I slowly and methodically wiped down the bar top once more. It had been cleaned a half hour past but there wasn’t much for me to do. The glasses were clean, the floor swept, and the fire crackled softly in the hearth.
The only disturbance was the flash of the storm outside, followed swiftly by a clap of thunder and the rain that pounded insistently at the windows as if trying to destroy the peace that rested within. A ghastly night by all accounts. I knew no one would be braving the storm to make their way down to the pub for a drink. The stones in the road were probably slick and precarious. I didn’t much fancy making my own way home that night either, but I could always sleep in the back room til the storm broke.
I’d try my luck now but my uncle had asked me to keep an eye on the place til he got back. A few days trip had taken him off to one of the isles and he had instructed me to keep the pub open at least until midnight every night that he was gone. Normally, I didn’t mind. I helped out as often as I could earning a better wage for easier work. Though many things were easier than pulling in nets loaded with fish for hours at a time. Tonight though, was dull.
Most nights the pub was lively with laughing, music and stories the sailors brought back from their trips. Tonight the only lively thing in the pub was the fire that danced over the tables and chairs. I felt was almost in a trance, watching my hand rub the cloth round and round on the counter when the door was blown open, taking me by surprise.
The rain flew in pursued by the wind, which shattered any semblance of peace. I hurried around the bar to shut the door before any more debris could be blown on to the floor, that not a moment ago had been clean. Then slowly as if arising from the night a giant of a man stepped through the door and into the bar. He paused, slowly looking around and then carefully shut the door behind him. I could feel myself catch my breath and then took a step back from the colossus.
He stood close to six and a half feet tall with shoulders to rival as ox. Or they had at one point. Now they drooped and were covered by an oilskin coat that was discolored with age. He seemed to be a multitude of browns. From the varying shades of his clothes to the darkness of his beard and sun-tanned of his skin. The only thing that strayed from this pattern were his eyes, a dark raging blue that had a light overlay of a melancholy green. It reminded me of what the sea would look like in the morning, the foam laying over the waves. Almost sorry for losing its temper but ever defiant.
“Good eve,” I ventured finally. The man had yet to say anything, he only hesitantly glanced at the fire. Finally he nodded to me.
“Can I get ye a drink?” I asked slowly making my way back behind the bar.
He looked almost confused by the request and then looked around himself once more. I expected the storm must have thrown him off kilter a bit. Maybe he’d only seen the light from the windows and not quite known where it was he was going. It happened on nefarious nights like this, I could hardly blame him. He nodded again and swung a rucksack off his shoulder and then settled himself on the stool closest to the fire.
“Stout,” He grounded out, his voice hoarse and deep. I nodded and filled a pint before sliding it to him.
“Your ship just get in?” I looked at the door almost expecting his mates to be walking in as well.
“Don’t go to sea.” He rasped taking a long drink. I didn’t know if he’d meant that as a bit of advice or only in relation to himself. He set the glass down wrapped both hands around it staring lost, into the beer.
“That’d be hard to do up here, not goin’ on the sea. All the fish are out there,” I gestures towards the door.
He nodded thoughtfully then finished his drink in a long draft. Setting the glass down without so much as a whisper.
“Another for ye?” I asked reaching for a glass already. He nodded again, absentmindedly wiping the foam from his whiskers.
“Just traveling through town? Afraid it’ll just be us tonight, not many people are willing to brave the storm.” I finished pouring and slid it in front of him.
“Just on the road,” he said softly. “Always on the road.” It was almost sad, the way he’d phrased it. I pulled out two smaller glasses and slid one over to him. Then I unscrewed the lid to the whiskey bottle.
“Where ye from?” I asked pouring him a dram and then another for myself.
“Donegal…” He almost whispered before sipping thoughtfully on the drink.
“Fair bit of fishing up that way too, how is it you didn’t go to sea?”
“Oh I did,” the man said to his whiskey. “Oh I did, me boy” He finished his whiskey and then looked about the bar. “This is a tale for the fire, it keeps the chill at bay.” He deftly picked up the glasses and dropped them on a small table in the corner, nearest the flames. I shrugged and grabbed the whiskey.
