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The Voyage

The sea was gray that morning, and as smooth as the surface of an eye. Eastward, the edge of the earth had been brought miles closer to shore by a fog that had drifted in during the night as far as the mouth of the bay. There it stopped, neither advancing nor retreating, and the out islands and all that lay around them and beyond them were held in a windowless dungeon of vapor. From the dock in front of his family's house on the mainland, Nathaniel could not see even a suggestion of the islands' spruce steeples; nor of the granite plinths and ledges that usually showed through the trees. Forest and rock seemed to have been dissolved, made one with the mist that also cloaked the lighthouses and the tall crucifixes of the stone drogers, waiting at anchor or at the quarry wharves for the fog to lift and a fair wind to bear them down the long roads of the ocean to Boston, with paving blocks or a carved hero's pedestal, to Charleston with Corinthian pillars to glorify a city hall, to New York with polished slabs to face the new buildings rising into the skies of the new century. He knew the ships were there because he heard their bells, clanging five seconds each minute to mark their anchorages. Other sounds were mixed in with the bells, and he listened like a blind man at a discordant symphony, identifying each thing and its location by the noise it made. That shrill piping -- the steam ferry that serviced the islands. That sad, lost bleat -- a doryman cranking his handheld horn. That di-tonal moan far off -- a lighthouse . . .

He thought it curious how the fog held in one place, as if an invisible wall were blocking it from coming ashore. Over his head was a cloudless sky and sunlight, out there murk. The division between the realms of the clear and the obscured was as sharp as the bifurcation in a half-moon, and he wondered what caused it. A sudden change in water temperature? In air temperature? In both? It was hard to tell the difference between air and water, what with the two elements merging seamlessly into the whiteness that erased the horizon, and the sky the same color as the dead calm sea. His father's two-masted schooner, moored offshore near an exposed ledge, made a vivid, perfect copy of itself in the polished plane of water, only upside down. Nathaniel pulled his oilskin from his seabag, folded it to make a cushion, then squatted, braced his elbows inside his spread knees, and turned himself and the world topsy-turvy. Now the sea became the heavens and the heavens a waveless sea, while the schooner and the ledge and the cormorants perched atop the ledge appeared as reflections of their reflections. Topsy-turvy he and the world remained, until the illusion was spoiled by two harbor seals that surfaced astern of the schooner and sent ripples shoreward in sleek undulations, like the luffing of a satin sail. The reflections of rock, birds, and boat swayed and shuddered, testifying to what was object and what was image, to what was sky and what was ocean. Gravity, that most unambiguous of the world's forces, also would not be deceived; blood rushed to Nathaniel's head and told him which way was up.

He lowered his legs slowly and stood and laid his hand against a piling to steady himself. The water below, with the reflections of snail-encrusted pilings angling off into the depths, wasn't gray, as in the distance, but adamant green, and as cold as it looked. Cold enough even in early summer to kill a man in no more than fifteen or twenty minutes. His father, that nearly infallible authority on all things maritime, had seen it happen years ago, when a sailor on his ship fell from a yardarm and was plucked out less than a quarter of an hour later, bluefaced and as dead as Julius Caesar. Nathaniel watched the seals swimming along in their blubbery insulation, dark heads throwing off sparkles of pearlescent light. Then, in a synchronized arching of glossy backs, they dove out of sight. He put the oilskin back into the seabag, which had his first name inked on it to distinguish it from his brothers', and sat down and dropped it into the dory. She was twelve feet long, with white lapstrake, and her rail, oars, and thwarts gleamed under new coats of varnish.

The dock shook. He turned to see his father, face darkened by the shadow of a wide-brimmed straw hat, carrying a crate of dry stores. His shirtsleeves were rolled up to the elbows and his muscles, straining under freckled skin covered by fine, cinnamon hairs, still had the look of knotted whips. A young man's muscles. But was a young man's strength still in them? There was more gray than ginger in his beard, and half the hair under that hat was gone now. Closer to a grandfather than to a father in age -- fifty-six this year, Nathaniel thought, and got to his feet and went to take the crate. Cyrus waved him off with a movement of his head and carried it the rest of the way, setting it down alongside the piling to which the dory's painter was tied with a bowline.

