New Voices: When Captain Flint Was Still a Good Man
New Voices highlights six emerging talents each year on granta.com. The latest in series is Nick Dybek, whose forthcoming novel, When Captain Flint Was Still A Good Man, is extracted below. Set against an unforgiving and spectacular landscape, Dybek takes us to a place where the line between fiction and reality blurs.
Photo by Ingrid Taylar.
Loyalty Island was the stink of herring, nickel paint, and kelp rotting on moorings and beaches. The smell of green pine needles browning across the ground. It was the rumble of outboards, wind, and ice machines, and the whine of hydraulic blocks. It was grey light that flooded and ebbed at dawn and dusk.
It was the habit of loneliness. We spent our time watching calendars, waiting for the chaos that came when the radios crackled and the phones rang and tires kicked dust in the parking lots around Greene Harbor. We searched the horizon for returning fishermen, who arrived shaggy and greasy, telling their stories but not their secrets.
It’s only natural to think that the place you were born is unlike any other, but there were towns like ours across the entire peninsula, across the entire Washington coast. Our libraries were stocked with books that were always checked in and movies that were always checked out. Our children played baseball in overgrown fields. Our high-schoolers played hooky in greasy spoons and tried their parents’ curse words on tongues scalded by sweet coffee. Our adults bought cars and washing machines on credit. We cried and consoled one another when faced with tragedy, of which we had more than our share.
Loyalty Island wasn’t actually an island at all. The town sat on a nub of land jutting into the Strait of Juan de Fuca, a thin peninsula that turned ninety degrees like the neck and head of a giraffe. At our backs, a rain forest sprouted ferns and moss that glowed green against the bark. The highways were lined with leaning trees, dense enough to block the light, turning the roads into chutes you’d slide through as though over ice. Behind the forest, white mountains blinked in the mist.
The strait was a chameleon of grey, blue, green, and black water. You could spend days on a pier, or a hill, or, if you were lucky, as my family was, in your living room, thinking of nothing but naming the colour. And beyond these plates of water and light the horizon was broken by islands, matted with dark trees. Beyond the islands the ocean pushed clouds across the sky. It rained all fall, winter, and spring. The sky rose and sank. The ocean dragged out and rushed in, but Loyalty Island never changed.
Every fall the boats left for Dutch Harbor. Every spring they returned. And every summer the sun stayed out late for parties around the grills in Cousins Park. On weekends, fireworks lit the sky over Greene Harbor, and a band played on the small stage near the boardwalk. My father read to me each night before bed, mainly, I think, to impress upon my mother how seriously he took her order that I not follow blindly in his footsteps. The year I turned eight he read Treasure Island to me front to back three times.
I loved the young narrator, Jim Hawkins, but rooted for the doomed pirates. Blind Pew, trampled in the street. Black Dog, his fingers mangled like those of my father’s friend, Don Brooke. Israel Hands, struck down by the swinging tiller. And especially Captain Flint, dead and buried like his treasure. Captain Flint, whose shadow still fell years after he’d drunk himself to death in Savannah. I begged my father to tell me more.
‘What more can I tell you?’ he asked, laughing. ‘You’ll have to ask Robert Louis Stevenson. He’s dead? All right, let me think.’
I waited under the covers as my father settled down in the blue beanbag on the floor and switched off the bedside lamp. I could smell the nightly cup of coffee on his breath. ‘Years ago,’ he began, ‘when Flint was still a good man . . .’
Every night for the rest of the summer my father told me a new story. Captain Flint defended villages from bandits in Haiti, freed slaves in Brazil, and befriended the yeti in Nepal.
By August Safeway had stocked up on frozen food and powdered milk. The men who had spent the summer sleeping late or watching baseball returned to work, to paint and mend the boats and gear. The rest of us could only watch the summer dwindle, weeks to days to hours.
