The Last Voyage

A veteran of World War II, TOM FILER served with the Navy in the Pacific and then spent three years in business before deciding to go back to college. At U.C.L.A. he came under the spell of Kenneth Macgowan, whose playwriting seminar and whose inspiration started him upon his writing. For three months he worked on a tuna boat in the Mexican coastal waters, and from his experience has come the following story.



Tim first time, she lost her grip and he slid down the ladder to the deck below, where he sprawled, spread-eagled, eyes wide and staring, mouth parted, as though he were about to cry out in protest.

She tried again. It was no use. She was strong but she was no match for the passive stubbornness of death. Finally she decided to use the winch. There seemed no way of doing it that did not outrage her senses, for this limp bundle had once been her husband.

“They couldn’t wait!” she cried. “Couldn’t let us be.”

With a sudden impatience that verged on anger she roughly tied the line about his waist. She raised him, jackknifed, arms waving as though with a new life in the unlife, and set him down beside the gear box on the conn deck. Now she must empty the box.

There was a lot of fishing tackle in the box. Most of it was new but she came upon a few rusting hooks and moth-eaten lures that had been buried there and forgotten. She found a squid lure that Ed had made on their first voyage. “What was it about that squid, May?” he often asked, grinning. “They’d always hit it first, every time.” And then May would remind him of her contribution to the lure: a bright red feather from the hat she had worn on their honeymoon. It was an old joke with them, one that came up time and time again, and one they never tired of, for it reminded them of that first voyage twenty-six years ago. The fish had chewed up most of their lures, and Ed, fresh out of “makin’s,” had impulsively removed the feather without telling her, intending to replace it when they reached port. Unfortunately, as May pulled in an albacore the next day the hook didn’t snap loose and she had to remove it by hand. As she did so a horrible suspicion entered her mind. Despite Ed’s cries that they were losing the school she rushed into the cabin. When she returned, all the jig lines were taut and Ed, frantically tying down the wheel, had pleaded with her to start chumming the sardines before the school sounded. She responded with an icy stare and went back inside. Later when Ed tried to talk to her she retired silently to the chain locker, where she spent the night despite his repeated vows that he would buy her a dozen hats when they returned to San Diego. By the next morning, her only problem was how to emerge without losing face.

Ed had solved her dilemma by shouting down to her that they were into a big school. She suspected a trick but a moment later heard the unmistakable sound of a fish on the deck above. When she climbed out of the locker Ed pounced on her before she realized that the “school” was a lone dolphin. With a cry of anger she fought him but Ed, laughing, held her helpless, tight against him. He tore at her clothes, ripping, joyous, sure in his manhood. His body— hard and strong — seemed to envelop her as he forced her down to the deck. And suddenly, with a fury that made her anger seem pale, she met his passion with a fierce joy.

There had been a son and she had been told there would be no more. And in her most secret self she had been glad, for she felt a need to be more than a mother, more than a woman — a need she might never have discovered were it not for that first voyage and Ed and the sea. There had been four lonely years at home, and then Ed’s partner had walked out on him and May returned to the Gull. The child, Sonny, was left with Ed’s parents during the school year, and the rest of the time he had spent on the boat. And soon he was fishing with them and he had stayed with the Gull until he was twenty, until Ed had “kicked” him off, telling him it was time he struck out on his own. May had known the truth, of course. So had Sonny. Ed felt the Gull was too old and too slow to amount to much any more, and while this was no longer important to him, Sonny was young.

Ed didn’t fit very well in the box, but she found by raising his knees and lifting his head she could manage. She went below for ice.

His face was almost level with the surface of the box. It was impossible to cover it completely. The ice was neatly packed about him and the job was done but for this. She fought a sudden, almost uncontrollable urge to force the gaping face down, down forever into the blue whiteness of the ice. She lowered the lid, knowing she must return within the hour with more ice.

She switched on the transmitter.

“Hello, Sarah. Hello, Sarah . . . this is the Gull, WCT3, calling. Hello, Sarah . . .”

She turned on the receiver. There was no reply. She tried again.

“Hello, Ma. This is Sonny,” a voice came through. “Start talking so we can get another bearing on you. You may have drifted. Out.”

“I did what they told me, Sonny,”she said. There’s no wind, so I don’t think I’ve drifted very far. I got to get back to packing the fish, so I don’t have much time. Is there anything else I should do? Out.”

