Blue Giantess

It would have to be the varnish.

The night would be warm without need of brandy, and Mama always said he could do with less. He would not use the whole pail of varnish, but that final coat would seal the skiff true, and he could not justify another missed night-drift on account of brandy, which was a petty mistress next to his true love, the sea.

The boatswain shook his last coin into the bookkeep’s palm and headed, pail swinging, for the boatyard.

He crossed the gravel lot and had to shield his eyes from the glare. Dinghies in chains lined the grass, their salt-and-dew rails lit like snowdrifts on a winter day. The boatswain hedged the yard and ducked into the chilly dark of the boathouse, where he’d strung belly up the old skiff.

She was rosy this morning, even in her corner. The boatswain had labored to restore her, scraping the barnacles and seagreen from her hull, and by the companionship of a seaman and his craft, the skiff appeared to color upon his entry, as if he struck in her a certain mood.

Dipping a brush into the varnish, the boatswain went over her one last time.

**

The night was thin over the sea. The stars bobbed on the ripples, tipped into momentary disarray by the stroke of the oars, and all was possible in the spell of the cutting hull.

He thumbed the edge of the oyster knife, gone soft from the barnacles, and swallowed against the nervousness in his throat. He shouldn’t have taken the skiff so soon after her last coat, but he couldn’t resist the crystal night and or the verse that itched his lungs, one of the chanteys Mama used to hum after Father went with the unred morn.

He wanted a drink.

Had he not declined the last venture; he would have gotten one. He would have gotten all the brandy at port for his share of the riches.

Instead he had stayed behind to comfort Mama during her mourning. And he had watched their money go without replenishment. He shared her loss, of course, but as time passed he surfaced from grief while she stayed stubbornly under. He sympathized, to a point. The point of resolution, to pick up living in the wake of the dead. To remember and meet the demands of such living, or else get turned out and ruined—on account of spiritual decency!

He rowed onward.

When the wharf had slipped into a distant, lit stripe, he stowed the oars and stretched his legs under the passenger slat, lowering and inching himself forward and then back so that he was tucked at shoulder and shin by the rower and passenger beams. While they somewhat obstructed his view of the sky, he felt comfort in their fixity. Like a babe in arms, slouching in bliss, incognizant of passion or creed, hardship or loneliness, when the mind is yet a flame in purple velvet.

The boatswain would set out like this every night during the landbound stints between voyages, but tonight’s drift was the first since restoring the skiff—since the unlucky scrape of her keel after the funeral. He heard her whisper in the reach and tug of the tide and could no longer refrain now that he had finished the boat.

The boards moaned, and he laughed to himself. Finished was not the right word. Finished implied a state of divorce. That she was perfect, frozen, inorganic—when she was in fact living and grounded in her wooden bones. She would not stand to be neglected as a finished thing. For that reason, he had not named her. Marked her, as it were, with a word of summons or dismissal. She was always with him, so he kept her name in the pit of his heart.

The boatswain looked for the Dipper Pair and in his rim of his vision Marja, her head turned aside as she watched the docks. He closed his eyes and drifted.

¤¤¤

He was a wriggling thing of eight his first time at sea. Until then he had had to watch as the men of the wharf sang their way down the docks. The boy was awestruck as they creaked into their ships and slipped between the two vast and unforgiving blues. He was livid, too, to be bound to the doorstep and Mama’s tickling skirt.

Marja said only fools set sail. That we were born to the fixity of the earth and only there could live and making living. Her conviction ate her alive when the fathers of port would leave and perhaps never return. Most would, with the sun on their noses and salt in their hair, and it was Marja who looked foolish as she begged with the other children for stories of the menacing and fanciful blue. Then the seamen went again, and she sat alone at the hearth, poking the coals with a rod shaped like a crab leg and listening to the rise and hiss of the sea foam while the rest of the house slept.

She should have heard it, then.

But she heard nothing unusual when her father died. For all her worry, she did not know the hour of the wreck. But she had stayed up. However his soul had passed, it might have observed her singular vigil, and she would hold that distinction over her brother’s head as he went on daydreaming of setting sail with the chantey hoard.

Did Father die so that you could follow him?

How will Mama get on when you don’t come back?

He ignored her. She did not understand.

