I untie the painter from the cleat and push off the pier. A thin coat of ice covers my oarlocks. I row through the choppy, granite-colored water past moored yachts whose masts rattle in the wind. The dory creaks and sways and the bait bucket – an oily stew of processed herring and redfish – sloshes under my feet. The wind kicks briny spray in my face. My joints ache like they do before it snows. Autumn had left overnight. Last night Ellie and I ate dinner on the porch – steamed clams and steak – and admired the Maine sky: torched with stars, free of city lights or smog. I wanted to stay in bed with her in this morning, but my summer catch was way down so I need to fish until Thanksgiving, maybe even Christmas.
I tie the dory to the back of my lobster boat and carry the fuel can and bait bucket into the stern. As the diesel warms up I restack the empty traps and buoys. The wind cuts through my oilskin pants and Carhartt jacket. I coil the unused trap lines and store them in the cabin, then separate the boat from its mooring and climb into the wheelhouse. Leaving the harbor, I light a cigarette. The horizon is pinkish red, the color of infected skin. I turn the VHF radio to the Coast Guard station, where a monotone voice reads the forecast: Today a Nor’easter will sweep up the Maine coast and bring a mix of freezing rain and snow. Highs in the mid-thirties, tonight’s low around twenty.
Most days I love the job. I set my own hours and answer to nobody. But lately, my expenses have been adding up, and the bullshit paperwork – who could even read these new Coast Guard forms? – never stops, and fishing in bad weather sucks. I bet I could guide deep-sea charters down in Florida and make more money. Ellie likes the idea, she hates the winters up here. But there’s also Henry, my ten year-old son, to think about. Right now I see him every other weekend. Neither my ex-wife nor the family court judge would let me take him to Florida.
Henry calls my lobster boat “the giant pickle.” Its hull is long, tubular, and pine green. I repainted it last summer to cover up the rust. The sides are low in the stern, so I can lift buoys and traps from the water, and high around the bow to protect against big waves. “Margaret Ann” is painted on the back; I named her after my dead mother.
I round Mere Point and enter Yarmouth Cove to pull some traps that I set a few days ago. There are no beaches edging the cove, just rocks and trees – pine, spruce, birch – and a few cottages. This stretch of the Maine coast hasn’t been ruined yet, though it’s just a matter of time before the New Yorkers and Bostonians build their summer mansions here, too.
My ancestors came here from Quebec two hundred years ago. My father and both grandfathers were lobstermen. I was raised on the waters of Casco Bay – a shallow bay buffered from the Atlantic by a string of banks and shoals – so I know where the rock bottom turns into mud or sand, where a ledge or bank drops off into deep water. I don’t need a GPS or fish-finding radar. Some guys have gadgets that light up when a lobster takes a piss, but they lack instinct.
Beyond Crow Island I cut the engine and let the boat drift up to my string of buoys, all painted red. I hook the buoy with my gaff and coil its rope around the hydraulic pulley. Once my first trap comes out of the water, I know what kind of day it will be. Looks like some dickhead set his traps too close to mine and now our lines are snarled. I don’t recognize his green buoys, which probably means he’s not from Harpswell and should not be fishing here.
This is exactly why Maine needs to limit their lobster permits. Too many boats and too many morons slinging traps all over the bay. These ass-clowns can’t catch lobster, even with their fancy gadgets, so they spy on the best lobstermen and set their traps ten feet away. Some even steal lobsters from other traps. My dad never had to deal with this shit. Even the bad fishermen of his day still had honor and integrity. Boothbay lobstermen are the worst of the lot: rusticators and part-timers that don’t care about the rules of fishing. Harpswell is a smaller harbor and we all look out for each other. If you’re in trouble, someone will help you. Personal grudges take a backseat.
I call Uncle Dave, my dad’s youngest brother, for a second opinion. Dave could catch lobster in a desert, and he’s taught me a lot about fishing. Ellie doesn’t like me with him, says he drinks too much. But some nights, especially after a rough day on the water, I need a couple drinks to unwind.
“Great Dane, you copy?”
The CB radio crackles. “I’m here.”
“Where you parked at today?” I ask.
“Near Eagle Rock.”
“Wicked far.” I pour coffee from the thermos into my mug.
“Yah, waves knocking me around. Storm coming. So what’s up?”
“I’m off Crow Island. Some idiot has been fishing right on top of me.” Gunmetal gray clouds congeal and darken the sky. The first sheets of freezing rain cut across the bay like a theater curtain. “Now my lines are snarled. You know anyone with green buoys?”
