Tuckitor’s Last Swim

Tuckitor Hatterask had a fierce desire to go for a swim,  even though a storm was brewing and he knew it wasn’t a good idea to go into the water. But the forces pulling him toward the ocean were much stronger than he ever could had imagined. In this companion short story to Spirit’s Key, Edith Cohn’s debut novel, readers learn how a family on a small southern island came to be haunted by hurricanes.

This short story was acquired and edited for Tor.com by Farrar, Straus and Giroux assistant editor Susan Dobinick.

How in the storm of 1916 the Hatterask family came to be haunted by hurricanes.

 

Tuckitor Hatterask had a fierce desire to go for a swim. But the sound of the baldies’ howling made him think twice. If those dogs cried like banshees during the day, no matter how clear the sky looked, a hurricane was coming.

On the beach the water broke over Tuckitor’s feet pulling the sand out from under him, as if the ocean wanted him to come out and swim too. But he shouldn’t be lured. He’d been accused of having a death wish to swim near these shoals even on a good day. The currents around these barrier islands were a graveyard for ships and whales. His family whaled from the shore, counting on the creatures the ocean would trap or vomit up for their living. If the whales had trouble here, a swimmer in a storm didn’t stand a chance.

But lately the whales were scarce. No one had seen one in over a year. And, it was only after Tuckitor had swum a great distance—when his house and the entire island it sat on were small and flat against the horizon—that he felt this problem was insignificant.

He cursed the weather. He wished he could swim today. Just another minute with the water over his toes, then he would go home.

“Tuckitor!” The wind carried his name over the sand dunes. “I’ve got something for you!” His neighbor was down by the dock.

Tuckitor crossed the beach and joined Pappy Fishborne on his oyster boat. Pappy pressed a heavy sack firmly into his hand. Tuckitor’s hollow stomach wouldn’t allow his usual protest, No, really I couldn’t possibly take a handout. His head was already dizzy with the taste of the oyster stew his wife would make with his neighbor’s charity. “You know I’ll make this right somehow,” he told Pappy instead.

“Won’t make it right swimming in a hurricane,” his neighbor replied, eyeing his clothes.

Tuckitor always wore his oldest pants and holiest shirt to swim. Of course, he shed them before jumping in the water. But he wore rags, because he didn’t like leaving nicer clothes on the beach to be carried off by the tide. Not that he had much in the way of nice, but these clothes weren’t even good enough to wear whaling. He’d die from exposure.

“Well, I . . .” he started to deny his intentions, but the truth was the desire to swim hadn’t subsided. He could feel the ocean’s tug at his heart as if it were really under his feet—could hear it singing to his soul. He needed to swim.

“You’ve been swimming a lot these days.” Pappy’s eyes questioned Tuckitor’s sanity from beneath a green knit hat.

Pappy couldn’t swim. Strangely, a lot of islanders couldn’t. Foolish waste of energy people like his father and Pappy were known to say. If I’m on the wrong side of a boat may my death be quick. As if the ocean would take who and what it wanted no matter the fight.

But knowing how to swim could’ve saved his brother’s life. Tuckitor had taught himself after his brother had fallen overboard and drowned when they were small. Really though, he would do it anyway. Tuckitor was called to swim. And the only sure thing you could know about a calling was that it would keep calling.

“If this storm does damage, you can count on me to help you clean up,” Tuckitor offered, changing the subject back to the debt he owed for the oysters.

Pappy shrugged. “Whales will migrate back ‘round this way soon enough, and your world will be set right again.”

Tuckitor doubted it. He was starting to think they’d fished the last one. “Maybe there’s something else you need? I could give you a hand with the oysters or . . . I’ve got a bit of ship wood left from that wreck my family scavenged last month.”

“Nah. Tell you what, ask that darling wife of yours to knit me a hat sometime, would you?” Pappy asked. “I’m fond of that blue one she made your pal Joaquin.” Pappy’s lips sprouted mischievous wings. “Color reminds me of the ocean.”

As if they needed more than walking out their front door to be reminded.

“Tell Lucia to take her time. Make it real nice.” Pappy was being kind.

Tuckitor fumbled for a real way to repay his neighbor when the last remaining Hatterask ship thumped against the dock.

