Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Chapter Four: Storm Tossed Storm Child

Once Upon a Fjord was funded, in part, through a Kickstarter campaign. This chapter has been sponsored by Mike and Erma Jones: 
A favorite author, Katherine Paterson, said, ‘It is not enough to simply teach children to read; we have to give them something worth reading. Something that will stretch their imaginations ... ’
Thanks, Marty for adding grand stories to our lives, our shelves, and our hearts.
Sponsor had no editorial control over the chapter content. The author maintains full responsibility for content.
©2012 by Marty Reeder

Chapter 4: Storm Tossed Storm Child

The large bird was an albatross, and Alfred called him Skipper.

Of course, Alfred could not be certain of the exact species, but sailing all night long with the bird at attention only feet away gave him plenty of time to consider what animal he dealt with.

A naturalist might have told Alfred that albatrosses could not be found in this region of the world, but when at the helm of a flying island, Alfred knew not to let a detail like that bother him. 

Alfred and his mother or father would often stay with an old sailor in Mangekilder if they found themselves in town during a storm. Mother arranged several “storm families” who agreed to harbor them during the buffetings of a nasty tempest, and he was one of them. When there, the sailor would discuss his time in the southern hemisphere, going around Cape Horn, and seeing albatrosses. That man’s description of those distant seabirds matched the look of the hardy bird perched near Alfred at this time. 

This memory helped establish the bird as an albatross, but even more convincing was his mother’s reciting of a poem to Alfred after the old sailor went to bed. The poem dealt with an ancient mariner and featured an albatross as a good omen for ships. If Alfred had learned anything in the past two days, it was to believe in omens when they appeared.

Alfred also, however, recognized bad omens. Once dawn arrived after a night of uncharacteristic low wind, the sky glared in blood red streaks. Red sky at night, sailor’s delight, Alfred’s mind rehearsed, red sky at morning, sailor take warning. With the sun all the way up, Alfred finally saw what had eluded his vision all night: a massive storm system wrapping from one end of the western horizon to the other, heading his direction, set to arrive sometime that afternoon.

In spite of shimmering traces of sails stretched out and to the side at all angles, the island could not gain enough speed to outrace the storm to the north as Alfred hoped. Still, the time running north granted practice with the sails that turned out to be just as helpful. As captain of his vessel, he felt it appropriate to become familiar with all the sails and even try to label them for future communication.

This turned out tricky, as Skipper did not speak Norwegian and seemed to only have selective understanding of some nautical terms. Undoubtedly, however, the gruff overseer knew his way around a flying island with a skill that could only be described as magical. For all the night and a good part of the next day, they established a system of island and sail management.

What Alfred found was that the force behind the island’s movement came from ten square sails of various sizes. These ones Alfred dubbed main sails, dividing them into sections such as the three main sails: top, main, and lower; three foresails; three mizzen sails; and finally, the spinnaker sail.

All these labels Alfred borrowed from the large sailing vessels that he and his friends obsessed over with their youthful zeal for ships. Their names gave a general sense of where they were positioned in relation to the quarterdeck, some higher, some lower; some closer, some farther. All ranged from medium size, as big as a small field, to enormous, three or four times as big. The spinnaker sail, which ballooned out in front of the quarterdeck and above the island, bested them all, acting as a huge window to the sky in which several sails could easily fit.

Then there were the other sails, which Alfred realized after careful inspection were not squared but triangular. Two of them reached out across the front end of the island, bending in concave tightness to the stiff winds racing across the bow. The farthest, Alfred dubbed the flying jib, the other as—simply—the jib.

The final two triangular sails had no corresponding usage on a normal ship, but Alfred granted them nautical names anyway. Both of these triangular sails sprouted directly above the quarterdeck, both relatively low. One he called the sky sail, the other he called the stay sail. 

The sky sail, he discovered, adjusted the elevation of the island. The higher the kittiwakes hoisted it, the higher plane the island flew at. The opposite proved true with how low they set the sail.