Every man had his own way of leaving. Justin Howard, a deckhand on Sam’s boat, drove all the way to Ashland, to see a play at the Shakespeare festival because he was in love with one of the actresses. Andrew Ramzi stayed up all night watching movies so that he’d have something to replay in his mind during the shifts on deck. Others, many others, drank themselves off their stools at Eric’s Quilt.
My father shaved off his beard. Every September: the click of scissors as he trimmed; the swish of the old-fashioned brush as he slowly painted his face; then the scrape of the razor, the shaving cream peeled away. Until he had a new face, a face that seemed less kind somehow, maybe because I knew what it meant. That night he’d hug me against a smooth cheek smelling of Bay Rum and in the morning he would be gone, leaving only the trimmings in the sink – almost red against the white of the bowl, though the hair on his head was brown.
Those of us left behind dug in. Through the fall, through the winter, it seemed we lived on the border of a real life lived elsewhere. It seemed that the absence was ours somehow, not theirs, that we were the ones who were gone. I went up to my room and tried to see it as though through my father’s eyes. Bookshelves stuffed with Robert Louis Stevenson and Rudyard Kipling. A Mariner’s pennant, gaping shark’s jaws, a print of Van Gogh’s room I’d gotten from my mother. My fleet of Lego ships – schooner, sloop, aircraft carrier – rested at anchor on the top shelf, complete with eye-patched, peg-legged sailors. Is it any surprise that so many of us would have given anything to be part of that life, no matter how little it suited us, no matter how little of it we understood?
I don’t want to romanticize their work because I’ve never done it. But they romanticized it because they suffered for it. They stumbled from their bunks, having slept two hours in seventy, onto decks sheathed in ice, onto twenty-foot seas. They winched up enormous crab pots dripping foam, dredged from the bottom of the coldest ocean. How could each man explain to himself a lifetime of red eyes and frostbitten ears, of knees in salt water, elbows in chopped herring? It had to be part of some larger destiny; the fight to stay awake and alive had to be turned, somehow, from drudgery to heroism.
To venture from the wheelhouse, on the rare clear day when the sea lay as still as glass, the live wells plugged with red king crab that would sell for one dollar fifty a pound – already negotiated with the cannery – was, to them, as good as it would ever get. To pilot a steel ship that slid over fathoms of ocean churning secretly below was art. Out there you had the freedom to do anything. Out there, who could tell you otherwise?
But their freedom came with risk and was shaped by consequence. Don Brooke lost his index finger at the knuckle. My father shattered his ankle on the second day of tanner season and had to grimace through two weeks of constant work. But it was Sam North who’d suffered the most.
Normally the boats were worked exclusively by men from Loyalty Island, but one year one of the crew learned of a family emergency just before they shipped out of Dutch Harbor, and was obliged to fly home. They filled his slot with a kid named Ramo who’d arrived in Dutch Harbor with a duffel bag and half a degree from USC. By the time they’d motored out fifty miles, Ramo was green with nausea. Seasickness was permissible, even an omen of good luck. But Ramo refused to work through it. Apparently it wasn’t even the rollers that dropped his stomach; it was the smell of the bait herring.
The crew a man short, Sam left the wheelhouse to take shifts on deck. With one of the eight-hundred-pound crab pots – a steel frame the size of a double bed, covered in nylon mesh – in the launch, Sam crawled in to bait it with the same herring that had driven Ramo into fits of nausea. But his fingers were numb from the cold, and, at forty-five, he was no longer built for baiting. He lagged an extra ten seconds, more than enough time to invite calamity.
A rogue wave – a real monster – washed the deck, knocking everyone off their feet and sending the crab pot over the rail, Sam along with it. The pot was weighted to sink five hundred feet to the bottom of the Bering Sea, and, as the door shut behind him, Sam realized that he would be coming along.
How many times have I seen this in nightmares? Liquid ice flooding Sam’s boots, sleeves, and nostrils. His fingers curling around the mesh of the pot. The pressure after only two fathoms beginning to rattle in his ears, the vertigo of black water and weightlessness. He tries to pull his hands away but his fingers are claws in the net; the electricity in his blood and brain is already slowing, freezing.
