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Authors: Ronald Malfi

Borealis (2 page)

BOOK: Borealis

“Christ,” Charlie grunted, flipping his half-smoked cigarette over the bow. “We'll give him two more days before suggesting we reassign coordinates.”

“There's nothing out here,” Joe said. “There's us and God and nothing else.”

“Not God, either. He's somewhere else at the moment. Too damn cold for him.”

“The blues are laughin' at us.”

“Two more days,” Charlie repeated, hugging himself now as night fell over frozen Arctic wastes.


But it wouldn't take two days: early the next morning, while the sky was still black and the stars as bright as fireworks, the crew of the
struck gold. What they called space-spiders. Moon-bugs.

During the night, Captain Fenty had wound the trawler through a section of black water alongside the Kula Plate, the wind so harsh and unforgiving the sea spray kicked up by the trawler would freeze in under a second. The giant steel pots were lowered by the great hydraulic arm, which seemingly grunted in protest, and a breakfast of warm oatmeal and watery coffee was served belowdecks. Each of them still half-asleep, they ate their oatmeal and sipped their coffee like zombies, undedicated to their roles, their broad and heavy bodies swaddled in long johns and flannel underwear. Pulling on their gear after breakfast, the sun still brightening some other part of the world, they climbed topside and sent the arm to work again, this time hoisting the pots, which were giant steel cages that weighed 800 pounds each. The first pot ascended from the black waters alive with bristling, clattering crabs, scores of them, nearly to the top of the cage. There sounded a united cheer from the deck. The pot was hoisted over the side and onto the deck where Billy McEwan and a young greenhorn named Sammy Walper each grabbed one side to stabilize it.

“Jesus Lord!” Joe shouted, clapping his rubberized gloves together. “Jesus in a propeller hat!”

Charlie shot a glance at the pilothouse windows, which were beaded with ice and grimy with diesel sludge. He raised one hand to Fenty, and Fenty raised one in return.

“They're reds! All of 'em!” shouted McEwan. “A pretty fucking penny better'n blues!”

Charlie and another deckhand, Bryan Falmouth, bent and grabbed the handles of the tank lid that was impressed into the trawler's deck. Each of them grasping a wrought-iron ring, Charlie said, “Ready?”

Falmouth nodded. “Do it.”


The lid was hoisted on angry, squealing joints.

“Ha, ha!” Joe was still stomping and clapping on the deck.

The pot was opened and the crabs were dumped across the deck. Immediately, the sound of the bone-thick, segmented legs chattering along the planking was like a wave of applause, their enormous, grotesque bodies clambering over one another, abbreviated pincers raised and snapping, biting at the freezing air and, more often, at one another.

They set to work sizing the crabs and examining their sexes, mostly by sight—a quick glance of appraisal, no more than a second and a half long—though occasionally one would have to be lifted and examined and judged before tossing it either into the under-deck holding tank or over the trawler's side back into the sea.

“This ugly bastard's a new pair o' bowling shoes,” Joe shouted, holding one of the giant reds with two hands. He was grinning from ear to ear—Joe, not the crab. Bending down and planting a kiss on the top of the creature's carapace, Joe flung it down into the tank and quickly scooped up another. “And this 'ere one's a flat-screen TV!” To the crab, which was raising and lowering its legs with a mechanical, hydraulic quality, Joe muttered, “How you gonna like that, you ugly son of a bitch?”

Sammy Walper, the greenhorn, laughed and kicked one of the crabs down into the hatch soccer-style.

Most were keepers; they threw back very few. And once they'd finished, Captain Fenty brought the trawler around to another buoy and they repeated the process over again. This went on until lunchtime.

Nearing dusk, they reran the circuit and dumped the traps overboard, scattering a trail of neon buoys in the ship's wake. Having worked up monstrous appetites, the rest of the crew descended belowdecks to the galley quarter where Walper the greenhorn would be coerced into whipping up fried eggs and ham while everyone got drunk on Dynamo Joe's vodka. Blood-caked lips, splitting and chapped, with eyes like black pools…everyone stinking of codfish guts and dense with perspiration…

Charlie did not join them right away. He remained topside, his joints and muscles aching pleasantly, digging out a pack of menthols from within his overcoat.

