At first we thought a plane crashed in the Sound. Which was sad, you know, but not the end of the world. We were wrong about a lot.
Something huge shrieked past overhead, obscured by the rain-fat clouds, trailing sparks in its wake. There was a great, concussive roar from somewhere in the distance and the shock wave sent our boat wobbling. Beyond the clouds, the sky whited out, then dulled. Terns took to the air, squawking indignantly. Dad tried to radio in and couldn't raise anyone, but that wasn't too unusual–the sheer, high walls of the fiords interfere with radio all the time, and we were out further than most.
Still, we knew something was wrong. Dad half-assedly tried to comfort me, like he half-assed everything else. He offered me one of his beers and said we could play cribbage.
I was below decks cleaning our catch when the birds swarmed by. I couldn't hear them til they were just about on us, and then once they were close, their cries were deafening. I poked my head up just long enough to see them flock past our boat: gulls, terns, even an occasional great gliding albatross, all hauling ass out toward the open ocean.
"Dad,” I said once I found him in the cabin.
"Sean,” he said.
We looked at each other. He never said much on these trips. I always got the impression he wanted to, but he didn't quite know how. Or maybe I just hoped it.
"...Let's head back,” he said, and I just nodded.
The ash started falling an hour later.
We were rolling in the last of the nets, sorting out the bycatch, when the first few flakes sprinkled to the deck like snow. Except it was March. Dad took a step closer to me then, his weathered face creasing in a wary frown. Whatever him-sized gaps there were in my childhood, they weren't enough to chase away that protective instinct.
"Get inside,” he said. I normally balked at being given two-word orders like a dog, but his tone broached no compromise. I scurried into the cabin to wash my hands. Warm water pumped up through the faucet, and I washed and washed far longer than I had to.
Dad got the outboards roaring and we were underway. I wanted to ask him what he thought we'd find. What did he think had happened. Aboard this boat, there was nothing he didn't know, from the taxonomy of all the fish in the sea to the difference between a seiner and a gill-netter to all the good kōrero pūrākau. He knew how every mountain got its name, how to read the weather from the sky...but he had no idea what had happened here.
Night fell. Our motor chugged and hiccuped and fell dead, choked with ash.
Dad went out to try to fix it, bundled up in a rain slicker with his hood up and a spare shirt tied over his mouth and nose.
We thought it was normal ash back then, too.
"Do you think Mum's okay?”
In the dark of the cabin, I got the sense that he was trying to puzzle his way toward the right thing to say. Maybe if he'd been quicker on his feet or his heart was more in the right place, Mum would have been on this trip. But maybe that's unfair.
Outside the cabin door, the boat creaked.
Dad was coughing a lot by then. His face shrank in against his skull. He didn't want to eat. He didn't want to drink. He parked himself by the radio and stayed there for hours, trying to raise the mainland, voice never rising above a dull, scratchy mumble.
Ash fell like snow. Big, fragile flakes. Anytime we moved beyond the cabin, we covered as much of ourselves as we could. When a single flake fell on the back of my hand, I smeared it along my knuckles. It disintegrated like fine, powdery makeup. Something inside it glittered.
I could hear Dad coughing on the other side of the cabin door, wet and rough.
The thumping woke us. It was slow at first, just one or two little thumps as something impacted the boat below decks.
This time he didn't speak. In the bunk above me, my father wheezed like a man three times his age.
Something in the cargo hold was wriggling around in the coolers. First one something, then many somethings. Soon, the whole craft shook with the impacts of a quarter-ton of snapper and monkfish thrashing in the coolers that held them.
Those fish had been dead for days.
This time, my father reached a hand down to the bottom bunk. I held it hard. His grip was weak and unsteady, fingers clammy against mine.
Every few hours, Dad hosed ash off the deck, right up until he got so sick he couldn't. Then I gave it a try from the doorway, trying to keep the drifted heaps of grey away from our door. From behind, my father told me to cut it, to stop, to back away.
"I think it's making me...”
I could tell he was trying to say sick, but instead he just coughed.
Dad and I had whole conversations with glances and nods. He kept trying the radio, signalling distress. He tried the motor twice more. Silence filled the gaps between us that words never could. The horizon glowed with blue light, blue like I'd never seen, like the bottom of a glacial pool with a spotlight shining through it.