Alfred discovered the use for the stay sail later in the day after giving up hope of outrunning the storm to the north and needing a break before the storm hit.  The stay sail, he found, worked as an anchor of sorts. He knew that the island already had an anchor for when it sat in the sea, but Skipper helped him discover that the stay sail worked like a sea anchor, a type of anchor that floated in the ocean for ships finding themselves too far out to sea to set their anchor on the bottom of the ocean. The stay sail served a similar purpose, it seemed, except that it was a sky anchor, and kept the ship from drifting in the air. 

Interestingly, Alfred noticed that both the sky and stay sail seemed to fill with even the slightest bit of moving air, and that their function was not contingent upon there being enough wind. The other sails, however, drooped and sagged if not enough wind could provide tension.

Because they could not outrun the storm, and because they had worked through the night, tired and hungry, with the approaching storm drawing away most of the wind, creating a great and disturbing calm, Alfred decided to grant the crew, and himself, some rest before it hit. So with only the stay and sky sails placed, Alfred retreated to his cabin for the next several hours before he estimated the storm would complete the distance between them.

As he arrived at his cabin, he hoped his father might have noted the movement of the island throughout the night, and that maybe that movement had somehow managed to awaken him from his stupor. Yet, by seeing the familiar thread of smoke leaving the chimney, he knew that his father still sat tending the fire, still waiting for Mother to return.

Alfred sighed, wondering if his father would snap out of his trance. America, Alfred thought, once I get him to the place Mother had dreamt for us … then he’ll wake. 

Inside the cabin, Alfred found everything as expected. He fed himself and his father and tried desperately to get counsel from him about the incoming storm. “Ah, don’t worry about the storm,” his father mumbled, still staring at the fire. “Your mother will stay in town with a storm family and then be back soon after. We’ll need to keep the cabin warm for her when she returns. Better get some firewood.”

Dutifully, Alfred restocked the wood box, and then he and his father both drifted off to sleep, gazing into the licking flames of the hearth. Though his father sat only a couple feet away, Alfred never felt so alone in all his life. I am a storm child again, he thought, but this time without a storm family … without any family to speak of.

The shriek of a kittiwake from the other side of the cabin’s window awoke him a couple hours later. Alfred immediately left for the quarterdeck. Though dark, he could not be sure if that was due to the encompassing clouds or because of approaching night. By the time he reached the cliffs, he could see some fading light on the cloud-free eastern horizon, telling him that the sun must be just setting. To the west were no longer clouds or sky, just black, swirling mists. The absent wind from before had now reappeared, making up for lost time with harsh wailing and howling. Rumbling and occasional flashes of light further solidified the ominous feel of the storm.

If Alfred was uncomfortable, Skipper seemed more so. The raging, unpredictable wind made his already questionable landings on the stump even more impossible. For minutes, the besieged albatross hovered under the insane bursts of wind, dropping and rocketing upwards without warning. His lengthy wings angled up and down, trying to compensate as best they could before setting down, but the wind seemed to anticipate and mischievously slammed Skipper from a completely different direction, causing him to roll, flap wildly, and tumble. Alfred winced expecting him to smash into the stump as a final burst sent him recklessly down.

The next thing Alfred and Skipper knew, a merciful, upward puff of wind at the last moment left the bird standing on the stump, wings folded as if he had casually stepped onto his perch, not a feather out of place. Skipper let his good eye slide over to Alfred with just as much shock as relief. 

In spite of the precarious situation, Alfred had to laugh. “Well done, Skipper. You saved your perfect landing for the middle of a raging storm.”

Skipper nodded his head deferentially, Alfred’s words almost convincing the large bird that he actually performed the feat on purpose.

Alfred now took in stock the situation. The sky and stay sails both rattled above him uncertainly, and Alfred noticed that the island strayed up and down unevenly, in spite of the sky sail, and it also drifted south and east, even with the stay sail’s barely noticeable cords jerking against such movement. It was clear to Alfred that, while the sky and stay sails might generally hold the position of the island, they were not impregnable to fierce outside forces.

