With the wild wolves around you
In the morning, I’ll call you
Send it farther on
Saltwater dried my lips and stung my sunburnt face. Miniature mountains peaked with white foam surrounded me as I woke. The sun was still burning as bright as before, clouds skirting around the edge of the fiery halo, taunting me with the memory of shade. I had been adrift for two days now, only my head and arms above the water wrapped around a fluorescent orange life ring. More water lapped over the edge of the orange float and splashed my face. I guessed I had been asleep for just a few hours and a glance at my waterproof wristwatch (a present from my mother at the age of ten) confirmed that I was correct. The dial moved smoothly across the shiny black face and passed over the dial indicating the date, June twelve, yes definitely two days, I coughed and the rough scratching next to my Adam’s apple started again. My throat needed water and the irony of my situation had not escaped me. The old Rime of the Ancient Mariner quote came to my mind every few minutes or so, Water, water, everywhere nor any drop to drink. At first a harmless singsong that had kept me amused as I waited to be rescued, but after two days a cruel, mocking ear worm that refused to leave. The white peaks that surrounded me took turns advancing forward and gently splashing my peeling face. They were wolves, nipping and testing their prey before retreating to wait for its inevitable weakening. The ocean was clever, the wolves were clever.
I had lost sight of the shipwreck around two hours after it had gone down in the storm. It had been a small system that was well expected and I had been happy to put my faith in the captain to bring us through it. I had been trying to deduce what had happened to cause the ship to sink but I just couldn’t make head nor tail of it. Ships do sink, I accept that, every now and then accidents happen and the wrong wave can tip a boat. But that didn’t explain the explosion I was sure I’d heard. The boat hadn’t tipped, it had blown up. Our trawler had been on course for the central channel. Only being a double rig with five hundred horsepower and a crew of seventeen we were not expecting to bring much up, just enough to cover our expenses and make our wages, ideally bringing a profit. I was, had been, just a deckhand, pulling the nets, bringing the fish in and sorting them. It was a smelly, wet job, dangerous too, but we were compensated fairly.
The last time we had gone out to bring back a haul we had taken the captains multi rig, it had been nearing the end of the prawn season so he wanted a big sale to get us through the often less lucrative mackerel months. We had a new deckhand for that run, a young guy with big ambitions, not made for a trawler. None of us had ambitions past the boats but this kid, he had big dreams and a bigger ego. We taught him all we could but the kid wouldn’t listen to much we said. “I’ve read about this,” he would exclaim, “I’ve seen the blueprints for these,” as he pointed to machines he wouldn’t be using. I had exchanged annoyed glances with many of my crew mates who were growing steadily more frustrated. They couldn’t have cared less about the boy, I knew that, they knew that, I doubt the boy knew that, but they were concerned for the safety of the rest of the crew. One weak link in the chain could spell disaster for the entire ship. The captain had taken the boy aside and given him a stern talking to but it didn’t seem to make a lot of difference. On his return from the cabin the boy, who was named Andrew but introduced himself as Drew, winked at me and rolled his eyes. I had not smiled but the boy wouldn’t have noticed even if I had done.
We’d been at sea for a week and the haul was good. Several tons of prawn had come onboard in the nets. We had eaten well, even branching out to the exotic delights of squid, but it was the eighth day that brought the mission to its knees. The boom on each side of the boat swung out and the nets began their descent to a halfway point between the ocean floor and the surface. We had been well trained in the dangers of the line being deployed so we stood back and waited for them to slow their running. At least, most of us did. The boy was leaning from the side of the trawler watching the net disappear into the blackness of the sea when the line snagged him, taking him under and breaking both his arms as he fell. I was standing close enough to him that I knew his arms had broken, you don’t forget the sound of breaking bones in a hurry. Shouts rang out but the net was still moving, it could not be stopped. I know that my thoughts were for the boy, either dead or dying, and his mother. Many of us had lost our mothers already but not the boy. His had been at the dock waving him off, watching her precious spawn shrink to a dot on the horizon. She had cried and shouted her love and the boy had flushed red, ignoring her in his aim to fit in with all of us. She would never see her son again and that in particular hurt me. The net was brought up but the boy wasn’t there, he would have been dislodged at some point on his final journey down into the water and would now be floating as if in outer space, lifeless eyes once so fascinated and curious now blank, soon to be devoured by hungry fish. The general atmosphere on the ship had been dark on our way back to dock. Each of us knew what was coming and did not envy the captain. She had been waiting there faithfully, like a dog tied up outside a store waiting for its owner to come back and untie it to take it home. Her expression of excitement and tears of relief soon changed as she scanned the faces of every man on board, including mine. The captain stepped from the ship and took the walkway solemnly. By the time he reached the woman she was on her knees, different tears trickling from her eyes. I turned, unable to watch; my crew mates followed suit and we didn’t see the captain again until that evening.
