.
When I finally was bound to the South Seas of the Pacific and the Orient beyond I was overjoyed at the leaping dolphins in the sparkling blue waters. I was amazed by the flying fish skimming over the waves amid bright reflections. There were the hot, summer nights so balmy with the iridescent glowing spots of mysterious night fish. I felt in a wonderland.
And then there was the Orient. I found myself wandering down streets and narrow lanes in Hong Kong and Shanghai. These were places I had heard of and read about and I was there. It was like hundreds of Oriental curio shops. I was surrounded by them. Mysterious Oriental men, mysterious Oriental women and children. The children looked intently at me as I went walking by with mysterious little smiles on their upturned faces. When I went to sleep at night I thought of the dream I had when I first acquired the talisman in which I felt I was lost in a foreign land and could not find my way back. I did not however feel anxious about it as I had when I dreamed it. I was living my dream and everything was as it should be. I knew I would be able to find my way home or at least I thought I was sure of that.
I tried to stay in the Orient for as long as I could but my contract with the shipping company that had brought me there required for me to continue on to India and Africa. In fact I was to circumvent the globe returning to the cold Atlantic and ending my journey on the east coast of America.
From there I spent time traveling and living in parts of America I had not known before. I had many adventures and fulfilled a dream of visiting the East coast and learning of it. However since the only way I could make my living was as a sailor I had to find a ship that needed a hired hand. Soon I was on my way to parts unknown. From Norwegian fjords to tropical atolls, from cosmopolitan cities to farming communities I satisfied my curiosities about the world and the people in it.
Everywhere I traveled I met the most beautiful and interesting women. Sadness came at last when I thought how none of my love interests stayed in my life. I wrote many romantic letters. I gave significant gifts. I had happy memories but in the end they all turned bittersweet. The more I loved a woman, the more fleeting she became. When I thought of all the possessions I had lost along the way in my travels curiously the talisman had always remained.
I swear I could feel my heart in my chest sinking and my mind became heavy as a weight. “Aye, and we are adrift, matey”, I heard the old sailor say. I looked to my right where I heard the voice coming from. The old salt looked at me thoughtfully. “First we were driven off course. Now we are drifting off course but perhaps the captain at least knows where we are”, he said. “Did it matter if we know where we are if we can’t get back on course?” I thought as I turned full circle to look all around me. The ocean was so still that I felt I could see a hundred miles in every direction but all there was, was open sea.
Days went by. We were in tropical waters. It was hot and humid. The sailors took off their shirts. We were on rations of water and food. When we looked up at the sails there was not even the slightest of breezes to move them. There were no sea birds, no dolphins or fish leaping out of the water. Why?
At night when it was not as hot a sailor broke out a concertina and began to play music. He sang sailor’s songs. Other sailors sang along. Some danced. They told stories and laughed. The captain had allowed a ration of rum for all. The sailors made me smile. They joked about being in the doldrums. One sailor said, “Aye, and I’ve been in the doldrums before but only because I was on dry land for too long!” The crew gave a hearty laugh. I laughed, too. It sent a feeling of relief through my body. The rum was a helper.
I slept well that night but awoke feeling bad. It was not because of the rum. My soul was burdened by a weight of darkness in my being. I went out on the deck in the brightness and heat of the sun. Where was I? Our small, fragile vessel was in a nightmare landscape of yellow, brown and green seaweed! I looked at the sails, no wind, not even a breeze! The hot sun beat down on my enfeebled mind. I almost experienced vertigo as if I would lose my balance. “Aye, and we are in the Sargasso Sea”, said the old sailor.
All of the old, sea stories I had heard all my life about this accursed place came back to me. Would we all die of hunger and thirst here? I looked about at the motley crew. Their faces were grim. A burly sailor with a black beard and shaggy, black hair said, “All we can do is pray.” My mind went into a state that bordered on insanity. I thought back to the beginning of the voyage. Could I have made a decision to not get on board this ship? Such thoughts were futile I knew.
