Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The First Line Winter Challenge: Ships and Heartbreak

Many of my new year's goals of 2012 carried over into 2013, including my intent to write more. To keep myself motivated I try to write and submit entries to literary journals. This was my - albeit unsuccessful - submission to the winter edition of The First Line. I'm just proud I completed and submitted it!


On a perfect spring morning with flat seas and clear blue skies, Captain Eli P. Cooke made a terrible mistake.  The captain could not believe his own misjudgment.  He stood at the bow of his ship “Constance” named after his wife and glared in the early morning sun.  The horizon sat unwaveringly in front of him as calm as glass.  Closing his eyes Eli took a deep breath, feeling it catch under his ribs.  He forced his eyes open and gripped the rough railing tightly, steeling himself for the day ahead.  As he turned and strode back to the captain’s quarters, he could not fathom how he would face it.

Constance Cooke stood at the kitchen sink looking out at the placid sea.  She hummed under her breath, thankful the weather would be pleasant for her husband’s sea voyage.  He was not going very far, just a several ports north, but she was a true sailor’s wife and she knew how inconvenient even the slightest change in weather could be.  Captain’s wife, she corrected herself smiling.  Eli had been sailing North at least every month, sometimes every fortnight but Constance did not worry.  He had been born a sailor and on the ocean was where he belonged.  She had her responsibilities to the home and hearth and the time apart would seem like an instant when he had returned to her.

James O’Connor awoke with a start and sprang out of bed.  Today was the day and he had many things to do in preparation. He shaved and dressed carefully, stopping only for a moment to glance admiringly at the clear sky outside his window.  He soon rushed into the gentle spring morning and headed toward the harbor.  

Captain Cooke did the rounds and insured all was running well on board the Constance before he settled himself behind the large oak desk in the Captain’s quarters. Maps and charts lay scattered across the aged boards, depicting the best paths through dangerous waters and the phases of the moon.  The Captain did not need to reference these charts; he knew it by heart.  He had grown up on the merchant ships of his father and uncles, and he had demonstrated a knack for all things sailing at a precocious age.  He had joined a company as soon as he turned 16.  He loved the boats, the ocean breeze, the comradery amongst the sailors.  He had made lifelong friends, many of whom now worked the rigging or cooked the meals on his own ship today.  He had also met Constance’s brother while on trading business down south eight years ago and not longer after had the chance to meet Constance.  They had married a few months later.

Eli thought of his wife.  He imagined what she would be doing in their seaside home this beautiful spring morning.  The house would be spotless already, and all the meals for the day in preparation.  Constance was an excellent homemaker and more importantly, a kind-hearted companion.  She understood the life of a sailor, a Captain, and uncomplainingly kept house and dedicated her abundant free time while Eli was at sea to a variety of good causes.  She had never once questioned his lifestyle.  She knew how much he loved the sea.

Constance walked toward town for her afternoon work at one of her organizations.  The other ladies teased her, somewhat enviously at her peace of mind and constant dedication to her sailor husband.  Many women were married to sailors in this town but most lived much more tumultuous lives because of it.  They complained over iced tea of the womanizing, gambling, and drunkenness their husbands insisted on partaking in, at home and even more troubling, in other ports.  It often seemed that all the men had picked up at least one less than savory habit while on ships, no doubt due to the need to pass the time at sea.  The women loved their men, but they struggled to achieve marital harmony like that of Constance and Eli.  Constance amusedly thought of this as she strolled in the sunshine.  She had been lucky and she knew it everyday.  As she passed the church she crossed herself, thanking the universe for her husband, her life, and the calm sea.

James O’Connor stood at the end of the old rock jetty his hand shielding his eyes in the growing sun of late morning.  He could not believe his luck; the weather, the day, the events that lay ahead.  He scoured the horizon once more for incoming ships before turning to climb back up the jetty and head into town.  It would be several more hours until the ship came in and in the meantime, James’ stomach demanded breakfast.

Captain Cooke masterfully directed the navigation toward the port, pleased to be ahead of scheduled despite the gnawing feeling in the pit of his gut.  He had travelled many seas in all types of weather, seen comrades drowned, nearby ships capsize, and still felt relief at guiding his ship and men to promised safety.  This time, it felt even more momentous.  Eli pushed his unbidden feelings aside and began the final docking preparations.    

Upon dry land again, Eli climbed the hill toward the small main street of the sea-side village.  He had been here many times before, and each time he was happy.  He looked around him nodding acknowledgement to other seaman as he moved down the street.  “Captain Cooke!” a man’s voice called suddenly and Eli turned.  James O’Connor stood six feet away, a wide smile on his face.  “Welcome home!” he jested as he shook Eli’s hand, and together they turned down a side street.

Constance walked home in the fading light of the early evening.  Her husband always sent word to her that he had safely made it to his destination and she expected to find a note when she returned home.  She had no reason to worry, but she appreciated his thoughtfulness.  He had not mentioned when he would return, but she knew he would let her know that too.  

James and Eli sat across from each other, each taking in the changes in the other.  It had been a few months since they had last seen each other, but the men had known each other for over three years.  They had met in this port, when James had worked on repairs on the Constance.  Eli had instantly liked the young man, and often stopped to have a beer with him when in port.  They chatted and drank for a few hours before emerging into the dusk.  

The sea lay at their feet as the two men sat on the jetty.  James put his hand over Eli’s.  “Will this be the time you stay?” He asked quietly.  Eli did not respond but when James leaned over to kiss him he did not resist, as he had tried to in the past.  “We have always been happy together” James choked out “and I only want to be happy all the time.”  Eli stared transfixed at the waves crashing against the rocks, ever constant of James’ hand in his.  He had spent three years torn between here and home and he had finally set his mind in one direction.  He had agonised for years and as he had looked over the ocean that morning, he knew he could only control the damage as best as he knew how, but he could not prevent it altogether.  James leaned toward him, awaiting a response, but Eli could only stare at his ship Constance bobbing gently in the harbor.

“Mrs. Eli P. Cooke” the envelope on the doorstep read in clear black ink.  Constance stooped to pick up and turning, cast one more look over the peaceful ocean.  She busied herself in the kitchen with the evening meal, and only after that was well on its way did she open her husband’s post.  The sun sunk beneath the horizon as she read:


You have been a good and faithful wife, but I have let you down.  I will not return from the north port presently and I cannot say if I will ever return.  Please know I am safe and I have always loved you, as as well as my heart knew how.  Forgive me.

With love,

Captain Eli P. Cooke”

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