The pot races downward, wrapped in violent foam. Sam’s hands still won’t release, and he writhes against the mesh. He feels the shallowness of the pot, the narrowness. In the black rush of water the pot feels, of course, like a coffin. He’s deep enough now to have been buried four times over. The pressure is in his sinuses, his inner ear and his temples; it seems to curl up his fingernails and earlobes. Somehow, amazingly, he resists the temptation to scream and to breathe. He imagines he can smell the herring as its slotted plastic jar floats behind him like a streamer on the back of a bicycle. The herring that will be a siren call to armies of king crab, three feet wide, scuttling across the bottom of the sea, pincers raised and swinging like lanterns. Sam pictures himself dead, after a two-day soak. The pull of the hydraulic winch, the pot rising, breaking the surface, banging against the Cordilleran’s steel hull. He is unceremoniously dumped onto the deck, his body swollen by seawater, half devoured to white bone.
His feet stab the dark, and, miraculously, the pot breaks open at the bottom – or the top? His fingers finally release; he pulls back his arms. He slides from the pot into open water and is tempted to breathe it like air. He wants to kick his legs, but is afraid they might only take him deeper. He spins, trying to locate himself in the gauze of bubbles and spies the buoy line, nearly phosphorescent in the darkness. With the line to orient him, he can see the pot rushing away like a train.
He’s down fifty, maybe sixty feet. He follows the buoy line up, hand over hand, starving for breath as his ears pop again and again. He bursts from the water and has just time enough to draw a three-quarter breath before a breaker hurls him back down. When he comes up a second time, the ship is nowhere to be seen. He doesn’t expect to live, but is grateful that he won’t die caged on the ocean floor. He gropes for the buoy, brings it to his chest with both arms.
He wakes below deck, wrapped in blankets, shaking and vomiting. He can hardly feel his body but figures the crew would not be gazing at him with such open-mouthed amazement if he was dead.
Each spring, my father returned home in either a frenzy or a depression. It took him weeks to sleep through the night, to sit still for an entire meal. He paced from room to room, as if needing to relearn the house. But these were the easy readjustments. He must have felt that he came home to a new son every spring. I gained inches and lost teeth. One year I loved Robert Louis Stevenson, the next radio cars, and my father never caught up. Sometimes I wondered why he came home at all.
Some years the boats came back heavy, some years they came back light. If the fishermen caught enough crab, they kept their work, and, consequently, the teachers and the electricians kept theirs. Bob Rusk continued to pull pints of Olympia at Eric’s Quilt (named for the blanket that warmed Bob back to life after he was fished from the Bering Sea). Mrs Zhou continued to press the button at the dry cleaner’s, whirring her carousel of plastic garment bags to life. Will Percy continued his awkward chats with the patrons at the single-screen Orpheum Theatre, its lobby always smelling of his pipe smoke. Mrs Gramercy, whose face was half frozen from Bell’s palsy, continued her rounds, wiping the dust from spine to spine to spine in the stacks of the public library.
The year I was ten, the boats came back heavy. The season was highline. There would be a summer with money for everyone. You could feel the vibrations of this everywhere, in the pitch of voices in line at Belinda’s Deli, in the popcorn at the Orpheum, in the starch in Mrs Zhou’s laundry. Money, as my father used to say, is only energy, energy that – in this case – began as worms and mollusks on the floor of the Bering Sea. Energy that passed to the bellies of king crabs, to the bellies of steel ships, to the bellies of steel banks.
My father brought home a VCR for my mother, a luxury in those days, along with an armload of the movies she loved by Kurosawa, Antonioni, and Bresson.
‘Anything for me?’ I asked.
‘Get in the car,’ he said. ‘You’ll need this when we get to the Laurentide.’ He handed me a fillet knife in a black plastic sheath.
