There is, one knows not what sweet mystery about this sea, whose gently awful stirrings seem to speak of some hidden soul beneath.
- H. Melville “Moby Dick”
Mary had two suitors, cousins William “Billy” Martee and Matthew “Matty” Martee. The boys grew up in the fishery. Five in the morning they’d push off and trust the Old Man who captained them to take them to the waters where the cod ran in thousands. The nets would be into the water by eight, and they’d pull them in by hand at noon or no later than one. The nets would cut your hands to ribbons, and then the salt of the ocean would fill the cuts, and the old hands had old hands, white as an alabaster Christ, and scaled like Triton’s tail. The younger men, unmarried and conscious of their prospects, wore gloves. Three in the afternoon they’d be back on the docks, the catch to unload and the nets to mend, and each would have a measure of rum from the same small silver cup engraved with a St. Andrew’s medal and each would sing a verse in turn from old sailing songs. They’d be in bed by eight and then, the next morning, up by half of three or four to go out again. Billy said he thought he could live this way forever, and Matty said he thought he could too.
Matty proposed marriage to Mary, like he thought he should.
Mary, he said, I’ll build a boat and I’ll name it after ye. I’ll be captain of my own ship. I’ll be a bye no more. I’ll be a man worth the havin’. Will ye have me do ye think?
All young men’s proposals have the firm capital of a half a bed and a mortgage on the promise of more good things to come.
No, she said. I think I won’t. You’re a fine b’y Matty, she said, as fine as any here. But my heart is set on Billy. He’s promised me a house, a home and hearth of our own, warm against the winter, with a foundation of stone, and he’s a man too already aye, fair of hair and eye. I’ve told him yes, I have. I’ve promised already. I’ll have Billy.
Matty Martee went off without a further word. What could he say? That he risked something in a proposal declined? Other men suffer as much. They find other wives and are often the better for it in the long, even if they feel worse in the short. Unlucky indeed is the man that hears yes on a bad match. But that his cousin, his friend, his Billy, had got the yes of it and hadn’t told him of it before or after, That it was kept a secret from him, perhaps that was where it lay wet and heavy on Matthew Martee’s soul.
A month later the Old Man had them in rough water late in the season and they had a bad time of it coming back to shore. The last wave came up and hung there a moment above them, and the Old Man saw that it was over for them. He said I’m sorry b’ys, I’ve taken a bad tack and led ye to a bad turn. The blame is mine, and no one else’s.
The ship tipped over on her port side and into dark water they went, men and catch, rum and Saint Andrew’s silver cup. Matty came up on a piece of the wreck, enough planking to float on, with his gaff in his hand. His purchase was secure and he looked about the flotsam for the other men and there were none but his cousin Billy to see above the water. Billy saw Matty on the last bit of the wreck that held hope of succor and made to swim over but when he got within his hand’s reach Matty pushed him off with the butt of his gaff. A second time Billy put out his hands up to his cousin. Again, Matty pushed him off. A third time, this time with the sharp and the hook, and Billy spoke before he sank beneath the water.
You have undone me Matty, he said. You have undone me cruel and unfair. May Hell swallow you whole.
When they sank, they were within sight of shore, but the wind and current and the stir of Leviathan in her sleep in the deepest deep took Matty away and back out to the bottomless black water and away from the eye and ear of home.
When the ship didn’t come in the mothers and wives went out to the docks to watch the other men push off to search for the missing and then, when those men were gone, the women walked the shores. They were widows to a wreck, and found not so much as a scrap of cloth to bury. They were the heiresses of the sealers of the Newfoundland, its men left by the Captains Kearns to be frozen to death on the ice out on the hunt, and the Southern Cross, it’s men unfound, and other ships less famous. Sometimes there were remains to mourn, but mostly just memories. Still, they walked the shore. Mary walked with them, but she said nothing to any of the others about her two suitors, the cousins Martee. What was there to say? Finally, darkness came as it must. The cycles of the earth and the sun are eternal and were set by the creator when he first spoke a word upon the water of the primordial, and they stop not by the wishes of widows.
When the darkness come to midnight Mary heard a voice outside her window. It was Billy, come up from the sea, and he was not so fair of hair and eye. He was strung with kelp and run rough with a dredge of sand, his skin scoured by ordeal and made the white of the old fishermen’s palms, and his eyes were already gone to the small creatures, who move fast in the darkness and the light alike.