When she was twelve Marja joined the gutting line. The fishmonger kept a cohort of ladies, some for peddlers and some for gutters. The peddlers wore powder and frills, while the gutters had sweat and fish oil. Before the workday, in the predawn dark, both kinds of ladies drank coffee and played cards in the suite above the processing plant while the fishermen unloaded the morning haul. When the men left, they descended in aprons and scarves to start the day’s work.

Marja grew keen with a knife and could dispatch a cod with three flicks. Gut, bone, fillet. While her companions in line progressed to the stalls to weigh and wrap with clean aprons and perfumed necks, their ribbons faintly soured by fish smell, Marja remained at the gutters’ table. She chatted with the fresh things that swooped in and out, either promoted or maimed by their own, inexperienced hand. Whatever the case, a lady’s social potential soared as soon as she quit the gutting line.

Marja adopted the fish smell like a mantle of plague, deterring all but the most daft and demented of admirers, but she did not care for her lack of prospects in what she called the Port of Fools. Instead she pleasured in her skill and income. She grew the toughest hands of anyone in the family, fretted by years of minor injury and cold.

Her brother decided to help her. With his fishhook and teeth he wove her a pair of fine hemp gloves for her seventeenth birthday.

She would not see the point of wearing them. Mama laughed at her ignorance and said that, while the fish smell couldn’t be helped, the gloves would hide her other defect. But Marja would not cover her hands, in shame or in wanting. She could live with the scars, the stink, the ache in her knees from standing all day and the rattlebreath from the iceboxes. What she would not allow was a seaman who would steal her affection and worry her sick. She had no interest in the rag-wringing that embittered the wharf matrons, though they were too proud to admit it. For Marja saw their candles at night and knew that they too waited up for the cries of their loved ones. Then at homecoming they listened to the husbands’ tales of the sea and its mistress charms with which their softening flesh could never compare—and they poisoned a little to hear his longing and idolatry for that blue giantess that did not love him as they did.

**

When the boatswain, not then a boatswain, set sail with the others, Marja stopped him at the door and took an orange from her apron.

“I don’t need luck,” he said, squirming toward the docks. The seamen were loading the ship while their women waved dishcloths in goodbye.

“You’ll want something sweet when the waves start to haunt you.”

He frowned. What would she know of the sea?

She sewed the orange into his jacket and let him go, gathering her things to head to work early. He had not yet cast off by the time Marja stood in the gutting line, flipping her knife over and over in hand. There were no fish to process, no ladies to chat with. Everyone had gone to see the ship off. Marja resented the fuss and went to the plant whenever her brother set sail. And at every anchorage she would busy herself in the kitchen, baking fish pie and apples with nutmeg, while Mama listened to his tales.

Marja, thought the boatswain in the bottom of the skiff, you thought you were a private woman.

But you were a silly one. You should have made peace with this life, this living that kept you housed and fed. You should have appreciated Father’s service, and mine.

You should have reasoned out the good in the inevitable.

He had thought of her during the doldrums drift, when the brandy was gone and the bread and meat half-rationed. Much of the crew went skeleton-mad, and the captain and first mate snapped at each other like jackals. But the press of the orange against his ribs relaxed the young boatswain. When the time came for running gums and lunacy, he ripped the fruit free and sucked it to pith and rind, gulping blood and citrus and thanking the stars for Marja, his guardian in the placeless eye of the waterworld.

¤¤¤

The boatswain rowed out and communed with Marja just so, laying his back against the sea’s and retelling their lives as he remembered them. If only Marja had had the same relief. She must have, between the bed of ice at the gutting line or the spitting hearth at home. These vessels were not the sea, of course. But they took what they were given. The question was whether Marja gave. She seldom relaxed her grim distance, her safety against the pain of losing him. But what for his pain, when she wound up dead and sunk? He suspected the reason for her distance, why she never waved from the doorstep, and clung to that flint of suspicion: the love she could not temper.

It was her greatest deficiency. Her love, in the fear of grief, ate her raw and unwhole. It robbed her, and it robbed the boatswain.

Did you think you could pretend yourself numb? Hide yourself so that I couldn’t leave you?

Well and done, Marja. You renounced me. Sitting tall and stone as if I were a thief, making off in the fog with your tortured heart. And then those mornings, in the silence before castoff, you would go to play cards and leave me the one grieving.

