First there was blackness and peace. Then, there was dazzle and sound. I was born into an alien world.
I heard rough voices. The smell was horrible, a concoction of body odor, mold and rust. I was paralyzed by fear.
I gradually opened my eyes. A hovering shadow snorted, “ He’s awake mates!” There were shouts of laughter.
An ugly face appeared in my field of vision; walleyed, broken nose, face pitted and scarred. His unshaven jaw had a malicious grin.
I said weakly, “Where am I?” then surprised, “WHO am I?” My mind was blank. I had no idea where I was - WHO I was. I was newborn. I was terrified.
There were four of them. They laughed again. The biggest and nastiest said, “That doesn’t matter mate. You’re OURS now.”
My faculties were coming back. I was inside a confined space, surrounded by loud vibrations. I said confused, “How did I get here?”
That prompted more raucous laughter. The guy with the walleye said, “We found you after we cast-off. We didn’t have time to take you back to your mommy.”
I said panicked, “Where am I?”
A skinny guy, shaven head, red beard down to his chest and a badly done tattoo-sleeve snorted and pointed to his left. He said, “That’s Yarmouth over there. You can go home if you swim sixty miles.”
I gestured, ‘Where’s THIS?”
The tattooed guy said, sounding a little less amused, “You’re on a tramp.”
I sat up. But I was in a bunk. I cracked my head on the frame and flopped back to more loud guffaws.
I was still groggy. However, I was becoming more alert. I rolled out of the bunk and put my feet on the metal floor. I said cautiously, “What’s a tramp?” The room spun. I felt sick to my stomach.
That brought on more hilarity. Apparently, I was a very funny guy.
The bearded dude said, “Tramp freighter, outbound from London with 20,000 tons of miscellaneous cargo. The first port is Reykjavik.” He added, like he was talking to a child, “We’re a tramp because we carry anything we can scare up.”
My entertainment value ceased the minute the crew informed me that I’d been shanghaied. So, everybody wandered off except the bearded guy. He was staring at me with blatant contempt.
I sat gazing into space. My brain was starting to reboot. I knew stuff. But I couldn’t remember who I was, or where I lived. It was like my entire life had been wiped. It was a strange empty feeling, frightening as hell.
The bearded guy cut my reverie short, “Captain told me to bring you to him when you sobered up.”
He headed toward the hatch. I sat frozen, heart hammering, gripping the thin mattress of the bunk, afraid to move. The guy stopped and gave me an angry look. I took a deep breath and said, “Coming!”
I stood. The room spun. I grabbed the top bunk and steadied myself, taking deep breaths. My guide grunted impatiently; walked back, turned me and shoved me. I stumbled forward and caught myself on the hatch coaming. I got the message.
We emerged into an overcast and blustery world. I was at the bow of a ship and there was a structure that was clearly the place where I was headed almost half-a-football-field away.
It was summer but the fierce wind off the bow made it bone chilling and hard to stand. The gusts reminded me that I was wearing a thoroughly trashed tuxedo, with vomit stains on the pants. I pulled up my collar to ward off the cold.
The guy accompanying me laughed maliciously. He was in a t-shirt and filthy jeans. He said with disdain, “You won’t last – faggot.”
Shock helps people cope. You disappear into your subconsciousness. I couldn’t remember my name, or the name of any of my loved ones. I didn’t know where I lived, or anything about my life. I was confused and frightened. Still, whoever I was, was slowly returning.
Our footsteps rang on the tween-decks ladder. Not a word was said. We emerged into a compartment that had an unrestricted view. It was light and warm and not as noisy. The space was filled with unfathomable machinery and electronic gear. I was filled with apprehension.
There were a couple of older men with a younger guy. They appeared to be steering the ship. They turned to look at me.
There was another man standing behind the group. That fellow beckoned. I got the impression he was appraising me as we approached.
He was tall, with a seafarer’s gaze. He looked kind. I instinctively liked him. He turned to the deckhand and said in an accent that sounded faintly Norwegian, “That will be all Nobby. Now get back to work.”
