Friday, October 24, 2008

Karen Dionne's FREEZING POINT

The wind howled around the solitary trawler like an angry god. Inside the wheelhouse, Ben Maki braced his feet as an errant wave hit broadside and the trawler listed heavily to starboard. Sleet spattered the windows on the port side. White patches of sea ice told him they were close. He gripped the back of the first mate’s chair and glanced at the captain. In the hurried introductions, Ben hadn’t caught the captain’s name, and the guy was so intimidating with his overshot brow and deep-set eyes and unruly salt and pepper beard that Ben was afraid to ask him to repeat it. The captain grinned—at least, Ben hoped it was a smile; the expression could have been a grimace as it wrapped around an unlit cigar.

He shifted his feet again when the trawler finally righted herself, thanking God he’d eschewed his oxfords this morning for a pair of Doc Martens. He peered out at the forward deck. Derek MacCallister, the Arctic Dawn’s owner and the man Ben had flown 3,400 miles to see, stood at the open prow, nylon jacket flapping furiously in the wind, bare hands clenching the rail. Ben shook his head. He’d entrusted his life to a madman. Only a lunatic would leave port in this kind of weather. Dark clouds in the east promised more snow, the St. John’s fishing fleet were safely tucked into their berths, and yet here they were, all alone, battling waves the size of small mountains with the harbor two hours behind them. Back at the dock, the trawler and her crew looked like something out of The Perfect Storm, and now that they were out to sea, the resemblance hadn’t diminished. The lawyers who’d flown up with Ben were probably sitting in a bar or a pub or whatever they called them up here, laughing at Ben’s impulsive decision to play iceberg cowboy and sucking back beers while Ben tried not to upchuck and to stay out of everyone’s way.

“Where’s Derek?” Jack, the first mate, climbed the narrow gangway to the bridge.

The captain jutted his chin toward the ice-glazed window. “Where else?”

“Out there? Can’t he watch the scope?”

The captain shrugged.

Tyler, a skinny kid they’d hired for the season, joined them from the galley below. His eyes grew wide as the ship rode the crest of another swell and fell with a sickening thump. Ben’s stomach plummeted with it. Swallowing hard, he held on more tightly to the chair.

The handle on the wheelhouse door turned and Derek stepped through. The cabin temperature dropped ten degrees in the time it took to dog down the door behind him with a clang. Derek pulled off his toque and shook the ice crystals out of his hair like Ben’s Jack Russell after its bath. His cheeks—what could be seen of them above his curly brown beard—were bright red; each with a white patch in the middle the size of a quarter where the skin was just beginning to freeze.

“It’s there! Three hundred yards dead ahead!”

The captain nodded. “I got it on the scope.”

“Okay. Start circling around. Jack, you and Tyler get ready to pay out the cable.”

“How’s she look?” Jack asked.

“Big,” the captain answered grimly. “Maybe seventy thousand tons.”

Jack’s brow puckered. Ben’s mirrored his concern. You knew you were in trouble when the first mate looked worried.

“Not to worry,” Derek said. “Sure she’s big, but we know what we’re doing, eh? And snagging a berg this size means we won’t have to come out for the rest of the season. You’d like that, wouldn’t you, Tyler?” Giving the boy a good-natured shove that sent him sprawling against the opposite wall.

“Aye, sir!” Tyler scrambled to recover the proper seaman’s attitude of attention. The captain’s mouth twitched. Derek guffawed, and the boy added a nervous grin.

“All right!” Derek pulled on his toque and turned to his men. “Let’s do it!”

The captain spun the wheel, and the Arctic Dawn swung around, rolling and pitching as she turned sideways to the waves. Derek, Jack, and Tyler donned safety harnesses and survival suits, then stepped out of the wheelhouse onto the icy deck.

A hundred yards ahead, the berg towered fifty feet above the ship. “Icebergs calve off the Greenland glaciers,” the captain said as he leaned forward to wipe the condensation off the windows with his shirt sleeve. “Tabular bergs are the most stable, but this far south, we hardly ever see ‘em. By the time they get to us, the berg’ve eroded into all kinds of shapes. Domed and wedge-shaped are the most unstable. They can roll over in seconds, just by looking at ‘em.”
Ben studied the craggy, gray mountain looming off the starboard bow. The berg looked stable enough. Was the captain trying to frighten him on purpose?

