Sunday, July 5, 2009


Elephant Words, the flash fiction site created by Nick Papaconstantinou, is a cool concept. Six writers given between a day and six days on a rotating schedule to create a short piece of writing based on a new image each week (usually prose, but it can be poetry, comics, a script, an excerpt, or any other piece of writing inspired by the image). For the first number of months, I contributed my own pieces in the public forums and eventually got the chance to be a part of the site with a six-week stint there. This is the third piece - based on the image below - I contributed to the public forums in the second official week of the site's existence. I like how the words loop around so that the opening line closes the piece, but like most of these quick "sketches" it is something I'd like to return to and expand a little for possible publication somewhere down the line. I hope you enjoy.


The Call of the Sea
by Chris Beckett

The call of the sea was urgent in his ears.

Of course, growing up on Ledge Island had afforded Jared Ames little in the way of job options. Not counting the schoolteacher or the post master, lobstering was the only vocation available to those living a dozen miles off the Maine coast. But that didn’t matter to Jared. As long as he could remember, he’d wanted to be a lobsterman.

Jared was a loner, always had been. When he was starting out, he took on a sternman, but that lasted little more than two weeks after which time Jared made it perfectly clear the man was no longer needed. People made Jared nervous, though maybe that wasn’t the correct word. Whatever it was, he didn’t care to socialize with others. It was the sea’s companionship he craved. Its quiet murmur and endless depths stirred something deep within him, and the mysteries held beneath the cold water excited his imagination like nothing else could. He had the sea in his veins, and Jared would never be rid of that.

Early on, it was obvious that Jared was just a natural lobsterman. He was always the first one out, without exception, and at night his boat was the last one in with hauls that were always overflowing. Jared was the only one on the island who would routinely slip in to dock with three lockers full of the dark crustaceans.

This success left many of the older fishermen scratching their heads. The boy, as they were wont to call Jared, had done little in the way of apprenticing, only serving as a sternman for one summer before getting his own boat and license at eighteen. There were more than a few whispers that he might be hauling in from others’ traps as well as his own, but nothing could ever be proven, and eventually those whispers faded away.

And so it was, after ten years of calloused hands and long days, that Jared Ames had gained the respect, if not the love, of the tiny community on Ledge Island. It was something that might have made the young man smile, if he’d been aware of it.



Billy Fernald looked around, but the only person that caught his notice was Jared gliding his boat into the dock. He stared at him for a second more and then went back to work.


Fernald looked up again, and this time Jared was waving to him. Bill stood up and dropped the lobster back into the tank. Tugging his ball cap off his head, Bill scratched at his thinning hair and waited for Jared to dock.

The two of them had been in the same class together, though that was true of every kid on the island. One room, K-8, with a new teacher every couple years. But Billy and Jared were the same age and grew up together. Even as children, it was obvious Jared preferred to be left alone. Billy tried to include his friend, but Jared wasn’t interested, and eventually Billy just gave up.

Once they reached eighth grade and “graduated,” the division between the two of them widened precipitously as Billy, at that point insisting on being called Bill, went to the mainland to attend high school. He boarded with a family that summered on “the Ledge” and received his diploma from Mattanawcook Academy, placing somewhere in the middle third of the class. After graduation, Bill considered doing something else with his life and took some classes at a local community college, but like most island boys he found his way back to Ledge Island in order to be a lobsterman. By the time Bill came back and got on the waiting list for sternmen, Jared was already working his way up the food chain. This engendered some resentment at first, which was exacerbated by the typically cool reception from Jared. But seven years later that was water under the bridge. Still, it didn’t dull the surprise any when the hermit came in to dock calling his name.

“Billy!” The excitement was evident on Jared’s face as he tied off his boat.

Fernald strolled over to Jared and stopped short when the grown man jumped from his boat onto the moist planks.

“How was your catch?” asked Bill.

“Good,” Jared said breathlessly.

“I finally found it,” he said as Bill looked at him curiously.