The deckhand started to walk away. The fellow, who was obviously the Captain, made an angry noise. Nobby waved a salute and said, “Aye Cap’n. Then he slouched off obviously pissed.
The Captain watched the retreating deckhand with distaste. He said, “Nobby’s a stupid animal, just like the rest of them. But he’s the best we can get.”
Then he said, all-business, “Let’s go into the Mess and we can talk.” There was a passageway behind the Bridge. It led to a larger room. This was clearly where the people who ran the ship ate.
The Captain said, “We didn’t discover you until we were underway and there’s no turning around in the shipping business. Who are you and why did you stow-away?”
I said, trying to convey the bewilderment that overwhelmed me, “I was hoping you’d tell me. I have no idea who I am, or why I’m here, or anything about my former life.”
The Captain looked incredulous. He said, “Come on now? Do you think I’m an idiot??! Who are you? What are you running from?”
I said imploringly, “I know it sounds crazy. But I really don’t remember anything about myself. I can recall a lot of things. But I can’t tell you my own name. I’m hoping that I can get the authorities to help me when we get to our destination.”
The Captain stroked his goatee, lost in thought. Finally, he said, “Well, you can’t ride for free, that’s for sure. But I suppose I can put you to work. What can you do to help-out?”
I thought for a minute. I said, “I knew a lot about computers.”
The Captain said, “We only have one computer and it keeps all of our records. I wouldn’t let you touch that. What else do you do?”
I drew a blank. The talents I could recall wouldn’t help. Abilities like how to fly an airplane, or play an elegant game of snooker, or select the right suit for a business meeting, were clearly out of the question. I finally shrugged and said, “I really don’t have anything useful that I can do.”
The Captain thought for a second. He was a decent guy. But he wasn’t willing to transport me for free and it was obvious that he wasn’t going to put a stowaway in any position of responsibility.” He looked around the room deep in thought. Then he seemed to come to a head-smacking decision.
He said, “Of course!! I know how we can use you. We have passengers on this leg. You can work your trip as a steward.”
That sounded a lot better than shoveling coal below decks; if shoveling coal was what sailors did these days. I said, “Well, I DO know how to serve people.” Although my memory was of being served rather than doing the serving.
He said, “Good, you can bunk and mess here. That will keep you away from the deck hands.” He added by way of explanation, “You wouldn’t last long in the focsle. Let me introduce you to the cook.”
That was a relief. The Captain believed me, as unlikely as my story sounded. He was a decent guy, smart and compassionate. He used his authority for the good of his ship. What happened later was a pity.
That was how I began my career as a waiter, busboy and general all-around manservant.
The cook was a character. I later found out that being two-bubbles-out-of-plumb was part of a shipboard cook’s job description. He had been at sea since he was a kid. He was drunk most of the time and he wasn’t cordon-bleu. I was surprised I knew what that term meant. But Cookie could feed a ship full of hungry sailors and any passengers who might be along for the ride.
Cookie was short and skinny, with a neck like a vulture. His head was completely bald, and he had a buzzard’s beaky nose. His pipe-stem arms were covered in intricate tattoos. He even had a classic, “Arrr Matey,” seafaring voice - I kid you not. I suppose it’s what you get after a lifetime of drinking and beating the fuck out of yourself.
Cookie looked like he was in his early sixties. He had no-doubt been whip-slim and agile in his younger days. But that was 30, or 40 years ago. Now he was frail and broken by years of hard work. But then again, you couldn’t tell it from his attitude, which was eternally grumpy.
The captain told him that I was working my passage as a cabin steward. The cook looked like he was hoping the captain would suffer instant buyer’s remorse.
The captain said by way of orders to me, “We have guests on the leg to Reykjavik. I want you to make sure they are well cared for.”
Having learned from what I’d seen earlier, I saluted smartly and said, “Aye Captain, they’ll get the royal treatment.”
The captain looked with disgust at my trashed tuxedo. He said to the cook, “We need to get him a proper steward’s uniform. Take him to stowage and get him something to wear.” Then he added like an afterthought, “He can sleep in stowage too.”