Pappy nodded to the ship. “Better batten down your hatches.”

It was hard to believe that just a year ago, Tuckitor’s family had owned five ships. More ships were better, both for killing the whales and for dragging them to the cove to process. But hurricanes had taken all but one.

“Ya’ll keep safe now.” Pappy waved, pulling his already fine hat further down his ears and heading back up the beach.

Easier said than done. Lately, hurricanes had not been kind to his family. The last one had taken Tuckitor’s grandmother.

Who or what would the storm take this time?

He climbed aboard his family’s last remaining whaling ship. He retrieved the scrimshaw he’d been working on for his wife. He’d carved the head of an eagle deep into the whale’s ivory tooth. The eagle meant protection. His wife would like that. Tuckitor wished he could do a better job protecting and providing for his family. He ran his thumb over his engraving of the sacred bird.

A guttural moan from the ocean broke his reverie. He took up a harpoon and raced to the edge of the ship to search the water. It sounded close, but the waves showed no indication of anything more than an approaching storm. Of course, he wouldn’t be so lucky as to spot a whale and have all his problems solved. He should hurry to secure the ship before the sky broke. But the loud noise returned to his ears—a haunting, delayed echo of itself. A moaning that turned into an awful cry.

As he scanned the water again, something large bumped the ship, and Tuckitor was thrown backwards onto his rear. He nearly stabbed himself with his own harpoon, and from his other hand, his wife’s scrimshaw gift flew bouncing onto the deck.

Before he could stand up, whatever it was bumped again, sending the rest of the whaling tools he hadn’t yet had a chance to secure sliding from one side of the ship to the other. He heard the familiar sound of water blowing—the breathing, living evidence of the massive creatures that had for so many months eluded his family. He peeked over the side of the boat expecting gold.

But there was no whale. There was no creature at all. There were only waves growing in intensity, further proof of what the baldies had warned him about only moments before. The sky grew dark.

He stood up, retrieved the scrimshaw and tucked it deep into his pocket for safekeeping.

 

“Natives are restless,” Grandpop said when Tuckitor got back to the house. The Hatterasks were about as native to the island as you could get, but his grandfather wasn’t talking about them. He was talking about the baldies.

“When it comes to death and destruction, the baldies get excited,” Tuckitor agreed. He put a pot of water on the stove for tea. He was still upset that his plans to swim were spoiled.

Grandpop bounced his leg, a nervous habit. Tuckitor glanced at the only photo they had of his grandmother. It sat above the stove next to her chowder pot. Mimi had made the best clam chowder this island had ever seen. The storm reminded Grandpop how much he’d lost the last time the winds and the ocean tangled.

“Don’t worry. I’ll board the windows. And here.” He passed Grandpop a cup for tea.

The old man clamped his weathered hand around the handle. His skin had taken a beating over the years. Tuckitor’s own hand too was starting to tell the story of sun and salt. How strange to know what it would look like in forty years if he kept whaling like his father, his grandfather, and the many before them. His family had come to this island chasing a whale. Old habits died hard.

Tuckitor found the hurricane boards in the broom closet and placed one over the front window. He repeated this window by window until they were in the dark. He lit a candle, and Tuckitor’s wife came in from the bedroom with the baby.

“He’s so fussy,” she said. “I can’t seem to get him to settle down.” She was only twenty-one like Tuckitor, but already she looked like she’d lived a lifetime. Her cheeks sunk in too far. Her normally warm brown skin had lost its fire. No matter how he stoked the logs, her hands and feet were always cold. Life on the island had always been hard, but lately they were starving.

He set the oysters on the table and the look of relief on his wife’s face was worth every ounce of guilt from his debt. He took her into his arms and gave her a kiss, breathing love into her ear that he wished could permanently light her. “I’ll take the baby,” Tuckitor swept up his screaming son, and the sudden motion hushed Baby Vicitor.

“Thank you for making tea.” His wife poured herself a cup, and they sat together at the table listening to the wind. It whipped around the house, drowning out the baldies’ howling. It clattered one of the shutters, which had come unlatched.

After a minute, Grandpop laid a hand heavy on the table as if he’d forgotten why they were all sitting around. “No time for twiddling thumbs when there are whales to be got.”

