King Henry, Master of the Sea by Jon Vreeland
It was summer and the weather was hot and the sky was cloudless and there was no sign of rain or storm just the heat and humidity and the ocean made of glass that was green and not awake. Albert slept in the eight foot boat—the one grandpa had left when he died twenty-five years ago—with his hat pulled over his eyes so the sun didn’t burn them. The boat was grey with two removable bench seats with a fifteen horsepower outboard engine and Albert liked to sleep in the boat when he wasn’t trolling for fish.
When Albert wasn’t fishing, he tied his boat to a sailboat named Sylvia anchored just outside the small harbor of Willy’s Wharf and the town of Sabrina. The sailboat was owned by an old guy named Hank who had fished his entire life and knew where the fish swam, especially at night. And he liked Albert so he told him where to fish and called him Kid and since Hank no longer fished he liked that Albert climbed on his boat every evening to fry the fish he’d caught for the day which was usually a Halibut. The two would pour beer on the fish while it cooked and smoke good tobacco from wooden pipes and they were always pleasant to each other even though the two were very tired. The two agreed, that, a man who is old and tired, but happy, has lived the life he wanted to live and this is why he is happy; a man who is old and tired, but sad, has not lived the way he has wanted to live, and this is why he is sad.
The sun was on its way down and Albert had enjoyed his sleep so he splashed some sea water on his face and dried off with his shirt then started the engine to take a troll just outside the harbor where the fish swim in the early morning, and jump in the late afternoon. The old man slept on the deck in his chair and his pipe swaddled from his lips and he did not wake when the engine started so Albert did not shout goodbye. Albert took out the poles and set them in the holsters and trolled the edge of the harbor while he smiled at his boat he had waited to use for half of his life. The thought of the old man laughing his whiskey laugh amid his thoughts about the sea was all Albert needed right now because Albert never failed, and knew not the feeling of defeat.
He often laughed at the fish and taunted them when he was alone on the water which is normal for men who fish with zeal and have a heart for the aqueous creatures they eat for strength and nourishment. Albert was generous with the fish he caught—not only with the old man but the transients who slept under the pier every night when the sun was gone, too—he knew there was plenty of fish because there was plenty of ocean with plenty of fish that were pretty and some that were not.
This day I speak of is a day when the ocean was calm, the tide change hardly palpable, like time stood still and the early morning twilight was the only time of day that existed: the air soft and peaceful and the ocean like a mirror under perfect skies with nothing but Albert and his boat, and a soon-to-be faded memory of why it hadn’t been, floating in between. But this was the day the fish had no appetite for his bait, not even nibble at the squid.
Still it didn’t matter.
This was Albert’s simple dream; now he could finally live it.
Albert motored into Willy’s Wharf while the moon colored the green ocean a white that shimmered. The young fisherman caught nothing and didn’t have dinner for him or the old man but tied his boat to the old man’s boat anyway and climbed on and poured himself a drink before he sat in a chair and leaned his head back then laughed at the menstruated moon as it moved about the cloudless night.
“What’re you waitin’ for Kid? Put that fish on the grill I’m starvin’,” the old man said from the same position Albert had left him in; even his pipe hadn’t moved.
“Didn’t catch nothin’ old man.”
“Say what? What’re you talkin’ bout Kid? Where’d you go then?”
“Fishing dammit, they weren’t bitin’ today I guess.”
“Then why you smilin’? You’ve been defeated?” the old man continued; he poured a drink while Albert sat up in his chair, his smile gone.
“I don’t know, good question,” he answered.
The old man grabbed his poles and bottle of Sailor Jerry’s whiskey and threw them in Albert’s boat and said, “C’mon kid let’s go get some fish, I know where they swim at this time of day, we’ll catch dinner for tonight and the rest of the week on my Sylvia.”
“Whatever you say boss,” Albert said with a smile.
“Why do you smile Kid? Is somethin’ funny or somethin’?”
“Calm down old man I’m just happy to see you.”
“Ohh, happy to see me,” said the old man named Hank who had picked up on his sarcasm, his valor as well. “You think you’re young and you can beat me at catching fish?”
“You think you can beat me?” he said with his foot on the bow, his arm on his chest. “King Henry Master of the Sea and all within?”
“Okay calm down old man just take it easy.”
“You’ve had too many fish, that is the problem. You have lost interest in the fish because they have lost interest in you,” said the King. “they see you coming and they know it’s you.”
“This happened once old man, King, whatever your name is.”
“I say to throw the little ones back and them grow, let them flourish like their parents, let them get older and become adults before you take their life and innocence and turn them into dinner when they’re only an appetizer,” the old man explained. “I say this for a reason.”