It turns out that stowage had nothing to do with my “stowing away.” It was a room attached to the galley. They stored things in it, like a big pantry. It was full of useful stuff, discarded clothes and all the paraphernalia for the mess. I could make a bed out of the linens.
The cook selected an all-white get-up, pants and tunic. I looked like the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man. But at least I didn’t stink of vomit.
He left, and I looked at my reflection in a porthole. I saw a tall, lean guy, three-day stubble, on a long face, pale, almost translucent skin, high cheekbones with a thick shock of brown hair and deep grey eyes. The face looked more intellectual than ass-kicker. I wondered who I was.
I walked back to the galley. The cook glanced at me with scorn. That seemed to be every crew member’s opinion of me.
I said mildly, “Look, I have no idea why I’m here and I’m scared to death. So, I just want to get off at the first stop. In the meantime, I would appreciate it if you would help me. I don’t have a clue as to what I’m supposed to do.”
The cook eyed me icily and said, “You work hard, do what I tell you and don’t question me. We won’t have a problem if you follow them rules.”
So, we had come to an understanding. It was a small start and my anxiety level dropped from just-about-to-stroke-out, to merely hypertensive.
That evening, I was wearing my all-white steward’s uniform and looking very subservient. I was fretfully waiting to serve dinner. The nerves were understandable. I’d lost every aspect of my identity.
I was wracking my brain as I laid out the dining service. But I couldn’t remember anything about myself. The weird part was that I knew a lot. I just didn’t KNOW that I knew it. That is, until I had to remember something.
For instance, I knew the utensil placement for a formal table setting and I knew why it was important. I also knew that my knowledge was something that I’d acquired during my upbringing. But I couldn’t envisage parents, or family.
I didn’t know whether I was married or even how old I was. I looked like I was in my thirties but the life experiences that would tell me my actual age were as alien as the Bermuda Triangle.
Snippets of songs popped in my head like earworms, and I had occasional flashes of movie scenes and the faces of TV stars. But I didn’t know names, only faces.
I was told to be unobtrusive. So, I was standing like a potted plant against the cabin wall when the eight passengers arrived. This wasn’t a fancy cruise ship. Everybody ate together.
There were a couple of batty old English duffers. They appeared to be a “couple” if you catch my drift. There was a family, composed of a husband and wife and two well-behaved kids. I assumed they were Icelandic although they spoke excellent English. Then there was the priest and his daughter.
I knew he was clergy by the collar. I assumed he was an Anglican rather than Catholic. Otherwise he was in big trouble with the Pope.
The daughter was a classic English rose. She was short, perhaps five-one and busty with a sheaf of long, thick shining blond hair and that perfect clear British complexion. Her lovely, round, innocent face featured the most amazing pair of wide-set, expressive, cornflower-blue eyes. She glanced shyly at me. I tried to put on my best impassive servant’s demeanor.
I hustled back and forth between the galley and the mess with plates of the food. There was no ordering. This was a tramp freighter. I also refilled the drinks. I knew that the wine I was serving was cheap and I knew how to pour it with the proper little swirl. But I didn’t know how I had gotten that knowledge.
The mess wasn’t spacious, and I was a new feature. So, the passengers were mildly curious. I gave them deferential answers, just like the butlers I’d seen in the movies. Except I had no idea where, or when I’d seen those films.
The passengers treated me politely, like you would a good servant. I found to my surprise that I was motivated to be the best waiter I could be. The need to excel, even if it was in the servant role, seemed to be a basic part of my programming. I filed that tidbit to think about later.
By the third day at sea, I had the routine down-pat. I rose at three AM to have coffee and breakfast ready for the middle watch. Then Cookie and I got regular breakfast for the passengers and the guys going on the morning watch. Once we had cleaned up, we did lunch for the forenoon watch and anybody else who wanted it. We did dinner at the end of the first dog watch and I was tucked into my cozy closet by the start of the first watch.
It was the middle of the night and we were passing south of the Fair Isle light. I could see it in the distance. I was leaning on the ship’s rail watching the water rush past. I couldn’t sleep.