His sight fell down to the ocean, a couple thousand feet below. The deep green of the North Sea churned with thrashing tips of white, swells of waves carving valleys that surged into mountains. Alfred doubted he would find refuge by setting the island down into that maelstrom, nor was he certain that the invisible anchor would hold the island in place any more successfully than the stay sail now did.

To the not distant east lay the coastline of Norway. Alfred briefly considered setting down the island on top of the land somewhere to ride out the storm, but then he recalled seeing the shadow of the island cast upon the cliff face of Mangekilder Fjord. The wedge-shaped bottom of the island’s underneath would make setting it down on the land like trying to balance a top on a table.

Still, Alfred felt that if they were going to withstand this storm, he would rather do it near the land. Maybe they could wait it out behind a set of cliffs in a fjord, or maybe the storm might ebb as they went further inland. With a plan of action, he looked at the one-eyed bird in front of him and nodded. Skipper bobbed his head in return. “Set the sails, Skipper, let’s see if we can outrun this storm.”

The island ran before the storm with such speed that Alfred’s original plan to rest behind the cliffs of some fjord proved improbable. Any time they attempted to veer out from behind the grip of the westward flying wind, the island would tilt dangerously, and Alfred was not sure of his vessel’s limits.

This meant they were stuck constantly cruising at high speeds just in front of the storm system. Not knowing what else to do, Alfred kept the crew tending to the sails while he swayed the island carefully into the more calm pockets of air just in front of the storm.

The crew kept this up all night long, and in the morning, Alfred found himself looking down on unfamiliar land, recognizing that he had been heading across the mountainous inland of Norway. If he had hoped that the land would slow the storm system, his hopes were in vain. So far it had brushed back the clouds a couple miles, but seemed to strengthen the wind, tightening its grip on the chase for the island. This, of course, only impelled him farther east, opposite his destination: America. Plus there had been no rest or food for him and little for the crew, which had to be satisfied with short breaks and nibbles from leftovers.

Eventually, Alfred saw a large city below, larger than any he had ever seen before. The city sat at the end of a long finger of the sea winding up through tame hills of eastern Norway. He knew, even without having been there, that this was Oslo.

Desperately tired, he still managed to keep his eyes wide open, spying out all the details of a place with more people and ships than he could have ever imagined in one place. As he scanned the numerous boats loading and unloading cargo below, for a split second he thought one of them—a steamship—looked vaguely familiar. But before investigating it further, it occurred to him that if Oslo seemed big, how much bigger would the coastal cities of America seem to him.
If I ever get to America, Alfred noted to himself wistfully. 
How long can we keep running away from this storm before we drop from exhaustion and are overtaken anyway? Alfred thought. 

Sensing the extreme fatigue of the crew, he decided that he might as well face it sooner rather than later. Scanning the storm system, he felt that, if anything, the southern reach seemed the least hazardous. If I am to take a stand, I guess it’ll be there.

After easing the island into a southeast route, they got their first taste of what it meant to go in a direction not allied with the storm’s winds. The island dipped to the east as they clipped southwards, the sails angled over the port side, straining with immense pressure. Alfred kept his eye to the west, searching the storm for weak spots. For a couple hours he did not seem satisfied with the options.

Finally, after pushing well into the afternoon, Alfred saw a depression in the line of clouds. He looked to Skipper, who had also noticed it. The albatross turned his good eye to Alfred and nodded, grim but determined.

Alfred took a deep breath. “Hard to starboard!”

The storm had played a trick on them, baiting them in. As soon as they swerved towards the crack in the clouds and entered, it closed up in front and behind them. If they thought the storm’s winds were fierce while they ran before them, the winds were absolutely horrifying with the bow turned into them.