“Okay, Ma. Got a line on you. You better call us every hour. Keep the engine idling so long as you got fuel or the radio’ll poop out. . .” He seemed to hesitate. “Need it for the refrigeration too,” he added. “Out.”

“I turned off the engine after . . . after it happened,” May replied. What could she tell him? There seemed to be some explanation due for this action on her part, but she could think of nothing that would satisfy her son, or for that matter anything she could say with any words she knew. “I’ll start it again, Sonny, like you say. Out.”

Okay. Just sit tight now, Ma. We figure you’re about thirty hours away from us. Coast Guard’s on the way down from Dago but we should get there first. Take it easy. Everything’ll be all right. Keep calling. The Sarah signing off.”

“All right, Sonny. The Gull signing off.”

May took off the earphones. She found herself listening, though she didn’t know what for. A terrible fear suddenly possessed her. Almost in a panic she climbed swiftly up the ladder to conn and started the engine. The muffler had gone out earlier in the season, and although the noise on the conn deck was almost unbearable they had been too broke to replace it. Now she found herself grateful for the ear-shattering din which enveloped her. What had she been afraid of? Was it only the silence? She looked at her watch. In forty-five minutes she must get more ice. It was nearly dusk. The sun was a child’s balloon floating, red, in the sea; a few stars flickered tentatively in the eastern sky.

On the fishing boat Sarah a young man was cursing and ranting. “I told him,” he was saying; and then followed an agonized, searing chain of foulnesses until he could talk once more, until he was free again. “I told him time and time again it’d happen. Something . . . his heart . . . I didn’t think it’d ever be this way though. I shouldn’t of let them go. Shoulda known . . . sooner or later . . . all these years . . . getting older and proud. They were so damn proud!”

“Now, take it easy, laddy,”the old man who was captain said. “It’s done. There’s nothing you can —”

“Nothing! Damn you, I know that!”

The captain walked away, leaving the boy alone.


THERE was so little time. She must get back to packing the fish. It was then, as she started for the ladder, that she noticed the white cloud of steam rising up from the exhaust.

Even as she turned off the engine she knew it was too late; it had been running almost an hour with no water to cool it. Only the day before, Ed had mentioned that the impeller pump was out of kilter. But Ed had said so many things and she couldn’t remember them all, not now, not all at once. She went below and repacked the gland in the pump with grease as she should have done earlier. Now, if she was lucky, it would draw water into the cooling system. She returned to the conn with another load of ice and started up the engine once more.

The sharp tapping sound grew louder. Steam arose from the exhaust again. In a matter of minutes the tapping became a biting staccato of metal against metal that rattled up from the heart of the old boat with till the erratic urgency of a dying pulse beat. May winced as if one of her own parts were being punished by the merciless pummeling of the steel. She knew what had happened or was about to happen but went below and called the Sarah anyway, for this was the beginning of many things, things she must face. And even the poor comfort of a distant voice would help.

Sonny switched off the receiver. The captain and two of the crew stood near by. When the young man did not turn, the captain approached him.

“No chance of keepin’ her going, Sonny?”

The young man shook his head. “Not a chance. Rod gone.” Each word stood apart as though it had been wrenched from his throat.

“Thing is that old battery of Ed’s won’t last long. And if her radio goes ...”


Thirty hours he had said. Thirty hours she must wait. She wondered how long the radio batteries would last. And the ice. There was the ice to consider.

Eight months of every year for twenty-six years. South to the Mexican cannery at Cabo San Lucas every January; and here they took on a small crew of Mexicans, for they worked the tuna as a bait boat. Five months up and down southern Baja: Magdalena Island, Santa Maria, Todos Santos; into the Gulf and south to the Tres Marias and the sea of the great turtles. Then in June north to San Diego for quick repairs and recondit ioning before the albacore season started in July. The months that followed were the hard ones, for they fished alone, using only the eight jig lines: south to San Quentín, the Cedros Islands, Ascunsíon Bay, Ballenas; west to the Benitos, Guadalupe, and beyond. Home with a load and then back down again. And as the years passed, always farther south it had been, farther west into uncharted waters; for as the fishing fleet had increased in size it had become harder and harder for the older, slow boats like theirs to compete with the big, speedy clippers, to do much more than break even. And so this year she and Ed had jumped the gun and sailed 350 miles southwest of Guadalupe Island while the rest of the fleet was still working the coastal waters. And a storm had come and there was no time to beat it for Guadalupe, nothing to do but ride it out. The Storm had pushed them even farther southward, and on the morning of the third day when the weather had lifted they knew they must head for the island immediately, for two of their fuel tanks had sprung leaks. And though they never spoke of such things, they both knew they might not make it.

