“Mishibizhiw is the great lynx or the wildcat of the sea,” my mother explained as she stuffed a pack of cigarettes into my duffle bag, cellophane crinkling against army green nylon. I was just about to remind her I didn’t smoke when she cut me off.
“They’re an offering.” Tobacco to placate the panther. Tobacco to give me safe passage across Lake Superior. She even removed all the pennies out of my wallet, just in case the great panther, guardian of the lakes’ copper deposits, should take offense.
She was always doing things like this, assembling a hodgepodge identity for us as we moved from town to town. Our lives were full of things we picked up along the way. A half-used bottle of echinacea supplements from the health-food store when mom tried “healthy living.” A bible from the summer we rolled in the aisles at the Church of Praise. A handkerchief with the initials C.F. (not mine) from a Goodwill store in Des Moines. The only thing we hadn’t managed to find in our wanderings was my father, which according to mom, was a good thing.
The legends of the Ojibwe were her latest acquisition. She was all thunderbirds, panthers, and wendigos to anyone who would listen, arguing that the legends made more sense than burning bushes and people turning into pillars of salt. Instead of going to work, she visited the local Indian cultural center and purchased a wood carving of the panther, its scales brushed with copper, the eyes little burnt dots in the cedar plank. She hung the carving with affected reverence on the living room wall. I imagined her genuflecting in front of it, a complicated amalgamation of bowing, knee kicking, and flapping arms.
I’d worked as a deckhand sailing up and down the Mississippi in freighters carrying oil and grain for a couple of years, supplementing our income before I turned into the main breadwinner. Mom had always had trouble staying focused, moving us to a new town when she got fired from yet another job. I bristled a little at how she was acting like I’d never been on a boat before.
“This is different,” she said over a plate spaghetti one night.
When I rolled my eyes, I saw her hand twitch, itching to slap me across the face like when I was a kid. Instead, she grabbed her fork. “Lake Superior isn’t like the Mississippi where you can always see land on either side of you. The Mississippi doesn’t have storms with twenty-foot waves. Ships don’t just disappear without trace,” she concluded, eyes drifting toward the carving of the sea panther.
I didn’t argue, partly because I didn’t want to upset her, partly because she was right. Everyone, even other deckhands with homes far south in places like Vicksburg and Greenville, knew the stories about this giant lake: how many ships had sunk, lives lost, when the worst storms came. Why, for the love of God would anyone sign up for that? Twenty thousand more a year, plain and simple. That’s worth a little seasickness, a storm here and there.
It was a gusty May morning when I boarded the Delaney in the twin ports. Out past the yards sagging under shipping containers, white capped waves rolled in toward the jetties that protected the channels where behemoth freighters waited to make the trek up to Thunder Bay in Canada, or Ste. Marie on the Michigan side. The Delaney’s loading hatches were open and grain rained down creating thin clouds that wafted over the dark pits. The first mate, a portly man wearing a pair of coveralls, was taking depth readings near the hull; anything more than twenty-six and three quarters of a foot and we didn’t sail. He waved me toward the gangplank, never taking his eyes off the raised markings on the hull.
I found my cabin, a modest space with a window, a full bed, and a loveseat—a vast improvement on the Mississippi cabins to which I was accustomed. There was even a tv, rigged to the wall hospital-style. I wondered if this was a luxury all the crew shared, or a result of my recent able-bodied seaman certification.
The captain briefed us during lunch, a sad affair of over-cooked pork chops and creamed spinach that was more cream than spinach. That’s one point to the Mississippi I thought remembering stews filled with shrimp and peppers, ladled over fluffy rice.
“Reynolds, you have first watch,” the captain said, pointing his ink pen toward me. I nodded, grateful that I wasn’t painting the deck, or vacuuming out soot tubes. Everyone is jack-of-all trades on a freighter but moving up the ranks does have some advantages. As I leave the dining room, I feel the ship’s engines rumble to life, a slight vibration that moves from the worn khaki carpeting up through my legs and coveralls. Even after two years I still thrill at the power contained decks underneath me. Other deckhands smirk and roll their eyes, pretending they’re too jaded, when I tell them I like the feel of the engines as they pulse.