“What’s yer name?” I asked amicably settling my chair facing his and placing the bottle between us.
“Dan…” he grated. He’d placed himself so he could face the door, the fire lit his features making each more pronounced than before. I leaned across and shook his hand. His grip was firm and strong, and his hand felt similar to those I worked with on the ships.
“My uncle’s from around Donegal.” I said pleasantly. “Ben there recently, Dan?” I asked hoping it would remind of the story he promised. I wasn’t willing to let a bottle of whiskey go for nothing.
He didn’t answer at first, a looked at the whiskey through the glass and then took a sip and set it on the table. “Once I was a man of the sea,” his voice took on a harsh quality that smoothed as he spoke. It reminded me of the whiskey sliding down my throat. “fished out of Baltimore, Howth, Killybegs, with me mates. There were six of us, there were. Five of us from Donegal and Pete was from County Down.” He quieted and stared into the fire. A small smile slowly grew about his face, “We’d known each other forever, we had. All grew up together as boys and then went to sea together too. At fifteen we were working the ships, saving money for our own boat.
It took three years but we got her. Lord, she was beautiful. Gave our mothers a fright. Six boys of eighteen going out on our own. But we knew her, the sea.” His face twisted as he glanced to the window, as if expecting to find the sea there, watching. “We knew, like all young lads know. Much too much…too much…” He faded his fingers absentmindedly dancing around the now empty whiskey glass he’d set on the table.
“Your boat was a beauty eh?” I subtly prodded as I leaned over and filled his glass.
“Oh…yes. Best thing was she was ours, we could fish where we wanted. Ah those five years were the best, we once brought in the biggest load Howth had ever seen, And the money we made, ah. One night we sat on the dock and planned how we’d tame the sea and force her to give us all her treasures. We’d find them all. We could take them all. They were there for us. The sea was our oyster and whether she gently relinquished what was ours or if we had to pry it out of her was no matter. We owned her.” he started trailing again.
“One night we set out, the wind was whipping something fierce and the rain was just beginning to fall but not a one of us were worried. Together…together we could do anything.” he smiled ruefully and then, as if he were jumping ahead, the smile grew grim. “Just as we were reaching the current the storm broke. Something unleashed from the very bowels of hell, likes I’ve never before or again. Swept us right out towards the rocks. Normal day no problem we could tease the current into doing what we liked, bringing the fish our way and such. But this night it worked against us as if we were the devil itself, bent on stealin’ its soul. Swept us ’bout ten miles out and then smashed our boat right into the rocks, hulled the bow and all.” He paused taking a sip and glanced at me. I realized I’d been holding my breath, knowing how precarious their situation had been. I swallowed a bit of whiskey but didn’t taste it much.
“We all knew right away she was going down, nothing to do. No way to save her. All we could do was jump into the sea and head for shore. Leaving ourselves at the mercy of the one we’d thought to conquer.
We shook hands before we jumped, joking of who’d make it back first, if we’d make it back at all. We all knew making it back was a slim chance. Seeing our mothers again or the little ones…ten sisters Sean had. All younger, waiting on their brother to bring the money for supper. We all had those who were relying on us, counting on us to put food on the table.” I could hear the argument in his voice but if it was fate or himself he was berating for taking such a chance, I couldn’t tell.
“’Away we go, lads!’ Pete yelled as we dove down and started for land. He hit on of the rocks below, I could see his still body as I surfaced. At first, I thought it was shock, I was seeing things. But it was Pete, his body broken like a doll. We had to leave him there. We spent a few moments arguing about how to bring him back, but it the end we couldn’t. There was no way…
It was so icy cold, my fingers went numb within the first mile. It was dark and stormy, the thunder shattering your bones each time rumbled but with each flash you could look around and make sure they were all there. All still wit’ ya. John, was the smaller of us all. I ‘member thinkin’ I’d not be able to hear my own thoughts but I heard him when the sea got him. His screams for us to go on without him and help at the same time. I could hear it all, and the tear in your heart leavin’ someone you’d known your whole life, closer than a brother, to die. And prayin’ stronger, harder than before that ye’d not be next.
