The bell on the tramp steamer called out into the thick fog.
A single bell from the buoy off to starboard replied.
Somewhere there were stars beyond the grey blanket.
The ship nosed forward. The bells spoke to each other.
Mor’thn Weeds pulled the collar of his oilskin coat closer and spat over the side. The night stretched out before him.
Lights began to appear in the fog. Dimples at first then pinholes in a grey mist and all the while the double-knock from the rocking waves. Ka-long! Ka-lang! It felt like a log being pulled along a slow river.
Mor’thn licked his lips and waited for the harbour lights to greet him. He counted off the time with her cowrie shell bracelet in his pocket. It had been the longest voyage he’d made so far. He knew there’d be others. He was in no hurry. It was Christmas Eve.
He had a cargo of ermine pelts. Soviet stoat. One thousand. One for each day of the journey. He’d sewed the very finest for her by the light of the oil lamp. With each stitch, he’d counted the hairs on her head. He felt her skin under his fingertips. He’d rubbed his face in the fur and thought of her naked.
The boy would be five or was it six now? Yes, it had been a long, long journey.
He waited for the next set of bells.
The darkness spoke to him as the silhouettes slipped past.
The Third Mate had had a name but, as far as Mor’thn was concerned, that was about the end of it. He was a name on a manifest, a human manifest. He’d embarked with the crew, his name added to the list of crew members.
He would not be disembarking with the rest of the crew. What had happened on the empty sea no one knew or was prepared to say; a fight, perhaps? A disagreement over duties? A jealous rivalry? A debt that had to be paid in full?
Life on a tramp steamer could be primitive. It had a ‘Frontier’ sense of right and wrong especially when it came to justice.
In someone’s opinion, justice had been served and that was an end to the matter. But retribution was not justice. How could justice be dispensed in an empty sea? No witnesses, no evidence, no mitigation, no statements. Now Mor’thn must wait to explain to the Agent.
An investigation would have to be undertaken. For whom? The missing Third Mate? His family, if he had one? For the Company? Not the ship’s company. That was for sure. Or was it simply for its own sake?
The crewman, if not in the wrong, was part of a flawed equation. Most likely founded in wrong-doing. None had come to him with complaints of injustice. No one had come to him to be the judge or the mediator. The fact of the matter was that whatever had happened would’ve remained in the dark forever had he not stumbled upon it. Now, he’d have to delay his homecoming and he’d not see his wife and child.
Where was the justice in that?
To the crew, the matter was concluded. The man’s name had been taken out of the book of the living. All it would need to solve the problem was for Mor’thn to remove his name from the manifest.
His solution, in line with the crew, would be the outcome, the equation worked out. The Third Mate never existed.
But there was an empty bunk. They hadn’t even bothered to make it up. He’d have never known if he hadn’t asked why.
No one had lied or made up an excuse. They’d only shrugged, uncommitted. If it had nothing to do with them, it was devoid of purpose and meaning. All it had taken was a look to heaven and a turning-away. Hands washed clean, responsibility washed away like the Third Mate somewhere in the empty sea below Alaska,
So, why not do the same?
Once the tramp steamer docked the crew would scatter to the four winds. There’d be no one to point out his oversight. None to judge him.
But in Mor’thn’s Holy Trinity, the Third Mate was his conscience. He knew that. What if… just this once?
No one would thank him. Not the crew. Certainly not the Bumblebee Lady. The boy was too young to understand and by the time he was old enough the matter would’ve been long forgotten; a name out of mind, a reckoning out of reach.
What sense did it make? None. But then, one small unattended tear in the net was all it took. There’d be no bounty. Now, it was one tiny mutiny in Mor’thn’s mind.
Who’s to say who’s right and who’s wrong? Let salty seadogs lie! Where was the profit? Where would be his homecoming celebration? All it would take would be a stroke of the pen and he could feel the stroke of her forgiveness on his cheek; the chance to stroke the body he’d been denied. How could he deny her – the boy too?
The man was gone. There was the living to consider. It served no useful purpose. It would anger the Charterer and delay his share. A share that was rightfully his.
Whatever he decided would be law. He was the Law on the empty sea.
He had a duty to those present also those not present, the Agent, the investors, even the tax-gatherer. Bureaucracy is a tidal wave.
In times of trouble, it’s all hands on deck; Third Mates excused.
And if it were to come to light, Mor’thn could always account for the oversight (a man overboard) by the pressure of doing his Duty. Duty? Was Duty another word for ‘conscience’? Duty? Conscience? Shipmates, perhaps, not brothers. At the end of the day, am I my brother’s keeper? Do I owe him anything?
No. Mor’thn didn’t owe any man.
He was willingly in the debt of the Bumblebee Lady. For her, he’d lie to the Crown, make a pact with the Devil. There were only three to whom he’d never voice an untruth; his God, his lover and hardest of all, himself. His Third Mate would never allow it.
‘And what of the missing mate?’ asked Second Master Dankhov.
‘I guess he went for a swim and didn’t feel like coming back.’ Mor’thn sucked his teeth and castled with his king.
‘He’d have been dead in ten minutes if he wasn’t already dead when he pitched over the side,’ said Dankhov, removing a stray chess piece to clear an avenue of assault with his bishop.
‘A man his size could last an hour or more,’ said Mor’thn but not believing it of the Third Mate he knew. Mor’thn reasoned that he had two more opportunities to change his mind before the cock crowed in the dawn and he’d stand before the Agent. He’d be called to account. By then he’d have made up his mind. What was the right thing to do?
By Christian McCulloch
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