“What I been lookin’ for,” said Jared. His eyes were wide and gleamed in the afternoon sunlight. Bill couldn’t remember ever seeing him like this . . . animated, excited. It was disconcerting and he took a small step back, hopeful Jared didn’t have something that was catching.

“It’s out there they’re out there it was amazing.” Jared ignored his breathing reflex as he tried to tell Bill what he’d found.

“You need to come with me tomorrow I can take you there you’ll love it –”

“Jeezis, will you stop a second.” Bill Fernald held his hands up, trying to snap Jared out of his rambling trance.

“What are you talking about?”

“Shhh. Don’t raise your voice Bill. I don’t want everyone to hear.” Jared looked around, eyes bugging out of his head, and decided it was safe. Sidling up to Bill he leaned toward the other man’s ear and whispered softly, “Mermaids.”

Bill retreated two paces, a broad smile crossing his face.

“Fuck off,” he said, beginning to laugh.

“No. I’m serious. I saw them. They’re out there.

“They’ve been waiting for me; they said so.” Jared’s eyes glazed as he spoke about his mermaids. Bill tried to stifle his laughter out of courtesy, but in his mind he knew his friend – which was the best, if not exactly correct, description that came to mind – had finally lost it. Too many days alone on the sea had cracked Jared Ames’s psyche. And it was at this point he decided to try and re-enter society.


“Okay. You sure they weren’t seals or a whale?”

Jared cut him off. “You’re not listening. They spoke to me. They want me to join them.

“They gave me this.” From a front pocket of his coveralls, Jared pulled out a delicate necklace with a large crystal hanging from it. He held it up, light refracting through it, painting deep beams of color over the front of Bill’s t-shirt.

“That’s nice,” was all Bill could think to say.

“It’s from them.” Jared bent at the waist, a pleading look on his face. “They told me the light would shine through it more purely because it came from the sea. Look. Can’t you see how much deeper the colors are than those things Mrs. Boucher picks up in Camden?

“Look.” He stuck the crystal under Bill’s chin, insistent that his friend see what Jared saw. Bill took the necklace from Jared and turned it over in his hand, peering at it for effect. Holding it up to the light, he shut one eye and examined the crystal as he’d seen jewelers do on the mainland.

“Yeah.” Bill dragged the word out slowly. “I can see what you mean. It is a darker color.

“I’m sorry,” Bill said as he handed it back to Jared.

“So, you’ll come out with me tomorrow?”

Bill didn’t like the frantic look in Jared’s eyes. “I can’t. I need to fish if I’m gonna pay the mortgage.”

Jared’s face dropped as he returned the necklace to his pocket.

“But if I see you out there, I’ll come over and see what we can see,” added Bill as way of an apology. “Okay?”

“Yeah.” Jared waved his hand absently as he turned back to his boat.

“All right then. Maybe I’ll see you tomorrow.

“Take care, Jared.” Bill watched him walk over to the boat and then turned back toward his own where there was still a lot of work to be done before supper.


A few weeks later, Bill was walking toward the western end of the island. He and Maggie were fighting again and he needed some fresh air. The full moon hung low in the sky, its brilliance illuminating the rutted dirt pack before him. He had no destination in mind, but as he rounded a bend in the road, turning into the long shadows of the pine trees, Bill saw where his feet were leading him.

Up ahead on the right, settled back nicely beneath a patch of maple trees, sat Jared’s house. It was a small one-story shack that didn’t look like much from the outside. Approaching the driveway, Bill spied a single light shining dully behind one of the windows. He paused for a second deciding if he should go in. Ever since the conversation they’d had on the dock, Bill had been considering talking to Jared. This feeling had become more urgent since Jared had started returning from a day’s fishing with less than a flatlander’s catch. And Jared was no flatlander.
Wiping his palms on the sides of his jeans, Bill walked up the narrow path and knocked on the front door. There was no response from within, but a few seconds later Jared was standing there, the door half open, a faint stream of light shooting into the darkness.



“What brings you out tonight? Maggie pissed again?” Jared said this latter statement matter-of-factly.

Bill pulled off his worn ball cap and scratched the top of his head. “Can I come in?”