We parked in front of the Laurentide’s slip and climbed the steel ladder. The deck had just been washed down; fresh water beaded the rails. My father breathed in with his nose and slapped his thighs.
‘I’ll be back in a minute,’ he said, grinning, ‘so no ideas about joyriding, okay?’ He went below deck, returning a few minutes later with an enormous king salmon slung over his shoulder. Before I could say anything, he swung the fish by its tail and whacked me in the arm. I slipped on the deck and went down hard. ‘That’s my present?’ I asked, but my disappointment was faked. We were both laughing.
We set the salmon on the worktable in the stern. My father took a white handkerchief from his back pocket, folded it in half and tied it around my forehead.
‘We don’t want sweat in your eyes. Now, the scalpel, Doctor.’
He unsheathed the fillet knife and presented it to me on the flats of his hands. I’d seen him do this a hundred times. I rolled up my sleeves and took the knife as two brown pelicans flapped onto the rail, tucking long beaks against their breasts.
‘Gills first, right?’ I asked.
‘Yeah, now careful. I can’t take you home with a finger like Don’s.’
I dug the blade into the salmon’s head, just behind the gills, sliced vertically and then drew the knife towards the mouth. The flesh was as cold as the water it had come from, but the knife glided. Above me, gulls screamed. The gills, on the inside, looked like maroon clay. I tossed the scraps overboard without looking, the way I’d seen my father do it. I could hear wings beating, a chorus of shrieks and splashes. I flipped the salmon and attacked the other side.
‘That’s it, Doctor,’ my father said. ‘Belly-dance him, now.’
I looked up at a swirl of feathers. More birds had descended around the table. They swooped and dove, coming close enough that I could feel a rush of air.
‘What are you waiting for?’ my father said. ‘Not too deep. Don’t slit the stomach or these birds will go crazy.’
Bits of scale clung beneath my fingernails. My hands felt covered in sticky snow. I wiped a palm on my doctor’s bandana and pointed the tip of the fillet knife just below the gills.
‘Stay on the beam,’ my father said. ‘Steady hands. Watch the stomach, now.’
I knew the trick was to go just deep enough to flay the flesh without messing the organs. But as I sliced, I imagined the gulls alighting on my shoulder, felt their feathers under my nose and their beaks in my ears. The knife clung to a scale and I pushed smoothly through, not sawing, just the way I’d seen him do it. But too deep. I was carving through the stomach. I knew it, but I couldn’t stop. I looked up at the swirling white birds, and when I looked down again my hands were covered with black needlefish. The needlefish poured from the stomach, hundreds of them, over the cleaning table and onto my pants and shoes.
I dropped the knife and stumbled three or four steps back, brushing at the needlefish as if they were sparks. I think I managed not to cry out. The gulls descended, shrieking, stabbing the fish, puffing their wings. They tore at the deck, all white feathers and black eyes. Then they fell silent, mouths too full to shriek, and the deck churned as if under white clouds. My father shooed three gulls with his boot and stooped for his knife.
‘All right, wash up before you get in the car. I’ll finish this off.’
‘Let me help you,’ I said.
He smiled, the skin around his eyes crinkling like cellophane. But in answer, he only cuffed the back of my neck and rubbed it with his rough thumb.
The next summer was a different story. My mother cancelled the cable, then the newspaper. Would we even be able to last until the start of the next season? The violet puffs under my father’s eyes told me not to ask. He spent the evenings slumped in his chair, a bamboo-framed tiki with green jungle-print cushions. He winced when the phone rang, as if each jangle dropped like a link of chain. One night I answered to snowstorm static, to a man’s voice saying, ‘Bollings? Fucking Bollings? Bollings?’ Those were the sounds of Alaska. My father snatched the receiver and slammed it to his ear.
‘How many other ways can I say it? No.’ As always, he spoke softly and slowly, as if his tongue could barely lift each word. ‘I don’t care what you’ve heard. Have we been there every last one of these ten years? Damn straight.’ He dropped the phone into the cradle and offered me a low-watt smile. ‘Game?’ he asked.