When he grew too weak, I helped him rinse the ash off his hands and face.
The thumping. The wheezing. I don't know how my father slept. But he slept hard, breath so shallow I feared more than once that he might have passed in the night.
On the fourth morning, Dad woke me by shaking my shoulder. He gripped me like he might stagger over without the support, fingers wracked with tremors.
Then he leaned over my bunk, extended his tongue, and licked the side of my face. His spit smelled like ash and rotten eggs. His gums had receded, teeth too long for hs mouth, and a sticky grey membrane was spreading across the surface of his eyes.
My father towered over me, impossibly tall, his face a sunken skull.
"I'm going...” he creaked. He took two staggering steps toward me, fingers twitching like a zombie in a film. Like a spider when you stomp it. I grabbed a fire extinguisher off the skirting board and prepared myself to use it if he got any closer.
But he turned, twisted the cabin door open, and staggered out. When I could bring myself to peek outside, all I saw were his footprints in the ash, disappearing across the deck. I slammed the bulkhead closed.
I hear my father at night now, thumping like the fish.
I check the radio out of habit every morning, but it's still dead. The air in the cabin is thin and stale. I have to crack the smudged grey windows. We (or is it I? Are we even a we anymore?) drift past seabirds in the water, half-sunk feathery husks coated in grey sludge.
Sometimes I'm tempted to open the door and have a look around outside, but...
I don't know where my father sleeps. Or if he does.
I'm running low on food. I wonder what he eats.
His presence has always been a silent obstacle in my life. A man who couldn't rise to the occasion, who couldn't step up when needed, who retreated to the sea when his wife needed him until one day he retreated so far she cut him adrift for good.
In my darker moments, I laugh about how not much has changed there.
There's a life raft in one of the cabinets at the bow. In my braver moments, I wonder if I could reach it. Where would I even go? Why hasn't anyone come to get us? (Is Mum alive?)
When the clouds part, the sky burns blue.
The thumping stops halfway through the night this time. That's early. I grab my flashlight, thumb hovering on the switch.
I've never been able to bring myself to look outside at night.
With shaking hands and half-held breath, I lift the flashlight to the window.
Nothing. Just the sea lapping up against the hull, the ocean a hungry mouth.
I sit on the floor, leaning against the bulkhead, imagining my father's ash-muted footsteps thumping up and down the deck. It's hours before I fall asleep.
In the morning, I force myself to look. I have to shove the cabin door open, dislodging heaps and piles of ash. Dozens of footprints trail through it in crazy curlicue circles, but they've all been partially filled in by fresh fall.
Maybe Dad's not out here anymore. Maybe I can make it to the raft.
I haul on a raincoat, gloves, and wind a shirt around my mouth and nose. When I step out onto the deck, my footsteps sound like nothing.
The ash has muted everything, like the quiet of a fresh winter morning. I avoid my father's footsteps, inspecting the length of the boat, creeping like a burglar lest I disturb something from its slumber.
The steep, sheer walls of the fiord loom overhead, the sky beyond a sickly grey. I reach the bow, throwing open the cupboard with a horrible, too-loud creak.
Below the deck, something thumps in the freezer. My fingers clench around the cupboard.
Go. Go go go go.
I grab the raft kit in both arms and stumble away from the hatch.
The deck vibrates beneath my feet as I shuffle toward the gunwale. Something slams against it from beneath. I reach the rail and pull the tab and throw the raft into the sludgy, ash-grey sea. It inflates like a neon yellow flower, and as I watch it bloom, the hatch behind me creaks. Something wheels it open from the inside.
I still can't make myself look. The hatch pops free with an ash-deadened clunk.
I grip the rail tight for a fraction of a second, then fling myself over the edge, landing half-atop the raft. Blindly terrified, I kick at the hull to shove off from the boat, to put any distance I can between it and me.
He's back there. I know he's back there.
Rolling onto my back, I sneak a glance at the deck above, terrified that I'll see my father standing there, skin fish-grey, eyes scabbed over, wheezing that I left him. But the deck is vacant. There's nothing. Nobody.
I drift down the esophagus of the Sound. The sea is calm. Beyond the clouds, the sky is burning blue.