"What were you doing?" he said. He was breathing hard, as if he had run down from the house, and Nathaniel saw that his face had not been darkened by the hat brim but by the color that rose in it from an excess of sun or exertion, or whenever he was angry: the color of an earthenware platter, a shade so close to his beard's, before it had begun turning silver, that the distinction between flesh and hair had been hard to see from far away.

"Putting my personals aboard, sir."

"Looked to me like you were standing on your head."

There was a faint note of disapproval in his father's voice, and Nathaniel felt himself blush.

"Oh, that. Just an exercise. A friend of mine at school told me that he'd read that the Hindoos of India stand on their heads all the time and that it's very good for you."

Cyrus stared critically with his good eye, frosty as winter seasmoke, while the left eye, its stilled pupil cocked off-center, seemed to stare over Nathaniel's right shoulder. It was always disconcerting, this being looked at directly and indirectly at the same time.

"If the way those Hindoos live is an example, don't reckon putting your head where your feet oughtta be is of any benefit."

"No, sir."

He had wanted to say, What do you know about the way Hindoos live? You've never been to India, because he now could look straight into Cyrus's sighted eye, as well as wear his shirts, and the parity in stature and bulk had opened up the possibility that he might be his father's match in other ways. Sometimes, he imagined himself challenging the old man to wrestle, or to put on the gloves and go a round or two -- fantasies both thrilling and frightening that had begun to grow in him in the past year, right along with the whiskers sprouting from his chin and upper lip, and with the new inches in his height and the new muscle slabbed onto his ribs and shoulders, beard and inches wondrous gifts from nature, while the weight was more the fruit of his own husbandry: He exercised with the dumbbells ordered from the Sears Roebuck catalog last Christmas, played football and boxed at Andover because he'd read that boxing and football had transformed the vice president from a sickly kid into the hero who led the charge up San Juan Hill. Not that Nathaniel had ever been sickly or a weakling; he was in training for the moment, which he was sure awaited him somewhere in the future, when he would be called upon to lead a charge in war. Or to rescue people from a burning building. Or to capture a gang of Chinese bandits, as Frank Merriwell had done in the last issue of Tip Top Weekly. When the moment came, he wanted to make sure he was fit and tough and equal to the task.

"Intend to stand there all day?"


Cyrus dropped his gaze to the crate wherein sacks of flour and coffee lay atop tins of beef, pears, and beans. Nathaniel eased down the ladder into the dory. The thwart, wet with dew, chilled his bare feet, and he felt a residual tackiness in the coats of spar varnish. He reached up and took the crate and stowed it forward.

"Y'know, we ought to build a floating dock like the Williamses," he said. "Then we could step into this dory, no matter what the tide. It would make things a lot easier."

"Reckon it might. But I never have believed that easier is necessarily better. 'We glory in tribulations also, knowing that tribulation worketh patience, and patience experience, and experience, hope.'"


"Five, three through five. In the original, 'experience' would have meant 'character.' Therefore, it is through tribulation . . ."

"Yes, sir, I understand," said Nathaniel, meaning that he understood his father's interpretation; he did not understand how a floating dock could spare him tribulation sufficient to be harmful to his character.

"Those stores there and whatever your brothers bring down will be the last of it. Bottom of the incoming in . . ." Cyrus withdrew from the pocket of his canvas trousers the tarnished watch he'd used to time his logs when he was wrecking in the Florida Keys. "About an hour." A quick glance seaward, as if he did not entirely trust the timepiece and was compelled to check the tide to verify that it and the instrument were in agreement.

"We should catch the start of the ebb," said Nathaniel. "Need some wind, though."

"Wind there'll be," the father forecast, and with such confidence that the son expected the first puff to spring up that very moment.