But the dead needed forgiveness in order to carry on.

I forgive you, Marja, and give you leave.

It is your choice to stay and punish me.

Not that he resented the company. He turned his head with a wry laugh and stared at the freshly scraped inside of the skiff.

¤¤¤

Marja enjoyed the busyness of work and the cheer of the gutting girls who came and went like starlings. She thrived in the distraction and safety of predictable flux. The years hardened her so that she laughed freely and never cried, even on the rare occasion she wanted to. She had tamped her sadness into a black core that lodged deeper than could be retrieved.

She skated over this part of herself and excelled in the line, unbothered by ambition or desire—hers or anyone’s—and might or might not see her brother at anchorage. She would not mind his comings and goings.

Walking just so, with one eye over her shoulder, Marja stumbled down the pit of prophecy—and discovered her folly only in the lurch of vertigo.

She did not mean to fall for the cook. He came every morning to buy the fish fresh, and he did not have a remarkable enough face that she might pick him from the routine throng. But he made himself known to her in time.

He found Marja singular amongst the fishmonger’s ladies, for she hadn’t the skittishness of the younger gutters or the falsity of the ribboned peddlers. She handled the oyster knife with grace and command, taking the day’s work with a light heart, or so it appeared. She was hardy, graceful, real and womanly in the glow of her movement and the crack of her laughter.

Watching her as his order was weighed and wrapped, the cook tried to capture the turn of her fingers. On his way to the University, he tried her three flicks, only to give up the crude imitation. Preparing for dinner hour, he imagined the symmetry of her gutting, and his breading the fillets that, he flattered himself, he could tell were her handiwork. Morning and night, seeing and conjuring her, the cook fell into rhythm. Weeks passed.

He did not mean to intercept her. The holiday banquet had kept him to the early hours, and on the trip home he happened upon Marja going up for coffee before the morning haul. He realized he hadn’t seen her apart from the gutting line, much less freely moving, as a fellow wanderer of the wharf. She walked at a clip to get out of the cold, and her stiff-jointed movements almost disappointed him. Almost. He was thrilled by her near and imperfect presence, and, unconscious until it was done, saluted her.

Hoy!

Marja gripped the railing. The fishmonger’s door was four steps away. That left eleven between her and the stranger. She could clear the staircase in two bounds and lock the door after her, skirts complying. It would be a bit of an ordeal.

She eyed the stranger. His posture was hunched from the cold, yet he had elected to pause and greet her.

She peered through the fog of his breath. His shy smile dimly reminded her of a certain customer who paid well and was supposed to run a fine kitchen at the University. The man seemed harmless, if godless for so friendly a grin at this hour, so Marja settled into a mood of bland annoyance and, with a polite nod, went on up.

Every night of the holiday she saw him. He greeted her formally and continued on his way over the iced cobbles. Marja would linger at the top step and study his jaunty gait, wondering if she could be the reason for it.

Surely not. She was a fish-gutter. Any redemption from that would go to pot as soon as the winter broke and the gloves came off. For her hands were covered as she waved the cook hello, and from her perch on the stairs she might have looked like a doll in a shop window, smiling to be taken. If he saw her after the day’s work, pungent and soiled, he would realize his affection was wasted.

And yet there was no shaking him. The cook affixed himself to Marja’s routine. When the stall opened for business, she would watch the line of customers in her periphery and blush as soon as she sensed him, making a point to be busy and oblivious until he left. He must see her ugliness and understand that she had chosen her lot, and that she was not ashamed of it, despite his disarming effect on her—but when her control slipped and her eyes darted up and she happened to meet his expansive, warm gaze, she thought perhaps he was a saint. Or an idiot.

The peddlers did not kid themselves as to the cook’s motives. They were not on the receiving end. They did not suffer the dithering bouts of vanity and doubt that Marja did and were quick to spot a mutual admiration. They flirted with the cook and mocked him to embarrassment, all in good fun, inviting him one morning to coffee and cards.

He followed the ladies to the parlor above the plant and endured their chirping torments as they asked him about himself, trying to tease out the sense in this strapping, young man who had chosen the kitchen instead of the sea. He sidestepped their questions with pretty turns of phrase and wrung his hat in hand, waiting for Marja to show herself.

