Man at Sea
I've heard it said that it's bad luck to have a woman on board a fishing boat. The other guys keep trying to make jokes about that, saying that we'll most likely be drowned before we hit the docks, or that something'll come right out of the sea and swallow us whole, all because we've got her with us now. Except they're never joking when they're looking at her, over where we put her in that shady place on the deck, but when they're looking far away as they can, talking to one another and trying to ignore the real reason we're headed back to shore when we've only got a few pots of crab in and the water's this calm.
Me, I'm not going to pretend I don't see her there. It's pretty hard to ignore her, really; she's more bloated than I've ever seen anybody and her skin's got all sorts of red marks from where the crabs touched her. They'd probably been eating at her for a while by the time we got to her— blue crabs'll eat just about anything, and I guess humans aren't an exception. Some places you could see her bare muscle showing where all the skin had got peeled off, but it was all just the same shade of white from the cold water and if you weren't looking real close you might not have been able to tell. We dragged her up in our third pot of the day, covered with a whole mess of crabs and seaweed clinging at her hair and bathing suit, and that's when we started heading back to shore. She looks young to me, no more than 17 years old, with a nice head of pale blonde hair and skinny little arms and legs that look like they ought to be on a doll. It seems strange to me, finding someone like her out in the middle of the ocean. I keep on wanting to ask someone how they thought she got out so far from the beach, since she's wearing a swimsuit and I don't see anywhere else she might've come from, but none of them want to talk about her; they just want to keep smoking cigarettes up near the hull and pretend nothing out of the ordinary happened. I don't think she meant to die at sea, though. Girls that young and pretty don't have nothing to kill themselves over.
The first thing we did when we dragged her up in that pot was peel all those crabs off her and put her in the shade so she wouldn't start to smell under the hot sun. We were all milling around near her, not one of us talking, just looking, 'til the captain came down to see what all the commotion on deck was about, and soon as he saw her he ordered none of us to touch her and went right back up to the wheel and turned the boat around. I hung around near her for a little bit to get a better look, pretending I was untangling some rope, but I was really just there so I could make sure her eyes was closed and everything was the way it ought to be on a dead body, no weird poses or anything. I ended up having to close both her eyes because the other men had left them open, and I didn't want her staring up at the barnacles on the underside of the wooden stairs with her big, blue, glassy eyes.
When I was over there, looking at her and coiling that rope, I kept thinking about this girl I dated in high school, Judy. She looked an awful lot like her. They both had the same long blond hair and doll bodies, and if I remember it all right, Judy had the same big blue eyes that this girl's got. Looking at her, I got stuck remembering the night that I drove Judy out to the river in my dad's truck, and we drank cheap wine and smoked stolen cigarettes 'til we were both drunk out of our heads. We did what we had to real quick like we thought someone was gonna come running out of the woods behind us and see, and then I drove her right home and told her I loved her when I said goodbye. I'm looking at the drowned girl and I notice that her hips curve the same way Judy's did.
The girl was starting to dry off about an hour after we found her, and her skin got to looking very clean and dewy to the point where she looked like the young models on the cover of girl's magazines, save for her hair, which was tangled all over her head. The sun had moved across the sky so that it got to her even under the shady ledge where we put her, and it was casting light across her face and sparkling off of her wet hair so it looked like Christmas lights. Her hair looked almost like seaweed, falling in thick, wet clumps around her head and twisting across her brow, and a part of me wanted to comb it some, just because I knew that when we got to shore, there'd be an ambulance to take her away, and she would go all the way to a funeral home with hair that looked like seaweed. I knew I shouldn't do it, though, and so I just ran the toe of my rubber boot across the hair splayed on the ground in front of me to make it straight. I didn't want to step on her head or anything, but it wasn't right to let her go in such a mess. After a while standing over that girl, I got to wondering if any of the other guys had started to notice how long I'd been there, and I went back over to where they were sorting a catch on the table so as not to appear suspicious.
We were pretty far out in the bay when we found her, all the way to the Clay Banks, and three hours in to the trip back we were only about halfway back to Crisfield, which is where we dock. The other guys had gotten real good at ignoring the girl, and they all sat with their backs turned, looking out at the frothy white trail of bubbles flowing from the stern, smoking their cigarettes and laughing. I don't think they were even talking about the girl anymore. When I was sure they weren't looking at me or even being much aware of me, I sidled over to the place where we laid the girl and kneeled down next to her head, making sure I was hidden from captain's view in the wheelhouse by a stack of pots. She'd gotten a little color back in her skin, which I figured must've been from the sun getting at her all this time. I know dead girls won't ever get pink again, and that her blush was just the color of burnt meat lying in the sun, but I still thought it looked kind of pretty, like maybe that was how her cheeks might've flushed while she was breathing.