I’m standing on deck, watching the Delaney pull away from the dock, double checking that the port side is clear when I hear someone yell, “Shit!”
A man, reddish brown hair feathered around the collar of his coveralls, is rocking on his heels, sucking his hand. I take a cursory glance at the bridge, making sure everyone is distracted, and walked toward the man. He’s been chipping paint off the deck without gloves. Blood slowly drips down the side of his arm, seeping out between his fingers where he clutches his left thumb.
“Where the hell are your gloves?” I demand, tossing him a handkerchief. The wrinkled cotton quickly soaks with blood, so I point him in the direction of the nearest first-aid box. I shake my head as he stumbles away, a circle of burnished metal reflecting afternoon sunlight just below his wrist.
The wind picks up once we make it into open water. Clouds amass across the sun and the lake turns iron grey. The waves grow in height, ashen peaks cresting against the hull, sending a spray so fine tiny droplets gather anyplace where baby hairs linger. I reach for my handkerchief before remembering it’s bloodied and in the possession of the new guy. The ship rocks side to side, probably nothing for the other men who make this circuit regularly, I remind myself trying to ignore the churning in my stomach as the coffee I had at lunch keeps time with the ships’ movement. The spray finally forces me indoors and I finish my shift on the bridge, squinting every so often through a pair of binoculars as we pass Sand Island, the lighthouse lamp burning bright even though it’s afternoon.
When I’m relieved (late by an assistant engineer, cigarette dangling from his moistened lips), I head to the dining room where I’d told there’s always urns of hot coffee and cookies. The guy with the bloody hand is sitting at a table by the windows. I join him, nudging a plate piled with iced oatmeal cookies toward the middle of the table.
“Able to fix up your hand?”
He nods, looking sheepish. “Got told off pretty good for forgetting my gloves.”
“Good. You deserve it.” I try to say this good-humoredly, and I think he understands because he says, “My first trip out and I do something like this. God, I’m stupid.”
“Don’t worry so much about it,” I say, thinking of all the stupid stuff I did my first year on board a Mississippi cargo ship.
He nods. “Name’s Charlie, by the way.”
The ship lurches starboard and the half-empty plate of cookies slides toward the window. Charlie reaches out his hand to stop it. A metal bracelet, loose on his wrist, rattles against the table.
“Oh, this,” he says, blushing. “My mom got it for me. Said it’s supposed to help my immune system.” He rolls his eyes. “She’s been into that new-agey stuff ever since I got mono last fall. Herbal this and that, yoga, and meditation.” He tells me about how his mom works as a trauma nurse and volunteers as head of the ladies’ auxiliary at their church.
I laugh and begin to tell him about my mom and her eccentricities. “She’s been on this Native American legend thing since I told her I wanted to work on the lake.” I tell him all about the sea panther, the cigarettes in my duffle bag, even how she took all my pennies. I don’t tell him about how she hasn’t held down a job for more than a couple of months for the last five years. Or about how I had to quit school early, barely getting my GED while studying nights on Mississippi freighters, earning enough to keep our heads above water.
Charlie shakes his head as if to say “Mothers!”, and I can’t help but wish my mother’s biggest problem was making me wear a weird bracelet. Cookie crumbs cling to Charlie’s baby smooth chin. Typically, most ships don’t hire seaman under eighteen. It’s not illegal, but there are so many rules and restrictions most captains and ship owners don’t bother. The rounded curve of Charlie’s cheeks and the way his eyes still have that innocent clearness to them has me guessing he lied about his age. Not that I’d ever say anything. I’m no blabbermouth.
