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Dead Calm

by Charles Williams

1963

1

Though it had been less than four hours since he’d secured everything on deck and come below, Ingram awoke just at dawn. He turned his head in the faint light inside the cabin and looked at his wife asleep in the opposite bunk. Rae, wearing sleeveless short pajamas of lightweight cotton, was lying on her stomach, her face turned toward him, the mop of tawny hair spread across the pillow encircled by her arms, her legs spread slightly apart and braced, even in sleep, against the motion of the ketch. She never minded, he thought; some people grew irritable and impossible to live with on a sailboat too long becalmed, with its endless rolling and slatting of gear and its annoying and unstoppable noises of objects shifting back and forth in drawers and lockers, but except for an occasional pungent remark when the stove threw something at her she took it uncomplainingly. They weren’t in a hurry, she pointed out, they were on their honeymoon, and they had privacy measurable in millions of square miles.

Without even consciously thinking about it, his mind received, filtered, and evaluated each of the individual sounds in the orchestration of creaks and minute collisions going on about him, oblivious to the total melody but capable of becoming instantly alert at the mere suspicion of a note that was out of place. Nothing was rolling or banging on deck; everything was still secure topside. The metallic bumping just beyond his feet in the galley section of the cabin was the teakettle sliding against the rails that kept it on the stove. The click and intermittent rattle above it were dishes shifting minutely inside their stowage on the bulkhead above the sink. The creaking was only a timber working normally as she swung and swung back; if a boat didn’t have flexibility it would break up against any kind of sea, like a car smashed against a wall. That sound of something rolling back and forth was a pencil loose in a drawer. The clock struck four bells. He stretched luxuriously. Six a.m. Hot. Dead calm. But at least they’d sailed out of yesterday’s grapefruit rinds. They’d had a light southeasterly breeze for six hours last night, which should put them at least another twenty-five miles along their course.

After sliding out of the bunk, he put on water for coffee, moving silently about the galley so as not to disturb Rae. He stripped off his pajamas, picked up a towel, and mounted the companion ladder to the cockpit. Everything on deck was drenched with dew; it stood in great sweaty beads on the brass cover of the binnacle, and the bottoms of the cockpit cushions he’d reversed last night were as wet as if they’d been rained on. It was full daylight now, and the towering escarpments of cloud to the eastward were shot with flame. Not a breath of air stirred; the surface of the Pacific was as unwrinkled as glass except for the heave and surge of the long groundswell running up from the infinite distances of the Southern Hemisphere.

Standing naked in the cockpit, he leaned over and peered into the binnacle from sheer force of habit to check the heading of the ketch as she lay dead in the water except for her rolling. She was lying 290 at the moment, almost abeam to the swell. He turned and looked forward. Everything was secure. Wind or no wind, it was morning, it was beautiful, and it was good to be alive. He was where he wanted to be, at sea with a sound boat and with Rae. They were nineteen days out of the Canal, bound for Tahiti and the islands to the south, tied to no schedule, free of the frustrations and annoyances of life ashore.

He grinned suddenly and made an impatient gesture with his hand. Goofing off. The water for the coffee would be boiling in a few minutes. Reaching inside the companion hatch, he switched off the masthead light, and went forward. Shoved under the lashings of the dinghy atop the deckhouse was a short ladder. He pulled it free, hung it over the port side, stepped over the lifeline, and dived. After coming to the surface, he swam with a powerful crawl stroke up along her side, under the bow, and back down the other side. He turned on his back and floated some fifty feet astern, looking up at her with affection.

Saracen was thirty-two feet on the waterline, forty over-all, ketch-rigged. She was mahogany planked over oak frames and had been built less than ten years ago by a New England yard. She wasn’t as fast as some, nor as tall and long-ended and patrician of line, but she was reasonably dry on deck and with her short overhang forward and her deep forefoot she pounded very little in a seaway. Deep-water cruising was what she was built for, he thought, and she was good at it. She’d take you there as fast as you needed to go, and she’d bring you back from anything a sane man would take her into.

He swam back, climbed aboard, and stowed the ladder. In the cockpit he rubbed himself down vigorously with the towel and tied it around his middle. He was a big man, no longer young—he was forty-four—with a flat, windburned face and cool gray eyes. The hair was dark, atrociously cut some five days ago by his wife, graying deeply at the temples, and his shoulders and back were hard and rope-muscled, burned dark by the tropical sun. Along his left hip and in back of his left leg were the slick, hairless whorls of old scar tissue, relic of an explosion and fire aboard a boat when he’d operated a shipyard in Puerto Rico, but the limp was long since gone.

He started below to dress and make the coffee, but paused with one foot on the companion ladder to take a last look around the horizon for squalls. They could make up very fast here in the belt of calms along the Line, even in the early morning. There were no clouds that looked suspicious at the moment— His eyes stopped suddenly and returned to the sector off the starboard bow. He’d seen something. Or had he? Yes, there it was again, a tiny speck almost over the rim of the horizon. It disappeared and came into view again. Without removing his eyes from it, he reached inside the hatch and lifted the big seven-by-fifty binoculars from the rack on the after bulkhead. It was a boat.

At that distance, even with the glasses, he could make out nothing about it except that it appeared to be two-masted and was carrying no sail at the moment. He stepped back to the binnacle and checked the heading. It was bearing about 310 degrees. He looked at it again, but it was impossible to tell whether or not anyone was on deck; it was, in fact, visible at all only when it rose to the crest of a swell. Rae would want to see it, he thought; it was the only sign of life they’d sighted since leaving Panama nearly three weeks ago. Well, it’d still be there after breakfast; nobody was going anywhere until they got some wind.

He went below and pulled on khaki shorts and sneakers. The water was boiling now. He measured out the coffee and poured it. While it was running through he wound the chronometer. He checked the barometer, giving it a little tap with his fingernail. It was steady at 29.91. He entered it in the log, along with the time, and the notation, “Calm. PC to clr. Mod. S’ly swell.”

Rae rolled over and sat up, yawning. She brushed the tawny mane of hair back from her face and grinned. “Hi, Skipper.”

He perched on the side of the bunk and kissed her. “Hi, beautiful.”

She made a deprecating gesture. “Everybody’s beautiful when he first wakes up. It’s called the blotched, rumpled, and bleary-eyed look; beauty shops can’t duplicate it. Mmmmm, I was having a wonderful dream.”

“About what?” he asked.

“Fresh water. There was a sunken tub about the size of Rhode Island, with two hundred pounds of bath salts in it—”

“Miss all that too much?”

She rumpled his still-wet hair. “Silly. Who’d want to be a clean widow when she could be a dirty sailor’s wife?”

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