Death of a Lobsterman
Thomas Minot appears to be dead.
He was a cousin of Archie’s, and he spent his adult life — and, probably, most of his childhood — as a lobsterman. The drill, as you know, is brutal. Up at four in the morning, chugging around the freezing bays and inlets of the Maine coast all morning and half the afternoon, hauling up mossy, dripping lobster traps one after another and extracting the pissed-off contents with your hands. Then steaming into harbor with your haul of good news or disappointment and selling it for what you can get at the fish markets.
Thomas Minot set out five days ago to do just that, the exact same routine he had followed for the past several decades. Except this time, he didn’t come home.
A while back, Henry had mentioned that it isn’t all that unusual for a lobsterman to stay out overnight somewhere. If the boat’s engine conks out, the lobsterman might have to get a tow into the nearest port for repairs. Or sometimes, he ends up at the far reaches of his scattering of traps and decides that he’s too damn tired to work his way back, so he sleeps on board and hauls traps in the opposite direction the next day. Or he ducks into a sheltering cove when bad weather rears up, preferring to wait out the storm in relative safety.
The only thing is, he almost always contacts his wife. With the radios they have on board these days, almost all fishermen can keep in touch with their families, and if not, they can contact someone on shore and ask that a message be relayed home.
In this case, Thomas Minot did none of those things. He simply vanished. There was a squall line, of course; there’s almost always a squall line somewhere along these coasts. Most of them involve frigid rain and choppy seas, inducing nausea but little actual danger. But sometimes squalls can whip up an unusually steep wave hidden among the swells, and that wave can topple a boat facing the wrong direction.
That’s what Archie thinks happened to his cousin.
“Must’ve been a rogue wave,” he said after three days of silence had passed. I met up with him in the center of town; he was talking to a few people about his father, working in references to his deceased cousin every now and then. “My daddy warned me about those waves. They come out of nowhere, and you can’t predict them. A hundred squalls might go by without anything unusual, but then the hundred-and-first springs up and the wave hits you broadside. I remember one time my daddy told me about a guy who was caught in a squall off the coast of Cape Cod. The guy, whose name was Frank, I think, was fishing in a small….”
If you want to hear more of the story, stop by Archie’s house some evening. He’s probably still telling it.
After five days of absence, one of two things usually happens. The first is the debris washes up somewhere, maybe including a body, and the deceased is identified and returned to his home community. The other is that nothing turns up, and so the home community declares him dead. It’s the rational thing to do. Short of a soap-opera amnesia sort of thing, it’s pretty clear that he won’t be coming back.
So yesterday, Henry declared that Thomas Minot was dead. The memorial service was held today.
They don’t waste time with these services. Virtually all of the deceased’s relatives and friends live on the island or maybe as far away as Eastport or Portland, so it doesn’t take long for them to gather. And you don’t want the gloomy question of death to hang over the town. The finality of death trumps the agony of uncertainty.
The service began at noon, at the Church of the Sea. There were probably forty people hanging around the hillside, talking and peeling plastic wrap off of side dishes and wiping their noses and staring out to sea as if trying to find some clues about what had happened to Thomas.
Then Archie rang a bell — it was an old, handheld bell with surprisingly deep tones for its size — and everyone shuffled into the building. A woman dressed in more thorough black than the others, I surmised, was the widow, whose name is Doris. She sat in the front pew with her son, Justin.
On the altar was a stand with a photograph of someone I’m guessing was Thomas. He looked about fifty-five years old, grey hair, grizzled, tough. He probably put up a hell of a fight on his way down.
The stained-glass backdrop of the storm at sea made the setting both somber and powerful. Doris cried softly in the front as person after person stepped up to offer typical comments about the deceased.
It was all staged, all forced, all phony. And yet there was something important about it, a marker that indicated the island’s loss and the people’s vow to remember the man. We all know that’s a lie — his grandchildren will hear a few stories about him, and his great-grandchildren will almost never hear his name. But it was clear, through the sniffling and the platitudes and the egg-salad sandwiches afterward, that this group was in the habit of noting important changes in the cosmos. They gather around women in labor, they gather around the ill and injured in the hospital or at home, and they gather around each other when someone departs for good.
If you live in this town, I suppose it’s nice to know that your death won’t pass by without ceremony. When the time comes for Archie, or Henry, or Cory to go, the townspeople will take their funeral clothes out of the mothballs, put on sorrowful faces, make egg salad, and head for the appropriate church. They’ll offer comforting words and grim handshakes. And then they’ll head for the cemetery between the churches, to add another stone to the rows. Memories don’t last forever, but it would be nice to know that people who care about you will try anyway.
No, Thomas won’t long be remembered by the people of GSI, despite the kind words to the contrary. The cemetery will remember him, though, as an empty plot with a terse stone, the one between Oliver and Justin.
And somehow, that seems important. More important than I thought it would before I came to this island.
— Donovan Graham, “The Shadowless Writer”
Read previous blog entries in the Island Wars story by clicking here.