“From Harpswell? Pat McCurdy uses green ones, but he usually quits before Halloween.”
Looking at my nautical map, I ask him if Yarmouth Cove is still inside Harpswell’s fishing territory.
“Rumor is, the state opened it up to everyone,” he says. “But it’s not on the map yet, so I’m not buying it.”
Fishing territories are a time-honored reality of the Maine lobster trade. Different harbors have their own areas, and some overlap. They were established decades ago. Every few years the fish and game commission change some boundary lines to justify their existence – typical bureaucrats – but most of us ignore them. Either way, problems on the water get solved on the water. You don’t go to the cops or lawyers, and the Coast Guard would laugh about a territory dispute.
“Who do you think it is?” I ask.
“Maybe one of them Bailey Island hippies, fishing to support his drug habit.”
“Or some Boothbay fuckhead.” I finish my coffee and light a cigarette.
“Rather have a sister in the whorehouse than a brother from Boothbay,” says Dave.
“What should I do?”
“Sledge hammer his traps.”
“I’m not ready to start a harbor war.” I don’t have a sledge hammer on the boat, just an aluminum baseball bat.
“That’s nothing anymore,” says Dave. “Some guys will shoot at you. Or sink your boat at night.”
“How ‘bout I steal his best lobsters?”
“Not enough. Those Boothbay guys poach our fishing grounds all the time. They need a stronger message.”
“You’re right,” I say. “Fuck it.”
“There you go.”
“Back to work before this storm gets worse.”
After busting up a handful of my neighbor’s traps – the old wooden kind – with my bat, I start pulling in my own pots. They are coming up full of dark green, semi-hard shelled lobster, the valuable ones. In a few days they’ll soften and turn bright red. I found their hiding place, maybe a floor of rocks covered by seaweed. I throw them in the fish hold, remove the old bait bag from the trap, and replace it with a new one. Then I drive to the next buoy and repeat the process: pull, empty, and reset my traps. They’ve been soaking for three days and are coming up full. A flock of seagulls trails the boat, diving down for spilled bait. Some serious money could be made today, despite the storm.
By mid-afternoon the sleet changes to snow – large, wet flakes that stick to my beard. As I haul in my last few traps, my body aches. My drenched clothes weigh me down like lead. A large wave slams against the boat and knocks me down. As I try to get up, something tugs on my leg. A rope is coiled tightly around my boot, dragging me to the stern. It happened so fast, like a sucker punch. The rope – attached to hundreds of pounds of traps moored in the water – is trying to pull me out of the boat, while the boat keeps churning forward. I can’t reach the engine key or the radio but I remember the hunting knife inside my pants pocket and fish it out. I wrap my legs around the trawl table, which is bolted to the floor, and with my hands free I start cutting the rope around my boot. But before I can finish, the table’s legs break from the weight of the traps and gear. I drop the knife and it slides away from me. All the force is on my right ankle, trying to tear my foot from my body. The ankle stabs with pain. Badly swollen, maybe broken. No matter what, I’ll drown without my knife, so I grab one of the table’s busted legs and bat the knife back into my grip. Then I take a deep breath, quit resisting the rope’s force, and let myself get taken over the side into the water.
The water is so cold that I cough and swallow some. A godless cold that cuts through my clothes. Since I can’t free my rubber boot I sink to the bottom. Shallow here, maybe thirty feet, but I can barely see through the murk. After my feet settle in the mud, I feel down to the frayed rope and started cutting again. Once I sever the rope and get my boot off, I shoot to the surface.
After sucking air into my lungs and getting my bearings, I squint through the snow and spot my boat: pulling away from me like the devil drove her, heading for a ledge. No other boats in sight. My shouts for help die off, unanswered.
I need to swim for something. Crow Island lies a few hundred yards away but I’d be going against the current. There’s a ledge marker between me and the island. It feels like a two-mile swim before I finally reach the large metal buoy. I try several times to climb on top, but it keeps swaying and throwing me back in. So I just wrap my arms around it, legs submerged in the fifty-degree water.
I pray for the sun. Coat and pants waterlogged. Still, they retain some of my body heat. The sun pokes out, then quickly retreats behind the clouds. The cold sucks on my bone marrow. Huddled against the wind and too tired to hold it, I piss myself. Feels warm and relaxing, if only for a minute.