“Whatcha smokin'?” Mike Fenty said, coming up behind him. He was a distinguished-looking guy, particularly for out here in this ungodly void—of good height and symmetrically featured, his close-cropped hair silvered at the temples. His eyes were lucid and a shade of blue that recalled Caribbean waters. Had that George Clooney appeal with the ladies back in Anchorage.

“Hey, Mike.”

“Here,” Mike said, extending him a cigar as black as demitasse. “Try this. Helps you settle down.”


Mike produced a second cigar for himself and together they bit off the tips and spat them into the water. The trawler was idling down a chasm of banded gray sea, bookended on either side by thin crusts of ice. Off to the north, the silhouette of an iceberg loomed like the spinal column of some giant prehistoric skeleton. Even in the oncoming darkness, Charlie could make out the black specks of seal pups nesting along the rookeries.

Mike lit Charlie's cigar for him and Charlie pulled on it a number of times, working up good passage. It was strong like coffee and tasted good. Charlie exhaled a jet of cigar smoke into the air. “Nice,” he said.

Mike leaned over the ship's rail. His lucid eyes watched the sun sink down beyond the backbone ridge of the iceberg. “Listen, Charlie,” he said. “I want to thank you.”

“For what?”

“I'm not an idiot and I'm not deaf. I know there's been talk all week. Was starting to prep myself for mutiny.”

“Don't be ridiculous.”

“Nothing ridiculous about it.” Mike squeezed one of Charlie's shoulders. “You're a good friend, man. I appreciate you keeping the wolves at bay, giving me a chance.” Mike turned and stared at the glow of the lamps coming through the pilothouse windows. His face partially masked in shadows and outlined in the glow of the sunset, he said, “They're all good guys, all of 'em. I'm glad today was a good day. We needed a good day.” Mike plucked the cigar from his mouth and examined the glowing ember at its tip. “Anyway, I wanted to thank you for sticking up for me with the guys.”

“Forget about it,” Charlie said, looking back over the darkened waters. “We been friends for a while, ain't we? Was nothing.”

A comfortable silence settled between them. After a while, Mike said, “You hear anything from Gabe? From Johanna?”

Charlie closed his eyes. “Been a long time.”

“You ever call that lawyer? The guy from Fairbanks?”

“Three times.”


“And there's nothing I can do. No court's gonna make her bring him back to Alaska and I sure as shit ain't gonna get full custody.”

“Where are they now? Do you even know?”

He didn't know, not for sure. The last conversation he'd had with Johanna, she and Gabriel were somewhere outside Omaha, holed up in some flea-infested roadside motel, Johanna angry and yelling at him until she finally started crying. In the background, he had heard Gabriel crying too, and calling for him.
He could still hear it, echoing out over the ether. In his hand, he could still feel the telephone receiver, pushing hard against his ear as Johanna's yelling came through all too clear. All of this: flashes of memory going off like mind grenades, the images so vivid they singed the filaments of his brain.

But he couldn't say all of that to Mike Fenty. Instead, he kept his eyes focused on the mottled neon hues of the setting sun spilling over the ice floe and trickling down into the black sea. To Mike he said, “She's got no family to stay with, Mike. Nobody I could contact. She and Gabe could be anywhere.” The
canted to one side as sheets of ice broke apart beneath its bow, the sound like glass being crushed beneath heavy boots. In the distance, covered now in deepening darkness, the seal pups barked at the moon. “This is my last trip out, Mike. Just wanted you to know that.”

“Jesus, Charlie, what are you talking about?”

“I can't keep doin' this.”

“You're just talkin' foolish.”

“Been thinkin' about tryin' to find 'em. Go out lookin' for 'em.”

“But you said it yourself, Charlie—they could be anywhere in the country. How you gonna find them? Ain't got a chance in hell.”

“Better chance than bein' out here.”

“And even if you did find them, it won't change nothing. She still won't let you see him.”

“She might. If I took a job nearby, something that kept me grounded without disappearing on the water for weeks or months at a time…”

“Bah,” Mike groaned, turning away and looking out over the port side. “That's just happy talk. You know it.”