And now of course this was no longer important. There was no engine to burn the fuel. There was no Ed. It almost seemed logical in a lonely, frightening sort of way. Now she could do nothing about it, about anything. She must sit here, awaiting her son, awaiting all that must follow — all the things she and Ed had avoided through the years, never comfortable perhaps, never safe, but proud and alone. Ed had always said he would rather dig his own grave than live “well” like other people. And of course they could have. Sonny was mate on one of the top boats in the fleet. He wanted them to retire, said they’d earned it. But Ed, and May too - really she too felt the same way. She could realize that now, know it at last, with Ed gone and it no longer mattering. No more need to be loyal, to hide anything from the man she had spent the years with, who had given her this life, so different from that of other women. In looking back she suddenly knew that it had been best their way; and if it had finally killed Ed the way Sonny had alwavs said it would, that was all right too. Ed had lived his life the way he had wanted it, and he had died quickly and well. So quickly.


THEY had been heading north for about two hours. Ed was at the wheel. The sun glared down mercilessly from clear, storm-washed skies. Though it was afternoon, there was no wind and the sea was glazed and steamy.

May dozed beneath the canvas awning, lazily checking the jig lines from time to time through half-opened lids. She bad taken off her boots because they were too hot. She was careless because the albacore rarely struck in midafternoon, especially in weather such as tins. But suddenly Ed was howling down at her from the conn deck, and she saw that one of the jig poles was bent back at an alarming angle. A moment later there was a second strike and then another and another. Silver knives slashed across the mirrored sea. They were into something big.

She cried out when she saw the first one. It was all she could do to bring him in, and the line sang as he lunged and cut through the water with a suddenness and power that racked her muscles. She braced herself as she brought him up to the stern. An instant offguard and she could be dragged into the sea. A moment of carelessness, a slack line, and he would throw the hook and be gone. There was no pulling him in; he was a forty-pounder at least. She waited for the time when, responding to the strain on the line, he leaped clear of the water in an orgasm of pain and fury, almost standing on his tail, and then she snapped him over the side. All the strength in her body and her arms went into this quick, convulsive movement, and yet it would have seemed effortless to an observer. The book broke loose as the fish hit the deck, and she sent out the line again, seeing that it slid under the others so that there would be no fouling. She looked up at Ed for an instant as she went for the next line, crying, “bunkers! They’re lunkers!” These were a variety of Japanese albacore rarely caught in these waters; they often weighed as much as fifty pounds. Ed stood there at the wheel, laughing, holding the boat in a circle course, and shouted, “Chum ‘em! Don’t lose ‘em, honey! Be right there!” And he started tying down the wheel.

May climbed quickly up on the bait tank and scooped up the squirming sardines. She tossed them out by the handful. Many fell to the deck but there was no time for caution; the school which surrounded them could sound and be gone in an instant. She hurried back to the lines. As she hauled them in she could hear Ed talking to himself, cursing ns he untangled some rope, laughing. She didn’t need to see him to know how his face was flushed, that his hands were trembling as he tied down the wheel. She didn’t need to look to know that his eyes were suddenly as bright as they had been on their first voyage. For she too felt the same ecstasy when the sea spewed forth its harvest with such abandon. It never occurred to her to wonder why each time was the first time for them, or to marvel that each day could hold the promise of moments such as this, no matter how rare they might be.

She chummed again. All eight of the lines were taut now, and both jig poles were bent nearly double. The water boiled wherever she tossed the bait. Then Ed was beside her, a line in his hand too, crying that there would be money in the bank this year and a new engine for the Gull and they could look all those mother-huggin’ clipper men in the eye again with their fancy women and their goddamn Cadillacs.