Water, water, everywhere nor any drop to drink. A bird flew high above me. It looked like a seagull, but its wingspan stretched metres across the sky. I shouted and called for help before realising my error. I laughed and watched the bird glide along until it disappeared above the horizon. Water, water, everywhere nor any drop to drink.
A small bar was situated on the Glenarmouth dock, the patrons knew us all by name and we had been drinking quietly for the entire afternoon, which had given birth to the evening without our knowledge. We had a table put on hold for us and the owners of ‘The Hanging Anchor’ had been more than happy to see our faces. I had greeted Jennifer and Gareth warmly, joking with them and asking after their two little girls Andrea and Freya. We had proceeded to the table after ordering our drinks, emptying a keg which had to be replaced. The time passed and we grew rowdier as the night drew in, drinking steadily as if we disliked the feeling of steady land beneath our feet. I had been eyeing up the barmaid, along with Joe and Tye, (Tye had passed out shortly after expressing his interest in the blonde-haired beauty serving him the drinks, which would ultimately prove his downfall). Joe had been telling me of girls he had slept with before, their tits, their necks, their mouths. He seemed well experienced in the female form and by his judgement, this particular barmaid was “Top notch, a real stunner, ten out of bloody ten!” I had laughed and encouraged him to say something to her when she next came around, secretly hoping he would fail so I could try my luck. I liked Joe, he was a father figure to many of the younger men on the boat but to me he was an older brother. He watched my back and I watched his, that was the way we liked it. The beer must have gone to his head because when she arrived to freshen our dry pint glasses he stood up to his full six foot four height and boomed down to the girl (who now looked more frightened than flirty), “Hot damn if you ain’t the finest diddly barmaid in the entire land!” He promptly stopped his speech realising that he had ventured into a medley of medieval speak and a crude Ned Flanders impression. We roared with laughter and the barmaid nervously joined us. Joe’s face went beetroot-red and he sat down hard, downing his pint in one giant swallow and swearing at each of us in turn. Our laughter soon turned to a commemorative silence as the captain walked through the door. Joe stopped swearing, we stopped laughing and the barmaid must have picked up on the change of tone because she left swiftly. The eyes of a few too-far-gone trawlermen followed her shapely bottom. The captain took a chair at the end of the long table we had settled into and took a full pint glass. He lifted it above his head and his his gruff voice rumbled across the silence, “We lost a man out there today. He may not have been the best we’ve had but I think we’d all agree that he was in no way the worst,” the table collectively nodded in agreement, “No matter what you think of the man he died in an honourable profession, one in which we choose to make our way in this life. Raise your glasses gentlemen and toast the most recent soul Mother Ocean has claimed. To Drew.”
“To Drew!” The men echoed. A moment of reflective silence passed as we thought of the depths of the ocean swallowing the boy, never to be found. I disagreed with captain’s view of the ocean being a Motherly figure. My mother had died when I was eleven, just one year after she gave me my treasured watch. She was a beautiful, warm memory, nothing like the cold water of the sea. I do not know a single person who has lived or worked on the ocean who doesn’t have a healthy fear for the sheer magnitude of the water. Once you have sailed across its surface and seen a blank horizon surrounding you it is difficult to not find the desert of water terrifying.
