At Sea

Gabrielle Gillespie


His father was lost at sea. Michael always heard of that sort of thing happening, but it had never happened to him.

His father had been on a tiny little dinghy, alone at night. His mother revealed he often did this when he couldn’t sleep and had as long as they’d been married. It was a wonder it had taken so long for these moonlight voyages to kill him, really. Michael wondered how he had never noticed the door creaking open and his father slipping out during so many nights of his boyhood.

He looked at Donegal anew after his father was lost. All of the guarantees of his home, he realized, were not those of the rest of the world. There were towns without beige soldiers’ mean looks in the streets. There were places where every roof didn’t leak. When he was hungry, he thought there was another future where he could never know what that felt like again. When he thought of that phantom fullness, he felt his sallow cheeks fattening, arms growing stronger, a layer of fat keeping him warm even though the wet wind was real and the fat was not.

One morning he sat in the rickety boat and for the first time, his legs wobbled and head swam at the worry of tumbling over. He had known to be afraid of the water during storms and when he stood on a cliff high above it, but this casual fright was new, or something maybe he had known once but had been taught to ignore as a child because his father needed help and it was a son’s lot to do so.

It was a foolish fear and a counterintuitive one. If any of his ancestors had let a fear of drowning consume them, they would have starved. Yet the next morning he laid in bed, claiming due to sick but really because he became stiff as a board at the mere thought of boarding that boat.  

“What will you do if you don’t fish?” his wife Claire asked.

“I didn’t have to be a fisherman,” he said.

“I suppose you could have been a priest,” she said, “But you’re a shit reader and you love me too much.”

“I could have been a cowboy,” he said.

“The McCallen’s have some pigs you could wrangle but there’s no cows for miles.”

“I’ll travel then,” he said, rolling over to face the wall. Claire laughed.

His heart used to lift every time he smelled his mother’s fresh bread or saw the morning sun hit dewy grass just right, but now the joy didn’t strike so deep. People always said these sorts of things you never get tired of but no one ever pointed out that sometimes you do.

Yet his boredom excited him, in a way that he felt completely ready for something to happen at any moment. He had no idea what exactly, but he felt this Event watching him, waiting for the moment to introduce itself like a shy girl standing on the edge of a dance floor.

He wanted new people, new places, new problems. He wanted to be impressed about something for the first time, grow used to it, then throw it away.

He walked by the docks and thought about boarding ships. One day, he did. For some reason this boat did not scare him. Probably because he told himself it would be the last one. He wouldn’t be a fisherman in the next life. He would find one place on dry land that was his. Or he would travel on horseback across prairies.

He felt sorry for his wife and his brother. Would they bury him in an empty coffin like they did his father? But he was dying here anyway, growing in too small a skin that would strangle him if he didn’t tear it. And if it didn’t tear now, something worse would happen. When he took off the glasses of a native son’s love, he had seen a misery he thought was just a part of him. Now was time to amputate.  

As the ship sailed out, people discussed their destinations but he stayed silent. He didn’t know it yet. He only knew anywhere was better than here.