The next few days were a nightmare that never seemed to end. The sickening, horrible seaweed kept getting thicker as our once proud, ocean vessel drifted with no wind. There were pieces of old cargo and parts of old ships like small islands of rotting junk covered with seaweed surrounding us. We were getting deeper into the Sargasso Sea. Everything I had heard about this cursed place was true. Mentally I had descended into pure hell. Would we become just more of the flotsam and jetsam of the sea, rotting under green graves of seaweed? The sun in the sky was like a cruel, all knowing eye looking down on us.
One dark night we were all on deck. It was humid and very warm but not sweltering hot as in the daytime. Then a very young sailor shouted, “There’s a ship!” Without thinking with words my immediate feeling was that this made no sense. The sailors started stirring. Some stood up and walked over to the starboard side of the ship where the young man was looking out to sea. It seemed that the young sailor was looking intently at something. My curiosity was aroused. Another sailor said, “I see it!” Another said, “Aye, and so do I”. How was it possible? Was there another miserable crew of sailors like ourselves adrift in this abysmal place?
I walked over to the side of the ship and looked in the same direction as the others. There was something in the distance that shone pale as if in the moonlight but there was no moonlight. There was no moon. It started to get bigger on the horizon as if it was moving towards us. I remembered that there are fish in tropical waters that glow in the dark but the sailors had said that it was a ship. It was a ship! We all stood in wonder, frozen on the spot and waiting as the spectral ship in the darkness seemed to keep approaching us.
Then it came closer. It was in full sail as if a strong wind was driving it but there was no wind! No one spoke a word. I looked at the faces of the superstitious sailors around me with their wide open eyes, some with jaws clenched and some with jaws dropped.
The ship came closer. There was the sound of a howling wind. We saw that the sails of the ship were in tatters streaming forward with the wind and yet there was no wind. It was a ghost ship! My hair stood on end!
The ghastly, black ship with its flags and torn sails driven by a wind we could not feel started to pull alongside our ship. I looked at the sailors. Most were frozen with fear and could not move. Then there was the strange sound of music and sea chanteys. Then there was the sound of chains and moaning. There were screams. The ghost ship came up right along the side of our own vessel. The sound of chains and moaning grew louder. No one could be seen on board the ghost ship. It glowed pale and ghastly as if there was a moon with an eerie light of its own.
The ghost ship was passing slowly alongside of us now and a chill hit me that went straight through to my bones. I started to shiver. The burly sailor with the black hair and beard fell to his knees grasping at the beads of his rosary to pray. He looked up at the sky as if to ask God, “Why?” The old sailor’s teeth began to chatter uncontrollably making a horrible racket. Then the young sailor ran to the port side of the ship and jumped. As the ghost ship slowly passed our own fragile, little vessel and the sounds of chains and moaning gradually subsided none of us could even move.
The ghost ship had passed. We started to take deep breaths. Then we thought of the young sailor who was still just a lad. We ran over to the side of the ship. We shone lanterns all around the dark sea below us. There was seaweed everywhere. The Sargasso Sea had taken him.
The next days were misery. No one really wanted to talk about the ghost ship. We had all seen it. The merciless sun beat down upon us in the day. We were on starvation rations. The landscape around us was nightmarish.
One day I was lying on my back on the deck in a patch of shade, trying to conserve my energy. I did not want to die of starvation or dehydration. I opened my eyes a little and looked straight up. I thought I saw the flag at the top of the highest mast of our ship move. Was it my imagination? I kept looking at the flag. It moved again. My eyes were now fully open. I just kept lying there as if in a dream. The flag moved again. It started fluttering a little. I stood up still looking up at the flag. The other sailors around me noticed. They started looking up at the flag with me. The flag moved again. All of the sailors now were looking at the flag silently. The flag started fluttering some more. Then it fluttered even more. There was a breeze! Some of the highest sails appeared to move just a little. All eyes were above. The sails started to move some more. It was as if we were all frozen, afraid if we moved or said anything we would destroy the magic. The sails started to move more and the flags all started moving. The topmost flag started fluttering in the breeze and didn’t stop. All the sails were moving. The sails were starting to fill up with wind! We looked up at the helm of the ship. The captain was there at the wheel. He had a confidence and pride that we had never seen before. The ship was moving! It creaked and it moaned but it was not like the creaking and moaning of the ghost ship!
