Lobstering

ONE starts out lobstoring at sunrise, but, in point of fact, the whole affair begins the night before, when some observant herald has announced that the Captain is going up to the Weepeckits in the morning to haul in traps. That is the real beginning, because all persons present are caught into discussions. Some say that man can rightly live only if he is up to drink the new dew off the grass; and others, that it is not meet to watch the dawn put on her golden dress.

For myself, I cannot bring my mind to any settlement; for, as I step outside, and see the stars drip slowly down behind the sea-blown hills, and watch the moon just looking out from mackerel clouds, I feel that I cannot bear to leave the night in order to refresh myself for daybreak. How is it that so many of us can, with thoughtless ease, pass by the wonders of that black mysterious mantle that the sun leaves in preparation for his morning brilliancy in China, and sink, in dreams, from the shaded peace it brings, back to an active daylight life, where we are all awake and prancing through our ordinary cares again? Do we so love the light, that we must even go to sleep to find it? So many of us do not go to bed because seduced by heavyeyed fatigue: we go to woo oblivion, or else to coax our suns up into shining through our dreams, so that we may never lose them, even though the world comes in between.

Night is delicate-fingered, or she could not put her touch upon our eyelids so caressingly; Day is a rough and thoughtless wind that whoops its boisterous voices in our ears. Night is a woman in a veil, with beauty promised but half-hidden; Day is too clear, too bright; we know her meanings without asking; she pours her jewels out before our eyes, and makes no hidden confidences. Night is secret and alive, while Day slips into the slumbrous coma of its own activity. Should not I, then, I thought, stay up and write a sonnet to the moon, or whisper back their beauty to the stars, or wind a wreath of flowers round my neck and tell them like a rosary in praise of darkness? Why go to bed at all, I said; why leav e the earth, where man’s adventure is so short, to meet death’s easier brother so many hours every twenty-four? I said and thought a multitude of things; yet sleep laid me low, and a small breeze stole in to take a look at me, and send soft laughter up to heaven telling of my faithlessness.

Dawn is a synonym for Youth; and if the dark-hearted Spaniards who sought to discover rebirth in a fountain had ever come upon that sparkling water, they would have found it crimson-colored, like the advent of a summer day. For when you spring onto the glittering edges of a clear dawn’s carpet, you find that Youth is beside you there. The Day is young; the world has bathed and shows a new face underneath the dust that sat upon its features; and you, because time was before you were, and the earth was old before you knew it — you are the youngest of them all. And as you walk into the sea, you take delight in feeling Youth run down your body with the waves, and shine from round brown arms seen through the water.

I go, it seems, from dewy eve to dawn, and come no nearer to my subject; yet this is all a part of lobstering, else why attend it? Surely not alone to see dead fish put into pots for bait, orto persecute the gray marauding spider crab that makes himself a most unwelcome guest. The dark, the dawn, the swim, all are a prelude to adventure; and so is sitting on the kitchen table, drinking milk, which aggravates the cat, and hurrying off across the thick wet lawn, to where the Lottie J. bobs up and down in restless anticipation of departure.

The Captain is piling bait. We call him Cheerful Charlie; for, even when the dense November fogs set in, his large-mouthed smile shines through them as if he were a genteel cousin of the Cheshire Cat. He earns his name when piling bait, for this means putting fish into barrels — fish that died a day or so ago, and have been brought most noisomely to life in horrid odors by the hot and sand-reflected sun. They stink — there is no other word to do them credit; they stink as does the idea of a Catholic hell, and spread their vile perfumes abroad engulfingly. I hold my breath, my nose, my tongue, as we sit in an agonizing tête-à-tête aboard the skiff that takes us to the Lottie J. I suffer thus in silence, for these bleareyed corpses of decadent fish are apple pie and jam to lobsters. They lure the crawfish from his home, and leave his children orphans. Their presence penetrates the ocean’s weed-washed walls and calls its scavengers abroad to feasting. But they were never meant to make a sweeter world for man; and so, when they have been safely landed on the Lottie J., Cap covers them with tarpaulin, and I at last release my features, and sit me down to contemplate that wallflower maiden we call Morning.