Immediately, Alfred screamed, for mere yelling would not suffice, at Skipper to reduce sail all sail except for the foresails, a mizzen, and the jib sails. Birds peeled wings away from their bodies and immediately disappeared, flung by the winds upwards, backwards, to the sides. Alfred worried that his orders put the crew into imminent danger, and he could not see how any who left the relative safety of the island’s quarterdeck could possibly make it back again in one piece.

Yet, miraculously, kittiwakes appeared, whole, on the stump in front of him. Far above and in front of him, through the shredded pieces of screaming clouds, he could see the pathetic flapping of little wings against the avalanche of wind.

Alfred squinted, amazed by the dexterity of what had to be the terns. Flinging themselves through the waves of wind, looking as natural as fish might going upstream the rapids of a river. One by one the sails folded and kittiwakes hauled them in, sometimes losing them then gaining them, but still bringing them in until all the sails had been reduced.

The island slanted dangerously with the wind pouring across its starboard bow as Alfred gripped the wheel to keep it heading in a southwest direction. He knew it would be pointless to head directly west since the sails would never catch the wind from that angle. They held the southwest course until it seemed to Alfred that that they barely lived a life outside of it. The strain the situation put on the sails, the island, the crew, and Alfred, made him wonder if they could last beyond each new wave of pelting rain or screaming wind burst. Worn to threads after two days of nonstop sailing, he thought, If the storm itself doesn’t end, then we’ll collapse and that will be the end.

It must have been at the deepest part of the night when Alfred saw it. Far, far away, a cluster of stars peeked through the maze of black clouds, corresponding perfectly with a fortuitous break in the rain. “Skipper!” his voice cracked.

Skipper instantly followed Alfred’s pointed finger. His good eye must have located the breach just before the clouds veiled it, because he turned back to Alfred, feet stamping hopefully. While it instilled hope in Alfred as well, he also knew that the vision occurred to the northwest, and they currently headed southwest. This would mean trying to bring the island about directly into the pounding, full force of the storm.

At this point, however, Alfred’s aching body and mind would do anything to bring their current state to an end, one way or the other. He grabbed a deep breath, then looked at the waiting Skipper. “Prepare to come about!”

The albatross’s eye glinted, and the commanding bird called out to the puffins, who stood at the ready. Then Skipper, satisfied, pivoted back to Alfred.

Alfred nodded. “Coming about!”

He flung the wheel starboard, trying to veer the island into the turn with as much momentum as he could gather. Birds shot up into the air and Alfred wondered if he would ever see them again.

And then, chaos.

As the bow of the island dipped into the approaching wind, the sails immediately shuddered like a flag before a hurricane-force gale. The move killed the island’s forward progress and any chance of completing the turn to northwards. They were “in irons” as the sailors referred to it, stuck turning into the wind. Alfred lost any control he had with the wheel, since the ship no longer moved forward.

In the distance, he could see the birds, incredibly, still managing to shift the rippling sails, but Alfred knew it would not matter. Because the island did not make the turn, the sails would not have the necessary angle to give the island forward momentum. They were stuck and being mercilessly pulverized by the oncoming gales. Uselessly, Alfred swiveled the wheel back and forth.

They struggled in this position for over an hour, though each minute seemed like an agonizing day. The whole crew scrambled to do something, but instead they fell victim to the whims of the wind. Still, Alfred would not easily despair, and part of him still wanted to answer defiantly: I won’t give up! 
Before he could muster up this daring response, a puffin suddenly smacked on top of the stump and screeched, staring backwards. Alfred rotated and suddenly felt lost. The puffin had spied a daunting cliff almost a quarter mile off the island’s stern, just being revealed by parting clouds. Alfred despaired.

Flashes of lightning etched grotesque faces in the cliff, but Alfred did not flinch at that. Instead, it was the fact that the island, slowly, inevitably, found itself drifting backwards, straight for the jagged precipices of cliff. If he did not find a way to stop, then the island would certainly be pinned up against it and the storm would beat it until it flipped over or fell apart. Once flattened against the cliff wall, Alfred knew there would be no sailing out of it. 