Grandpop hadn’t been himself since Mimi died. Whaling in a hurricane was as insane as swimming in one. But nonsense or not, you couldn’t argue with Grandpop. So Tuckitor stayed silent and prayed the old man returned to his senses.

But Grandpop went to his room and came back with a broken blubber fork. He stood it up like he was the devil. “This hurricane will bring us a whale. Mark my words.”

A familiar frustration rose inside Tuckitor like the tide outside was no doubt rising. But he bit his tongue. Grandpop’s blubber fork had only one prong, the other having broken off inside a whale his grandfather had named Blue Mule for its stubbornness. If Tuckitor suggested that perhaps the last 250 years of Hatterask whaling had come to an end—that the only whales they’d ever see again where the ones in their hunger-induced day dreams—that prong might end up in his rear end. Grandpop could still be sprightly if the mood struck him.

Grandpop sat down with his fork and set his leg to bouncing again.

The sky opened, and the rain began to pound the roof like horses stomping at feeding time. Grandpop drilled his foot into the floor, thump, thump, thump. His wife swirled her spoon inside her tea mug, ding, ding, ding. The shutter went at it again, clatter, clatter, clatter.

Tuckitor threw back his chair. “I should fix that.” He went to the front door, intending to secure the shutter, but something stopped him. A screaming. And it wasn’t his son’s. In his arms, despite the racket, Baby Vicitor slept.

Grandpop’s eyes darted around the room and landed on the photograph. “Mimi,” he whispered. “She’s out there.” His eyes, desperate, swung back around to Tuckitor. “You’ll find her won’t you? Bring her inside where it’s dry.”

Tuckitor froze. He had no idea what to say to that.

His wife patted the old man’s battered hand, which was still clutched tightly to his blubber fork. “Mimi’s gone, Grandpop. She’s dry and safe now in heaven.”

Tuckitor fell in love with his wife all over again. She always knew what to say.

But Grandpop shook his head. “She’s outside. We have to help her.”

The sound of screaming returned to Tuckitor’s ears. Yes, there was someone out there all right. “It sounds like someone needs help.”

“It’s just the baldies,” his wife tried to reassure him, but Tuckitor wasn’t assured. It wasn’t the baldies. Not at all.

He flung open the door. Wind and rain shot into the house with an unexpected fury. Baby Vicitor woke up shrieking, and together they were thrown back a few feet by the blast.

“No!” his wife cried.

He passed his son to his wife. “I have to help whoever’s out there.”

Her eyes willed him to stay, to choose the family over a friend or a stranger stuck in the waves, but Tuckitor couldn’t ignore the screaming. It wouldn’t be right. Just as his neighbors couldn’t ignore his family’s hunger. You helped people out when you could and hoped when you needed it, help would come for you.

Tuckitor dove outside into the storm, the wind slamming the door to his house behind him.

Wind slapped his ragged clothes and skin. He could feel it trying to swirl him up. The rain shot up around him from every direction. It seemed to defy gravity and come even from the sand in front of his feet, pelting him like nails. He dug his shoes deep into the sand for traction and inched along until he made it to the angry sea.

“Hello?” he called out over the tossing waves. His voice ripped away from him so fast, it was a wonder the screaming he’d heard had ever reached his ears.

It was hard to see with the rain and black clouds covering the day. He trained his eyes around the shoals.

“Hello?” he screamed. “Say something if you’re out there!”

Again the wind gobbled his words. He searched the violent waves. But he couldn’t see anything but water. The lighthouse. The tower would allow him a bird’s eye view. He ran toward it.

At its base, he unlocked the door with the key hidden under a nearby rock, racing up the stairs until he was breathless. At the top, the telescope to his eye, he swung it around until he landed his sights on an eerie light at Whales’ Cove.

A blue crest curved into the sky arching from one side of the whaling station to the other in what looked to be a single colored rainbow.

It was the strangest thing he’d ever seen. He had no idea what could be making that light. There wasn’t a lighthouse on the cove and no one lived there. There was only the whale station and half a dozen oil barrels.

He pulled his face from the telescope, rubbed the lens with his tattered shirtsleeve and tried again. But the blue arching light was still there. And beneath it, the ocean spun and swirled—it foamed and writhed. This wasn’t the usual storm waves, this was something else entirely.