I was bundled in a watch-coat and cap from the ships stores. I had scrounged-up a pair of old jeans from the discarded clothes bin and serviceable boots that didn’t quite fit. I had a thick fisherman’s knit sweater. The captain had leant me that. Still, the cold was threatening to seep into my bones.
For the first couple of days I’d lived from minute-to-minute. My only goal was survival. All thought and emotion went into adjusting to my status as a stranger-in-a-strange-land. Now, the routine was part of my new normal and it pushed me into a state of deep depression.
I knew that I was going to be in my present circumstance for three more days. Then we would arrive in Reykjavik and I would have to leave my familiar surroundings to forge a life for myself; all without memory or prospects. I think anybody facing those odds would simply step over the side and get it over with.
I was considering doing just that when a sweet English voice said, “It’s eerily beautiful isn’t it?” I almost fell overboard; notwithstanding my original musings. I turned and a huge pair of innocent blue eyes were gazing hopefully at me.
The four passenger cabins were clustered along the bridge deck right behind me. She must have glanced out the porthole, seen me standing there and come out to be sociable. The only thing I’d felt since waking up in the focsle was fear. Now, my little friend added another emotion, interest.
I tried to sound friendly as I said, “Night at sea is like nothing else. Look at those stars.” The crystal-clear blackness of the sub-arctic sky was covered in cosmic diamonds.
She said shyly, “You get a sense of how insignificant you are when you’re on the ocean. It’s really kind of intimidating. There’s civilization around you when you’re in London. Here, the forces of nature can swallow you in an instant.”
That was profound. I took a better look at her. She was an odd contrast of innocence and sexuality. Her face was gorgeous in a classic English way, huge blue eyes, snub nose and full succulent lips over a cute little pointed chin. The long, thick shining blond hair only added to the impression of Alice in Wonderland.
Her body seemed slightly chubby, curvy and round with oversized tits and sturdy hips. The thought crossed my mind, “We used to call those birthing hips.” Where did I get THAT from?
I chuckled companionably and said, “When you’re on the open ocean, you understand why seafaring people believe in mystical powers.” She looked at me like I’d surprised her. No shit! I’d surprised myself.
She said, “I’m Danae. People call me Dani.”
I knew about the original Danae. She was the human woman Zeus impregnated with a golden shower. I didn’t want to even THINK about what that symbolized.
Danae’s father set her adrift in a box after she’d birthed Perseus. It turned out alright in the end. But it was touch and go for a while. Yes! I know ... The part of my upbringing that allowed me to dredge up that story was a mystery.
I blurted out, “Like in the myth, Perseus’s mother.”
She looked at me speculatively and said who ARE you? You certainly don’t look, or act like a ship’s steward?”
Seriously??!! Now there was a question for the ages. How was I going to tell her that I didn’t know who I was?
I said, “I’m Nemo.” I knew it was Latin for “nobody.” But she was so young she probably thought I was referring to a little lost clownfish.
I added sincerely, “I’ve been a ships steward my whole life,” which was exactly four days at that point.
She looked skeptical and said, “As in Captain Nemo?” Well she knew her Jules Verne, and again I had no idea why I recognized that. I laughed and said, “Nope, just plain Nemo.”
She looked at me flirtatiously and said, “Well pleased to meet you Nemo and I hope we see each other a lot on this voyage.”
I tried to maintain my impassive servant’s face as I said, “At your service madam.”
The next night, I was awakened by a pounding on my stowage door. We were in the neighborhood of the Faeroes.
My visitor was the First Mate, Mr. Francis. I never knew whether that was his first name, or his last. He had rushed back from the bridge to order me to round up the passengers and get them into the lifeboat.
SOLAS regulations require one designated crew member for every lifeboat. That dates back to the Titanic – for good reason. Since our ship was extremely short staffed, they chose me. Nobody ever needs lifeboats in this wired age, and I couldn’t do anything else, except baby-sit the passengers.
Francis yelled, “Ships on fire!! Take the passengers to the port aft lifeboat station and get them boarded.”
