The silence between heartbeats

South to Duck Island and The Rock beyond — Gotts Island, Maine — photo by Jordan Chalfont used with permission

So cold there’s frost like flowers blooming on every nail in the bait shed,
one bare bulb at the head of the wharf,
small as a star by the time we pass under the lighthouse on Bass Harbor Head running south, no sign of dawn
only Duck Island Light ahead,
further still the flash of the light out on The Rock,
behind us, barely sweeping our wake, the red light home,
our small constellation.

The wind catches us outside the lee of the Harbor,
the last of the nor’easter that blew through yesterday
still enough to jar when we come down hard in a trough,
enough so Dickie throttles back until we roll with the seas,
no need to check the time,
it’ll be a four-hour run today.

I see his lips move and know,
the way long married couples know their song,
“Can’t make the weather what we want,”
peering into the night,
almost on tip-toe, trying to gauge the seas ahead.

First string hauled, first light. Clouds lift as the wind shifts,
nor’west now, cross hatch of chop across the storm’s long swells
blowing spray,
there’ll be ice by evening,
we can smell it in the air.
Dickie shrugs, and I hear him through wind and engine song,
Seems we won’t get the wind to blow our way.
Not today.

He cracks on to her anyway and we’re off again,
Confetti of gulls behind us,
our wake lost in the maze of chop and wind blown spray.
No one out but us.

Second cup of coffee, no sun, no shadow
only the slightest shift on the horizon from sea to sky
a difference of shading, a play of light.
The day on pause,
Dickie tips his hat back. Polishes the wheel with his mitten.
White wool, Gwennie knit him,
set aside face to face,
like hands clasped when we tend the traps,
only blue cotton work gloves while we haul.

“Seems like all a man can do,”
he reaches for the throttle
like maybe he’s said too much already.
I don’t say a word,
finish banding the lobsters,
dip my gloves in the hot water barrel,
wring them out,
look anywhere but towards him.
Hard job on the deck of a thirty-two foot boat.

“All we can do” he tries again, “set the alarm,
do the best we know how each day.”
I wait a moment, see if he has anything more.
“When’s the last time you had to set the alarm,” I ask.

He looks down at the wheel like he’s found a speck of weed stuck there,
some fleck spat off the rope coming through the block.
Looks out to where the sun might break through,
might be a squint,
might be a smile.

Tide turned, and the wind with it,
Uphill one moment, down the next,
Focus narrowed to a single step,
just then, in the space between one heartbeat and the next,
he reaches out and grabs me, bunching up the top of my overalls and the hood of my sweatshirt and the ratty old polyfill vest under that,
bunches it all up together,
the way a dog muckles on to the loose skin of her pup,
Muckles on and lifts all six foot of me clear off the deck
His arm out straight and me dangling there
as the slime dark coil of rope strikes where my foot would have been,
snaps tight and snakes out over the stern
hissing down into the dark, sixty fathoms down,
I see me slammed against the stern, broken
flipped out and dragged down, down, down before there is time to even wonder what the fuck.

I looked at him and he looked back,
not a word,
set me down gentle on the deck again,
I shrugged to get my layers settled
maybe to shake away whatever spirit come too close,
He turned back to the wheel.

The stars came out in the winter sky, spray icing up on the deck,
just like the wind promised.
Buckets and baskets stacked,
our lobsters slosh in the tank
every bit of brass and chrome, wiped down and gleaming.
Red light of home sweeps almost to our bows.
Dickie pours Canadian Club and Coke in our thermos mugs.
We drink and sway with the seas rolling in to the shore still miles away.

Maybe all you can do is set your alarm,
get up, do the best you can.
I want to tell him that there’s more
that we choose who’s beside us,
and hope that in the space between heartbeats there’ll be a hand.
But the diesel is loud
and he’s busy polishing the glass face of the fathometer.
The moment passes,
the way they do,
sinking like the lighthouse below the horizon.

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