WInter Kill

(The following is a fiction I wrote for publication in the magazine, Latitudes and Attitudes.  The monthly closed down after acceptance but before printing.  It is not my usual faith based post as it was written at a time when faith was low as well”

Winter Kill

By Kevin Bell


It is amazing that Amy came into my life at all. I, a bit of a gray bearded drop out from society and she a 30 year old refugee from post graduate expectations. Still she came and dropped into my nautical world, resulting in a permanent change of course.

We encountered each other by chance at a local used book shop. That particular day I was feeling a bit chatty and she seemed truly interested as well as interesting. We soon found we had nearly nothing in common. I say nearly nothing because we did seem to agree on Miles Davis, GK Chesterton, and all things sailing. Everything else was superfluous and soon we chose category three, all things sailing, as the basis for all things us.

When she first stepped aboard Wonderer she was a vision. Since I live at anchor, I had come into the guest dock for the day of our meeting, careful not to expose her for the lubber she was. Yes, she was well read on the topic of sailing as she was on most things, but she had never actually been on a boat. Boarding a bobbling sailboat at anchor could have posed some difficulties as well as being a scenario that would cause any sensible woman to be on her guard. I liked having some attention from the fairer sex and I wanted to keep whatever I had going for me going. A boat at a dock made for an easy exit should the person you were meeting turn out to be a little creepier than first thought. I docked in order to make our first “date” a more or less safe and easy affair. A light dinner with a small amount of wine and a walk on the water front were the plans of the evening.

I had paid an extended visit, and several dollars worth of quarters, to the marina showers and had scrubbed the salt and maybe a few barnacles from behind my ears. I had on clean jeans, canvas shoes, and a flowered shirt with only one modest button at the top unbuttoned. When she arrived I am sure there wasn’t a dock denizen who didn’t notice her. She whisked down the float, nearly floating. Almost fairy like, she made a blurry, misty vision. Looking at her was like though looking through the bottom of a fogged wineglass. Her shoes were in her hands and she was wearing a white sundress with reddish flowers. Her hair hung loosely, save for a single braid about her head tied up with a few small flowers. If there were any imperfections in her form they were well hidden from mere mortal eyes.

Our evening progressed nicely, with some small talk in the cockpit after a rare Northwest sunset. She likely shouldn’t have driven after the amount of wine consumed, but she walked the guest dock in a relatively straight line, a small gust of evening breeze giving her dress hem a bit of a Marilyn Monroe type of lift as she ascended the ramp to the parking lot. I settled back and closed my eyes in order to keep that parting image alive in my imagination for as long as possible.

We met again a few days later. We met at a coffee house in the old part of town and walked to a local park where my dinghy was high and dry on a mud bank, abandoned to the dry by the ebbing of the tide. We made our way to the dinghy, balancing latte’s while slipping and sliding in the marine slime usually hidden by the waters of the bay. At one point she lost a shoe in the mud and the muck and we both ended up with mud all over from the ensuing hunt. We pushed and drug the dink over to the water and climbed in as we shoved out into the deeper water, dragging ourselves over the gunwales amidst the laughter, spilled coffee, mud, and a healthy dose of sea water.

Once on board Wonderer I hauled up a few buckets of chilly Puget Sound brine and we both poured them on ourselves to wash off the mud and muck. Puget Sound water is chilly even in the warm summer months and we would both holler playfully as one of us would pour out the shower of seawater over the other. I thought to go below and change into dry clothes, but since she only came aboard with an oversized purse I assumed that it would be less than gentlemanly to be warm and dry while m’lady was still dripping into the cockpit. I needn’t have worried. My heart skipped several beats as she unbuttoned her jeans and began to slide them off, revealing the swimming suit that she had luckily thought of in advance to wear. “Is this alright?” she asked. I gulped hard and said, “Wonderful!” and busied myself to the task of getting under way.

The winds were favorable and the seas had just enough wave action to make the sailing both a delight and an adventure. With a single tuck in the main we made way toward one of the many islands in the San Juan chain. We dropped the hook in a protected cove sometime in the early afternoon. Once we were out of the wind the temperature on the boat became quite warm. I stepped down into the cabin with the intention of fixing some lunch but I first went forward to open the hatch to allow the air to flow through the cabin. When I turned around she was standing there, just inches away from me. I was a bit speechless, but words were unnecessary as she reached up and kissed me, raising the temperature in the cabin several degrees in an instant. It was that afternoon we found that we actually had a fourth interest in common.