She did not. She knew nothing of his visit during the fact and afterward was mortified that he had ventured into that space of frank and unmasked femininity, where she would joke and confide as she never would in mixed society. He must have a scandalous portrait of her, with her gored apron and bawdy companions.

And still he came to call.

From then on they met when work permitted. They walked and played cards and exchanged stories of each other’s professions. Marja found him softhearted and nervous, solid in the earth and fiery in his obligation to others. He charmed her in character and won her in ambition. For he despised the gluttonous sea and shared Marja’s desire to quit the wharf and move inland. Together they conspired to pool their earnings and hire a horseback guide to take them over the mountains and start fresh on the other side, where the land did not faint and tease and drown. It had its own ways of punishment, yet unknown and therefore unbelievable to the young lovers.

Marja rooted around their conversations, testing his sincerity, only to discover a well of sorrow and loyalty she had thought impossible in a man of the wharf—in anyone other than herself. By the time marriage balled itself into a conscious possibility in her mind, she realized she had already resolved to spend the rest of her life with him.

Come what may, she knew she would not, as a woman of purpose, break that resolution.

**

The boatswain had little idea of Marja’s personal life, so when he returned from sea to hear tell of her engagement, he went straightaway to the fishmonger’s to interrogate the peddlers.

He knew the cook by reputation. The man’s father had been somewhat of a legend at sea, a gunner of impeccable reflexes who blooded the shore like a titan of end days, covering the raiders as they escaped to ship with booty and other tokens of dominion. He had done mighty work for the cause, and his son could not be expected to measure up. But to forsake the sea entirely was petty, thought the boatswain, and callow. The cook had an obligation, if not to his father then to himself, to embrace the sea and discover himself on her rolling back. Whatever kept him ashore kept him not quite man, and unfit for Marja.

The boatswain had retired by the time she came home—after a day’s work and an evening out—on fairy steps that hardly creaked the floorboards. He brooded long after she passed his door.

**

In the Land of Slithers there was whispered a mausoleum filled with silver drachma and eggs of jade, the bank of Grandmother Serpent whose tail belted the world three times over.

The boatswain rolled his shoulders against the cold as he waited in line outside the alehouse. His feet were stone in the midwinter wind and his beard had frosted stiff. Grim with experience, he knew that the captain was testing the prospects to withstand the tundra clime of their destination, for Grandmother Serpent’s massive clay head rested somewhere under the borealis.

**

It was early in their engagement, yet after Marja had given her heart, that the cook was called to sea.

The worst was not her fear of separation or his willingness to set sail on one of the most taxing expeditions yet.

The worst was her choice to send him.

There was a vacancy in the galley after the appointed cook was found in possession of plunder claimed by the University. They jailed that cook and offered the position to Marja’s.

Love had made Marja hopeful of opportunity, and if this venture proved half as fruitful as the previous, she and her beloved could move inland off his spoils and leave the wharf and the sea far behind.

He told her of the commission and let her decide.

Marja imagined the life they might have, a cottage tucked among evergreens and a silent night in their safe enclosure. She told the cook to go and win it for them, and she told her brother, who would also go, to keep him safe.

Anything for you, the boatswain promised. She had come as far as the pier to see the pair of them off.

The boatswain swaggered up the gangway, proud that his sister had attended his departure. When he turned to salute her, however, she saw only the cook, who fidgeted beside the boatswain.

The boatswain ushered him to the galley, to settle him for the journey North.

**

They set out with the first melt, reversing spring on the northbound sail. Those selected, including the boatswain, were sturdy seamen who spent the first weeks in good health. Then came the frostbite. The black toe. The cough.

The boatswain had sewn his orange. He had since his first voyage. Sometimes it saved him from bloody gums. Other times it rewarded a comfortless drift under the midworld sun. Through it all, it reminded him of the sister he loved and might have appeased had he stayed at the wharf, at Mama’s skirts, with neither ambition nor manliness. Was that what Marja wanted—her brother’s stunted manhood?

Gradually the crew fell ill around him, and the ship slowed over the colorless water. The orange throbbed against the softness below his ribs, but the boatswain would not relinquish this secret, intimate tether to home.