That particular lifeboat was special. It was something that they called “free-fall.” Meaning it was launched using a slide, rather than winched down. That way you could get by in a pinch with only one crew member. They had given me a half-hour crash course on how to operate it. I discovered to my delight that I was a quick study.
It was 2:19 AM. I was still wearing a Rolex Oyster Perpetual. That wasn’t because the crew was honest. They’d gotten everything else of value. But the watch was jammed so far up my arm that nobody noticed it.
I went from cabin to cabin knocking on doors. I was trying to project calm. The last thing I needed was panic among the passengers. When each of them answered, I told them to dress warmly and meet me between the cabins and the aft railing of the bridge deck. I could smell the fire burning forward.
They were all quietly assembled, bundled up and carrying some hand luggage. I doled out the life vests and then I led them down the ladder from the bridge deck to the main deck.
The passenger lifeboat looked like a dayglow orange turtle, with a little dome, for a head. The boat had a hatch and a boarding ladder. It was well over twenty feet long, and completely enclosed. It had one of those pump-jet systems with a ducted propeller acting as an impeller. You steered the thing by changing the direction of the impeller.
I helped each passenger up the ladder and into the boat. The Icelandic family went first because they had the kids, then the pair of old English queens and finally the priest and his daughter. She was looking at me with shining eyes, like I was doing something heroic. I didn’t want to tell her that I was doing it because I was useless anywhere else.
I had the last of them boarded and secured by belts. A gravity launched lifeboat is like a cork. It plunges down a slide and into the water. So, it was important that everybody be belted in when that happened.
I was standing at the foot of the ladder waiting for somebody to tell me what to do. Mr. Francis came rushing back. He looked a little singed. He said in a distraught voice, “We’re abandoning ship. The crew’s launching the offload boats. Get the passengers in the water now!”
I said incredulous, “You mean you want me to do this by myself?”
I’m not sure he understood me. Because he said angrily, “The hold is going to blow any minute. Get off this ship!!” and he turned around and raced back forward.
I wondered what we’d been carrying. I suppose tramp freighters can’t be choosers.
I made my way up the ladder, strapped myself in the bosun’s seat and said, “Hold on everybody. This is going to be a wild ride.”
I pulled the lever. The release activated. We shot down the rail and over the side. There was a bone-jarring impact and I could see through the dome’s porthole that we were almost under water. Then the boat righted itself, which is what it was designed to do.
I said shakily, “Is everybody all right?” Just then, there was a godawful explosion, a shockwave and a few seconds later a huge wave buried the boat again.
All of the passengers screamed in fright. Hell, I was screaming. The boat righted itself once more. Suddenly there was nothing but silence, the sound of waves breaking, and people sobbing.
Frankly I didn’t know what had happened. All I cared about was that we were still okay. The lifeboat was fully enclosed and watertight. There was emergency lighting, so I counted heads.
The boat was twenty-six-feet-long and fourteen-feet-wide. It was a sealed container with deep benches along the side and storage at each end. There were portholes distributed along its length. I was sitting slightly higher than the rest, strapped into a little seat with the wheel and engine controls in front of it. That gave me a view out the cupola.
The only thing I could see outside were breaking waves and rain. There was a glow off in the distance that might have been the sinking ship.
I was beginning to think that I must have really pissed-off some vengeful god. Because in less than seven days I had gone from the shock of losing my identity, to the shock of being shipwrecked. That had to be a Guinness record for the Jonas’s of the world.
I said, trying to sound optimistic, “I’m sure they sent a distress signal. Somebody will find us. In the meantime, let’s inventory our supplies.” I didn’t believe a word of what I’d just said. But I didn’t want the passengers to fret.
The boat was designed for twenty people and we only had nine, two of whom were kids. So, there was a lot of room and abundant stores. The Icelandic man, who seemed like a stalwart son of the Vikings, rose and moved to the forward locker. His wife was comforting the children who were holding up pretty well.
The Priest and the two ancient British queens were in the front griping about the quality of the trip and how vigorously they planned to complain. At least the old farts weren’t bugging me.