He had one of the lunkers nearly up to the stern when he clutched his side. May saw his face go white, saw the terrible struggle going on within him as he resisted the pain and tried to bring in the fish. Suddenly he released the line. And she knew. He staggered toward the cabin, stumbled, and fell. She ran to him. He looked up at her, his face twisted grotesquely with the effort of speaking, and he gasped, “The lines! Goddamn it, get the lines, May!”

An hour later when the school finally sounded she went to him. He seemed lost in some dream, and though his body was limp and still, his eyes met hers as she approached. There was a question in them, and May knew instinctively what it was.

“Four tons!" she cried. “We’ve got a load, Ed!" And she smiled though a groan of despair throbbed in her throat. She dragged him into the cabin and somehow managed to get him on the bunk. He lay there, only his eyes alive.

Suddenly it was too much for her. “Oh, Ed,”she cried. “What’ll I do? Tell me what to do!”

His eyes seemed to look beyond her for an instant as though, searching for an answer in some far place only he could see. “The Gull . . . ” he said. There was no sound. Only his lips moved. And then he was dead. And she was alone. Terribly alone, for his last words had been the name of their boat. She had hoped for something more. “The Gull . . .” she murmured. Was there something she had missed, some significance here she could not grasp? But her brain was benumbed with the one awful, bald fact: he was dead. She could not think about it now. She must think of the things she must do.

She didn’t know why she had turned off the ignition; the engine was the very life beat of the little boat. But she found herself on the conn, the engine dead. There is no stillness more oppressive and profound than that of the open sea when it is calm. The few times the engine had gone out before there had always been Ed, and men if the sea had been at peace as it now was, there were always words to fill the void. May became aware of this stillness for the first time. It was as if the silence of the tomb were already enveloping the Gull. She was possessed with an overpowering lethargy. She stared unseeing into the blue vast ness which surrounded her.


A FAMILIAR sound roused her. One of the albacore was still alive. It beat its great silver tail against the bloody deck in sullen, desperate fury, as though trying to deny death in this last violent display of life. Its mouth opened and closed in empty, hopeless gasps. Then, like a shadow passing over its body, silver faded to gray and the huge fish lay quiet. May climbed down from the conn. There wasn’t much time. Although it was late in the day the sun was still hot. And there were four tons of fish waiting to be packed.

The task before her was staggering. Even with Ed it would have taken half the night; Ed would have climbed into the freezing compartment, stacked the fish, and covered them with the finely ground snow ice as she had thrown them down to him. Then, when the cold became too much for him, they would change jobs. Ed wasn’t here. She was alone. And of course there was something she must do before she packed the fish.

She was unable to reach the Sarah at first. Someone had hit a big school east of Guadalupe and the air was jammed; there wasn’t a chance of getting through with her weak set. She began packing the fish, returning to the radio every few minutes.

When she finally established contact with tinSarah, for the first time Sonny confirmed her position with his radio direction finder. And then, of course, the proper authorities were notified in San Diego, for when a man dies anywhere —at sea, in the street, in his bed —everything must go through channels. She kept the radio tuned in loud so that she could hear it, and returned to loading the fish. Working made things easier, except when she caught herself talking to him or when she turned suddenly, expecting to find him beside her.

Then came the radio call from the health authorities in San Diego: they wanted to warn her that if she felt obliged to put the body of the man, her husband, in the ice hold they must condemn the fish. And so Ed had been packed in the gear box on the conn deck, and the Sarah was on its way and the fish were saved. The fish. She must get back to work.

It was dark now. There was no moon. She found a kerosene lantern and set it by the hatch to the ice hold. She picked up an albacore and lowered it into the compartment, kneeling, for then she only had to drop it a few feet and the impact was slight. She arose, picked up another fish. She guessed the average weight must be thirty-five or forty pounds. About two hundred fish. Two hundred times she must do this. It was backbreaking work and slow.

When she went into the hold, she immediately noticed the difference in temperature. The refrigeration unit had been out less than an hour and already it was beginning. Little drops of moisture had formed on the freezing pipes, white with encrusted ice, and they glowed yellow in the pale light of the lantern like a million tiny cat eyes, watching, as she worked. Then she climbed up on deck again. Her fingers were numb and she chafed them, but they remained thick and clumsy. Sometimes she would drop a fish and it would fall with a great thump into the hold and she groaned and beat her fists against her thighs because she knew a bruise had formed, marring the precious white flesh of the albacore. Too many of these and the cannery would reject the fish. She put on some canvas gloves, but before long they were as wet and slippery as her hands. And then it was time to go into the hold again. Soon she must call the Sarah.