Aiden was next though ’bout the third mile or so. Got pulled back out by the current. Sounded like a banshee out on the waves. He gave our family a cow when I was ten or so. Don’t know where the devil he got it, but the babies need milk and with Ma sick…Could have fed his own family, they were in a about the same straights at the time. Didn’t though, said the babes needed it. We lost Sean ’bout halfway, dragged under. Don’t know if it was a current or fish but he was turning purple as it was. He wouldn’t have made it much longer.
Jamie was the last, we had but one mile to go. It was so close. But we were so tired, the storm hadn’t quieted at all and it just drained everything. Jamie shouted he couldn’t go anymore, he couldn’t feel his legs or arms. He shouted that I was to tell his Ma he loved her. I screamed and yelled he could do it bloody well himself. But he just let himself slip beneath the waves.” Dan leaned forward and gazed into the fire. Eyes shinning as he related the torture of watching his friends lost to the sea and not being able to do anything about it.
“Don’t know how I made it but I did, just as the early dawn broke. I lay on the shore and cried, don’t know how I had the energy or the tears. I could barely move. I just lay there wishing to die, with the sea-wind dancing over my head laughing at me. Taunting me. ‘Dare to tame me?’ she asked. ‘Think to take my secrets?’ She’d punished us. She did. Had we not, even a day past, said that’s what we would do. Laughed that anyone could fear that what we boys could control. Then slowly her laughing turned to cries and I could hear them all again. Being lost over and over.” He cleared his throat and raised his glass. “To those who are dead and gone.”
I raised my glass and added, “To friends dearly loved.”
He nodded with a small smile and took a sip. I did the same but held my breath when he stopped and set down his glass. He looked like he was concentrating and then tilted his head. “Hear them, lad? They’re calling even now…”
I jumped with a start as the door banged open and whirled towards it, not knowing what to find. A vengeful sea? Lost sailors long dead? A shape made itself known as it moved closer to the light and my uncle stamped into the warmth. I let a breath go in my chest and called out in greeting.
“Whoa, lad,” he said coming over. “You look like you’ve had a fright.”
I chuckled nervously letting myself take a few breaths. “Glad you made it through ok.”
“Yes, well it dicey there a bit but the captain’s a steady man and he made it through” He paused shaking himself and then looked around a bit. “You know I don’t mind if you help yourself a bit but a bottle of whiskey to yourself is a bit much. After a few beers by the looks of it.”
“Oh, no I was just talking with Dan here. You’re from Donegal, eh Dan…” I turned to find Dan’s chair abandoned, empty but for the pools of rainwater.
“Donegal Danny, lad?” My uncle asked uncertainly.
“Well, yeah he was just here. I don’t know where he’s gone to…” I stopped to see my uncle’s ashen face. “Sir?” He walked back around the bar and dug around for something.
“This man, lad?” He asked, finally placing a photo on the bar. He pointed to a man on the edge who glared at the camera with the same eyes I’d spent the better part of two hours watching. It was like his whole story had been retold in his eyes.
“Yeah, that’s him. Same coat and all.”
“Up near Donegal, we called him Danny,” my uncles said thoughtfully. “Lost his friends in tragic accident he did.”
“Yeah, six of them crashed their boat on the rocks,” I nodded.
My uncle cut me a sharp glance, “Poor man spent the rest of his days wandering around speaking to them and the sea. Getting a drink at a pub when he could.”
“He had a stout.” I supplied. I knew the man was a bit off, what was the point?
“Yeah, Donegal Danny liked his stout…”
“What are you getting at, uncle?” I finally asked straight out.
“Danny’s been dead nigh on ten years lad, fell into the sea one night. One of the boys saw him. He was out on the pier yelling at the wind. Wave came up and swallowed him whole.” My uncle looked at me again, this time more severe. “Now you sure this is the man you spoke with?”
I gulped and looked at the photo again, a shiver sliding down my spine and pooling in my lower back. Staring back at me was the man who’d been cursed by the sea and without a doubt had sat next to me and drank my uncle’s whiskey.