I went to the aft locker and was joined by Dani. She gave me a steadfast look and said, “How can I help?” Great, She wasn’t going to go all girly on me.
I said, “We need to find out what supplies we have.” She nodded and started rummaging and stacking contents like an industrious little chipmunk.
Once we went through the lockers, we found water and emergency rations. We also found some sleeping bags and thermal blankets. Those would come in handy, because the inside temperature had dropped into the upper 40s. There were flashlights, a flare gun and loads of flares. There was also a hand-held radio. We could use that to contact our rescuers.
Finally, there were some utilitarian things, a shovel, a couple of wicked looking knives and an axe. There was also an old Colt 1911.45 caliber automatic pistol. The clip was full, and one was in the pipe.
As the authorized “ship’s officer” I confiscated the Colt. I had no idea why I was so naturally proficient with guns. But I was getting used to knowing odd things.
Then, we settled down to wait. The lifeboat was being bounced around by the wind and high waves and the ride made it hard to sleep. But the kids and the three old people managed. The Icelandic couple just sat quietly on the bench holding each other
I was trying to keep us headed into the waves and out of the troughs. The wheel at the conning position was linked to the impeller. I was running the propulsion system on the battery. I didn’t want to use up our precious diesel fuel. The gauge said we were about ten percent through the charge.
Dani was sitting with me, engaging in small talk. She was clearly trying to help me pass the time. I learned a lot about her; besides the fact that she was fiercely loyal. She was twenty-seven and just finishing her studies at London Southbank University.
Her father had a living in Southwark and the two of them were on some kind of cooperative agreement mission with the Lutherans in Iceland. She had come along on the trip just to take care of him.
She had been doing that her entire life. Dani’s mother had left when she was nine. Dani was forgiving. She said stoically, “My father can be difficult at times.” That was an understatement.
I asked her what she planned to do when they got back. She said that she had a teaching license and she was going to work at an infant-school in Reading.
I got the impression that she wanted to find a husband and have kids. But that she had postponed her life because she was devoted to her dad. I thought to myself, “This girl is like a character out of a Jane Austen novel,” which of course made me wonder where I got THAT analogy.
Dani appeared to be innocent to a fault. She didn’t outright say that she was a virgin. But she dressed and acted like a righteous church-girl and I got the impression she had led a sheltered life in the rectory.
I wasn’t having carnal thoughts. You have to have a sense-of-self in order to generate sexual energy. In my case, every emotion except fear and anxiety had been wiped from my consciousness. Hence, there was no steam in the boiler - so to speak.
Dani kept trying to get my story. She said, “You’re an American, right? I can tell it from your accent.” Now that was news. I put it in the pile of things I’d recently discovered.
She wouldn’t let up. So, I spun her a yarn about how I was an orphan, gone to sea to escape foster care. I told her that I read a lot and that’s the reason why I sounded like I was well educated. That might be true. But it was more likely a plot from a Kathleen Woodiwiss novel.
Dani was easy to fool. She was an inexperienced girl and I had no point of reference to contradict myself. So, I convinced both of us.
Our conversation went on in that vein for several hours. I finally began to discern the wolf-light before dawn. The waves had settled-down and I could see where we were going. I started the little diesel to give us better headway and charge the battery.
We meandered along for most of the next day. If other lifeboats had launched, we never encountered them. Finally, I saw an island in the distance. I knew we had been quite close to the Faroes when we had been shipwrecked. This might be one of them.
We were lucky. Dry land was a better proposition than bobbing in a lifeboat and we could build a fire. When I got near the island, I could see that it was small and rocky, with steep cliffs that ran down to a narrow stony beach.
The sky was slate grey and it was foggy. There were gulls and puffins circling the foreboding crags. There also seemed to be a glow inland. Damn!! that was ominous. I thought, “God! I hope it’s not a volcano!”
Then, it was like we crossed an invisible line and the day, which had been overcast and gloomy, turned almost as dark as night. I flicked on the boat’s forward-facing lamp and there was a vicious snow squall blowing around us. I guess that explained the sudden dark.
