In the moonlight, the burning ship takes on the aura of a pirate schooner. It’s made with skull and bones from bow to stern. It’s easy to see outside my kitchen window in the shallow harbor. The Navarro River has flooded, granting the Dreadful safe passage.
It was the end of the last winter storm.
From up here, I can see the entire crew, each one a family or friend. They exist as skeletons seafaring ghosts.
I can see Bobby, my childhood friend. Death can’t stop him from securing the Flying Jib. His skull is cracked. His arms and legs remain broken. He’s dressed to the nines in compound fractures.
Bobby died shortly after his seventeenth birthday. We buried him in a foot of snow. He was almost a man. Bobby was an incidental passenger in a drunken driving accident.
I can see my father, too. In his prime, he was a corporate executive. He’s chill now. He’s leaning against the main Sail Mast. His stressful work is what handed him his heart attack.
Mother is tweaking the Mizzen Royal, up near the schooner's stern. Mother died in a car wreck a few years before I quit my last job. She was T-boned. She lost her head.
From way up here, I can also see the stinky bones of our childhood golden retriever. He’s asleep on deck near the bow. He was mangy, but I loved Hank.
When the wind is calm, like now, I can smell the rotting mess.
It’s not a bad smell. In fact, the bones pleasantly stink of fresh Dungeness crab. Years of salt water have done a number on them, turned them fishy.
Like all their previous visits, they’ve sailed here for a reason. They want something, me.
We always converse. Yes, they communicate.
Of course, they don't actually speak. They don’t have tongues or syllables. I won’t insult your intelligence in an attempt to convince you otherwise.
The feted ivory speaks through melody. I see them as violins and bows, as elegant sounds. Tonight, I hear their beautiful melodies in the gentle breeze.
Whales communicate. Their melodies have been described as a composition of moans, chirps, and cries. Blue and fin whale songs are nearly inaudible. Humpback whales produce the most complex songs of the lot. Their hearts are more human than fish.
Human bones are capable of deep pathos, so are dolphins.
They have one goal, the skeletons. It is to convince me to join them. I’ve explained more than once that I am not ready yet. After all, endings are so final.
Unlike most of the bone yard crew, I’ve done nothing in particular to distinguish myself. In fact I’ve failed at so many things I’ve nearly abandoned hope.
“We love you, Jack. We can't wait until you join us,” Sings Uncle Cody’s bones. Uncle Cody was killed in Viet Nam. He’s the tall skeleton with a bullet hole in his skull, directly above his right orbital socket. He has the best sense of humor for a crew with missing tongues. “I’m not ready yet, Uncle Cody!” I yell into the harmonic breeze as it sifts through the window screen.
I watch and listen for the longest time, no response. Before daybreak, the fog and wooden ship begin to shape-shift back out to sea.
When they sail, the crew is all business, no violins, and no music.
By early sunrise, they’ve completely vanished along with the fog.
I must tell you, I’m not one for pity-parties. In truth, drugs and alcohol have taken away most of my pain. That’s the problem. You see, I’m a coward when it comes to facing emotional agony. Somewhere along the way, I lost who I was meant to be, my direction.
I was married once, well, twice, if you count smart and lovely Rita right out of high school. We have a child somewhere. Her name is Megan.
Since Rita chose to never see me again, apparently, she’s infected Megan with the same disease.
These days, I live near Manchester. Manchester village is uphill as the crows fly on the east bank of the mercurial Navarro River. Manchester is in Northern California.
The hamlet is where us locals shop for groceries and get flat tires fixed. Aside from being named after a town in England, groceries, free tire air, and high priced gas prices, Manchester is not known for much else.
I built my cabin near the remote Skeleton Cove for a reason. It’s so I can be left alone. I built it cheaply, too, using discounted barn wood and discarded dock beams. Doing the labor saved me wages.
The beach along Skeleton Cove is where I do most of my thinking. It’s just a few clicks south on the California Coastal One.
Skeleton Cove was named after a nineteenth century rumor.
It got its name the same day that ancient sea faring villagers unearthed a sacred burial site in the sand. It was around 400 A.D. Each grave was a number in a row of twelve plus one. Each set of bones was buried at a 45-degree angle against the bottom of the coves cliff. Imagine the odd numbered corpses sitting in easy chairs? All the skeletons had been positioned to comfortably observe the forever changing Pacific Ocean. Impossibly so, seven of the deceased, males and females, were buried in an Egyptian Sarcophagus. The other six had been dressed in Native American attire
An Alaskan Tsunami took away the entire burial site in’67. Ever since, the cove has witnessed a multitude of paranormal activities.