The captain cut back on the power to let the drift carry them closer. “No way to know what the berg’s like under the water,” he continued. “The Arctic Dawn was retrofitted with a three-inch steel-reinforced hull when we changed her from fishing trawler to ice hauler, but there’s not a ship afloat that could survive that kind of collision.”

Hardly reassuring, but Ben didn’t figure it was meant to be.

As the craft made its slow circle, the crew paid out the tow line: a yellow and black polypropylene rope as thick as a man’s arm that floated conspicuously atop the rolling sea. The captain kept an eye out, cringing when Tyler tripped over a coil of rope and a wave nearly washed him off his feet.

“Boy needs another hundred pounds on him. Skinny ones are too easily swept into the sea.”
Another unlucky thought. What happened to the much-vaunted sailors’ superstition? Ben’s seafaring experience was limited to working weekends as a teenager on his grandpa’s Great Lakes fishing boat, but even he knew that voicing misgivings invited disaster.

The captain turned back to the task at hand, chomping his cigar until forty-five tedious, stomach-churning minutes had passed. Ben sighed his relief as they completed the circle without incident. Jack snagged the tow line with a grappling hook while Tyler worked the winch handle and Derek made the junction and added cable. Once the pelican hook snapped into place, Derek gave the signal, and the captain began the long, slow turn that would take them home.

A clear patch of sky opened directly overhead. Instantly, the iceberg transformed into a shimmering celestial blue, its faceted surface reflecting the sunlight like a thousand mirrors. Ben shielded his eyes. He had just decided that the sun was an omen of success when a flock of seabirds resting on the berg’s peak took flight, their raucous calls audible above the wind. The iceberg leaned to the right. It hung undecided for a moment, like the stuck second hand on a clock, then tilted even more.

The captain flung open the door. “She’s going over!”

Out on deck, Jack was already shoving the boy toward the wheelhouse. The captain regained the helm and pushed the engines for power, desperate to put distance between them and the collapsing berg.

“Where’s Derek?” he bellowed when Jack and Tyler burst through the door.

“Out there!” Tyler pointed toward the stern. “He’s trying to unhook the cable!”

“Mother of God!” Jack cried. “Back off! Give him slack!”

The captain jammed the engines into reverse. The ship groaned in protest. Ben’s gut wrenched along with it. As long as they were connected to the berg, their fates were irrevocably tied. If it rolled, they were going with it, and the Arctic Dawn would be flipped into the air as easily as a child’s toy tied to the end of a string.

Jack leaned out the door. “Hurry!” he called out to Derek.

“I’m trying!” Derek yelled back. “The hook’s jammed!” He stripped off his gloves to fumble barehanded with the ring release.

The captain’s hand twitched on the throttle as the seconds ticked by. At last Derek waved the all-clear and they started forward—just as the iceberg split in two with a thunderous crack and roar.

“Inside!” Jack screamed to the deck. “Now!”

“There’s no time!” Derek wrapped his safety line around the rail, yanked the survival suit hood down over his head, and hugged the rail in a death-grip, bracing for the killer wave they all knew was coming.

Seconds later, it crashed over the ship, engulfing them in icy white.

The captain shoved Ben toward the ship’s wheel. Ben barely had time to hook his arms through the spokes before the ship yawed leeward at an impossible angle, leaving his legs dangling in midair. The crew smashed into the opposite wall, map charts and coffee cups raining down on them like confetti.

“The door!” the captain yelled as the ship foundered. “For God’s sake somebody shut the door!”

“I can’t reach it!” Jack called back. “It’s too high!”

“I can do it! Boost me up!” Tyler scrambled on all fours across the canted floor. Jack linked his hands and lifted the boy to his shoulders, gripping Tyler’s ankles with both hands as he fought to keep his own footing.

Tyler strained for the latch. “Move to the left! The left! Hurry, hurry!”

“I’m gonna fall!” Jack let go with one hand to brace himself against what used to be the floor.

“More, more! Okay, I got it!” Tyler pressed his shoulder against the door as water poured in around the edges.

Ben tightened his grip. No way could ninety pounds win against the sea. Still, the door slammed shut. Jack lowered the boy to the floor. Tyler put his head in his hands. Jack patted his shoulder.


“There, there, lad. Give her a minute, and she’ll quick put herself ta rights, you’ll see.”

