Pen to Paper: “12-4 AM” Excerpt

“12-4 AM” Excerpt

by Harper Estey ’17

We made our way to the bow, soft and careful.  Loud steps might wake our crewmates below, which guaranteed grumpy complaints once the sun rose.  We slid passed Smoke – our dingy – and ducked under the staysails.  Earlier in the week we had been caught in a storm.  Four of us had gone up to the staysails to try to sheet them in – to lessen the effect of the gusting winds.  We were covered head to toe in heavy weather gear, rain boots and overalls, heavy jackets and bright neon hoods.  We were tethered to the ship so we couldn’t be swept overboard, but we careened back and forth and struggled to hold our footing.  We caught glimpses across the deck down to the ocean surface on either side.  Rain pelted down around us and the sea crashed over our bow, a salty invasion force.  We got the sails sheeted in, tied off the lines, and headed back to the cockpit.  Then we sat with our hands in our pockets and our heads down, riding along with the rocking of the ship. 

Storms at sea are always portrayed as awful, terrifying experiences.  I had my fair share of mortality-confronting moments, squalls and raucous seas alike, but a seaside storm has an intrinsic excitement to it.  You’re surrounded by impossibly vibrant grays, blinded by rains, and unsteadied by winds.  There’s no room for thought as your body moves through the practiced motions: hauling in the sheets, latching each of the hatches, shifting from one issue to the next as you try to calm your distraught vessel.  It’s inherently religious to fight through a storm; a staring contest with nature in which blinking means death. 

We made it to the bow with no such excitement on our minds.  The thought of staring down the natural may as well have fallen overboard.  Celine dashed away as soon as we arrived, and Anastacia smiled as she left, on her way to the cockpit.  The wind was always louder up front, so we zipped our jackets and settled in.  I peered over the edge of the ship and caught glimpses of green dancing below as we cut through the water.  We’d stumble into patches of bioluminescence nearly every night.  Once we even found a pod of dolphins covered in the stuff.  Flashes of brilliant green dashed out of the water and would fly beside us for just a moment.  They were a viridescent oasis that provided a moment of colorful respite from the dark blue hue of the ocean sky and the blackness in which they played.  They swam alongside us for a while, jumping and spinning, racing us to some nonexistent finish line.  Our glowing companions cackled at us in their fixed smiles, calling out for us to join them in the water.  It was better down there, they said.  The ocean depths were filled with beauties unimaginable. They begged us to come and see, unaware that we needed no beauty beyond their presence.  Finally, they grew bored of us, frustrated with our refusal to play along.  We lost our beauties as they returned to theirs, and the night yielded to its uncolored, native balance.

The silence was louder at the bow.  Kevin was hardly audible.  I only half-listened to what I could hear–something about how to grill the perfect burger.  I watched the horizon, feigning focus while internally apathetic.  Bow watch at night was boring.  During the day you would watch for debris–plastic bags or other jettisoned refuse–that might get caught in the rudder, or you’d be the only one to spot a school of flying fish.  At night you looked for oncoming ships, staring out at the horizon two miles away, searching for artificial light.  We saw no ships, no glowing dolphins, no flying fish.  We hit one swell that shot up a cascade of water as we slammed down the other side.  For half a moment it rained. 

It’s impossible to understand just how big the world is until you sail across an ocean.  While you travel hundreds of miles every day, nothing around you changes.  Days and weeks on end of an infinite blue.  We were small compared to our ship, but our ship was nonexistent compared to the sea.  That night on the bow I stared up at the stars and realized even the sea was small compared to the world, and the world was irrelevant compared to the rest of it all. 

It’s peaceful on bow watch, a moment where existence is put into context.

An hour later Haley and Gabe came to relieve us in turn.  We walked back to the cockpit and returned to a softer, quiet silence.  Little, if anything, had changed in our time away.  All remained quiet.  All were resigned to wait for our clocks to strike four.

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