Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Once Upon a Fjord-Prologue


“Crack!” Alfred’s mom emphasized the word, clapping her hands together, causing several roosting seabirds to shift uncomfortably on the coal black rock.

“The ship hit the reef and the crew did everything they could to get it off the razor sharp shoals. By good fortune, a strong swell removed the ship from the line of rocks in a short time, but the sluggishness of the boat told the captain of an irreparable breach somewhere in the hull. They started making preparations to abandon the ship, though considering the high seas and inclement weather most realized that they would probably not outlast the day.”

Alfred mindlessly tossed a rock into the calm, fjord waters, which rippled with the drizzle of an early afternoon rain. He eyed an aging seabird who seemed to regard Alfred with interest from one good eye. Alfred could not recognize the type of bird, which he had no way of knowing was an albatross, far far away from its home. Instead, he stayed fixed to his mom’s story. “So did they make it?”

“Well,” she continued, while searching for eggs amid the rocks, “as the crew made preparations to abandon the ship, the captain went below to inspect the damage. On the way, he bumped into the old Finnish sailor, thinking him to be confused by the panic, and sent him shuffling on deck. Then the captain sloshed through the water to the dark bow, taking a lighted lantern with him. There he found the gaping hole that the reef had carved into the ship.”

“The sea water must’ve been gushing through it,” Alfred said, thinking of the fishing boat that had, several weeks back, gone aground in shallow waters just a mile or so away.

“No.” A slight smile drifted across her face.

Alfred stopped. His mom’s sense of dramatic timing explained why he thrived on her stories. “But you said there was a gaping hole.”

“The hole was there, but the water simply did not come in. Instead, the captain could see directly out into the murky ocean past the jagged ship frame. Holding the lantern up and squinting, he thought that he could see the faintest hint of a shimmering, some kind of soft, delicate substance, holding the water back.”

“What was it?” Alfred queried.

His mom continued as if he hadn’t even asked a question. “The captain immediately went back on deck and called off the preparations to abandon the ship. He also declared the front of the ship below decks off limits until they got to port. The crew pumped the water out of the bilge and made a heading for the nearest port. When the captain finally went to his cabin to rest, some crew members brought the old Finn to the 1st mate, explaining that they had found him in the off limits section of the ship. The 1st mate had the Finn flogged, the consequence for disobeying captain’s orders. Only a minute after the flogging, the ship began to lag in the water. The captain was aroused and he quickly went to the front of the ship and saw the water pouring through the hole.”

“So what happened?”

“No one knows. All they know is that after they abandoned the ship, no one could account for the old Finn. Only one of the lifeboats made it to port. To his dying day the captain declared that the old Finn had been the one to rescue their boat, and that if they had only treated him humanely, the whole ship would have made it back in one piece.”

“Wow,” rainwater dripped off of Alfred’s thick raincoat in streams. “Did anyone ever see the Finn again?”

“No one knows for sure. But any ship’s captain will tell you that having a Finn on your boat can be a good or bad omen depending on how you treat them.”

Alfred nodded, entranced. Then he snapped out of it, “Well, we should find a Finn for Father and treat him like a king so that the fishing will improve! Then you won’t have to scavenger for eggs and sell them in town.”

Alfred’s mom laughed. “There could be worse things, Alfred. We could be like Snorre and lose our fishing boat on the shoals.”

“He must have had a Finn with him when it happened, because he doesn’t treat people very well, I’ve noticed. Either that, or he really was drunk when it happened. That’s what Henry told me the last time I went to town.”

“Whatever the circumstances, he is to be pitied. Now, let’s go see if your father is back from fishing.”

The two navigated the rocks onto the more firm ground of their island, carpeted by yellow, bending grass. Alfred carried the basket for his mother on condition that she told him some more tales on their way back, something about the giants or the elves. Instead, she told him about America.

“They have mountains filled with fjords miles deep but without oceans on the bottom; instead their fjords cradle small mountain rivers which open up into lush, green valleys where brave people farm and herd cattle and sheep in abundance. It is like living on the top of the world, away from the busy ships, European wars, the fishing companies–an island, like ours, but surrounded by mountain ridges and filled with good people.”

“Sounds like you have been dreaming about your cousin’s letters from America again,” replied a mature man with graying hair and a round face, stubbed by an inconsistent beard, walking up behind them. He awkwardly carried a mesh of fishing nets bundled in his arms.

Alfred’s mom grinned, “And you will be pleased to know that this storyteller is only exaggerating her cousin’s letters very, very slightly.”

“Well, I could listen to your exaggerations over someone else’s cold hard facts forever.”

“Then you and I will have a long time of it in heaven!”

“That’s optimistically assuming that your husband will make it there with you.”

“As long as they are still accepting good, loving men in heaven, then I think we will be fine.”

“Or as long as they still allow couples that won’t stop flirting even after twenty years of marriage!” Alfred cringed, though only for show, his duty as an approaching teenager.

The small family followed a path that took them into a heavy grove of pine trees, which muted the rain, though the drips increased dramatically in size. They skirted a black pond towards a small wood cabin nestled up to an outcropping of rock jutting forty feet above the solemn grove.

Alfred’s father jogged before them and opened the door to the two room cabin, while his wife and son entered. He then prepared the wood in the fireplace. “Alfred, you now can manage our fishing boat, set the nets and haul them in, as well as prepare the fish. I think that the time has finally come for me to teach you how to mend the nets after someone has managed to snag them in some huge kelp beds. This is the most important skill a Norwegian fisherman can have.”

“Ah, but you don’t mean to teach him right now, do you?” Alfred’s mom had not removed her shawl. Instead, she went and grabbed some coins from a jar on the mantle place. “I was hoping to have him escort me to town. I want to sell these eggs and buy some supplies before it gets too dark and we lose the wind.”

“Well, the nets will take some time to mend, but I should be fine on my own if you want him to take you. Though,” he added with a wry smile, “it will delay his coronation as an official fisherman for at least another day or two.”

Alfred’s mother looked at the nets and then Alfred and smiled. “I guess he has to grow into a fisherman sometime, though you have to admit, his real knack is with sailing that little boat of ours. Maybe we’ll let him decide?” She turned to Alfred, “Well, Alfred, shall you complete your fisherman training or will you go on one last expedition with your mother before you are lost to manhood forever.”

Alfred almost never passed up a chance to skim across the breezy fjord channels. And a trip to town just across the fjord always meant catching up with Henry and the other boys while mother conducted business. He could see that his father, however, for all his posturing, was eager to teach. Besides, it was wet and had been for the past week, and the fire that his father had started meant comfort. Mending the nets would be relaxing and warm.

“Perhaps I’ll stay with father?”

Alfred’s mom snatched the basket of eggs. “Stay and mend, my son. But just remember that his stories are quite bland. Unless, of course, he’s talking about me.” Her winning smile could not even be matched by the one her husband returned.

“I am bland because I can’t exaggerate like you, and I am only interesting when I talk about you because it sounds like I’m exaggerating.”

“Flattering me will not get me back any quicker,” she replied, obviously flattered. A sudden burst of wind upon their door prompted her parting comment, “But that wind might. I will see you two men soon.”

She left and Alfred saw his father’s eyes glitter with amusement while he shook his head, stepping away from the growing fire, satisfied. The two spread the nets out, finding gaps and fixing them while they discussed the tides, the weather, and patterns of fish migration.

It was the last blissful moment that Alfred would know in a long, long time.

For, while he and his father folded up the last of the nets in the fading afternoon light, a sickening crash thundered across the fjord. A crash that went beyond their ears and penetrated their very beings, as it signaled the end of the simple but satisfying lives they had known.