What can I do, though? he thought. For an hour or two, they had been stuck making no headway, probably drifting backwards the whole time. He had the stay sail placed, to attempt to impede the wind’s shoving, but the wind showed little respect for the sky anchor, pushing the island back anyway.

What Alfred really needed, however, was a way to pivot where he was, without retreating anymore. As he frantically thought of solutions, he checked behind him and saw the sharp cliff edges gaping at him. He looked forward and had his face blasted by the relentless winds. Then he looked at Skipper. The albatross gazed upon him in an almost philosophical way, perhaps realizing their trapped status as much as Alfred. The bird seemed to be bringing himself to peace about it.

Alfred paused himself, giving a weak smile. “I’m sorry,” he said.

The wind killed the words as they came out, but the albatross seemed to comprehend. They both quietly resigned to the dire circumstances.

Wistfully, Alfred turned again to monitor their approaching doom. He wanted to be somewhere else, anywhere else. He needed, he realized now more than ever, a storm family. He thought back on the times storm families put them up in their homes. He would hunker down in a makeshift bed, the wind would howl outside, and his mother or father would talk to him softly. Suddenly, this thought triggered a specific memory with his father.

Alfred had tried steering the fishing boat to the town at the onset of the squall, but he got caught heading into the wind, just like the island in this moment. At the time, his father tried yelling instructions, but Alfred sat too scared, the flapping sails too loud, and so his father took his place, and in less than a minute they were under way and got to the town to join their designated storm family.

While there, Alfred asked his father how he did it. As a novice sailor, Alfred kept trying to move the tiller but the boat would not respond. His father shook his head. “The rudder is worthless unless the boat is moving, Storm Child,” he smiled … that was back when he smiled. Then his father explained how bringing the jib sails to the wrong side of the fishing boat forced the wind to pivot the boat’s bow back, sliding it in the right direction.

Alfred snapped out of the memory in an instant, knowing what to do, but not sure if the memory came too late. He turned to Skipper. “The jib sails! I need them dragged to the port side of the island, facing forwards.”

Skipper swiveled his eye around, as if expecting the wind direction to have changed. Yet it still pummeled from the west.

Without time to explain, and not sure if an albatross would understand at any rate, Alfred restated, “Just bring the jibs across and then have the crew hold them face-forward as best they can against the wind!”

Skipper did not need to be told again. In a matter of moments, crew members struggled forward with instructions. Alfred looked behind, now noticing tiny details on the cliffs. Hurry, he thought.

The terns, the first on the scene, managed to shift the flapping jibs until the wind flattened its full force against them. And that is when Alfred saw that he asked the impossible. The island did not provide any leverage for holding the jib sails against the wind like a ship with a mast would. That meant that the birds would have to hold all the force of the raging wind fighting against the immense jib sails by their tiny wing power alone. Hundreds of birds, it seemed, would hardly be a match for the gales of this storm, let alone a couple dozen.

But they tried anyway. One after another, the birds lighted to the bow and tugged, helplessly. Finally even the puffins had joined the kittiwakes and terns. They dotted along the opaque edges of the canvas, pulling with all their might into the ever-merciless pounding gusts of wind.

Alfred shook his head, about to call them back, figuring they had fought enough and deserved a rest before the island jarred against the cliff. Skipper interrupted. Looking back at Alfred, the great bird suddenly opened his tremendous wings and shot upwards. 

Alfred then saw Skipper’s true majesty. While not the most graceful in his landings, as a flier, Skipper was clearly the king of the sky. The albatross navigated the sweeping onrush of wind with ease, never flapping, only slightly adjusting the angle of his wings. 

Soon he found the middle edge of the flying jib and grasped it with his beak. Here, Alfred thought that Skipper would surely flap his wings madly like the crew members were doing, but instead he only angled his wings again, using the wind, not himself, to force the sail into the wind. And the sail budged.