“Still gotta try.”

“And what the hell will you do for a job, anyway? Teach goddamn physics at Harvard? This shit out here—” Mike Fenty opened his arms as if to embrace the world. “This shit is all you know, Charlie. She was wrong to want you to change and you'd be wrong changing.”

He sucked hard at the cigar and said through a mouthful of smoke, “Nothing wrong about goin' after my son, Mike. Nothing wrong with that at all.”

Finally, Mike Fenty sighed. He relit his cigar and, after a few moments of silence between the two of them, said, “Yeah, I guess there ain't a damn thing in this world wrong with that.”

They remained topside for several minutes more, burning the life from their cigars at equal speed, until Mike Fenty clapped Charlie and on the back and told him he was freezing his ass off and wanted to get some supper before Walper the greenhorn hit the sack.

“Don't stay out here too late, Charlie.”

But Charlie hardly heard him. Blindly, without taking his eyes off the passing island of ice, he groped for Mike's coat, catching the captain around the forearm and tugging him back toward the rail.


“Jesus Christ,” Charlie whispered. The cigar fell from his lips and silently dropped into the sea. “Holy mother of God…”


He jabbed a gloved finger at the ice floe. The trawler had sidled up alongside it in the encroaching night, so close Charlie could see the individual fissures in the ice, the moonlight casting a palette of shadows along the bluish ridge. They'd passed the seal rookeries some time ago, leaving their ghostly barking far off in the distance now. Still, there was movement out on the ice, movement—

“What the hell are you—” Mike began, peering through the darkness. The sun had fully set and there was nothing more to go on than the moonlight refracting off the snow.

“You see it?” Charlie said, his voice not rising above a whisper. “Holy fuck, man, you

“Can't be…”



A figure, most definitely human, darted along the nearest ridge of the iceberg. Legs pumping, arms like pistons, the black shape ran along the cusp of the snowy ridge until it climbed to the top, briefly silhouetting itself against the three-quarter moon. A second later the figure descended down the opposite side, vanishing from view. The trawler was close enough and the moonlight bright enough for Charlie to identify with little doubt actual
in the snow.

“Jesus Christ, Charlie, did you
that?” Mike's voice was no louder than a croak. He was leaning over the ship's rail, gaping up at the ridge where the mysterious figure, only seconds ago, had been standing.

“It was a woman,” Charlie said. “Did you see?”


Snapping from his daze, Charlie grabbed two fistfuls of Mike Fenty's coat and pried him away from the rail. “Get up behind the wheel and spin this boat around. She went down around the other side of the ridge.”

Mike's eyes were as wide as hubcaps. “Christ, Charlie…” A crooked half-grin broke across his face. “How do you suppose…?”

“Go!” he barked, shoving Mike across the deck. Mike staggered for a couple of feet until he regained authority of his legs and began running for the pilothouse.

Charlie rushed to the port side of the trawler and nearly became entangled in a coil of line left haphazardly unspoiled on the decking. He kicked the line off his boot and peered over the side of the ship, his heart beating heavy in his chest now. In the pilothouse, Mike Fenty had taken the wheel and was already bringing the
around the side of the iceberg. As the ship navigated around a tongue of ice and dipped back close to the iceberg, Charlie was immediately overwhelmed by the enormity of the floe. From this side, beneath the bleeding moonlight, he could see the entire length of the iceberg. It nearly glowed with phosphoresce, the sloping ridges frozen into icefalls that bled directly into the sea. The ocean opened up—a blanket of tar whose surface glittered with jewels—and the
chugged around the perimeter of the floe.

Charlie looked down. The port side of the trawler was cutting through a crust of ice. Any closer to the ice floe would put the boat at risk. He glanced up at the pilothouse, a triptych of paneled glass illuminated from within by smeary, tallow light. Mike's slender silhouette was clearly visible through the glass. Charlie held up one hand and Mike prodded the air horn—
in acknowledgement.

The rest of the crew began filing out onto the deck. Joe hurried over to Charlie, still clinging to a half-eaten ham sandwich. “What in the name of holy hell are you two doin' out here?”

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