I get up to leave, thinking I’ll try and rest before I’m on dinner duty in the kitchen when Charlie fishes in his pocket and leans across the table, holding my handkerchief in his soft hands. It’s wrinkled, but free of blood. His thumb is covering the initials, so I’m spared having to explain that they’re not mine, that it once belonged to someone else. And really, now that he’s bled all over it, it’s more Charlie’s than mine anyways.
In my cabin, I sit by the window, absently twisting the handkerchief in my hands. Rain pelts the little window like a summer hailstorm. Visibility through the thick glass is practically nil. All I can make out is the endless gray sea, lifting and depositing this hulking steel giant over crests and down into troughs. My duffle bag slides across the floor; I should get up and put it into the crate for personal items that’s bolted to the wall, but it’s not hurting anything and there’s nothing in there but clothes and the cigarettes mom forced me to take.Tobacco to placate the panther. Tobacco to give me safe passage across Lake Superior. I hold the curtains open so they won’t slide back and forth on their rod. The forecastle bell rings, and I jump out of my chair. It’s just a warning, the porter told me when I boarded, usually sounds off when there’s bad weather, but my heart’s racing nonetheless. I sit back down, glad I’m alone, that there’s no one else here to see what a lake rookie I am.
I think of the sea panther, that mythological boogeyman. I imagine him prowling somewhere outside my window under the waves of this great sea, the icy water rolling off his scales. The sharp daggers that run along his back cutting through the water as he churns the lake, always under the watchful eyes of the great thunderbird who hurls bolts of lightning at his horned head, preventing him from devouring mankind. What must this underwater demon think of our ships that float on the surface, rectangular whales whose only dives are permanent and awful? How this serpentine lynx must be tempted, so many men crossing its domain all seasons of the year.
I wonder how many lives the panther has destroyed. How many bones have been crushed in his preternatural maw? How many shoes, wristwatches, and wedding bands lie at the bottom, expelled vestiges of the once living. The history of this lake is so long no one will ever know for sure how many have succumbed. Churches near the lakes sometimes have the names of the lost etched on little plaques hanging in the vestibule, but they only date back sixty or seventy years. Only the one who exalts in chaos, in the roaring of the waves as they topple big ships, cruising boats, and canoes, knows the exact number.
A jolt portside jerks me out of my reverie. I’m thrown out of my chair, knees bruising against the linoleum. My handkerchief flutters across the floor, underneath the bed. I glance at the clock that’s also bolted to the wall and realize I need to hustle. My kitchen shift starts in five minutes and no one likes to wait for dinner. I hurry down the halls as fast as I can, weaving like a drunk as the ship continues to lurch.
The kitchen is a sterile room, stainless steel surfaces gleaming, all business. The cook looks at me and then looks at the clock hanging above the stove. I’m one minute late and he throws me a dark look before pointing to a mountain of potatoes that need peeling. I pull on an apron, waxed down the front, and begin peeling, dropping the skinless spuds in a pot of cold water. The ship is tossed back and forth, and we stand diagonal to the floor, swaying from left to right like a Talking Heads video. When I nick myself for the third time with the peeler I say, “Jesus, how tall are these waves anyways?”
The cook points to a laminated chart of the Beaufort Wind Scale taped to the wall. “First mate said the wind was twenty-eight knots at three o’clock.”
According to the chart, that’s a near gale. Thirteen to nineteen-foot waves, and that was two hours ago when I could still think of eating dinner with anticipation instead of apprehension that I might throw it up.
“I’ve seen worse,” the cook says with that smugness hale sailors always have.
But when the bowl of peeled potatoes and cold water goes flying off the countertop sending the slippery potatoes ricocheting off the refrigerators, even he admits this is an unusually big storm before he fishes a bag of frozen potatoes from the deep-freeze. He dumps the potatoes into a casserole dish as I preheat a skillet to fry vegetables for the soup. I slice through a stick of butter with a knife fresh from the dishwasher. The knife drops through, no friction at all, and little droplets of melted fat form on the slices. The cook fishes out another bag from the deep freeze, a vegetable medley.