“Sure.” Jared pulled the door wider and stepped back as Bill walked inside.

“Have a seat.” Jared motioned to a tattered old recliner that had patches of duct tape on the seat and back. Bill accepted the invitation and discovered it was surprisingly comfortable for such an obvious relic.

“So. What can I do for you?” asked Jared.

“Well. I don’t know.” Bill looked down at his feet as he searched for what he wanted to say. He’d gone over this conversation a dozen times in his head already but none of it was available now.

Finally he asked, “What’s wrong with you?”

“I don’t know. What is wrong with me Bill?”

“You haven’t brought home a good catch in over a month. You’re talking to people when you see them at the post office or in the street. And you keep babbling on about these mermaids to anyone that’ll listen.

“Don’t you see how they look at you when you tell them? They think you’re a freak, and I have to agree.”

“But they are real, Bill.

“Do you know the beauty hiding under the sea out there? It’s amazing, and I want to see it. I want to see it all. And they can show me.”

“Will you shut up about this shit? God, I get shit at home and now I get shit here.” Bill stood up quickly from his seat, pacing in front of the recliner.

“I came here to see if there was some way I could help. I wanted to talk some sense to you,” continued Bill.

Jared looked up from where he’d sat down on his brown plaid couch and was touched by the worry in his friend’s eyes. But there was nothing to be done about it.

“Bill. I’m sorry you think I’m tetched, but I can’t help what I’ve seen.” The calm way he said it was unnerving. Bill wanted to grab the man he’d known as a boy and shake him. Maybe if he shouted loud enough, reality would sink in. Something had to work. But nothing would. So Bill shoved his hands deep into his pockets and made to leave.

“Where are you going?” asked Jared.

“I only wanted to get out of the house. I don’t want to fight with you too. If you’re seeing fairies, I’ll leave you to it.”

“I’m sorry you feel that way,” said Jared.

“Yeah, me too,” said Bill as he reached for the door and let himself out.


The following month went along in a similar fashion to the previous. Jared continued to be the first one out in the morning, last one in at night, but still no worthwhile hauls to speak of. Bill worried about it for that first week after their late-night discussion but soon gave up. He couldn’t divide his anxiety between his own problems and his friend’s, especially when his friend wasn’t willing to listen to reason.

And then came a day when Bill was sailing back into harbor and Jared’s boat was already moored, as if waiting for Bill to arrive home. He eyed the small fishing boat as he cut the motor to his own and let it glide the rest of the way in. Tying it off, he made his way up the dock, walking past the spot where Jared’s boat bobbed on the water.

He only paused for a moment and continued up the slight incline to the post office. The ancient bell above the door jangled as he entered the tiny room. Walking over to the window, Bill leaned down and called in to Harry.

“Hey, old man. Got anything for me today?”

“If you’re lookin’ to get a beat down, yeah I got somethin’ for ya,” chuckled the postmaster as he came around the corner carrying Bill’s mail in his large hand.

“Thanks,” said Bill with a sly smile.

“Don’t thank me. It’s my job. If I could burn all your junk and get away with it, I would.

“How’s the fishin’ out there?” asked Harry as Bill scanned his envelopes.

“Good,” said Bill absently.

“Well, you must be doing better than some cuz all I get from them is bitchin’.”

“Yeah,” said Bill almost in a whisper.

“I gotta go. Take care.” Bill reached for the door and almost tripped as he quickly made his way back outside.

Turning the corner of the building, he put all but one of the envelopes into his back pocket and then stared at the single manila one he’d retained. There was no return address on it and no postmark. It was clasped at the top but didn’t appear to have been fully sealed. Pulling at the flap, Bill tore it open and turned the envelope upside down, allowing the contents to drop into his empty palm.

It was the crystal. The one that Jared had shown him that evening on the dock. Bill’s chest tightened as he rolled it in his hand. Lifting it up to the light, he was again amazed at how dazzling were the colors that refracted through its chiseled surface. He drew the crystal closer, mesmerized by the deep hues playing across his vision. The background noise around him faded, drawing slowly down.

And the call of the sea was urgent in his ears.


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