You didn't sign up for history lesson, so let's get on with my story.
It’s been a few weeks since I last saw the skeletal vessel.
Since there wasn’t a crew, I took it as a sign. Since that last starry night, the ghostly ship only sails in my dreams.
I must tell you, I am a few threads shy of unraveling today.
I lock the cabin’s door behind me. I check the lock twice as usual. Next, I heave my only door key over the brushy cliff.
It’s too early. Somehow I pull myself together. I get in my truck and move out.
Come along. I'm driving the few miles to work. It’s been a while, me working. But, I got a last minute phone call.
I reluctantly agreed to work at this vintage, otherworldly fish canning company. It’s called Cannery Row, oddly enough. It's a complex, morbid type of work, I’m told. It pays less than 20th-century wages. But hey, someone's got to do it. Besides, I can use the distraction.
As I drive toward the remote Cove, I anticipate yet another soulless day, a day lined up to be quickly forgotten by the living.
I keep track of time as I’m driving, the last few miles that remain, until ...
In a flash, I find myself pumping the brakes on the old Chevy pickup.
It's that damned four-point buck again, I yell inside my head.
It's just the two of us, again.
We're just south of the Cuffey's Cove Cemetery. It’s about forty feet from the infamous kink in the road that has taken more than a few lives.
Just to the right in the headlights, I can see the shiny winter grass that is matted against one of the last clinging posts of a fence. The post has become an anchor. It’s hanging on to this poor excuse of a barbed-wire fence. Precariously, what’s left of the fence hangs over the cliff wall straight down to the beach.
Century-old redwood fence slats cling to the serrated necklace. The rusty choker dangles some four-hundred feet. It's hung this way since an earthquake up in Eureka shrugged the cliff’s shoulder around 1960.
I instantly taste the sour, rusty flavor of fear at the back of my throat. It’s thick and bitter. The smell of panic and dread enters my nostrils, like when you’ve swallowed too much wasabi.
Smoke bellows up from the balding Goodyear tires. It fumes through the cracks in the floorboard.
As usual, the California One has little patience for angst or distraction and even less for tread worn daydreams and internal musings.
I wrench my neck to the left. I watch in awe as a shadow glides effortlessly over the glassy wet pavement. I smile at the buck, as he clears the double pavement yellows. He sees the highway’s no-pass strips as some kind of barrier. I don’t blame him.
How quickly he fades into the black cypress grove to the east, no worse for wear. I love how he asserts his freedom. It's not the first time we've met, saved each other.
He reminds me how nature is the closest thing to the truth on earth. Sure, she can be cruel – our words, but she’s remarkably honest. She has no need for the clumsiness of an invented conscience.
And yet, she’s kind. I imagine her allowing us to float above her somehow. I can almost visualize being tethered to her this way, attached with some magical, multifilament fishing line. Lately, I want to cut myself loose from her, as if to save her. Cut myself loose and simply float out into space. We don't deserve her. After all we've done.
I open my window and inhale the freezing moist air. I glance at my wristwatch, the rearview. I can’t be late.
So I continue driving the short distance south toward the ocean access road. South is the last direction I will ever need.
There's plenty of time before sunup.
Everything continues in slow motion. I’m at the end of this windy, winding road. I scrape the pickup truck to a halt in Skeleton Cove’s graveled parking lot. I kick the door open and leap out. I poke another Camel in my mouth, slamming the door shut with my foot. I palm the wooden match and light the cigarette. As I look around I notice only a few cars. I can hear the roar of the ocean, the open sea, a buoy, the hiss in the ship’s sails in the cove. They are out there waiting.
On my way to the rusty edge of the Pacific Ocean, I use boot and finger braille in the dark. I amble over driftwood and abandoned hut sticks. Some of the limbs are as thick as elephant trunks.
Eventually, I arrive where I need to be, right at the lip of the receding tidal surge. I can taste the baptism of salt. I can feel the sobering wind.
In the glow of a cigarette, I begin to walk along the knife edge waves and shifting plankton, south. I can hear the waves crashing. They are angry. The ocean is riotous this early morning. I can hear him. Poseidon is demanding Macbeth’s bloody hands, hands that can never be cleaned.
I've walked the miles of Skeleton Cove dozens of times. Clear out to the elbowed jetty and rocky arm of the Point Arena Lighthouse. At the end of the arm, granite in the form of fingers grips the lighthouse and land in a fist. But, I've never trekked out to the cliffs or the lighthouse this early in the morning before, certainly never on my 39th birthday.