Cape Cod in June sends forth a sweeter scent than ever was distilled from flower fields at Grasse; but where it comes from, no one knows. Some say it is the ocean’s breath, and some that blossoms sighed it out of gardens, or that the wind brought it from the Cape Verde Islands. Yet it is not one of these things, for it holds them all. It is the sea, and roses, and new grass just cut. It is the heated essence of the Spring, yet it is damply fresh. So swift-passing and elusive is it, that May and June are the only months that wear it in their blowy hair.

It greeted me with its own actual ecstasy, as I sat in leisurely fashion against the poop, and listened to the comfortable chug-chug that took us out of harbor — and wakened all the neighbors from their last deep drowsiness. I had no heart for them just then. The loggerheads, I thought, the sleepy fools, to miss the birth of June; and I pretended to forget the births of months I ‘d missed. I sat in high tranquillity, despising sleepyheads; and yet, though by a call no louder than a periwinkle’s whisper I could have roused them all, I should have left them snoring, every one.

The tide rip caught us presently, and called a halt on the Lottie J.; and I had time to see the paths the sun trod in his rising. He painted added crimson on the ramblers’ faces as they swung along the roofs of small white cottages; he turned the close-clipped lawns to velvet beds that one would like to lie upon, and showed pink cheeks of hollyhocks just peering over hedges. He gave to each and everything an added color that belonged, and then he fringed it with a lengthening splash of gold. I saw the secrets of his toilet as we pushed, pushed, pushed against the rushing water, as we sidled and swerved and made headway through the unyielding tide, and at last emerged into the long, lolling, easy swell that filled the bay.

Cap had marked his buoys red and white, and the Lottie J. had been to them so often that it seemed as if she could have found her way unguided. But Cap knew a courtesy he had not learned from ‘summer folks’; and because I ‘d come to help in lobstering, he let me have the helm and, under his tuition, slip the Lottie close enough to the buoys for him to catch the trap rope. It was not as simple as it sounds; for Cap has better eyes than I, and, thinking that I did not need a great deal of directing, would start off on some tale of Portuguese pillagers, who came from New Bedford to steal lobsters, or tell how Sam’I Hawkins got his money, or how Dick Petersen was fool enough to break his fish-weir and let two sharks get in — and then, — abruptly, when I was most thoroughly absorbed, — would come: —

Loo-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-w there — starboard, starboard; put ‘er starboard! Hard, hard, hard, put ‘er o-oo-o ver!’

And then a grunt, as he reached out as far as his body would go, and caught the trap by the grace of God and a long boat-hook, but through no fault of mine. I leave the wheel and jump to help pull in the trap. It is always heavy, and Cap says: —

‘This means a “counter.” ‘

A counter, you, of course, will know, is a lobster long enough to count; the others are undersized and must be thrown back. Sometimes there are counters, sometimes even super-counters, sometimes ‘shorts,’ and more often than anything, there are hundreds of spider crabs. Great ugly long-legged gourmands they are, caught in the toils of their greed. Cap is ruthless with the spider crabs. They seem to put the iron to his soul, and rouse in him the dreadful spirit of wholesale massacre. Their impudence and gluttony fill him with anger, and his seldom irritated nature allows itself full-swing on their ungainly bodies. He has not time to punish all of them, and for the most part they are cast aside with a gesture of profound disgust. But occasionally a monster catches himself in the lattices of the trap. He is torn limb from limb, he is crushed, he is spat upon, and hurled into the water, in an abandon of anger which is sufficient to bring Cheerful Charlie back into his own again.