Mary, he said, Mary will you still have me? Matty has undone me he has, pushed me from the wreck with a gaff, and I have perished. He left me as you see me here. My God Mary, he said, they’ve even taken my eyes, the small, fast things. All this from the barb of Matty’s gaff, and him without a word of why. Mary, will you have me?
Mary took him then, out of love, and he lay with her in her bed in her mother’s house like a man with a woman. In the morning when Mary’s mother came to wake her, she chided Mary, not for Billy, who was gone, but for the kelp and sand in Mary’s bed and the salt of the sea on her clothes still wet from the spray from when they’d walked the shore, for that is what Mary’s mother presumed. Only Mary knew that it was Billy, dissolved forever now, gone and run in rivulets back to the sea.
A Portuguese trawler brought Matty in a week later. They’d found him and him alone, on his plank with his gaff, the day after the storm, afloat on seas so calm they seemed made of glass and you could see so far into the deep you thought you could see the glimmer of stars like as to the firmament above, the two things being not unlike one another. They didn’t speak much of English, and he none of Portuguese, but they were men of the sea and ships and by the laws they governed themselves by they took him on up and brought him on in to harbor and Matty had nothing to say to anyone but that they’d tipped over within sight of land and that he’d been the only one to come up from the wreck and he’d lived he knew not how, except by providence.
A week since his return come up and went by and Matty made his way to Mary’s house and asked to see her and her mother in her mother’s kitchen.
He spoke slowly this time, and carefully. This harbor is short a boat and crew, Matty said. I mean for the next boat and the next crew to be mine. I’ll build ye a house, he said. A house with a stone foundation, whitewashed, two stories high. A home and hearth for you, and for me, and for our children what come after. Mary, will you have me now?
Mary would not speak so Mary’s mother made her answer for her. Yes, she said, yes. Mary will have ye.
Mary looked at the floor and nodded.
Yes, she will, her mother said, looking at Mary, and not at Matty.
God only knows what moved the mother to accept the proposal on her daughter's behalf. Perhaps it was no more than it was a good match. Maybe too, she knew time is short for everyone, shorter than they think. She herself was the granddaughter of one of the sealers what went down with the Southern Cross. She knew of the woes of the sea, and that there was no stopping what may come. The end of it was that her daughter and Matty were wed two score of days past the sinking of the Old Man’s ship. There was a proper ceremony in the church and there was a roast beef dinner in the hall, with tatties and neaps and all the fixings and a fourth plate for every man who wanted one.
Matty took her home then and carried her across the threshold and into the bedchamber, where Mary told him that come what may, she’d never lie with him of her own volition. She told him what Billy had told her when he came up eyeless from the sea, about Matty and his gaff and the hardness in his eyes. She told him that since Billy had come up from the water to lie with her, she’d not had her monthly, and that Billy’s child was filling her already, and that if should she choose to let people think it was Matty’s come early, Matty should count himself lucky by her grace.
Matty held his silence then, and he did abide by her discretion. They slept in the same bed for sure, Mary sleeping without dreaming, without moving, and Matty sleeping hardly at all, acting out a pretense like a mummer.
Six months later the baby came, and Mary’s water broke like brine and there was seaweed in it and it ran cold too, colder than the heat of her body by far, and a little boy followed, a baby made all of salt, eyeless, cold and scaled like old fishermen’s hands and without a heart to beat, a simulacrum not possessed of life.
The midwife took the sad thing up but she could barely lift it in her arms, such was its weight. Ah, she said. A salt baby, born of some wreck and made from some misery, would that I had never seen such a thing.
She left Mary with her mother and set the salt baby like a statue at the foot of the birthing bed. Matty then, he came in and took the baby away. He took the hard stone weight of him down to the sea and set him in the shallow water to wait there for the ebb tide, there to be reduced to nothing while Mary cried in her room with her mother silent by her side. It took three days for the salt baby to disappear into the sea. None of the small and quick and mean came up from depths to hasten the dissolution, for the child was all salt and as solid as a rock and besides, what need do the legions of the sea have for one more ration of salt? So, three days of tide. People heard of course, from the midwife’s tale. Credit goes to those who did not come to look, and shame falls upon those who did.
Matty shipped out with an oiler out of Boston they said, and from there no one knows where he went, only that he never came back. Mary poor girl, they say, sometimes before storms she’ll walk to the shore in her very best dress and dare the sea to take her, to come up and get her if that’s what it wants, but it never does and even the roil of storm, the green foam on the black water, calms around her feet and in her footstep’s wake and that is her Billy, the last and least bit of him the salt in the brine, keeping her alright, her bare feet in the water all of the all of their hearth and home.