And so the two set out to catch dinner and left Sylvia to bathe in the growing moonlight, a light that showed the cracks in the wood and chips in the paint, stains of blood from massive creatures and empty glasses that are unbreakable because they have been dropped and the glass is not broken or cracked like the wood or the paint. Albert turned the throttle and aimed for the patch of light that bounced off the middle of the visible ocean that is much larger than it appears without the strength of the August sun, and the two of them dropped their lines in the water and fished, but even with the old man the men caught nothing but trash bags and an old tennis shoe with moss growing all over its black and white fake leather and shoelaces with chewed on ends.
“You have cleaned the ocean of its purity and its future because of why? Why have you done this? Do we not eat well? Do we not fall asleep every night with our belly’s full of fresh, mature fish you caught with your own two hands?”
“We do eat well every night and so do they,” Albert replied and pointed his finger to the pier with campfires and lanterns scattered underneath and around like fallen street lamps and mini volcanos with the shadows of gentle land monsters who sit around in poverty and laugh at their luck of living in the last paradise Southern California has to offer.
“Those stinkin’ bums. Those good for nothin’ bums who just sit around and expect everyone else to work so they can sit around like stinkin’ bums and make the place smell of mari-joo-wanna and all that mumbo jumbo bullshit,” he said as he lit a cigar and stood with both hands on his hips. “Don’t you ever give them bums our food after you slaved away for it, it’s every man for himself Kid you hear me? This world is a mean an rotten place so you gots to be mean and rotten y’self if you want to get ahead. See we hungry, and them’s probably laughin’ at the two of us while we slave our asses out here and try to catch them dinner—”
“Alright, alright old man I got it I got it I won’t give them anything from now on,” Albert told him. “It wasn’t that much so—”
“Wasn’t that much Kid? We hungry right now Kid so quit sayin’ that! Now go, there.” he pointed and Albert turned the throttle and steered into a half-mile cleft that bends into shore where the moon does not quite touch and the lights in the sky are swallowed by a darkness that is too dark to explain.
Albert could not see but trusted King Henry would not let him die in a world so wet, cold, and terrifying which made Albert feel good inside and so he did not complain. Albert heard the waves smash against the cliffs and the seals bark like dogs in the sodden night and he listened to the old man and watched his finger when he pointed him in and out of the break line with ease while the waves rolled into shore where Albert still couldn’t see (at all), just the back of the waves that trundled and sprayed the night air with mists of hissing salt from the Pacific waters.
Suddenly, both poles bent down and kissed the surface of the water and rocked the boat sideways and for a moment Albert could see his reflection in the water and he did not like what he saw because who he saw was old and not young at all. He was old and grey and the corners of his mouth sagged and he didn’t like what he saw so he lifted his head and grabbed a pole and helped reel in the fish as it pulled them past the break where the moon still shone with pallid vehemence and the water stirred gently in its place and he could smell the town of Sabrina and its authenticity.
“Pull her in Kid,” the old man yelled as he worked on the other fish with his tuna fish arms. “Looks like we got a Ma and Pa Kid hehe!”
Albert pulled and the boat rocked but their footing was good because they had good sea legs and were not scared to swim. The old man turned and somehow sent his fish out towards the light so they could be towed out of the dark and into the sea of light where not only God can see but the men could see as well.
“Don’t let go kid this is food for the month hehe!”
“I got it old man, just make sure you can keep up with me O’King Henry Master of the Sea,” he said with a cynicism the old man did not like but pretended not to hear.
They held their poles and without a harness but hung on with everything they had as the fish continued to tow them back towards Sylvia, back towards the scattered lights and campfires and people living on the sand and under the pier where it never rains.
“Let ‘em drag us Kid, quit tuggin’ or you gonna snap the line.”
“Alright alright I got I got it.”
And so the fish drug the two men on the outskirts of Willy’s Wharf until they couldn’t drag any more. The fish were tired but they pulled and they pulled the men towards the pier where the transients and locals lived and listened to the swirl of the ocean, and slept under the planks that rained little particles of sand on their already sandy hair.
“Don’t let go don’t let go!” the old man screamed but the fish were strong and did not stop pulling. “Don’t let go don’t let go!”
Their hands bled and they couldn’t hold any longer so they let the fish go and the boat started to slow but the fish were tired and they could not see and they wrapped themselves around the pilings of the pier and the transients got up and beat the fish with sticks until the fish were belly up and not alive.
“Hey thanks guys,” Albert said. “We couldn’t have done it without you that’s for sure.”
“Yeah…thanks,” Hank said, King Henry Master of the Sea, then cut a small sliver of meat from the two giant fish and gave it to the people under the pier where they sleep and do not work but taste the salt that lingers in the depths of our swirling sea.