Surely, if we could but find all that lies at the bottom of the ocean, we should know the beginning and end of everything. There must be secrets worth the hearing ‘down in the dark, the utter dark, where the blind white sea snakes are’; for even in lobster pots we get a hint of them. Black-dressed starfish trimmed with pearls, who own small yellow mouths like ladies’ meshbags, and look upon the mermaids’ caves below with one red eye; and their smaller brothers, decked in scarlet, whose Polyphemus orb is yellow; there are rainbow fish and sea bass, winkles that are blind, and dirty cunners, that come up in the scum-covered pot to be subjected to man’s mood. Some are kept to grace the Fish Commission tanks, and be a target for the eyes of wandering tourists; some are taken home to form a dinner for the cat; and some, because of their appealing delicate futility, are allowed to drop back to refreshing water and their native habitat.

The lobsters alone tell histories. Their missing tentacles spell tales of battles fought, or mad retreat from larger foes, or lives and limbs left whole and quite intact from virtue of their little size and insignificance. Occasionally you find the field of war laid out before your eyes. In the parlor of the lobster pot you see two occupants, who eye each other chillily. One is whole, replete, and smoothly shining, while the other’s tail and claws and long red antennæ are ratt ling round as separate parts.

Trap after trap is jerked over the side and emptied of good and evil. Only the previous bait is left — white skeletons of fishes’ bones that have been picked to leprous lividness by the sea’s despoilers of the dead. Cap removes the tarpaulin from the buckets of bad fish. I vainly hope that the clouds prevent the smell from reaching heaven, for Jupiter himself would fancy that his breakfast, egg was plucked too ripe, and Juno would be censured for it. Cap, however, in oilskins and those gloves they sell at ‘Centre Stores,’ is bold. He seizes three or four of these degenerated corpses, and impales them through their glazed and glassy eyes upon an iron stake set in the middle of the trap.

The Lottie begins to teem with hardshelled red-green crawlers. They lie in loose abandoned attitudes about the deck, or edge themselves with wily slowness toward the scuppers. And the boat becomes hysterical. She rolls, dips, squirms, she plunges and wallows, she rises and falls in frantic agitation, until that group of traps is past, and we go on again, in and out between the outlying rocks of the little green islands, to the next cluster of red-andwhite buoys.

The sun is high now. One can see mirages of magic islands far away. They look like clouds, or battleships, set in a platinum ring; and just beyond them is a boat, a cargo-carrier perhaps, a tramp it may be, or an ornate steamer. We cannot tell, because the most we see of her above the sky line is a thin thread of trailing vapor and two black needles that are masts.

But there are nearer things to hand. New Bedford has arrayed her pinktinged spires in soft rolls of smoke as white as well-washed wool, and she herself just vaguely shows her colored presence through. Naushon lies green and unawakened on the ot her side, and deer come down to drink at creeks, and eat the grass before the sun has had a chance to dry it up. Straight ahead of us is Penikese, a name that holds foreboding in its eight letters. Penikese has always been an island that one passed with consciously averted face, a place where fishermen would never land, a fair green strip of land with decent pleasant houses, where shadows hung in clouds above it, yet where, for all its fearsomeness, heroes took up their abode, with courage for their servant. For Penikese has been for many years a leper colony. Now the lepers have gone, transferred because brave science has hinted of a cure; but still the island is an outcast and a pariah, and probably will be always.

The Lottie J. and I had found, by Cap’s direction, the last red bobbing buoy, so we turned our heads toward home again. We ploughed through the whitecaps which showered us with leaping stinging spray. Cap took the wheel, and I stood on the after hatch, playing games of balance with the waves; and when they found they could not throw me, they sent a cloud of diamond water dashing in my face. The tide rip rushed us through the Hole, and we ran up to dock with the proud consciousness of having done our duty to fifty-seven lobster pots, and knowing that for our pains we would be rewarded with great cups of coffee, hot and steaming, buttered toast with bacon, and, at the end, a giant bowl of strawberries and cream.