Not even for the cook’s sake.

The cough took him slowly. It wasted and swelled the man into a gourd. The boatswain pitied Marja for the pain of her beloved, but he could not fathom why the cook, of all people, had to suffer. He did not brave the elements as the crew did on deck, and he best of anyone could sneak extra rations whenever he wanted. He stood in no danger as long as he cheated a little. No one would blame him. He had a fiancée at port, and his love for her, let alone his own need, had to sooner or later outweigh those puffed up principles of fairness and honesty, nobility, etc.

It was his choice to die.

They wrapped the body in potato sacks. A few of the crew said some words, then dropped it into the greenish black over the rail. The burlap mass did not sink immediately. It bobbed like a wooden idol in the ship’s wake.

Compelled that night by a sense of occasion, the boatswain peeled the orange. After eating the fruit he sucked the juice from his thumb and chewed on the bitter seeds.

He would tell Marja of her husband’s noble suffering. The loss would pain her, but she would then understand that the worst had come to pass. Her beloved’s death will not have touched her, and for weeks she will have felt nothing but the regular wheel-turn of routine. What widowhood could be easier? It was he, the boatswain, who had witnessed the cook’s warping and unmanning, and after a suitable period of mourning the boatswain had come out unharmed. She now had an interest in the glistering sea, her beloved subsumed in its crystal depths.

The boatswain would comfort her. He might even forego the next expedition as she mourned the news. She would return to him, tender and unreserved, as when they were young. The stone would be broken and when he went back to sea she would wave from the threshold and wait up nights, burning a candle for him.

¤¤¤

The boatswain pondered his losses. They sat in his chest like the stone of a plum, the accumulation of lives that had touched and receded from his. He missed many a seafellow in addition to the cook, but that one counted twice for the grief he had caused Marja.

She had come to the docks to watch the ship make port. She stayed after mooring and waited out the unloading of coffers and crates made sloppy with silver and precious stones. She watched the crew return to their wives, mothers and sisters. She realized she would not be one of the happily weeping.

The boatswain witnessed her realization as he supervised the transfer of spoils. He pitied Marja as the men went off with the thinning crowd, leaving her one of the few stubborn hopefuls, until she turned heel and left. Left him.

She had seen him, sunned and jolly and barking orders over the scurry, and left him without welcome. The boatswain had prepared to console her, and she deserted him. As she always did.

She could not have expected the sea to repay her after years of distrust and revilement. Marja of all people was not entitled to the secret favor of the blue giantess. Marja was born to the Port of Fools and bound to Her whim.

Was it then rebellion, or prophecy, that she died?

They honored Marja by the usual rite, rowing her past the breakwater and giving her bloodless body to sea, that she might join her husband in shapeless infinitude. The boatswain laid her to rest, and he fancied she dissolved in the vast swathe of the world, timeless and ever-present, calling for him in the beck of the tide.

But before he sank his sister’s body, the boatswain was rocked and almost thrown overboard. It seemed they had scraped an unexpected rock. Amidst the turmoil, the body fell with a thunderous crack on the floor of the skiff. The boatswain regathered it, shaken for some reason, and managed on the second try to let it go over the side.

**

In the shelter of his fancies, the boatswain did not notice the surge. The skiff had begun to rock on a vehemence of waves. The creak of the beams jogged his awareness, and before he could wriggle free of the slats the boat tipped aside and turtled, plunging him into the saltwater black.

The boatswain was a canny swimmer and freed himself with ease. But before he could surface and right the skiff, the undertow ripped him down.

His eyes tore with the severity of the motion. He could not see how fast he moved, but the gathering pressure in his skull indicated an unnatural descent. He loosed a stream of bubbles as if he would have said something. A prayer or a name. He was losing the intention, the ray of consciousness narrowed to thread, but he clung to what little remained—that pit of injury, guilt, love and anger.

He saw her face, gaunt and gaping, in the mindless current and felt her strong arms pull him into her warmth.

***

Katherine P. F. Holmes is an English teacher and short story writer. She has been published in Illinois’s Emerging Writers, America’s Emerging Young Adult Writers, and Sliced Bread. She graduated an English Major from the University of Chicago and lives in New York City. Explore more of her work at litcorkboard.wordpress.com.