"Eliot and I were talking. We seem to be taking a lot more than usual." Nathaniel motioned at the crate. "Enough to last the four of us a lot longer than a week or ten days."

"That's what you figure, is it?" his father said, and then nothing more. He stood sidelit by the sun, legs spread, hands under his braces and resting on his chest.

"Mind me asking if you're planning a longer cruise than usual?"

"And if I am?"

Nathaniel rose on tiptoe and, ignoring the ladder, threw his forearms onto the dock and heaved himself back up in a single, fluid movement.

"With Mother not feeling well, we thought . . ."

"Your mother's fine."

"Yes, sir. But she's been gone two weeks."

"Told you and your brothers that I got a wire from Dr. Matthews, didn't I ? Nothing serious."

"So we'll be cruising longer than a week, then? That's all right with us."

"It's all right with you three," said Cyrus, with a derisive huff. "It had better be all right. I'm going to get Eliot and Drew to shake a leg. Sure you've got all your personals?"

"Yes. How about your seabag? I could bring it down for you."

"Won't be necessary, Nat."

He watched his father go up toward the house, walking as if he were carrying a seabag: a heaviness in his old nimble sailorman's gait, a slump to his shoulders -- too slight to be noticed by those who didn't know him well, but obvious to those who did. These changes in stride and posture, like his short-windedness, had come about very recently, appearing simultaneously with changes in his manner: an air of distant preoccupation, pensive silences at the dinner table, and something else that had come to share tenancy with the ferocity that was the hallmark of his temperament. Nathaniel could not give a name to it. A melancholy? A somberness? Maybe there was no single word for that hint of something autumnal, like the first yellowing of September leaves. He acted like a man with a broken heart, sometimes. Not that Nathaniel knew much about broken hearts, beyond what he had read in novels, beyond the disturbing ache that afflicted his own heart whenever he saw Constance Williams in her new Gibson girl hairstyle and the lace-collared blouses that she now filled out in a womanly way. He couldn't imagine his father with a broken heart, in any case -- there were people who would question if the man had one to break.

He sat down to wait and gazed at the schooner, and she affected him the way a beautiful building or landscape affects a lover of architecture or art. There was nothing fancy or exotic about her; her lines were elegant simplicity itself. She was sturdy enough for blue water work, yet she was agile and quick in stays, for a full-keeled vessel, and she gave an impression of lightness and buoyancy, as if she were ribbed with the airy bones of a gull or frigate bird. She had been christened Double Eagle the year before Nathaniel was born. Built in the Story shipyards in Essex as a miniature Gloucesterman, she was forty-six feet overall, thirty-eight on the waterline, and as swift as a vessel that length could be: last year, homeward bound from Canada in a gale, she had topped nine knots. Even at rest, she seemed to be in motion. Nathaniel loved her dark green hull, accented by white sheerstrake, sweeping back like a giant egret feather from the gilded ivy carved in her bow; loved as well the Euclidian shapes her stays and shrouds drew against the sky, the symmetry of her Sitka masts, varnished to a glossy butternut.

This year, she sparkled as perhaps she hadn't since her launching. At the end of May, with the boys out of school and the family settled into the Maine house for the summer, Cyrus decreed that Double Eagle was to be overhauled, stem to stern, topmasts to keel. He set Nathaniel and his brothers to work in Potter's boatyard in Blue Hill harbor, where the schooner had been hauled for the winter. They scraped, sanded, and repainted her bottom with two coats of red copper. They recaulked her seams, their ears plugged with cotton against the mallets' thuds, because they didn't want their hearing damaged, like the professional caulkers down in the Essex yards -- men who could not answer to their own names except when shouted to from a yard or two away. When the caulking was done, the brothers examined the standing rigging and the running gear, and long-spliced new line into worn spots in the main and main-peak halyards, burned Irish pennants off the jib and staysail sheets, and coated whipping thread in candlewax and finished the sheets' bitter ends with sailmaker's whips. They found too much white powder on the anchor cable, bought a new one at Potter's chandlery, charging it off to their father's account, and then shackled it to the chain. They spread the sails on the ground -- all seven plus a spare jib -- and inspected each for mildew and frayed stitching, ever mindful of the admonition Cyrus had driven home to them over and over: "A sailor can no more hide his sins from the sea than a killer can hide the stain of murder from God. You cut corners, leave something done halfway to right, say to yourselves, 'Ah, that's good enough,' and the sea will find you out, boys, and she'll be a different god from the God of our fathers, because she'll show no mercy, nor forgiveness either."