I can hear a pirate’s cannon out in the harbor. The skeletons are signaling and waiting out outside the killer reef. The smell of gunpowder permeates the air. I can hear the wind as it whistles through the crew’s femurs, rib cages, fibula and tibia bones. I can smell the stench of rotting teeth and mossy hair. The receding tide wants me. It feels so good to be wanted.
The Pharos of Alexandria, Egypt, built the first known lighthouse.
Ptolemy and his namesake constructed it between 300 and 280 B.C. It was built on the island of Pharos, just outside the city harbor. It reached 450 feet into the bluest of sky. The lighthouse was built on the backs of slaves who toiled under Ra, the Egyptian God of the sun. The unfortunate were strapped on top of lumbering beasts the size of mastodons. It’s up there where they were forced to whip the pachyderm's eyes until they labored. For years, indentured servants moved blocks of limestone, granite, and basalt using primitive block and tackle. They rolled massive rectangular chunks of granite and limestone over round logs and up ramps, ever higher. They exerted sinew and burial bones.
Once the lighthouse was in place, it was calibrated and sighted like some kind of gargantuan cannon by this appointed caretaker. His name was Sobek.
The community of Pharos anticipated that the lighthouse’s architecture of pointing could reach the sun's fire, and that Sobek would make sure of that.
Once they mastered the sun, the Pharos postulated they could enslave all of nature and deem themselves the truest gods. The lighthouse was one of the original Seven Wonders of the Ancient World at the time.
As it turned out, Sobek proved to be mortal. He’d lied to the Pharos’s and gods about how he’d nearly touched the sun.
It wasn't until around 200 years had passed that the Pharos discovered that Sobek had died the previous century, his boney remains still perched on his ornate, golden chair. He was facing the sea. His right arm was fixed straight up in the direction of the heavens.
Like most things of beauty, including one's imagination, the Pharos lighthouse was destined for destruction.
A new caretaker was never appointed.
The demise of the Pharos lighthouse occurred in stages. First to arrive were the Libyan looters. There destruction was followed by waves of international pirates hell bent on annihilation.
Earthquakes were next. Over time, the lighthouse crumbled from the heavens, falling to earth in a pile of dust sometime in the 1300’s.
All of the lighthouse’s glorious pointing was complete.
After its collapse, the Egyptian dynasty continued to worship the sun and other true Gods of nature, but from a distance.
The locals on the coast swear that the Point Arena Lighthouse is haunted by the ghost of Sobek. They say it’s not the gigantic Fresnel lens that keeps sailors safely away from the rocky coastline, but rather the iridescent, intangible bones of Sobek.
As you can probably tell, I’m depressed and stalling for time. I abandoned the pretext of sexton and stars and any nautical notion of clarity and direction a long time ago. And, I don’t believe in ghosts. My addictions and disillusionment is what haunts me. Over the years, I have cut lose all but the thinnest filaments of hope.
And recently, I've concluded that there is little, if any, synergy between humankind and nature. That any such notion of cooperation and coexistence is simply one big shovel of bullshit. I believe the concept of enlightenment is just another transformational Coney Island card trick, a sleight-of-hand meant to steer you away from your better angels.
I've concluded that our beautiful, natural world and its inhabitants cannot coexist. As humans, we don't share the same pathos as the cosmos. We can't be trusted.
Okay, enough with the philosophizing. Let's focus on my first day of work. It’s just down the Cove a ways, the cannery. Let’s go.
There's barely enough light so I can walk in a straight line. So I fire up another cigarette. I cup the cigarette in my hand.
Any pretense of flame is lost in the windy darkness. Both the wind and the sea are roiling their diesel engines and boxcars up and down the shoreline. The ground before me is rumbling like an earthquake.
I'm a novice at this boutique fish factory shit. Still, I move forward toward Cannery Row.
I'm pumped and ready. I've had my early morning coffee with plenty of anxiety and extra espresso.
I make sure my Bluetooth is doing its best to resurrect Jimi Hendrix and his famous song, All Along the Watchtower. His ghostly music is looping inside my head. Any pretext of salvation is nonexistent. Right now, good enough is having my head way up my ass in funk and blues.
I can barely hear Jimi’s edgy guitar licks as I get closer. The jagged noise is coming from the diesel engines of the turn of the century cannery. The factory is getting larger as I walk toward it.