“No sense in you bleeding all over the carrots and celery,” he says as I use my oven-mitted hands to steady the pot on the stove.
The blue flame under the soup pot flickers before going out completely when a gust from the open door that the third mate stumbles through catches it. “Water’s got into one of the cargo hatches. That grain’s soaking it up. Captain’s calling for all hands.”
“Shit,” the cook says, turning off the oven before the three of us stumble out the door.
I make my way belowdecks to the bilge pumps and wells. The freighter is now veering portside, the balance thrown off by the water in the cargo hatches. My heart pounds and I can hear the beating in my ears as I jog against the portside wall. A ship imbalanced like this is dangerous. All it takes is one rouge wave to send a vulnerable freighter to the lake floor.
Just as I suspect, the bilge pumps are working fine. The bilge wells on the other hand, are full of thick brown sludge that makes me grateful I have an empty stomach. The pumps are belching out overtime, but as the wells fill, I know it’s not enough. The grain has taken on too much water. Whether or not that’s because the hatches weren’t sealed properly, or the welding on the hull is substandard, is something that will be debated later, if not by us, then by the rescue crew tasked with finding our remains. I picture my bloated body bobbing in the gray water, hair wetted through, lips blue, mother having to identity me at the morgue. Or maybe I’ll rest at the bottom of the lake, fish slowly picking away bits of my fingers and the soft skin around my neck. The forecastle bell rings, seven short peals that signal a critical emergency. I haul myself to the bridge, legs burning from the effort of staying vertical. Guys in coveralls, mackintoshes, even lifejackets, pass me, some looking petrified, others stoic.
When I get to the bridge the first mate is flicking the switch of the intercom on and off. “Damn water,” he finally says giving up.
“Muster stations,” the captain tells us when we’re all assembled.
Charlie shakes next to me, his dark face quivering. “We’re going to die,” he says as if he’s just come to this realization.
“Nah,” I say summoning the courage I don’t feel as we pull on survival suits from a locker outside the bridge. Charlie’s hands are shaking so bad I have to zip his suit up for him. He’s so distracted, quailing every time the ship lurches, he doesn’t notice me slip the metal bracelet off his wrist and onto mine. Before zipping my own suit, I take the pack of cigarettes from my coveralls pocket, slipped in before I left my room for the dinner shift.
We fight against an inundation of lake water as spray clouds our vision and waves rush over our boots. Two orange lifeboats hang starboard looking like truncated submarines, fully encapsulated with a window at the top. We cling to the railing, Charlie’s lips moving in prayer or distress, I’m not sure which. Before the rest of the crew can join us, I take the bracelet and cigarettes together in my gloved palm and chunk them overboard. I can’t even see where they land in the lake. I imagine the cigarettes tossed on the surface until the lake finds a weakness in the cellophane wrapper and they drift to the bottom. The bracelet may have already hit; I don’t know how deep it is here. If I survive this, I’ll never tell mom what I did. She’d spend my entire check at the Indian cultural center gift shop. Tobacco to placate the panther. Tobacco to give me safe passage across Lake Superior, she’d sing to me, genuflecting in front of the copper brushed wood-cut.
The sea panther stirs underneath the maelstrom. Flecks of tobacco rain down upon his spiked spine, head, and paws. A shiny circle of copper hits the lakebed in front of its face. A murky cloud rises from the circle of copper up, up to the surface. The panther yawns, a feeling of contentment that starts in its belly and spreads out to its tail and his paws with their cutting claws. He rolls over, flicking his tail with feline coyness. The copper along his scales radiates warmth into the blackness and his tail beats the sea floor. A nebulous cloud of earth, fish bones, molting, and tobacco rise, up, away from the sea floor.
Overhead, the sea settles.
Jordan is a writer living in the Pacific Northwest who holds an MA in literature from the University of Utah. Her work has appeared in Orson’s Review, and is forthcoming in The Woven Tale. She is the author of a middle grade mystery.