The first mate came on deck to assure us that the captain and the navigator had been keeping track of exactly where we were and would steer us on the right course. Some expressed concern about the obstacles of flotsam, jetsam and seaweed that surrounded us. The first mate said that those obstacles were taken into consideration. We were truly glad that we even had a chance since sailing at sea always involves risk. Only the use of skill keeps a man alive in the vastness of the awesome power of nature.
Much to our amazement, after negotiating some tricky turns to avoid being stuck in the seaweed of the Sargasso Sea, there appeared more open spaces in the water. It wasn’t long before we saw the open sea ahead of us and a clear path to reach it. We must have drifted through the hell of the Sargasso Sea and reached the other side.
We reached the open sea! The wind was with us and apparently the gods were now on our side! The sails were full as we were swept out to sea! The captain at the helm with the first and second mates and navigator around him looked proud but at the same time they looked like men who had been humbled. The sailors cheered!
It wasn’t long before the ship was sailing along at a good speed over bright, ocean swells with dolphins leaping about. A sign of good luck! Spirits were bright. That night the sailors celebrated with extra rations and a good ration of rum. There was music and singing of sea chanteys. The crew danced with men locking arms and dancing around in circles until they grew dizzy. This made everyone laugh!
And so the days continued at sea. It was a paradise. The sailors caught the best fish at sea. They cooked the fish on deck. It was a feast and a celebration of life.
Then the captain made an announcement. We were on course and soon would be reaching the Orient. Never before had the man in the crow’s nest with his telescope seemed so important. When he yelled, “Land, Ho!” the cheers of the grateful sailors went up to the heavens. Soon all of us saw land. We sailed into the harbor. It was a successful voyage. We delivered the goods and brought home valuable trading commodities from the Orient to Europe.
Those of us who were on this voyage continued our careers as merchant marines. We went our separate ways. We traveled all over the world. We had many adventures. I was fortunate to travel to the Orient many times. I was able to travel to the New World of the Americas.
Sometimes when I came into a seaport whether it was in my own home country or in a foreign place I would be in a restaurant or tavern that sailors haunt. I would sometimes be sitting by myself overhearing other sailors’ conversations. I overheard some sailors talking about the story of the ghost ship. Apparently some of the sailors who were on the same trip with me had told the story and it had gotten around. The sailors in the restaurants and taverns would discuss about whether they thought the story was true or not. The consensus was that it was just another sailor’s story.
I never told anyone this story because I knew that no one would believe me. As I make the rounds, traveling all over the world and meet one of the crew members who was on that fateful trip we look into each other’s eyes. We know we share a secret of something that happened that no one would believe. How do we explain about the young sailor who jumped overboard if anyone should ever ask us? In the end I guess it is just another sailor’s story. Wherever I go in all the travels of my life I am restless and can’t seem to settle down but the memory of the ghost ship rests firmly in my mind and cannot be taken away.
“All evil seems to arise from the desire to dominate others. Most men in our society are taught from a very early age to try to dominate. It isn’t something that they think about consciously. It operates at a subconscious level. They are taught by the adults around them and their peers. Someone dominates them and they in turn try to dominate others. They do it without even realizing it and they do it without even thinking about why. It is without question. In their conscious awareness they may aspire to grandiose ideals but their actions speak for what really motivates them from a subconscious level.” ― Mark Alberto Yoder Nunez, The Spider Lady and Other Short Stories and Poetry
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From The Spider Lady and Other Short Stories and Poetry
by Mark Alberto Yoder Nuñez
There were omens, I suppose, that superstitious sailors should have been attentive to when preparing for a voyage. The feeling was so good at the time that all of us, ebullient at the prospect of the venture, just ignored the usual attention to superstition.
