The Way of the Sea
By Jeff Baker
NOTE: A sequel/continuation of the stories that began with “The Flight Into Egypt.”
Forty-one years ago it was a lot easier to show up somewhere, lie about your age and get a job, if you found the right job.
I’d been working in the back kitchen of a restaurant just off the highway in New Mexico for four months. I’d told the owner that I was nineteen and that my name was Jack Bryce, not that I was seventeen and my name was Bryce Going. I don’t think he believed me but then he paid me in cash so I didn’t press him. Also, he let me sleep in a room over the back storeroom that had a bed, a toilet and electricity. I had to share it with stacks of boxes but I’d slept in enough fields in the last few months so this was practically paradise.
The new guy I was working with was named Aegir. He was about sixty, big with grey hair and tattoos. He said he’d been in the Navy for years. He said he was still part of the sea and that the sea would always be with him. I had always fantasized about Navy men, but not him. Nonetheless, I checked out the tattoos on his bare arms. I’d gotten pretty good at checking someone out without their knowing it, a survival skill basically, but Aegir caught me staring. He grinned and held up his arms.
“You’ll never see any tattoos like these,” he said. “I saved a man’s life in the islands and so he did these for me. He said he was last in a long line of artists who knew what he called ‘The Ancient Art.’ I never knew what he meant by that.”
The tattoos were done with thin, spidery lines. They looked like ripples until you looked closer and saw outlines of sea creatures hinted at in the lines. It was masterful. I’d never seen anything like it. If I hadn’t known better I’d have sworn the creatures had changed position from one time I saw the tattoos to the next.
It was one afternoon after the lunch rush that I was washing pots and pans in the big metal sink when I heard Aegir singing. A sea chanty, I supposed, about life on the sea, amid the islands. As I kept on washing the pans the water started to slosh around by itself, reminding me of the sea. I stepped back from the sink and watched the water move by itself. Aegir’s song kept rising and falling and suddenly I felt the floor move. Up and down as if we were on a ship. I splashed my face with water and shook my head to clear it. I wasn’t imagining things. And now the wind was rising and I could smell the salt air. I looked out the window. The back room was tilting like a ship at sea; the view from the window kept rising and falling. I quickly ducked out the back door and staggered over to lean against the dumpster. There was no wind, no sea-smell, no rising and falling. I stood there and took deep breaths. There was a clattering noise as the door swung open. A dirty pan that I had set on the floor was sliding back and forth on the floor as if the floor was tilting. I closed my eyes, and then opened them again. The floor inside wasn’t tilting anymore. I walked inside.
Aegir had stopped singing. He was checking something on the menu board. I stared. I was certain the tattoo on his right bicep had changed shape. I closed my eyes again.
“Hey, Jack,” a voice said. I opened my eyes.
“Yeah,” I said.
“I may need you to come in earlier tomorrow. Aegir says he’s quitting after today.”
I nodded and mumbled a “Yes.” I’d seen some damn strange things since I was on my own but this had to be a result of too much work and not enough sleep. I stumbled over something on the floor. The pan that I’d seen moving around on the tilting floor. I’d left it by the sink, now it was over by the ice machine. I picked up the pan and put it back in the soapy water.
“Jack, me lad,” Aegir said walking back in the kitchen. “It’s true; I’m heading back to the sea where I belong.”
“Hey, congratulations,” I said, busy scrubbing the pan.
“The way of the sea, there’s nothing like it!” Aegir said. He busied himself at the table and began to sing again. Another chanty. A chill breeze began to blow in the kitchen, accompanied by the smell of salt air. I glanced over at Aegir; he looked over at me and smiled. The tattooed lines on his arms were moving like rolling waves. His eyes had become a bright sea-green.