The wind brought the screaming back to his ears. He swung the telescope wildly until finally, he caught sight of a thin, human arm. There was someone out there!

Tuckitor felt around in his pocket until he found the scrimshaw. He’d forgotten to give the gift to his wife. He pulled it out and placed it next to the telescope where he hoped Grandpop would find it. This was where Grandpop stood watch for whales everyday, while he, his father, his uncle and his cousins went out in their ship nearby. Grandpop would give it to Lucia if Tuckitor didn’t make it back.

That settled, he raced down the lighthouse steps so fast he skipped one, tripped and rolled down the remaining stairs. His back and his arm throbbed, but he picked himself up and tore onto the beach. He sprinted for the water, yet just before reaching it, he stopped short. He really might not make it back. He ran his hand through his wind-tangled hair and spun around as if there would be someone else available to risk his life instead. No, of course Tuckitor was the only idiot on the beach during a hurricane.

He attempted to reason with himself. Something like this was what he’d been training for, right? It was why he made his friend Joaquin take the boat out beside him as he attempted to swim the impossible shoals’ currents. It was why he swam until his arms ached, his lungs burned and he barely had the energy to flop himself into the boat. Why once he’d swum so far all alone when Joaquin couldn’t come and nearly drowned himself trying to make it back. This was what he was meant to do, something honorable and good. This was his calling. Tuckitor was this poor thin arm’s only hope. “I’m coming!” he shouted.

He shed his clothes and shoes and jumped in. He didn’t take his usual precaution of adjusting to the water’s temperature. The shock stunned him senseless for a moment, but he quickly recovered and began crawling through the ocean toward the arm he’d spotted from the lighthouse.

The waves were much bigger than he was used to. He dove under them, trying to get past them, but they kept coming.

There was no getting past them.

There was no flipping onto his back for relief. There would be no rest unless he made it to the arm and rescued the person attached to it.

His own arms and legs pumped into the waves with a determination that matched the ocean’s desire to spit him out. He sucked in air greedily. His lungs filled and with it his soul.

He had to admit that in the moments his head rose above water and he caught the sound of screaming in his ears, the voice did, in fact, sound feminine. Grandpop might have lost his teeth and few marbles, but his hearing was sure sharp. Somehow he’d known it was a woman.

I hear you, Tuckitor wanted to scream back. Where was her ship, her crew? He focused his attention on crawling through the waves. He would look for the others after he got the woman to shore. He was going to make it. There was no boat to flop into. Failure wasn’t an option.

A rogue wave seemed to disagree. With a ferocious force it tossed Tuckitor into the air then back down onto the water with the smack of a well deserved spanking. Arms and legs flailing, he plunged into the ocean’s bowels. Somewhere along the way, his thigh hit something sharp, which tore with abandon into his skin. Deeper and deeper he fell.

He struggled to regain control of himself—to regain his life. He fought to the surface, kicking and pushing the water away from him. On the surface, he broke for air, only to have angry waves lash at him. He coughed out the water he’d swallowed only to swallow more. The wind was relentless. It whipped him until he experienced a terror he’d never known possible.

The waves towered above him like giants. They moaned the same hauntingly guttural echo he’d heard earlier in the day. Was it the wind?

It was almost impossible to see anything but water. He lost sight of his home, his beach, his island. He lost sight of Whales’ Cove. The whirling, frothing foam encased him until a calm settled where he swam. The storm’s eye.

For a moment, he stopped fighting, he gave himself up to the will of the storm. The calm allowed him to wait, to listen, to hear the deep ringing in his ears like a gong. It was so incredibly loud. The terrible moaning was joined by the familiar sound of blowing. A bluish light appeared from the depths of the sea arching through the water in humps. Above him a glistening mass, darkened the sky, jumping over him, its hairs grazing the top of his head, its tail a fanning before him.

The calm gave way to waves again. One took him up, higher and higher, mounting him above the seething water until he could see it all.

Whales. Everywhere there were whales. Not one, not two, but hundreds. Mama whales, baby whales, whales so great in size, for a moment he forgot his fear and simply stared in amazement. The same blue light that he’d seen arching over Whales’ Cove also ran around the whales.

