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WEST OF WISDOM


Edwin P. Cutler


     There comes a rush, when the sails are full,
     and the sea is foaming at the rail.

     In the day's last light, the Cithara's anchor shattered the mirrored surface of the South Pacific lagoon, and Jim Tyler lifted his eyes to the mountains that had guided him in from the sea. Shadows ran down their slopes, and in the gathering gloom palm trees bowed in the breeze that gently pressed the Cithara's sails, the breeze that had brought them through a passage in the outer reef. He paused watching the shoreline become a work of art in deepening shades of gray but tensed when a shadow separated itself from shore and slowly came his way.
     Who? he wondered, letting his sailboat back down to set her anchor in the sandy bottom. The tropic jungle exhaled a pleasant breath which, laced with the sweet scent of hibiscus and frangipani, lazily slatted the Cithara's tired sails. After a thirty day passage from San Francisco to Hiva Oa in the Marquesas, he wanted company, yes, but the welcoming committee came a darkness, looming larger with each subdued stroke of muffled oar, and in the tropic twilight, terror walked its chilling fingers up his spine.
     When no friendly hail came from the growing menace, Jim crouched low to minimize his silhouette and moved back from the bow. In the cockpit, he wished he had a weapon, but felt foolish for his fears when the skiff came alongside manned by a single sailor.
     The solitary figure rose and stood balanced in his tiny boat. Lifting his seabag to the toerail, he exhaled a volley of curses and demanded, "Lend a hand, lad!" When Jim did not move, the demand became a threat, "Damn it man, take my bag aboard, or wait for me in hell."
     At this, Jim grabbed the sack and pulled. When it was safely on the Cithara's wooden deck, the man cursed again, whispering hoarsely, "Where's yer bloody crew?"
     Jim's fears returned, for never had subdued sounds from one man's mouth seemed so vile, and when a nickel plated pistol sparkled in the starlight, the hair at the nape of his neck stood in hackles.
     "I'll take command now," the man bellowed and, waving the gun toward the bow, demanded, "Get the anchor up, step to it, lad!"
     Piracy! Jim was stunned.
     Looking down at the man the tropic shadows had produced, Jim saw that he was middle aged, and aging, yet seemed quick and spry. What held Jim's attention was his wizened face which had the leathered look of men who spend their lives at sea. From the shadows of his coal black beard and bushy eyebrows, a glass eye stared up, returning the light from every star that glittered in the sky above. Out the hollow in that incandescent sphere, the dull red fire of hell burned bright -- his aspect was more of monster than of man.
     Jim's Grandfather Cridland, on his Mother's side, used to say, "Hate eats at the heart, lad." But, after only this brief encounter, he could not restrain a resentment that superseded fear. His hand, resting on the cabin top, touched the gaff pole, and he thought how like a hockey stick it felt.
     "Stop!" Jim spoke his first word in this new land and closed his fingers around the stout ash stock.
     To his amazement, Glasseye, his hands gripping the lifeline ready to haul himself aboard, stopped. Momentarily he seemed suspended, but then dropped back into the skiff and swung the gleaming gun.
     Jim's rage exploded with the roar and flame of burning powder and using muscles tuned by weeks of rolling on a pitching ship at sea, he swung the pole and struck the man close behind his ear. The glass-eyed head popped like a melon, and the man, who had tried to murder him but missed, slumped a pile of lumpy arms and legs down into his dinghy. His lax hand let the smoking gun drop into the water, where it led a trail of bubbles to the starlit sand below.
     Jim saw Grandpa sitting on a piling back in Powell River, across the Straights of Georgia from Vancouver Island, and heard him say, "In some lands, you are guilty until proven innocent." Grandpa had told him to run from trouble in a foreign land, and this South Pacific island was foreign land to Jim. He untied the painter and cast the fellow's dinghy off then ran to the Cithara's bow.
     "If the gun is covered by shifting sand, how can I ever prove self defense?" he asked himself and, hauling in the anchor rode, felt the Cithara begin to back away.
     Lugging the big hook up into the bow chock, Jim looked aft expecting Grandpa to ease the mizzen sail, which would let the ship fall off the wind so that she might retrace the course she made coming in. But he was alone and hurried to trim the sails himself.
     The breeze that had sung a song of the islands now became a morbid moan filled with the pain of tragedies these lands had suffered long ago. It slithered down the ancient mountainside and out across the water invading the peace he thought that he had found. What had been a whispered pleasant greeting now shook his soul to its deepest core. The foresail filled and pulling the bow about sent them heading out to sea. The jungle blew a heady offshore breath, laced with the smell of funeral parlor flowers, and the Cithara, forty feet on deck and weighing twelve tons, gathered way.
     Looking back, Jim saw the little dinghy, now a fading shadow at the far end of the Cithara's fiery, phosphorescence wake -- Glasseye's ghostly funeral light.