But the ship rolled even farther. The cabin lights flickered and went out. Ben squinted through the watery half-light, trying to discern if they had passed the point of no return, but with no true vertical reference it was impossible to tell. If his feet were acting as a plumb bob, they were at 45, maybe 50 degrees. The trawler could probably do 60 and still recover, but any more, and—
Suddenly, his feet found their purchase. He thanked God and started to stand, but his feet slipped out from under him and he smashed to the floor. He put out a hand to raise himself, then snatched it back as though he’d been burned.

Mother of God. It couldn’t be. He extended both hands again, feeling about cautiously as if slow, deliberate movements could somehow change the truth, but no. Instead of the raised-patterned, sheet-metal floor he’d been expecting, the surface beneath his palms was smooth as baby’s skin.
He was sitting on the ceiling.

JesusMaryandJoseph they were turtled; the ship’s underbelly exposed to the sky; her antennas pointing uselessly toward the pitiless depths below. It was all over now. The Arctic Dawn would float upended for a few minutes, maybe five, maybe ten. Then her holds would fill, and the sea would claim five more. He closed his eyes. He supposed he should do something—break out a window to swim for the surface or try to open the door—but if ever a ship and her crew needed help from above, it was now. He tried to call up an appropriate supplication, then remembered the prayer to St. Elmo his grandpa had framed and mounted in the wheelhouse of his fishing boat.

Almighty God, he prayed, silently mouthing the words that had been uttered in every church nave and every household and every candlelit vigil since the first sailor had been lost at sea, you bestowed the singular help of Blessed Peter on those in peril from the sea. By the help of his prayers may the light of your grace—may the light of your grace . . . damn—how did the rest of it go? ‘Shine forth’—yes, that was it— shine forth in all the storms of this life and enable us to find the harbor of everlasting salvation. He drew a deep breath and began again. Almighty God, you bestowed the singular help of Blessed Peter on those in peril from the sea. By the help of his prayers—

“Derek,” Jack whispered.

Tyler sobbed.

Ben squeezed his eyes shut tighter. “Almighty God,” he prayed aloud, as if the force of his entreaty could effect an answer, “you bestowed the singular help of Blessed Peter on those in peril from the sea. By the help of his prayers—”

“May the light of your grace shine forth in all the storms of this life,” the captain joined in.
“—and enable us to find the harbor of everlasting salvation,” they finished in unison.

“We ask this through the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,” Tyler added, his youthful voice cracked with terror. “Amen.”

“Amen.”

The men fell silent, listening to the Arctic Dawn creak and moan as if she were already mourning her crew. Ben opened his eyes, but this time, instead of praying, he willed the iceberg to shift, to roll, to split again—anything that would generate another wave like the first one—a monstrous, rogue wave that would slap them with all the force the Atlantic could muster and knock them upright again. It could happen. Miracles could happen. Miracles did happen . . .
Almighty God, you bestowed the singular help of Blessed Peter—

The ship shuddered. He blinked, then blinked again as a coffee thermos rolled slowly across the floor. It picked up speed, finally clattering into a corner, and Ben clenched his fists. Yes, by God. They were moving. He grabbed hold of the ship’s wheel.

“Hang on!” the captain cried. “We’re going up!”

“Hold on where?” Tyler asked as he slid across the ceiling and cracked his head against the window. He scrambled to his knees, then fell again. “Is it really true? We’re saved?”

The captain didn’t answer.

More, more . . . a little more . . . come on . . . keep going . . . keep going . . . It wasn’t his imagination; the water outside the windows was getting lighter . . .

The ship continued to roll, straining for the surface like an Olympic swimmer after a high dive, until at last they burst up from the depths into the middle of a shaft of sunlight so ethereal Ben would have thought he’d died and gone to heaven if his arms weren’t so sore.

He extricated himself from the ship’s wheel and looked around in speechless amazement. Tyler was on his knees retching into the corner, but Ben couldn’t fault him for that. He didn’t feel so well himself.

Most unbelievably of all, when he stood up on shaking legs and crossed the room to look out the door, he saw Derek still strapped to the stern, hair and beard dripping, clothes freezing stiff as he grinned back at the wheelhouse like a madman and gave a big, victorious, double thumbs-up.



3 comments:

peggy said...

This book sounds so great, what suspense. I'm going to have to have it!

by Karen Dionne said...

Thanks, Peggy!

(sorry I'm so slow responding - computer crash!)

peggy said...

Thats okay, mine died just before my roast..took me all night t get online, almost missed my own roast.
Have a wonderful week end and again, great work, may you sell a zillion!