In the distance, I can see what looks like a mirage. The colossus structure is enveloped in fog and atmospheric darkness. All I can see is its silhouette. Rumor has it the building's crumbling architecture is chockfull of urban decay and pollution.
I can’t hear the plant's innards as they churn and whir from the metallic tenor of time worn pinions. Most of the mechanized parts in the factory grind from overuse and failure. I sense that that fabrications once powerful horsepower is failing.
It's pervasive, the sound, and disturbing.
As I get closer, I can see the buildings giant smokestack. It’s spouting fuchsia carbon dioxide. Superheated mist rises above the ancient works, spraying steam into the cracks of dawn as I approach it.
The sounds are prehistoric. Bolts and rivets are failing as they clink and clank. Gears are seizing. Everything in sight appears to be a cacophony of mechanical destruction. What have I gotten myself into?
Death is my new reality.
Standing directly in front of the massive architecture, I am in awe. It feels as though I've walked smack dab into a God-damned Steinbeck manufactory. All I can hear are delicately engineered fins and fans as they sing their song of destruction.
Next to Cannery Row, through broken windows, I listen as delicate lathes chisel chevron tin slivers and scales to the plant's floor. It’s failing. All the failing parts vibrate the soles of my boots. To the shifting wet sand, it's just another California earthquake.
Dorsal, caudal, and tailfin fins morph into wrecking balls, starfish crush and shatter beneath its weight.
I gasp. I inhale deeply. My lungs tighten and fill with the mist of blood. There is this awful taste, vicious Sashimi residue of Bluefin Tuna, flying fish, and shoals of giant mackerel. The smell is claustrophobic.
I nearly pass out.
The earth thrashes around me. Sand explodes into the sky. Angry waves pound foamy fists at the edge of the surf as I stare at this massive black, and white Titanic sprawled out before me.
I’m asked to work. So I punch in my time card.
I’m assigned a workstation on an assembly line. We have a full crew.
One after the other, we pass buckets of sea water, half-filled in haste. We need to flush the sand away from under her belly and fins. By chance she might free herself and enter the ocean. The entire process is a delicate tug-of-war with strangers, an orca, and the mighty Pacific.
And still, outside in the dark harbor, the skeleton ship waits. They want her. They want me.
We dig furiously to create erosion in the sand. It’s a last ditch effort to save her and possibly ourselves. Most of us haven’t a clue. We are wired on adrenaline.
We use branches for scoops, broken tree limbs to dig, anything that will shovel or move sand.
But the horror show won't stop. There persists this unsettling, incessant screaming. The best I can tell is that it’s coming from deep inside the whale. It's the sound of kittens drowning in a well. It's a rasping and gasping vernacular of exploding lungs and eminent death.
By 2:00 PM, the tide is at its lowest. We failed. We feel dead inside. Exhausted, we stand in a line and helplessly gaze at the massive casualty. In all the grayness we watch as the tide reverses course. Only it’s too late.
The quickening green begins to tug at us. The ocean wants us all.
The skeleton skip is calling as it gets closer. After all, we had an agreement.
Seagulls shriek. They morph into metallic alien dinner knells. Before they dine, each gull takes baptism in the reddening holy water.
One Killer Whale has died, just one. This means nothing, yet everything. I think to myself. And yet, I know that’s just bullshit.
I can hear the ocean bones as they call for me in their inevitable schooner. The bones of a giant Orca are not enough. They insist on souls.
Their melody is especially strong today, magnetic.
The tide begins to flow inland again. The keel of the ship lives for this.
They continue to call. I continue to listen. They wait for the water to rise, so they can come closer.
“We had an agreement this morning, Jack. We can dispatch a skiff for you?”
I shout at the sea before exiting the water and head to my truck, “To hell with you all. You have to wait, damn it.”
The workers look at me as if I’m crazy. Maybe I am?
A few weeks have passed. It’s interesting how things can change. I received a call from my adult daughter, Megan. She wants to see me after all. She’s been looking for me online for the longest time. Meg works in San Francisco. Who would have thought? She’d like to drive up and visit soon.
Oh, I’m back in A.A., not that it matters. I’m not sure anything is going to change.
All I know for certain is that we all left the best part of us on the beach at Skeleton Cove that day.
It's only a matter of time, for all of us, we know that. We will meet our skeleton schooners soon enough. We will all rot and wash away one day like an Orca. But now isn’t the time.
Somehow, that day on the beach, we all received a communion of compassion.
And somehow, during the tragedy, we were all blessed with hope.