Two o’clock. She had trouble hearing the Sarah. She tuned up the volume as far as she could, but it didn’t seem to help. When they had taken a bearing she signed off. The battery . . . and now there was the other thing to do. The night was warm.

It almost seemed that the pale, waxen skin of the dead man was generating some special heat, that some life force within it was still at work. She had to return to the hold and fill the pail again. As she scooped up the ice she noticed that it stuck to the shovel, that it was gray now instead of white and dry. Wearily she climbed back to the conn and went on with her grim task.

His eyes glittered darkly in his white face. Strange that if should seem so white. It had been a ruddy, deeply tanned face. It occurred to her that his eyes should be closed. She tried to accomplish this and was immediately sorry, for one lid remained half open. The effect was a leering wink so horrible, such a complete perversion of what she remembered of this man, that she cried out. She tried to open his eyes again, but suddenly the uncoöperative lid seemed possessed of some gamin spirit, for it resisted her every effort to make it conform with its mate. Whichever way she forced it, whether open or shut, it kept returning to the same position.

“Oh! Oh! Please!” she cried.

She threw down the cover of the box. She leaned upon it with all the weight of her body.

She must open it again. She must pack the ice firmly about him and then she must get back to loading the fish. She shuddered. It was as if the ice, the melting ice, were in her very bones. The lantern on the deck below paled, then brightened. In the still darkness the first tentative, chill-soft tongues of an approaching fog bank were sliding furtively over the Gull. She felt suddenly heartened and, clenching her teeth, she opened the cover of the box once more.

She was glad of the fog at first. Fog was cool, and heat was her enemy. Perhaps it would even last through the day and longer. It wouldn’t be unusual in these waters. The radio was slowly dying, and then instead of heat there would be time to contend with; time and other things that time implied. For she must live in this time, think in the void which enveloped her, and grope for things that otherwise there would have been no time for. An old woman, wearing faded jeans most of her life, unworn unlike in many ways, yet woman enough to have loved a man with the whole of her being — flesh, mind, all — to have borne his son. Old enough to accept what had happened this day, yet young enough to remember the feel of the man she was packing the ice about, preserving him for what must be done when they returned to land; preserving him and . . . yes, and herself too, for she would have much to face in San Diego. Young enough to wonder at what lay ahead of her, and knowing it would only be time to be spent, time to forget the feel and the smell and the strength of this man she had loved; and of course — strange to know this — when that time came, she too would be dead.

She lowered the last fish into the hold. She didn’t straighten up but remained kneeling there, resting her head on the sharp edge of the hatch. Her back was one great, dull ache. The muscle, the substance of her arms, might have become one with the chill, vaporous fog but for the muted pain. The lantern had gone out, but she no longer needed it. It was dawn. There was a sun somewhere.

Afterward she tried the radio again, but all she could hear was the faint echoes of voices. She took off the earphones and sat down on the bunk. There was a faint depression in the pillow where his head had rested. How long had it been? She was tired, tired. She would lie down for a while, a little while, rest. She put her cheek on the pillow.

When she awoke the cabin was stifling. She rushed outside to find a bright, hot sun burning down on the Gull. Still there was no wind. There should be a wind, else where had the fog gone?

She started when she looked at her watch; it was eleven o’clock. She opened the hatch and entered the hold. Once more she filled the pail with ice; this time she had to make three trips. And then she returned to pack the last of the albacore. The reserve supply of ice was exhausted, and she had to chop what she could from corners and the freezing pipes. Even during the night there had been melting, and now great drops fell upon the deck in a rhythm that was erratic but had all the insistence of time itself. When she had finished she stood there for a while watching, listening, wondering how long it would take. She noticed that one of the floor boards was out of place, and discovered as she righted it that the bilge water had risen alarmingly.

The engine room was flooding, too. Of course it would be. The little Gull, so old. With the pumps gone, her ancient seams, calked and recalked a thousand times over the years, were poor resistance indeed to the tides of the sea.