And so we set sail, fully confident that the captain and navigator knew their business. Instead of seagulls there were crows, cawing incessantly. A thought crossed my mind that I would see an albatross. I put the silly thought out of my mind.
We were confident and we had a great sailing ship. We set sail in northern waters but it was the beginning of summer. We were bound with manufactured goods to trade for exotic items in the Orient. The huge and awesome Ocean engulfed and surrounded us as usual. However the chill, ocean air soon let go after only a week at sea and it became warmer.
One night with the light of a full moon illuminating the deck I saw the albatross circling and even hovering in the sky. I knew I would keep this to myself but upon turning to my right I saw an aging sailor. As my eyes fell upon his grizzled face in the semi-darkness he said, “Aye! And it is an omen!”
Since we were out at sea there was nothing I could do. In fact as we got more into tropical waters the happiness of the crew grew by measures but there were no dolphins leaping from the water. I felt a sense of foreboding.
As one of the days at sea started to approach twilight after a fiery red sunset great, storm clouds grew in the sky. Their grey, blue colors and increasing darkness seemed unusually powerful. The sailors prepared for the storm. Soon the falling of the storm and onset of night completely surrounded us with darkness. The captain, first mate and second mate took turns at the helm. They turned the wheel of the vessel to keep the ship aimed directly into the huge, ocean waves so the ship would stay afloat. The huge, ocean swells crashed against the bow with white water spraying but the skill of keeping the vessel turned toward the oncoming swells kept the ship from being pushed over from the side and capsizing. The storm was more fierce than any veteran sailor among us could remember. And so we were to weather the darkest of nights. Yet there was confidence among this experienced crew.
As desperate as the night was the early grey of morning created hope. There was still a storm but it had eased and it was not nearly so violent. The officers of the ship and even a senior crew member manned the helm with confidence although their alertness could still not waiver. Our survival depended upon it. The crew members looked to the man at the wheel with trust.
In the late afternoon the darkness descended upon us again. The masts bare against the ominous sky with sails furled. The wind howled. The vessel with the tiny lives of men on it creaked, cracked and moaned. It was a voice that spoke to the innermost feelings of my heart. My conscious mind reeled. The night descended into a darkness as I had never known. It was the ultimate humility to fall to sleep in a state of exhaustion not knowing who would live or die or if any of us would survive at all.
I awoke knowing that the water was still rough but the worst danger was over, at least if we were not hit with another such atrocious storm. My logical mind thought that the time of year was wrong for such incredible storms and we had set sail at the correct time of year. The other side of my mind acknowledged that every sailor knows the unpredictability of the sea.
I instinctively went out on deck to see what the true story was. It was a miserable day of wet spray, rain, wind and grey clouds but the only danger was that a careless sailor might be washed overboard. There was none that was careless among us so this was not a concern. The night was similar with officers and sailors on alert.
Finally a dawn broke when it felt that the danger was over. The sea was more as what we had expected it to be and periodic rays of sunshine broke through. The next day pale blue sky was contrasted by shreds of dark clouds fleeing like phantoms in the speeding winds of the upper sky. The white caps abated but the rumor was that our tiny, fragile, ocean vessel had been pushed far off course by forces much greater than ourselves.
At last we were able to hoist a few main sails. In spite of the still lurking clouds, large swells and drizzles of rain it was time to get back on course. It would still be hard to find our position on the globe until we could see the stars at night. I went to sleep that night feeling confident that the navigator and captain would find our location and we would be able to be on course again. The ship made a loud, creaking sound. “Curious”, I thought. The wind seemed to let out a moan.
When I awoke I saw bright sunlight through the portholes. I went out on deck to see blue skies and feel warmth from the sun. I took a deep breath of fresh, sea air. I looked about. “Something is wrong”, I thought. I looked up at the helm. The captain and navigator were talking. Their faces were grim. “What could be the problem?”
I looked about. The ocean was as still as I had ever seen it in my entire life. I looked up at the sails. There was no wind. We were adrift.