From that point on it was a nearly daily adventure of sailing and loving. We explored the Sound from south around Bremerton Washington, all the way to Sucia Island, far to the north. We anchored in secluded coves, crowded anchorages, even in full view of the Seattle skyline. Sometimes we would sail all day and lie at anchor through the night, enjoying each other by the light of a kerosene lantern. Other times we would lounge around the boat or explore the shore and each other all day long, and then set sail as the sun went down. Several times we sailed all through the short Washington summer nights, just for the joy of watching the stars above as well as the stars below as the hull disturbed the glowing algae floating blissfully in through nutrient rich waters, creating dazzling fireworks in our wake. In between adventures we found work as often as we could to continue to support our nautical lifestyle.

They say that life should be like a good skirt, long enough to cover all your bases but short enough to keep things interesting. Summer in the Northwest is like that too. All too soon the days began to shorten. We had enjoyed an uncommonly warm autumn, and the warmth of our relationship with the boat and with each other maturing. We had thoughts of heading south to the land of warm water and cold beer and had devised several plausible plans to finance our escape from civilization. We never really expressed it in real terms of timetables and bank savings. We knew it would take time, but time so far had been sweet like juice of a ripe orange, and we savored each and every sip.

As the chill of winter began to approach I braced for the upcoming reality of living on board. Summertime in Washington is heaven, but when the temperature drops into the low 40s and upper 30s, and the necessity of rowing ashore and doing those things that are required to simply survive, the reality of the rigors of life aboard saps away the sweetness experienced in the warmer days. I had been mentally preparing for it all summer long. I tried to prepare Amy too, but there is no way to know what it is like until you have actually lived through it. As the temperature dropped outside and the skies darkened it seemed as though the warmth of our relationship began to cool and her mood reflected the same gloomy hue as the leaden canopy of clouds overhead.

After a couple of months of chill weather we settled into a routine. We would row ashore most days early in the morning, often through a cold rain or chill fog. We would tie the dinghy to the trees along the shoreline and climb the hill to the main road where we would catch the bus to the Y for a chance at some warmth, a workout, and a shower. We would then head separate directions, her to the coffee shop and myself to a local auto shop where we both worked for low wages and the chance at a cruising dream.

December and the holidays came and went pleasantly enough. January was cold, with predictions of an even colder weather pattern flowing down like an unwanted visitor from our neighbors to the north. It was called the Arctic Express and it swept down the Frasier River Valley with a vengeance. We were hunkered down on board, stocked with food, water, and coal for the solid fuel heater. The colder it became, the darker her mood. We spoke less and less about Mexico. The truth was we spoke less and less. As I stoked the fire in the heater I only hoped I could keep the embers of our affection glowing until the spring thaw.

The snow was predicted. It came with temperatures that dropped down into the teens. Keeping the boat warm was now a full time job. We spent most of our time during that record breaking snow storm huddled in our sleeping bags. We had separate bags. We didn’t make love anymore. I was pretty sure that it was fear of exposing any part to the chill air and having a most embarrassing case of frostbite, but it could have been that we had just become miserable within ourselves and with each other as the winter progressed. The cabin warmed a little under the blanket of snow. I had thought about sweeping the decks clean, but decided the extra warmth inside was a good sign that the snow should remain.

About the third day of the storm the winds began to increase. The boat shuddered as the icy norther screamed through the rigging. We decided to call in to our jobs and remain on the boat. The frosty row ashore in the increasing winds was not inviting and the thought of it made us both feel ill, hence calling in sick wasn’t exactly too much of a stretch. Looking out over the water the wind was blowing the tops off of the whitecaps. White, ghost like fingers raced across the water as snow, fog, and froth blew across the bay. At 6:30 in the evening darkness was fully on. I stood up from the quarter berth where I had been laying fetal, to make the uncomfortable trip to the head. When my feet hit the cabin sole something didn’t feel right. It was sort of a grinding feel, one that you couldn’t quite hear, but felt deep inside. I looked out the starboard side port light and things looked different. I watched the trees on the shoreline through the blowing water and foam and after a full minute it was clear, we were dragging anchor.