It was then, as she looked about her, that she wondered for the first time if she too might die. Only another twenty-four hours. But no. There was the hand pump, of course. And if worse came to worse she could always load the dinghy with supplies and wait. But she must of necessity toy with the idea of what it would be like if she had to die. There was so little between her and the blue oblivion beneath the deck of the ship. So little — nothing if one turned a valve and the sea cock were opened . . .

May climbed quickly out of the engine room and went on deck. The sea was smooth and the sky was clear. She was alone. The horizon was a naked ring of nothingness neatly encircling an old woman and death.


SONNY stood at the wheel, the skipper beside him. “Should get there about eleven tonight,”the skipper said.

“Get where?” the young man replied bitterly. “Been twelve hours since we got a fix on her.”

“We’ll find her.”

“Alone. Christ. All alone out there.”

May hardly knew how she had gotten in the engine room. She found herself staring at the valve to the sea cock. Not thinking of anything in particular, not thinking . . . that. No, just there. The water had risen almost a foot in two hours. Soon the sea cock would be covered and there would be no reaching it. But of course she didn’t want to reach it.

Soon it would be dark again, and if the Sarah, didn’t make it before then there would be another night. Be a good idea to start loading the dinghy just in case. She was too weary to move.

Poor Ed. Going back to San Diego and the earth. It wasn’t right somehow. It would be more fitting for him to sink down into this blueness, become a part forever of what his life had been. His life and his death would be one then. Yes, that would be fitting. Well, maybe he’d get his wish if the Sarah didn’t hurry.

The ice in the chest had melted almost completely. It was too exposed, and even with a canvas over it and wetting down constantly all afternoon it was too much with the sun. The only ice left in the hold was packed about the fish. And the fish woidd be condemned.

She closed the cover to the sea chest. “I don’t know, I don’t know,” she groaned, rising to her feet and looking about her at the empty, shimmering stillness of the sea. She wrung her hands. She opened the box again, looked into it, closed it. Ed wouldn’t want things that way. The fish were a pay load and something more, something she couldn’t explain, but she had a frightening conv iction that it would be in the nature of a mortal sin to destroy them deliberately. In a sense Ed had died for them. And what if she did what she knew he would want? What if she took him and sent him down into the sea? But of course she couldn’t do that. For she must think of what people would say. She had his memory to consider. She rebelled at the idea of sniffling into this decision because people would think she prized a load of fish over her husband—or worse—but there it was. Of course she could leave him in the sea chest. But in the heat . . . the thought was unbearable. One thing she couldn’t do was leave him where he was.

It was dusk and there was no sign of the Sarah. She filled the kerosene lantern and hung it above the conn, but she knew there was little chance of them finding her before morning. Now she must decide. She could wait no longer. There seemed to be some tremendous moral issue at stake that she didn’t quite understand, but it tortured her all the same. And it was complicated again by the sense of watchful eyes—the eyes of those who waited on land, of those who would be her neighbors in the new life ahead, of her son. But even at the thought of them she knew they had nothing to do with Ed and her. They had always lived apart, and now at the end she must think apart from all the rest, make the decision for Ed and herself in the only way she knew how: the way she knew her husband would have wanted it. For even now she was one with him and was no longer capable of thinking of herself as a Separate entity, even while staring full face into his deadness and the melted ice and the first hint of the ugliness of dirt graves.

They had always taken from the sea. Yet they had taken with a reverence which, while unspoken, was a real and a true thing, she knew. Could she send Ed back to a dark box in the earth when he could at last give to the sea, could at last be one with it? She would not have a chance such as this, but he did if she could only find the courage. . . .

It was done. And now there would be no smell of death on this boat. There would be the smell of the sea and of cleanness and there would be good memories of this man. Memories — what poor things they were, fit only for weak, gray people who could not reach out for life any longer, who were afraid of life. It was done now and there was no time for remembering. She must work to live. And she must live if only because her kind of people didn’t just die. She would find a reason. That would come to her.

The crew of the Sarah stood about the deck, restless, watching. Beyond the radius of their lights they saw only darkness and the stars. They talked constantly, their voices quick and nervous, lowpitched, in key with the pushing engines, for the regular beat of steel pistons was a comfort on such a night.

Three men stood near the stern: a youth, the second mate, and an old Portuguese fisherman. The old man had been scanning the darkness which surrounded them. If is eyes weren’t what they used to be, but they were still sharp and sea-wise. “Should be somewhere round here,”he said. His voice was soft.