They glowed.

The wave he rode began to sink down to rejoin the ocean. “Wait!” Tuckitor shouted. He wasn’t finished watching the incredible scene before him. Several glowing humps of the whales ran together forming an ocean dragon. A dozen whales making one huge monster surfing the waves around him. A deafening sound blew from the beasts, their spray the world’s most miraculous fountain.

He forgot to be afraid. He forgot to close his mouth. He forgot not to breathe in water. He nearly forgot his humanity until a baby whale playfully nudged him just as it had nudged the Hatterasks’s whaling ship the day it was killed. The day his family held it captive and screaming. Held it until its mother came rushing through the waves to join it for the slaughter. It’d been a dirty trick. His family had sworn they’d never do such a thing. But desperate times made kindness seem a luxury he couldn’t afford.

Guilt harpooned his heart.

Why had he done such an awful thing? Tuckitor had his own child now. He’d give his whole world to protect him. He begun to weep—his salty tears a nothing drop in an ocean of tears.

He screamed until his throat burned. He shouted his human moan, which was no match for the moan of the whales. He shouted and shouted. He shouted until his moans became words. “Calf!” he cried. “I’m so sorry!” He lost his voice to weeping. “You were just a baby. You deserved your life. Please! Forgive me.” But the whales swam faster and faster around him. Their fury mounted the ocean into a mountain of terror above him. The wind whipped the wrath of a storm intent on killing him.

“Grab on!” A woman’s voice cried.

“Mimi?” Atop of one of the whales rode his grandmother, her thin, human arm extended for him. She latched her glowing brown hand into Tuckitor’s solid brown one, helping him onto the whale’s back.

“Hang on!” she shouted. Tuckitor fixed his arms around his grandmother’s glimmering waist, and together they rode the majestic creature. “For every wrong-doing there is a cost,” Mimi said.

Tuckitor looked around. They were surrounded by more whales than he had ever seen in all his years whaling.

“We owe each of these creatures a life,” Mimi said. “The debt for our family is great. We have done wrong for many generations.”

Realization thundered down on Tuckitor. These were the whales his family was responsible for killing. “I’m sorry!” he shouted to them all, but their anger seethed through the epic storm of terror before him.

“A child for a child. A mother for a mother,” Mimi explained. “This is how we pay.”

His wife. His child. The whales would claim them.

“NOOOOO!” Tuckitor screamed at the giant beasts. “Please,” he begged. “Take me instead!”

But the only reply was Mimi’s. “You are only one. I am only one.”

There were so many whales to atone for. How could his family ever make it right? “I beg you!” He shouted as loud as he could above the mighty storm of the whales’ making. “Take me, but spare my family.”

Mimi gently rubbed the head of the whale beneath her. “I have given my life for this fellow. Now he and I have made our peace.”

“I want to make my peace with the mother of the baby I killed,” Tuckitor called out. “Show yourself to me so I might plead for my child as you pleaded for yours.”

He found himself face-to-face with the mother whale’s craggy eye. “Please,” he wept and moaned his pitiful plea. “Be merciful. You know what it is to lose a child. I beg you to spare mine. My family has done a terrible thing. Many terrible things. We do not deserve your mercy. We deserve to suffer, but not in death—in life. Take everything we work for. Take everything we build. Let nothing stand. Take my families’ houses and everything in it for all eternity!”

The mother whale’s massive body leapt from the ocean to slam down a hurricane of vengeance which would swallow Tuckitor, the Hatterasks’ last remaining ship, his house, the photograph of Mimi, Grandpop’s blubber fork, the bag of oysters on the counter, the tea kettle. Everything would be destroyed. All but an eagle scrimshaw, safe in the top of the lighthouse. The Hatterasks would be forced to rebuild. Again and again for eternity. There would be days of hunger, but Tuckitor’s family would live. His wife, his son, his father, his grandfather, every life would be spared except his own. The revenge of the whales would take everything but lives, because a mother whale was merciful. Tuckitor’s soul rose from the depths of her belly to ride atop her back. The trade was made. This was Tuckitor’s last and most magnificent swim.

 

“Tuckitor’s Last Swim” copyright © 2014 by Edith Cohn

Art copyright © 2014 by Michael Manomivibul

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