I threw on my foulies, and pulled on my muck boots, and bolted through the companionway. I hit the cockpit and slid almost all the way to transom before my feet flew in the air and I landed half on the tiller and half on the cockpit combing. I scrambled forward, grasping at whatever handhold I could find as I slipped and slid to the bow and the anchor chain. There was a moment of confusion as I tried to decide what to do. I yelled at Amy to start the engine and began to winch in the anchor. My eyes were stinging and every part of my body was freezing. Even the adrenaline flowing through my entire body did little to give the impression of warmth or take my mind off the sting of the frigid, wet air as it struck my face and hands. I saw the top of Amy’s head looking out the hatch from inside the cabin. I yelled at her again to start the engine, but she stood there staring at me, her eyes wide. I screamed at her as loudly as I could, thinking that the volume and urgency in my voice would shake her. She disappeared down below. I stopped winching in on the anchor and slipped and slid back toward the cockpit to start the engine. By the time I had nearly reached the cockpit Amy reappeared with her foulies on. I yelled, “What the hell were you doing?” to which she replied with equal volume, “I was opening the sea-cock for the engine.” I gulped. I had taught her that we always opened the sea-cock before starting the engine. That was where we kept the ignition key hung, just to make sure no one got too hasty.

I gave her a few hurried instructions and then went forward to continue hauling in on the anchor. Once the anchor was back on board I could see a large chunk of rock jammed into the hook. Apparently the anchor never was properly set. I headed back to the cockpit and took the helm. The engine was wrapped up as tightly as it possibly would go, but we still weren’t making any headway. During the time I was hauling in the anchor we had drifted back toward a small cove. With the bow pointed to the wind and the engine throbbing out a song of protest, I directed the rudder to take us closer to shore and into the more protected area near the shore, where there was a linear float and several mooring buoys. I managed to maneuver close to one of the buoys and we snagged it with the boat hook. Doubling up the lines we went down below, stoked the stove, and spent the next several hours in total silence.

Three days later the temperatures warmed to a comparable balmy 42 degrees. The accumulated snow was gone quicker than it had come, and the news from shore was of urban flooding and swollen rivers. Amy was quiet but cordial. She was also gathering her things together and stowing them in a couple of sports bags. The second day of the thaw found us back at the guest dock where she had first set foot on board Wonderer. I carried one of her bags as we quietly walked toward the bus stop. Later on at the train station I could tell that we both wanted to say something, but really weren’t sure what to say. Amy was taking Amtrak back to Southern California to move back in with her mom and dad. I skipped the bus back to the marina, choosing to walk all the way through the driving rain.

I had paid for the night at the guest dock, but after a shower I went back to the boat and started the engine, heading back out to the bay. I dropped the hook in the general area where I had been originally, and backed down on it extra hard. I let out an extra 20 feet of scope and backed down on it again. Sure that the anchor was well set I went back below and started a fire. I looked around the boat. There were only a few things missing, a picture, a couple of candles. The biggest thing missing wasn’t in the boat. It was in my heart. I could still catch her scent in the air, her gentle perfume, the smell of her hair conditioner even lingered. I couldn’t stand the emptiness accentuated by the smell of the joy her presence brought to my life. In frustration I dug deep into the junk drawer in the galley. All the way back in the back was my old bone pipe and the pouch of tobacco. I never before smoked inside the boat, but I packed the bowl with old tobacco. I poured myself a shot of Jameson into an old coffee mug and sat down. I took a sip off the porcelain cup and with the strike of an old wooden match that touched off the tobacco I flooded the cabin with the manly scent of pipe, whiskey, and an old sock or two. I sat there for a little while until I was startled by a bump on the side of the boat.

I heard the crackly voice of Pete, a down and outer who lived on a derelict anchored nearby. In the year that I had lived at anchor I had ran into him a couple of times as our paths crossed while rowing to and from our separate but nearby anchorages. He was requesting permission to come aboard, something he had only done once before. That time someone had stolen an ancient outboard off the back of his boat and I invited him aboard to use my cell phone to call the police, the Coast Guard, the FBI and just about every agency he could think of. I poked my head out of the cabin into the rain and invited him in. He scrambled aboard and ducked into the cabin, carefully placing the drop boards and sliding the hatch closed. He mentioned as to how he had noticed the commotion the night that we drug anchor and had asked how we fared. Over several shots, a bowl of stale tobacco, and a couple more shots, I told him the story of the other night, culminating in our nearly wordless goodbye earlier in the day. When I finished my story we both drained our cups. He looked at me and said two words, “Winter kill.” I nodded and replied, “Winter kill indeed!”

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