     But then, a new sound wedged its way into his worried world, and all fears of retribution were lost to the threat of rumbling breakers on the outer reef. Only in sunshine do the multitudes of colors signal the varying depths of sand, rocks, turtle grass and coral heads that abound within the atolls that surround these oceanic islands. Pacific swells were breaking white on the ring of reefs, a lovely necklace in the starlight, but he could not see the gap where earlier they had entered with the tropic sun's last light.
     "Do you see the opening?" he asked his little ship, who blindly rushed to die on splintering, gouging, gutting coral. These waters were new to him, but Grandpa had told how waves leap the atoll reefs, fill lagoons, then, needing a way back to the ocean, always sweep a deep, clear channel to regain the open sea.
     Scanning the darkness for the break in the pearly necklace, he stiffened when, in the fading light, he saw a ghostly apparition walking on the water, out where he wished that he might be. As he watched it draw in closer, he could see it was a sailboat much like his, except her patched white sails were dulled by years of working in the wind.
     The specter ship came from seaward and without hesitation ran up on the shoal. Jim shuddered watching and in his guts felt the ragged rocks ripping out her undersides. But as she breasted the breakers and came inside to quiet waters, he expelled the breath that he had held and whispered, "They must know these waters well." He marked a star low over their entry and aimed his bowsprit to where the ghost ship had just come through.
     Halfway across the little bay the two ships met in the gathering gloom of the tropic night. "My God!" Jim gasped, "Glasseye must have confused the Cithara with,..." The shadowy shape was a reflection of his own old wooden ketch. As the illusion moved away he heard Grandpa's historic voice intone, "Long ago, the Cithara had a sister ship, the Harp. Both were wooden sounding boards with wire rigging singing in the wind." While he watched, the Harp rounded up to anchor just where he had been.
     Thunder in the surf brought him once more to look ahead where a rogue wave was breaking on the reef. Roiling and seething it tripped across the coral spreading white foam that glowed like snow in the first light of the rising moon. Just beneath his star, a dark slash of deeper water in the swirling spindrift marked the way. Gripping the helm, he urged the Cithara to leap into the maelstrom, and shuddered, watching frothing, foaming water wash along her topsides scouring moss from the prongs of brutal elkhorn coral.
     Jim had never dreamed to take such chances on this trip, but long ago had learned to sail through narrow passes on a rushing tide. Rocky fjords that abound in the western waters of Canada had been a way of life with Grandpa grinning at the helm of this, his pride and joy. Finally though, admitting his age and reveling vicariously in his grandson's planned cruise of the South Pacific, the old man waited until Jim finished school, then passed to him the title of the Cithara, ensuring another generation of Cridland decent would spend at least a part of their life at sea.
     With the wind on the beam, they jumped through death's door. When her forefoot felt the ocean swell, the Cithara pointed her bowsprit into the boundless South Pacific Ocean and settled down to a steady passage pace.
     Looking back at the island, its silhouette shrinking as the distance grew, he asked the night, "How long will it take the men on the Harp to unravel the mystery they find floating in the skiff? And will they follow me?"
     Jim heard again the horrid, hollow sound of Glasseye's cracking head and saw him slump into his little boat, not much larger than a coffin.
     "I murdered him," he gasped and with the nauseous sickness that wells when one has taken someone's life, he sprawled across the cockpit coaming to vomit into the sea. He shuddered, hating the sensation, and unable to dispel the vision of the fire and brimstone glowing from the man's glass eye, lurched his guts into the darkness that marked the end of this dreadful day, wondering if he too might die.
     Sea creatures flashed their luminescent lights in protest as the Cithara roiled the waters in her rush to get away. In their glow he saw again the hollow eye and watched in wonder as the pirate's seabag rolled to the rail and balance, taunting him, then dropped into the water with a splash that rinsed his troubled face.
     He felt a sudden sense of sweet relief; all trace of that cruel moment when a pirate tried to take his ship was gone, sinking into the depths with secrets worse than his. Composed somewhat, he looked aft to see if the bag had sunk and when the Cithara lifted on a crest he saw it settling in the sea.
     When his boat dropped into the following trough, the bag was lost from view. Casting his eyes ahead, Jim wondered where to go and what to do. Should he flee the menace of the sister ship? His fingers touched the toggle on the cockpit light to study the deep sea chart and locate other island landfalls he might make. But, when he felt his craft rise on yet another swell, he stole a last look into the Cithara's foaming wake.
     A small white hand was reaching from the sinking sack.
    



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