Past the circle of my float was the eternal ring of the skyline. Since I drifted from the shipwreck I had seen only water. I was dehydrated, burnt, chafing terribly and the cut on my head, although no longer bleeding, was throbbing with sharp waves of pain. The pain was good, I thought; it kept me sharp. Planes would surely be searching for survivors. The emergency beacon would have been activated and I had seen the red trail of a flare launched into the sky before the ship lurched and I hit my head hard on a doorframe. I woke up face down on the floor to the sound of shouting and blaring alarms. In a panic I ran to the deck, up the metal stairs that clanged as I leapt up them two at a time. When I opened the thick metal door to the deck my sense of gravity shifted; a wall of water replaced the sky. It was black but criss-crossed with foamy white veins and the front of the boat disappeared in its white jaws when it hit. The waves attacked from all sides as a pack, each one leaping from its haunches and burying their sharp teeth into the boat, taking chunks and weakening the trawler. I shouted at Joe who was on the deck below me but the wind was too strong and the alarms too loud. He never heard me shouting my warning as the teeth of a wave crashed down on him and swallowed him whole. The last thing I remember is a thunderous explosion as I clutched a life ring and fell from the deck, landing with a slap on the surface of the churning ocean. By some miracle I had managed to keep hold of the orange ring and I watched as the wolves attacked the boat over and over, finally bringing it down. The boat sank and the lights faded. I floated. I floated and watched as the wolves turned their attention to me. And then I fainted.
The first time I woke up I was angry at myself. The cut on my head had been bleeding pretty heavily and I knew that sleeping was dangerous with suspected concussion. I didn’t know why it was dangerous but I just knew it was. The storm had subsided but the wolves remained. Creeping around me waiting to strike. I had shouted, screamed, whistled through the pea-less orange whistle attached to the life belt, but there was no reply. There was no debris, no bodies, no nothing. My waterproof watch would have told me how much time had passed if I had bothered to check the time when I woke up in my bunk. But I hadn’t. So I estimated instead. Five hours was my guess. It was getting lighter, the sun was coming up and I racked my brain to conjure memories of the storm and what part of the night it had been in. Five hours. That was five hours of drifting away from the emergency beacon and the trail of the flare. I was floating alone in a titanic ocean and my only chance of survival lay in a rescue mission for a small trawling boat. It wasn’t like we had ‘civilians’ on board, or somebody newsworthy. We were just average guys, some of us ex-cons even. Garth had been busted for grievous bodily harm twice, a charge which none of us understood until he had a few drinks and then it became abundantly clear. The captain himself had been in trouble with the law, if you believed what Joe said. I knew the chance of rescue was slim, especially as I had drifted so far from the wreckage, or at least I think I had. It was impossible to tell. All there was around me was the ocean, full of prowling wolves and the sky full of the sort of clouds that only come out after a storm. I whistled some more, my lips clamping the orange plastic, making my throat hoarse and dry. I quickly regretted it. How long can a human live without water? My mind asked, but I knew the answer, and I didn’t like it.
At the beginning of the third day I had a dream. I was in a museum I had visited as a child looking at a cross section diorama of the Mariana Trench. The walls were made out of some sort of plastic, perhaps they had been papier-mâché, but they weren’t particularly lifelike. I recall being able to make out each individual brushstroke and the grit that had been mixed with the paint to give the illusion of rocks and dirt. The background of the diorama was a flat wall that had blue paint fading from a bright aqua blue to a dark navy colour, almost black. As a child it had been impressive to me, standing at least two feet taller than I was, the blue paint really gave the illusion that it was deepening water. Parallel lines broke up the blue and labelled how deep the trench was to scale. Five thousand feet, ten thousand feet, fifteen thousand feet, all the way down to thirty six thousand feet. My child sized brain wasn’t able to comprehend depth that great and I think the makers of the diorama must have known that, so along the side of the trench there were several models of famous landmarks. The Eiffel tower was there, so was the empire state building, even Mount Everest was there, tiny in comparison to the gigantic depression below the ocean. In my dream I saw the diorama, but it was real. The sea floor crept down into the darkness and the blue faded from a rippling rich colour to a pitch black. At the top of the diorama was my minuscule body, uselessly kicking my legs and floating up and down on the surface. I was beyond small, an insignificant speck of nothingness perched on the top of a gaping chasm down to the very centre of the earth. I woke up suddenly, kicking my legs and gasping for air. I don’t know what the name is for the fear of open water, I assume there is one, perhaps if I ever get out of here alive I’ll look it up and tell people I suffer from it. If I ever get out of here alive. I could tell that the wolves were hungrier, they circled me, flicking their white tails into the air, practically licking their lips. I hit out at them, splashing and screaming and trying to scare them away. But nothing worked, they circled, rising and falling as steady as ever. It would not be long before I was too weak to fight them off and then they would take me, finishing off what they began at the shipwreck.