I threw on full power as we entered the little cove. The shingle was covered with small round stones which actually helped when I beached us.
I ran the lifeboat as far as I could get on shore. That would give us a stable base until somebody rescued us. We were hard aground. But I planned to pull the boat further up tomorrow. There was plenty of rope and the underlying stones would aid in the pulling.
We bedded down for our second night shipwrecked. There were four sleeping bags. The old queens were crammed together in one, as were the Icelandic mom and dad. The priest had his own and Dani had given her sleeping bag to the children. The two of us had nothing but thermal blankets and it was getting cold.
I was lying on the stern bench, near the steering position. Dani came back to where I was and said bashfully, “Could we sleep under these blankets together? We’re fully clothed so it isn’t like we would be violating any rules of propriety. We’d just be conserving body heat.”
How quaint, but it was an excellent idea. The two of us huddled together actually produced enough warmth that the night was tolerable if not exactly comfortable.
We fell asleep back to back. But Dani was sprawled half on me when I awoke, head on my chest big tits squashed between us and I had a hand holding her at the small of her back.” Her light snores sounded like she was purring.
I let her sleep while I toyed with a memory. Our position evoked the sense that I had done this before with somebody I loved. It was a bittersweet recollection given that I was lying with a virginal church girl, aground in a lifeboat, in the middle of a blizzard, on a mysterious island, somewhere in what I assumed was the Faroe chain.
I also noticed something. I gently moved Dani off me and got into the conning position. I could see that we were back afloat. Drat!! I hadn’t accounted for the tides. We had apparently come in at low tide then refloated in the flood. I realized that I could use that to move us the rest of the way up the beach.
It was full daylight now and everybody had slept long enough. They could go back to sleep if they hadn’t. I backed off a little distance and put the impeller on full speed ahead. The jolt woke everybody up, as we ran far enough up the beach to make it permanent.
The old folks complained and went back to sleep. As did the kids. The Icelandic couple joined Dani and me for a freeze-dried breakfast cooked over the little propane stove.
They were a couple of Vikings, or at least what I imagined a Viking ought to be. Iceland didn’t have an indigenous population until the Norse showed up, and after that their communities didn’t intermix with the rest of Europe. Hence, Icelanders more-or-less look like the original lot.
Back in the Viking days, Iceland was as far from Europe as you could get and still be within sailing range. Even today, it is the most sparsely populated country in Europe and its language is closer to old Norse than any other spoken. So, when I said that our new castaway friends were Vikings, I meant it.
The man was taller and a lot more muscular than I was. Dark blond with classic square forehead, Nordic features and a neat well-trimmed beard. The woman, whose name was Birgit, had very abundant dark red hair. That reminded me that the Vikings also brought Irish slaves. Don’t bother to ask – I still didn’t know where my knowledge came from.
Unlike Dani, Birgit was handsome rather than beautiful; strong body, with an oval face, high cheekbones and Scandinavian features with intelligent green eyes. We discussed the situation over breakfast and the man, whose name was Ivar, and I decided to do a little scout around.
Both women insisted on coming. I was sure that Birgit would hold up. She was almost six feet tall, and both the Icelanders were dressed in anoraks.
Dani was another matter. She was much smaller than the rest of us and she was clearly a rectory cat, not a wilderness one. Also, Dani had on a heavy wool coat. But it wasn’t designed for wet weather like my watch coat.
I reminded her that the kids would need looking after. Her eyes softened, and she said, “Then I’ll stay here and do that.” She clearly loved kids.
We opened the hatch and dropped to the ground. The tide was out, and I could see that the boat was permanently beached. But we needed a place to stay on dry land.
The lifeboat had a decent pair of binoculars, which Ivar was carrying. He said, “This looks a lot like the area around Isafjordur. That is one of the most desolate areas of our very difficult island.” He did a scan along the cliffs, stopped and rescanned. He said excitedly, “I see something.”
Both his wife and I said, “What?!! Do you see any sign of civilization??” I had visions of remote weather stations stocked with gallons of hot coffee.