“Funny, ain’t it ?” the mate said uneasily. “No wind for two days . . .”

“ kinda weird,” replied the youth.

“Hope she had sense enough to put up a light.”

“Can’t see nothin’. Nothin’ but stars,” the old man murmured sadly.

“Whatta you want, neon lights?” the youth cried brashly. He grinned, eying the mate with approval. At first he was disappointed; the mate looked away. And then he was surprised because the old man was gripping him fiercely by the collar and shaking him so hard his teeth rattled.


SIX o’clock . . . morning . . . second morning ... third day. She wondered how long she had slept this time. She looked at the level of the water. It hadn’t risen much, so it couldn’t have been long. In a while she would go on deck. It had been like this all through the night. She worked until exhaustion, an old friend now, swept her into unconsciousness and her hands slid from the pump and she slept a broken, troubled sleep, always awakening with a start, working again, and then the awakeness fading into dreams once more. But she wouldn’t fall asleep now, because it was morning and the Sarah would soon be here. She knew that for certain. It was a thing that sang in her bones as did the thought of what she would tell Sonny when he arrived. She had found her reason. No white cottage for her! She would keep on fishing. Maybe Sonny would go in with her. Or if he was stubborn she would find someone else. They wouldn’t like it. They would fight, tell her she must rest awhile, put her off, anything. She knew all the dodges they would use and she didn’t fear them. May would never let them trap her that easily. And the wonderful part of it was that she was independent. There was a little money in the bank, and at $400 a ton this load would bring in close to $1600, enough to put a now engine in the Gull, to get a fresh start. She was free!

The crew of the Sarah were listless. They mended net, sewed canvas, made lures, read comic books, sitting, lying about the deck or in their bunks. Occasionally they would cast halfhearted looks at the horizon, but they had reached an unspoken decision and they only made this effort for the sake of the dark, intense young man at the wheel.

Only the old Portuguese seemed not to have given up hope. He had clambered up on the conn mast as soon as it was light and had remained there for three hours. The cook tried to press some breakfast on him, but he shook his head and muttered, “No time.” Though his perch was precarious, he felt no fatigue. His stubby-fingered, thick-veined hands and his short, corded arms were like steel and leather, and time had only tempered them. His brown, seamed face was impassive, but his black eyes were never still. He knew the sea too well to turn his back on her. She was a moody old woman and she never did what you expected her to.

“Cap’n . . . Cap’n . . .” the old man called softly. “Hand me up the glasses.”

The skipper and the young man at the wheel watched as the Portuguese looked through the binoculars. Slowly he lifted his arm and pointed. They could see nothing.

“ Here. Give it here,” the young man said, reaching up for the glasses. He moved the binoculars slowly across the horizon; they wavered, stopped. Suddenly the young man seemed to be choking. Quickly he handed the glasses to the captain, turned away, climbed down from the conn, and rushed into the darkness of the cabin.

She had noticed it for some time but had purposely attributed it to any number of natural phenomena. A kelp bed was near by and she knew this brown weed had a pungent odor to it and very often held the corpses of birds and fish. Later in the morning a breeze sprang up, and she was able to ignore it for a while. She returned to the engine room but still it preyed on her mind. In a short while she was back on deck again. She heated some coffee, made herself drink it; a moment later she was violently ill. It didn’t last long, for there was nothing in her stomach. She had heard of this happening to people who hadn’t eaten for some time. She would try some bread when she felt better — something easy to digest, to coat her stomach. That was what was needed. She rose to her feet, nearly fainted, leaned heavily against the bulkhead. Perhaps she would wait a while before returning to the pump. She breathed deeply, hoping this would make the dizziness go away. And suddenly she could escape it no longer. She went to the ice hold, removed the tarpaulin from the hatch and raised it. She didn’t have to look. She knew immediately. The ice had melted, and the sea and the heat had done the rest. The fish were lost.

Ed’s last cry, “Get the lines, May!” was a mockery in her ears now, and each moment she had lost with him seemed weighted to a raw string tightening about her heart. How often in their life it had been like this. Always working, fighting the sea, never quite winning. So many years, good years and bad years, the sea giving and taking in its own subtle ways — all for nothing. Though she had given him to the sea - all for nothing. And so the last voyage was a failure.


