One gets to know a road frequently traveled, gets to know the bumps and dips in it, and where the animals cross and the rocks slide. If the weather turns bad, one knows where the dangerous slick spots can put you on your back, or send you over the side, where maybe they’ll find you, and maybe they won’t.
Not like that with the sea.
Yes, whalers get to know the currents, the stormy bits, and the stars, but still two things will ever escape him: everything that lies below, and what he’s killed that may come back to haunt him.
I no longer brave the sea. In truth, I wasn’t brave when I sailed it, but you can never say you’re scared of it, or the things in it, when your family’s dinner depends on your skill at killing those things.
Alone now in my landlocked dotage, in my brine-kissed cottage, I shuffle along from rooms cluttered with things I no longer recall where or why I collected, to other rooms, cluttered with memories too painful to revisit, but too painful to throw away; they remind me that once upon a time, there were people in this world who loved and cared for me.
Restless at nights, I cross the cooling sand down to where the waves rock the boats to sleep on the little waves that lick the shoreline, and the stars bejewel the veil of the sky with silver, white, and blue pearls of light, and the moon plays tag with the tide, and hide-n-seek with the drifting clouds.
And from the silent shore I see their gashed and bleeding specters breach and crash the calm waters, and smell their breath and blood in clouds of foul perfume, but that’s not the worst of it.
Their songs come to me on the wind, the songs of those I helped to kill, and I stand, and listen, long past weeping but breaking all the same, all over again.
They are songs of mourning, of saying farewell to the pod, to their young, and the elders.
They are songs of sacrifice, granting us mercy in not smashing our frail vessels to splinters with their superior might.
They are the songs of the slaughtered, asking why we took more than we needed, why we laughed at the pain we caused with our cruel, barbed weapons.
They are the war songs of scars and salted wounds of seasoned navigators with every great migration, and songs of joy at the calves that grow strong and well nourished.
They are the songs of warning for the coming of ships, and the wrinkled, leather-skinned men of calloused hands and hardened hearts, coming on skimmers to make their mark in whale blood and oil, and earn their gold and copper to feast on whale flesh.
They are the songs of peace to soothe the spirits of the bones in our wind blown homes, songs that see the burning oil of their bodies in our lanterns, and their meat on our cook-fires.
Songs that scold the spirits of the ones who lost their way, and gave themselves over to the sand, the gulls, and the shelled legions that plucked their flesh and scoured their bones.
They are the songs telling of the day we will join them in the sea, the earth, and sky, not as hunted things, but creatures in the great eternal, our bawdy chanties blending with the songs of innocent souls that understood our dominion, and made their peace.
And as the songs fade toward the night’s horizon, I pour a stream of rum over the side of my boat, and cry my tears of sorrow, wondering if their spirits can taste them, as I long for, yet dread, to hear the songs they will sing if they do.