He turned toward us and said puzzled, “No, but I DO see the mouth of a large cave with a path leading up from the beach.” That was disappointing.
We walked down the rocky shore, to the winding dirt trail. It appeared to have been created by generations of people tramping up to the cave. It was narrow but serviceable. We got to a big semi-circle of flat ground, in front of the cave mouth. Ivar stopped short and stared.
He said stunned, “My God!!!”
Both his wife and I said simultaneously, “WHAT??”
He was gazing at some scratching on the rock at the cave entrance. He said under his breath, “It’s Futhorc.”
I looked puzzled. He collected himself and said, “Those are runes. They say “Gnipahellir.” That is the name of the cave to Hel.”
That didn’t enlighten me. His wife said by way of clarification, “Icelandic heritage and culture is Ivar’s passion. He’s studied it since he’s been a boy. Runes are the ancient letter script used by the Norse people.”
Ivar added, “And somebody has written the name of the legendary cave to the Norse underworld next to this entrance. In the sagas it is guarded by Garmr the hellhound. It leads to the region that the Vikings called Hel.”
I looked incredulous and said, “Like Hell? Eternal damnation? Devils with pitchforks? Lots of fire? That kind of Hell?”
Ivar gave me a grim smile and said, “Same word, entirely different concept. For the old Norse, Hel isn’t a reward for good behavior or punishment for wickedness. It’s a continuation of life somewhere else. It’s just a place where people eat, drink, fight, work and so forth.”
Okay, that made sense. But it didn’t solve our current problem. I said, “We need a protected place to wait for our rescue. Is there anything in Norse mythology what would prevent us from bedding down in this particular cave?”
He laughed and said, “Well supposedly it’s the residence of a gigantic bloodstained wolf named Garmr. But he doesn’t appear to be living here at present. So, by all means let’s explore.”
The cave mouth was perhaps twelve feet round. It was solid rock with a flat, well worn bottom. An image of a “lava tube” flashed through my mind. I knew that those things were created by volcanic activity.
Then I remembered the red glow. I was even more convinced that there was something volcanic going on further inland.” I lit one of the hand flares and held it over my head. We walked into the cave accompanied by garish red light.
We walked down the smooth rock passage perhaps a quarter mile. The temperature went from freezing to almost unbearably hot. We were clearly approaching some kind of magmatic activity. There were no rumblings. But we heard the sound of rushing water. There was evidently an underground river ahead.
We had passed through a temperate zone just after we entered the cave. There was no need for our coats in that region. So, we took them off. Standing there in my jeans and fisherman’s sweater I realized that this was an ideal place to settle-in for the duration. We didn’t even need a fire.
Finding the cave actually gave me an unwarranted sense of security. We were protected and warm, and we could wait out any period required to rescue us. We had plenty of food and some useful technology. We had a radio and a GPS signal. We were going to make it.
I was starting to forget that I was a nameless blob, a nobody without a past and with a very uncertain future. I had survived so far by living in the moment and perhaps that was the secret.
I had friends around me and a woman who piqued my interest. I thought to myself, “Sometimes you can worry too much about the indefinite future.” I decided that it was time to let the winds of fate blow me to whatever destination I was meant to reach.
So, we returned to the lifeboat and moved our little group up to the cave. Nobody could be expected to foresee, or even believe what happened next.
We settled into our warm and cozy new home. We had enough water and freeze-dried food to last a couple of months and Ivar told me that puffin eggs were an excellent way to supplement that diet. We had an emergency locator that broadcast GPS coordinates. I was confident that somebody would hear the signal and respond sooner-or-later.
It went back to blizzard conditions as night fell. We considered ourselves incredibly lucky. Living on the lifeboat in the cold and winds would have been unadulterated hell. The group bedded down and tried to get comfortable on the rock floor. I planned to explore to the back of the cave the next day.
There was plenty of driftwood and even a few dead trees. So, we built a protective fire at the cave’s mouth. It was a stone-age measure to keep away unwanted visitors.