I became still, watching her, and I became aware of the wind moving across her face and brushing her hair across her brow real gentle and nice so some of the strands floated around her face. It caught in her eyelashes and shielded her from me somewhat, and so I reached my hands out and smoothed her hair out of her face so that it was all splayed on the deck behind her, twisted and smooth like the way hair gets when it's underwater. I kept running my fingers through it 'til it was so straight and smooth and shiny that you would've thought someone had really combed it with a brush and everything. I spent a while taking individual strands of her hair between my fingers and moving them from her skin, leaving her face and neck and shoulders exposed to me. Her naked shoulder looked fragile, soft, and beautiful in the shadow cast by my kneeling form, in a manner strangely, yet wonderfully elegant for a girl so young and so immodest, clothed only by her slight, damp, navy blue bikini. There were places on that shoulder so beautiful even the crabs wouldn't have dared to touch them.
Nobody was paying any attention to us for the next hour or so. I relaxed my body and allowed myself to sit instead of kneel, my legs stretched out along her side, brushing against her smooth, pale skin. If I started to move around at all, even just flexing my knee, her body would stir with limp and heavy arms against my thighs, and her torso that would yield to my will, moving whatever way I pushed it. My hand was resting on her crown, my fingers stroking the gentle curve on the head where the skin gives way to hair, protecting her brow from any drifting strands that might tarnish her. My other hand darted to and from her shoulder, picking away stray hairs and brushing sand off her skin. My fingers brushed her chest as I cleaned her of evidence of her time in the ocean, and I lingered there, my fingers resting gently on the damp cloth of her bikini top. I slowly flattened my hand, moved not by a force within myself that I could control, but moved by gravity and loneliness and necessity. My fingers curled under her bathing suit and I could feel her hidden skin, clammy from the wet fabric over it. I hesitated to move away, comfortable with my hand where it was placed. The skin touching my arm and wrist felt hot from the sun that was beating down on it, like there was blood pumping beneath it, and if I didn't look at her too hard I could imagine that she's only just sleeping, and soon we will go for a swim or she will watch me fish and admire the way I can hook pots and how fast I sort catches. She'd have the same look in her eyes that girls get the first time you take them fishing with you, that look that nobody's ever given me in a long while. Only young girls with weak little bodies like hers can understand how hard this job is, and they think real highly of the men who do it.
I could see the docks blooming on the horizon as we draw nearer. She was almost completely dry by then, with only her bathing suit still holding some water. I drew my hand from its resting place, brushing her hair back for a final time before I had to leave her. Cupping her head in my hand, I raised her face up to mine and gently touched my lips to her burnt forehead, briefly, my face hidden in shadow. I laid her back down and stood, turning back to the stern where the other men sat. Looking finally away from the girl, the light from the sun hit my face with a severity uncommon to the early Maryland summer. I shielded my eyes and jogged towards the other men, who were tossing the spent remains of their last cigarettes overboard.
Nobody acknowledged my sudden appearance, and it was as if I had never strayed from them, but I felt as though their eyes were following me as I loitered behind them, my hands shoved into the pockets of my bright orange waders. I felt my throat getting tighter from how nervous I was now. The light was hitting me hard, my eyes stinging from the exposure, having been so used to the comfortable dark in the shadows of the crab pots where the girl lay. The docks grew ever closer, finally becoming so near that I could hear the congenial hollering of the men who were there as they prepared their boats for a day of fishing. I was vaguely aware of the body of the girl rolling slightly as we docked, jolted by the sudden stop, but I did not allow myself to look fully at her for fear of seeing her face-down on the filthy deck. There was an ambulance waiting at our dock, EMTs in matching uniforms standing somberly with an orange stretcher held in between them, their grim expressions in sharp contrast with the cheery afternoon light. The captain signaled to them to come aboard, and they approached, shakily boarding with their Day-Glo orange stretcher forming a bridge between them. They came to the girl, and, shaking their heads sadly, dragged her by her legs onto the plastic bed. Her arm hung limply over the side for a moment, fingers curled slightly inward, before it was tossed on top of her body by one of the EMTs and she was carried away. They slid her into the ambulance and slammed the door, taking one last look back at the sea that killed her before speeding away, sirens screaming.