Drowned Love

by C. W. Johnson

(an excerpt)



"She is dead, she is dead, she is dead," sings the Master's son.

I stiffen as he sings to himself over the crash of the waves against the ship. He is a half-idiot, I tell myself to push down my red rage; though a grown man like myself he has only a child's mind and should be forgiven. No doubt he overheard his father make some savage slur about Lydia and myself and repeats it carelessly, not understanding the sharp pain the words bring.

"Pretty Marie, she lost her head, she is dead, she is dead," the Master's son continues, and the tension falls from me like the cut strings of a marionette. He is singing about the revolt in France; it is one of his child-like nonsense songs.

We are standing on the quarterdeck. As if to compensate for the smallness of his mind, the Master's son is a large man, nearly twice as broad as I. He could crush me as easily as look at me. Yet he has never hurt anyone. As gentle as a mother, he cradles the tiller in his huge hands--navigation is the one gift of his simple mind. He often sings to himself as he steers his father's tiny caravel.

Despite the song's innocence, my stomach is queasy from the words and I turn away, leaning out into the sea breeze. The sun sinks down to the horizon, sheeting the ocean with copper. Although the sky above is open and blue, I see on the dark water a frigate in a storm. Lightning dances in the rigging, the passengers scream for God's mercy. I smell the frigate captain's fear as he sees the foaming water that means a shoal. Imagining this, my own heart beats faster and sweat drips down my face. His voice tearing, the captain orders the ship about, but too much, the deck tilts beneath his feet.... "A ship!" Mario cries from the foredeck.

I leap forward, leaving the Master's son to his songs. At the foredeck I crouch beside the boys Mario and Tomas. We lean over the railing to peer down at a shadow in the depths. For a moment we are silent amidst the creak of the deck, the rush of the wind and the crash of the waves. That dark stain beneath the sea could be a ship. It could be the Alma. I clap Mario on the shoulder. He and Tomas are like sons to me, having no sons that lived, only daughters.

The Master is below decks, singing to his bottle as his son sings to the ocean. So with a word to Mario and Tomas, and with some shouts at the sullen crewmen, I order the caravel brought around. As they work, I check the bell once again. The Master dreams of salvaging gold and cannons. I dream of salvaging the truth of Lydia's fate. We grease up Mario to keep the chill off him, tie weights and a rope to him. He leaps into the water and sinks down to see if the shadow is a ship. After a count to twenty, we haul up on the rope until Mario bursts to the surface, gasping. "Oh!" he cries out. "Pull me up!"

"A ship?" I ask. But he flails in the water and calls to be pulled on deck. We do so and he climbs aboard, water streaming from his body. I demand of him harshly, "A ship?" He nods and coughs. "I saw the mast and the tattered sails. Then something cold and slick gripped my ankle..." He shivers from cold and fear. "Seaweed," I tell him, but he shakes his head.

We cast anchor--the water is seven fathoms deep--and I go below to knock on the Master's cabin door. After a long pause, his crumpled voice comes from behind the closed door, telling me we will begin salvage in the morning.

By the last rays of the sun we sup, eating bread and cheese and jerky and strong wine. I never care for the looks of the rest of the crew, so I eat with Mario and Tomas. The lead sheath of the bell gleams a dull orange in the sunset; above it the stars wax bright. I point out the constellations that shine like jewels finer than the crown of the king of Spain, and tell the boys stories of old, that Father Schonenheim told me. When the sky is black and moonless we climb into our hammocks below decks.

In the cramped darkness I am thinking about Lydia, softly swinging in my hammock and drifting off to sleep, when suddenly a knife cuts through the haze and jolts me awake: Mario calling out to us. Tomas and I dash to the deck.

Mario huddles in the center of the deck but points to the edge. "I came up to piss," he says, "and looked in the water..."

I lean over the railing. At first, I see nothing but black water. But then, it almost seems a faint bluish glow comes from deep beneath the surface. But I am not certain. "Just the stars reflecting in the water," I say, not believing it. "Go to sleep. There'll be much more light, light surrounding us and filling us in the morning. Sleep, boy." The three of us clamber down below.

It takes a long time to fall asleep.

For two and a half days we have been searching for the wreck of the merchant frigate Alma. According to the lone survivor of the Alma, a cabin boy named Manuel, the ship had not foundered, but a shoal had been spotted in a storm, the captain had heeled the ship around too fast, and it had capsized and sunk. All crew and passengers were presumed lost.

This piece of coast, which we call the Sea of Fog, eats ships like the Scylla and Charbydis of the old Greek stories that Father Schonenheim likes to recount. For years I have worked for the Master, gleaning bits of brass and silver and gold from wrecks shattered on hidden shoals. We know this coast as intimately as the streets of Gijon. From Manuel's story we knew to look not on a shoal but near one.

The work has been tedious and exhausting. The rough rope cut into our hands as we hauled up first Tomas, then Mario, then Tomas, the salt water burning the wounds. After a while Mario replaced Tomas and Tomas shivered in the sun. We passed several old wrecks we knew and had salvaged years ago. One was the Amor. Another was the Vida from Lisbon. It, too, sank during a furious lightning storm. I cannot help but think of the story that Manuel, the Alma's cabin boy, first told when he was found, delirious with fever and exposure. He told of blue lights in the mast and rigging and of screaming voices making the crew go mad. Later, when the fever had passed, he denied this story or ever telling it, even though there were many witnesses to his ravings. He denied it with a coolness unusual for boys his age. This fueled rumors that witchcraft had been responsible for the wreck.

Some rumors say the witch was paid by my wife, Theresa, to kill my mistress, Lydia.

Where Theresa found the money, the rumors do not say. Father Schonenheim, too, was dubious about this theory. "No doubt the devil works many evil deeds through his legions of witches and sorcerers," he told me. "But ordinary men have plenty of evil by themselves, without the aid of the devil, to create much of the world's misery." His words cut me deep and guilt ran through me like a river. Perhaps, if I had done what I had promised Lydia, if I had left Theresa for her, if I had not hesitated and stalled, she wouldn't have fled Gijon in tears and she would not now be lying in a watery grave under the sea.

Burdened by grief I confessed my sin to Father Schonenheim. He assigned me pater nosters and ave marias to say in penance, and daily prayer in church. "But Father," I asked, straining to keep my voice from breaking, "is it wrong to feel grief for her death, even though she is not my proper wife?"

Father Schonenheim reflected for a moment in the confessional booth. The mention of Lydia made Father Schonenheim uneasy. He blamed himself in part, for to answer a question of mine he had sent me to her to borrow a book. "While your love was wrong," he said slowly in his heavy accent, "your carnal love that is, it is always right to love a fellow human through the eyes of God, and it is always right to grieve the loss of life." He thought for a moment and added, "But be sure of the purity of your motives. In Hell unrepentant adulterers take on monstrous forms, half human and half animal, because they lived a double life torn between more than one love, and because they gave in to their animal nature." I crossed myself fervently.

But in the dark I miss her still.


Copyright 199y Calvin W. Johnson. Do not reproduce or quote in any form. <

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