Each day's work began about an hour after breakfast, when Tom Dailey dropped them off at the yard with their lunch buckets, and ended around four in the afternoon, when Dailey returned with the wagon to drive them back to Mingulay in time to wash up for dinner, promptly, unfailingly served at six. Their father had given them a list of tasks, written in his crabbed hand on three ruled sheets of paper, and they checked off each item methodically. Was the rudder sound? The steering cables? Were there signs of rot above or below decks? They did not find any and hadn't expected to: Double Eagle had been framed in white oak and her hull planked in Dade County pine, brought all the way up from Florida -- a wood as rot-resistant as steel and almost as hard, so hard it sometimes bent nails and broke drill bits.

Cosmetics came last. She was given a fresh coat of paint, her brass was polished, and Cyrus, who came by to inspect, wasn't satisfied until he could see himself in the binnacle well enough to shave. They put her in the water the following day. After a winter on the alien land, she rumbled down the launching ramp as if rushing into the old familiar embrace of the everlasting sea. She sat at her berth for a day and a night, to give her planks time to swell and make her seams watertight. Next morning, the boys bent her sails and brought her home. The trip of some ten miles barely qualified as a day sail, much less as a voyage, but it was the first time they had been allowed to handle the vessel without their father's supervision. He had put Nathaniel in command, which was only fitting, in Nathaniel's opinion. The honor and the responsibility were in keeping with his nascent beard, his five feet, eleven inches, and one hundred and seventy pounds. He thought he proved himself worthy of his commission, bringing Double Eagle back without incident, making the mooring on the first try and with such style that even the sarcastic Eliot tipped his cap and said, "Handsomely done, Nat. Handsomely."

Nathaniel heard a screen door slam. Turning, he watched his father and brothers come trooping down the long easy slope of the lawn, the great house behind them dormered and verandaed, the ostentation of its size softened by the rusticity of its plain cedar shake shingles and unembellished posts and balcony rails: altogether, it was a cottage blown up to the scale of a mansion.

Eliot led the way onto the dock, pushing the seabags, supplies, and his guitar in a cart; behind him was Drew, clutching Trajan to his chest, and behind Drew the old man, with two leather chart cases tucked under an arm, walking still with a burdened gait and shoulders slumped, but his gaze fixed straight ahead, grim and intransigent. He was carrying himself like a mourner at a funeral, thought Nathaniel, but that eye was the eye of a man going into a fight.

Drew grabbed the gunnysack from the cart and, with a practiced movement, slipped Trajan into it and quickly pulled the drawstrings tight. The cat squirmed a little, then lay so still that you would not have known a living thing was inside. Passing him to his eldest brother, Drew piped, "Here's a cat in the bag" in a voice that didn't know if its owner was a boy or a man. Poor Drew. He was trying hard to sound brave and cheerful, but his look betrayed him. Prone to two kinds of seasickness -- the one in his mind and the other in his belly -- he looked forward to their father's annual cruise as a condemned man would to his own hanging. Poor little Drew, who hadn't sprouted yet and was short, even for thirteen.

Nathaniel stowed Trajan under the forepeak, then took the guitar, a bag of stove coals, and a can of kerosene for the running lights from Eliot, who was dressed in dark green trousers held up with light green braces over a collarless red shirt like the top to a pair of long johns. His faded blue fisherman's cap completed the outfit.

Then Nathaniel, with a smirk: "Put something yellow on and you'd look like a box of crayons."