My mind drifts to Henry. The boy is only ten, he still needs me. I remember the last time we fished together, when he caught three big stripers by himself. He’s a natural, like his old man, but smarter than me. He could go to a good college. There’s no future in lobstering – the sea is drying up, lobster boats are multiplying – and the work wrecks your body. Henry could be a doctor or professor, but he needs me to guide him, to show him discipline and hard work. Who else would do it? Surely not his mother’s boyfriend, that lazy creep who lives off my alimony and child support.
Afternoon turning to dusk, last strands of light falling away. Hands and feet numb. Feeling dizzy and hot, like I ought to shed some clothes. Hypothermia. I cling to the buoy. Squares of light issue from houses along the shore. Then I notice a white lobster boat entering the cove, skirting the western edge. Almost too good to be real. I rub my eyes and look again. Still there, creeping closer. A searchlight from its wheelhouse flicks on, the yellow circle of light dancing on the water. When the light settles on me, I kick my legs out of the water, since my yellow pants are brightest thing I’m wearing. The white boat grows larger. Sweet Jesus, I think he sees me.
After several long minutes, a man emerges from the boat’s cabin. He stands in the bow and waves a white rescue float. Then he flings it toward me. I push off the buoy, make a few weak backstrokes, and grab the float. The man reaches out his hand, but the sides are too high and I can’t lift my arms. He lowers a long gaff and hooks it under my belt. I feel like a gutted swordfish as he lifts me into the boat.
The man helps me below deck. I sit on the bench, my body shaking. He hands me a blanket and a lukewarm cup of coffee.
His cabin reeks of marijuana smoke. Old fishing nets and rope litter the floor, next to empty gas and oil cans. Dirty dishes slosh around the sink. Bolt-action rifle on the shelf behind me. Some green buoys lying in the corner.
“How long were you out there?” he asks. He has long brown hair and a goatee. Shorter than me, maybe five-nine, but thicker. Checkered flannel shirt, overall jeans. Dark lines under his eyes. The scar under his left cheek looks like a sliver of moon.
“Couple hours, I think.” My tongue feels like lead.
The man rubs his goatee like he’s weighing something important. “You from Harpswell?”
I nod. “You?”
“Boothbay.” He pauses. “I saw your boat stuck on the rocks, then started looking around. Here I am, your guardian angel!” The man laughs, almost too hard.
I need a doctor. My hands and feet are numb, and two fingertips have turned black.
“Wait, you’re a Sinclair, aren’t you?” he asks.
I nod again. He smiles, says nothing.
“Paul’s Wharf,” I say, pointing in the direction of the nearest harbor. “Take me there, we can radio ahead for an ambulance.”
“You Sinclairs make me laugh, acting like you own Casco Bay.”
“Going into shock,” I say. “Need a doctor.”
“Shock? No, you sound pretty together.” He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a joint.
Am I dreaming this, what the fuck is happening? I want to confront him. Why is he fishing right on top of me, why can’t he find his own spots like a real fisherman? But I don’t have the energy to pick a fight. I just stare at him.
“I know what you’re thinking,” he continues. “I shouldn’t even be fishing here. But this ain’t your territory anymore, remember? Yarmouth Cove is open water now. The state changed it over the summer. I’m sure you knew that by now.” The man lights the joint, takes a long pull. “Since I wasted a lot of time picking you up, I’m going to finish working before we head back in. I sure hope you didn’t fuck with my traps,” he says, looking hard at me. “That could throw a wrench into things.” As he leaves the cabin, the man points to the sky. “Hey look, it stopped snowing.”
He’s probably just trying to scare me, playing the hard ass. I look outside. It’s too dark for him to work, too dark to find his busted traps. In a clear patch of the night sky, I see the North Star: Polaris, the sailor’s compass. It will guide us home. Feeling better, I reach for the coffee mug and take a sip. Then I wrap the blanket tighter around me. I look at my frostbit fingertips and wonder if the doctor will cut them off. Doesn’t matter, long as I see Ellie and Henry again. And I will. Soon the three of us will be sitting together in my living room, a nice fire burning in the fireplace.
But it feels like the boat is moving farther down the bay, away from Paul’s Wharf. I look up at the sky, but this time I can’t find the North Star. It must have disappeared behind the clouds, and the snow is starting to fall again.
Tom Bennitt received a John and Renee Grisham fellowship and is an MFA graduate from The University of Mississippi. Born and raised in western Pennsylvania, Tom’s short stories have been published in Twisted Tongue, River Walk Journal, and Bewildering Stories. Find him online here.