Alfred glanced backwards, wondering if it was too late since the cliffs snarled at the stern of the boat. Alfred could not believe they had not yet crashed, knowing it would only be a matter of moments.

Forward again, the sail shifted more. The sheer strength and splendor of the scene was breathtaking. And then he saw it. The bow of the island started its pivot. Skipper and the crew had not even put the flying jib all the way to the port side yet, but even the slightest contrary force was enough to start sliding the bow, though not without its strain on the crew. Even Skipper’s beak seemed to be loosening its grip on the taught fabric.

The cliffs crawled closer, but the island still swiveled. Alfred watched both, knowing that each second he did not act could result in the grating scrape of the island against the cliffs, also knowing that if he tried to bring the sails to their natural side too early, it might get them stuck again and they would have lost all their momentum.

He watched the straining birds, knowing they were at the end of their strength. He looked at the cliffs, almost feeling that he could stand at the stern of the boat, reach out and touch them.

Now or never. Screaming and waving his arms, he called for the ship to come about. At first he wondered whether the birds would even hear the order being so far away and in the shrieking wind, but Skipper’s one good eye must have compensated for the loss of his other, because they immediately guided the flying jib to the starboard side of the island, an infinitely easier duty than the previous one since the sails moved with the wind this time.

Kittiwakes and puffins soon stumbled back to the quarterdeck and brought in the stay sail, exhausted to the point that they could barely flap their wings by the time they lurched to the ground. The terns, and the great albatross, Skipper, stayed and brought the remaining sails across to the starboard side.

Alfred checked behind him, Was it in time? In a brief sickening moment, he thought he sensed a bump, the start of a scrape. And then he felt the bite of the island. It caught the wind! Alfred tapped the wheel, the rudder confirmed that the island was under way. They were moving, and this time it was not backwards.

Alfred glanced to the stern and witnessed the cliffs disappear behind bemoaning shrouds of mists. In great relief, he navigated northwest, towards the opening they had seen so long before. While still a grueling several hours, with most of the crew dilapidated and spent on the quarterdeck, Skipper and a couple of the terns kept watch on the sails, helping impel the island through the final breakers of the massive storm system.

Finally, the winds stopped beating as hard. The clouds thinned. The rumbling lessened. They broke through and saw nothing but crystal clear sky, awakening with a new dawn, all the way to the western horizon.

Alfred sighed, relieved. If he had enough energy, he probably would have taken into account the world beneath him and noticed that the events of the night before brought him just off the western Norwegian coast—near to where he started his whole venture—just overhead of a familiar steamship, which headed west, on its way across the Atlantic. 

Alfred, however, was too tired to even think about doing anything besides preparing the ship for anchor, so he missed the scene below, instead calling for the sails to be lowered and the stay sail placed up. Once accomplished, the crew gathered pathetically on the quarterdeck. Even the puffins could not manage to stand erect, though he could tell they tried.

Skipper had put the final touches on the stay sail, and was the last to join. The giant bird overshot the stump and lay crumpled on the quarterdeck, clearly too exhausted to pick himself up. Alfred went to him and gently placed his hands underneath, lifting the bird up. Skipper’s head and good eye emerged from the tangle of feathers and found Alfred, as if to thank him.

Alfred shook his head, tears welling up. “Don’t be silly, Skipper. I should be thanking you, dear friend. You saved us all.” And then the eleven-year-old who had no family to communicate with embraced the albatross.

©2012 by Marty Reeder

Once Upon a Fjord was funded, in part, through a Kickstarter campaign. This chapter has been sponsored by Mike and Erma Jones: 
A favorite author, Katherine Paterson, said, ‘It is not enough to simply teach children to read; we have to give them something worth reading. Something that will stretch their imaginations ... ’
Thanks, Marty for adding grand stories to our lives, our shelves, and our hearts.
Sponsor had no editorial control over the chapter content. The author maintains full responsibility for content.