He pulled the taped and retaped Connect Four box down from the top shelf of the hall closet. We set up, as always, at the kitchen table, the plastic grid in the centre, our checkers stacked before us. As we played he rubbed his beard or towed out the hair at his temples.
‘You’re worried?’ he said. The sharpness in his voice surprised me.
‘I don’t know. Not really.’
‘Why’s that?’ He cocked one eye, aligning it with a hole in the board. I didn’t answer.
‘Know who doesn’t worry?’ he asked. ‘The same people who don’t pay their taxes. Fools, fucking assholes.’
He’d never sworn like that, not at me anyway, and I felt the words prickle my neck. We continued to play, wordlessly. Dinnertime passed. The kitchen windows turned the deep green of a chalkboard. The evening rain began, beading against the glass of the back door like sweat. I won game eight and, as victor, pulled the lever, spilling the checkers back onto the table. As we sorted through reds and blacks my father said, ‘We might not always have the luxuries we do now, that’s all I’m saying. We can’t just float around and wait for money to fall like mensa.’
‘Manna,’ I said. I wouldn’t have corrected him, but I could see him cracking, getting angry. I’d always suspected that there was another side to my father that he left in Alaska each year, a part of him we never saw. ‘Mensa’s the club for geniuses.’
His eyes narrowed through the board, his mouth narrowed under his beard. ‘Which you’re clearly in.’ He still didn’t raise his voice.
‘All right,’ I said. ‘I know.’
‘What do you know?’ He leaned back against the kitchen booth, snapping his heels on the floor, and it was as though a beam had been broken, this trance I had finally pushed us from. ‘How are you going to learn anything when you know it already?’
Normally he spoke in tight phrases, self-contained as packets of salt. But now he was practically foaming at the mouth. ‘You haven’t breathed a breath that didn’t come easily, and you still think you know everything. So when I hear you say ‘I know, I know,’ I want to reach across this table and strangle you.’
He clamped his hand to my shoulder, scattering his pile of black checkers. I tried to twist away, but he held me firmly in place for a moment before he drew back. I shrank against the booth, still feeling the vise of his fingers.
We blinked at each other.
‘Sorry,’ he said. ‘Are you all right? Sorry.’
Later that night I found him sitting alone under the yellow fixture in the breakfast nook. He patted the bench next to him when he saw me in the doorway. The overhead fluorescents were off and the table lamp showed just enough light to reveal the grey threads in his hair. There was a map of the Bering Sea spread out across the table, held flat by two empty beer steins.
‘Come here,’ he said. ‘I’ll show you where I’ve been.’
He pointed to Bower’s Ridge and the Pribilof Islands, talking fast, sipping from a blue-flowered mug of black coffee. ‘We were here, and here, and here,’ he said, spreading his thick fingers over the map. Abruptly, he picked up one of the steins and let the map roll shut. He leaned back against the bench and blew out a sigh. ‘It’s hard,’ he said. It seemed like a perfectly simple truth to me, but he continued. ‘Because when you’re out there all you can think about is back here, and when you’re back here, all you can think about is out there.’
All that winter I’d thought about Captain Flint. How, I wondered, did the good Captain Flint change into the man who buried his treasure on Skeleton Island and murdered his crew to protect the secret, the man who left Allardyce to rot, his outstretched arms pointing the way?
‘It’s just stories, Cal. You know that, right?’ my father said.
I said I did.
‘Well,’ he said, as I followed him into the living room, ‘he probably just got greedy.’
His hands were as thick as strip steaks, and scarred, especially at the tips of his fingers. He had wide shoulders and short legs that seemed engineered for a rolling deck. Even at home, he stood with his legs apart, as if guarding his balance.
‘Greedy for what?’ I asked. ‘What did he want?’
I wish I could remember his answer, or if he answered at all.