Day four arrived as uninvited as its predecessors. My waterproof watch glinted in the early morning sun. The date had ticked around the dial. Day four. I thought of water, food as well to a lesser extent, but mainly water. The wolves no longer scared me. They were there, endlessly testing me, but my desire for water overcame the fear I had for them. I was fairly sure my mind had started to let go, my sanity starting to slip away. I could feel the space below me, sinking down to a black doom beneath. I felt something brush my leg and looking down I saw the long, grey body of a shark. It was nudging against my hanging legs. The fish must have been ten feet long at least. It swam away, only to circle round and head straight for me again. Try getting past the wolves you fucker! I cracked up laughing. A wheezing noise that resembled a laugh squeezed itself through my throat and out through my mouth. The shark waved side-to-side, cutting its way through the sea. The wolves attacked it, rippling along the side of its fin, but the shark cut through them. My heart leapt into my mouth when I realised the wolves were useless against this great grey beast. They sidled listlessly away behind it, as it continued straight towards me. I kicked frantically, using up every ounce of energy I had left. My legs were weak and pushed against the pressure of the water as if there were no bones inside them. I slapped the sides of the orange ring and shouted, my voice weak and breathless. The shark continued. The fin disappeared and I stopped. Underneath me the diorama had a new addition. A great white shark rose up through the black into the light blue towards the surface. Fifteen thousand feet, ten thousand feet, five thousand feet, three, two, one… I closed my eyes and waited for the teeth to sink into my body.
The bite never came. I floated, eyes closed, heart beating faster than ever before, but the shark wasn’t there. I’m not sure if it had ever been there really. The wolves returned, laughing at me, slapping my face and mocking me with the water I so needed. Anger rose inside my core and I screamed once again. “Why? Why god damn it! Fuck you!” I cursed the shark for not taking me and instead leaving me to the ravenous wolves. It wasn’t fair. The grey shape of the shark now seemed like it had been a cruel hallucination. It had threatened me, terrified me, forced me to accept death but then it had disappeared. How dare it. I wept, long and hard. Sobs burst from my chest and erupted through my face bringing dry dehydrated tears. I want my mummy.
I had made up my mind. One last drink and then the wolves could have me. I scanned the horizon, one last desperate chance at finding redemption for unknown sins. Nothing. A circle of emptiness bottle-capping an eternally dark ocean below me. Once again I pictured the Mariana Trench diorama and felt very small. This is it. I cast my eyes over the wolves, rocking up and down faster and faster. I knew they could somehow tell that they were soon to be fed. I smiled at the pack drawing in towards me. In one swift movement I raised my sunburnt arms over my head, closed my eyes and sank into the depths. I opened my eyes and looked up, the wolves were pacing, impatient for their feed. Down was oblivion, darkness that was blacker than the blackest night I had ever seen. I was floating in limbo, trapped between the unknown dark and the wolves that licked their lips above me. Opening my mouth I felt cold saltwater rush in. It tasted terrible but I didn’t care. The moisture that coated my mouth was like ambrosia of the Gods. Water, water, everywhere and plenty for me to drink. I gulped, once, then again, taking deep drinks of the ocean. In my state of mind the hallucinations came fast and heavy, I pictured myself growing and growing. My stomach expanding, turning me into a round ball rippling from the water inside me. The oceans drew back from the shorelines around the world, the Nile emptied, the glaciers were my ice cubes and the fish were doomed. I saw myself grown high above sea level as the water drained away, leaving a glistening, wet surface dotted with the flip-flopping bodies of fish. I was a gargantuan ball of water, one prick from a pin would end me and cause a tsunami big enough to wipe out half the continents. I closed my mouth and swallowed the cold, salty water. I think I was crying, but underwater you can cry and nobody will ever know. Floating gently, my heart raced and my lungs began to strive for air. I returned to the surface.
The wolves met with me in much the same way old friends might meet. For a moment I thought they may have missed me. They leapt over my head and caressed my face, nuzzling to my skin and licking me almost affectionately. They had grown since I went under for a drink. They were taller now, whiter, and their fangs were cold and sharp against my skin. They had worn me down and it was finally time for them to claim their last reward from the wreck of a trawler boat. They parted suddenly, plunging me down, submerging me. I pulled myself to the surface and looked up. The alpha wolf was coming. His jaws were open. He howled a howl of victory as he finally swallowed me.
Breyon Gibbs is communications co-ordinator at The University of Notre Dame.
All work is the rightful property of the author and is distributed with their permission.