THE Sarah plowed northward, sluggish with its soggy burden behind. The sun and the sky were chilled by the thickening mesh of an ominous mackerel sky. Sonny put an arm around his mother. “Tough luck. Ma. If we’d of located you sooner we might have saved ‘em.”

“Yes,” May said dully. She was looking back toward the Gull, which they were towing to Guadalupe Island. Two men wore unloading the doomed catch of fish.

“Hope there’s no trouble about . . . well, you know . . .”

May looked at her son strangely. “He was my husband.”

“Yeah, but people are funny. Get funny ideas. You know that.”

“ Yes.”

“ I guess we bet ter just tell them the truth though. I guess that’s the only thing to do.”

May moved a little away from her son. His arm fell to his side. There was an uncomfortable silence.

“Well, we’ll have you home in a few days,”Sonny said. “Coast Guard cutter’s going to meet us at Guadalupe and they’ll take you north. I’ll have to stay with the Sarah till we get a load.”

“What about the Gull?”

“Engine’s shot. I may be able to sell her for you though, get somebody else to low her to Dago.”

“I won’t sell her.”

“Ma, she’s dead, finished. It’d cost more’n you got in the bank to fix up that engine again, and then she wouldn’t be worth a damn! Anyway, you can’t fish alone.”

“I was thinking maybe you and I could go in together, fix her up . . .” She spoke as though she were remembering half-forgotten lines from a play that had long since closed.

“Yeah. Well, the only thing is old Larson’ll be retiring in a few years and when he does I’ll be skipper. I couldn’t pass that up, Ma.”

“ Maybe someone else.”

“Well, I don’t see what we can do, Ma. The boat’s a dead loss unless we get it towed to port, and that’d cost a fortune. We can’t take the lime. Gotta get in there fast with a load and get right back down here while they’re runnin’.”

“I won’t sell her,” May said once more. Her voice was mechanical and the words had no meaning. She turned and walked away from her son. She leaned against the rail and looked into the blue depths. Soon the sea would only be a view from a hillside. Soon only the remembering . . .

The cook emerged from the galley and eyed this strange, brooding old woman curiously as he dumped a load of garbage over the side. A lone gull had been following the boat, and it swooped down amidst the debris with a joyous shriek. Although she hardly knew why, May found herself watching it with sudden interest. She almost cried out when she saw the slender gray fin cutting through the water. There was a flash of white, the bird screamed, desperately flapped its great wings, and was gone. The debris was lost in the turmoil of the Sarah’s wake, and the sea was empty and still once more.

“ The gull . . .” he had said. And May remembered. Ed had left her with something after all. There had been a day soon after they were married. Ed had just bought the boat and they had gone to Pacific Amusement Park to celebrate. Later in the afternoon they walked down to the beach. It was still warm, though already foghorns were beginning to moan at the entrance to the harbor. They were trying to think of a name for the boat. It had been called the Emmy, and they wanted something special, something for themselves. As they sat there on the sand they found themselves watching a sea gull. It had discovered an enormous mussel in the rocks and was flying high into the air, then dropping it, trying to break the shell so that it could get the rich, orange meat. It tried again and again, but in vain; the shell was too tough. Finally it gave up and flew away. May had smiled at Ed and said she was glad she didn’t have to work that hard for a living. Ed had frowned slightly. “Fishing’s no picnic, you know, honey.”

“Oh, I know !” she had cried, but of course she didn’t.

And then the frown was gone and Ed was smiling again. His voice was full of a deep excitement when he spoke. “They really have to grub, May, but they can fly, too. Look! Look up there!”

The gull had returned for some reason and was circling above them. The fog was rolling in, and the sun had paled to a moonstone in the thickening mists. There was a sudden chill in the air. But the gull was high above all this where the sun was still shining, and it soared through the bright sky with a wild heartbreaking abandon, a glorious whitegolden thing free of the gray world below.

And May had understood what Ed was trying to tell her, and she had turned to him and said, “Let’s call her the Gull.” Ed had said nothing, but he took her hand in both of his in a funny, formal way; and though there had been a ceremony weeks before, May knew that now, in this instant, they were truly married.

And standing there on the stern of the great clipper Sarah, looking back at the Gull, May found peace. They had grubbed. They had flown. They had been together. It was enough. It was all. The last voyage had not been a failure. It was only the end.