Silent, Eliot pitched his and Drew's seabags into the dory. Nathaniel laid them between the middle and bow thwarts, then looked up.


"It's not on the boat already?" asked Eliot.

Nathaniel shook his head, and then they all three turned to Cyrus, who offered no explanation, but only signaled for the two younger boys to get aboard.

They squeezed in forward, side-by-side, their feet on the seabags, Eliot holding the guitar in his lap, while their father climbed in and took his usual place in the stern.

"Cast off," he said.

Eliot hesitated.

"Father, I don't understand why you're . . ."

"Cast off."

"Yes, sir."

Eliot stood and untied the painter. Nathaniel began to row. He watched the blades make small whirlpools in the smooth water. Far out, the fog still dungeoned the small islands in the mouth of the bay: Great Gott, Black, Placentia, and Swans; it smothered almost all of Mount Desert except for the three summits, which rose above it as if they were islands themselves in a sea of mist. A ship's bell rang, a lighthouse horn groaned again. With one of the chart cases, Cyrus started to beat a slow rhythm on the gunwale . . . thump . . . thump . . . thump . . . and then sang out,


Heave to your oars boys, let her go boys . . .

The first line to the ancient chantey the four always sang at the beginning of each summer voyage. His sons were supposed to answer with the following line, but they couldn't get into the spirit of the thing, baffled and disconcerted as they were by his mood and by his refusal to explain why he was embarking without oilskins, seaboots, or anything but the clothes on his back. They wanted to ask if he'd put his dunnage aboard Double Eagle earlier, but they knew better than to speak to him now. With his temperament unpredictable as the sea he loved, serene in the morning and in the afternoon black as a line squall, he had never been easy to live with; but he had become nearly intolerable in the past few days, ever since the big argument with their half brother, who had shown up unexpectedly from New York. They had been at the boatyard when Lockwood arrived (it was like him to appear and disappear on a moment's notice) and did not witness the argument. Dailey told them about it when he came by to pick them up at the end of the day, and all he said was that it had been a nasty one, very nasty, and advised them to stay out of their father's way when they got home.

They needed no more warning than that, so when they returned and saw their father sitting alone at the head of the table in Mingulay's vast and lugubrious dining room, poking at his food, his sloping forehead ribbed as if he were concentrating upon some difficult problem, they went to the kitchen and ate with the help. They were permitted to join him for dinner the next evening, but he was in the same incommunicative mood; likewise the following evening and the one after, Nathaniel sitting on one side of him, Eliot and Drew on the other, and all three afraid to speak unless and until their father did, and since he did not, meals passed as wordlessly as those in a Trappist monastery. No, not like that; a monastic silence was meditative and serene, or so Nathaniel imagined, whereas the silence in the dining room crackled with tension. A disquieting quiet that had a weight and a tangibility and a smell like ozone. At first, the boys made the natural assumption -- Lockwood was in another financial mess, and their father was trying to figure out what to do about it. But he had dealt with their half brother's money problems before without acting as he was now, so they began to wonder if he was worried about their mother's health (the exact nature of the ailment that had taken her back to Boston was being kept secret); however, the happy prognosis from Dr. Matthews, delivered recently, had failed to return him to normal. In fact, he seemed to get worse. An obscure anger brindled his gray brooding. His quick temper had made him famous, or infamous, among the Maine islanders -- the Italian stonemasons in the Black Island quarry called him Capitano Furioso -- but this anger of recent days was different; it was silent and oppressive and made sons and staff alike as uneasy as a ship's crew on a greasy sea when the glass was falling. If he didn't snap out of it, this cruise was going to be downright awful.

Copyright© 2000 by Philip Caputo

Courtesy of Vintage Books.

Excerpted from The Voyage © Copyright 2012 by Philip Caputo. Reprinted with permission by Vintage Books. All rights reserved.

The Voyage
by by Philip Caputo

  • paperback: 415 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • ISBN-10: 0679768394
  • ISBN-13: 9780679768395