My Father’s Ferryman by Claire Halleran

boat dock

The water was always dark to me. I would stand on the shoreline, bundled in the coarse wool sweater Grandma had bought me at the Granville Island market, watching my father watch the sea. He never knew I was there. Not unless I spoke. And sometimes even still he wouldn’t notice me. 

He had sold our first home, a Vancouver city centre apartment where the tumult of never-stopping life had become my lullaby and moved my mother and I to the island, to be nearer to his one true love: the ocean. 

The city’s ocean was too tame, he’d explained to me as he packed our belongings into boxes. He needed to go to where it was wild. I didn’t understand, at least not then. 

I didn’t like the ocean. The water was too dark, the air too heavy, and the smell of fish got inside the house. My mother didn’t care, however, where we lived, as long as there was a bookcase in the kitchen and a north-facing window in her bedroom, and so the first seaside house that went on the market became ours.  

Port Renfrew, a community small enough that if you blinked you’d miss it, sat upon the western edge of Vancouver Island on the southern shore of the Port San Juan inlet. It was being polite, calling what awaited us there a house. The windows had been boarded shut and the roof sagged in one spot as if a giant had curiously prodded at it. The gutters, overfull with decomposing leaves, swelled and pulled away from the house while inside, walls buckled like knocked knees. I’d had balloons at my eighth birthday party several weeks before we moved and days later, when we were packing, I found one hidden beneath the couch, deflated and wrinkled like a prune. The house reminded me of that balloon. They were even the same colour where the paint hadn’t chipped away: primrose yellow. When I told my mother about the resemblance, she patted my back. 

“Houses can be fixed,” she said. 

The first morning in the new house, my father awoke before the sun. He passed the unpacked boxes stacked in the hall and the empty fridge. He threw open the creaking porch door and thudded down the warped wooden steps that were the same shade as how my mother took her tea—weak with lots of milk. 

Already awake, I heard him as he rushed for the rocky sand. All night the waves had knocked at my window, keeping me from sleep. Blearily, I peeked around the thin curtain above my bed. I couldn’t see him at first but I knew he was there and as pink morning leaked onto the clouds, I caught the shape of him strolling the strip of beach. 

Every morning was the same. He walked alone unless I joined him, which I rarely did, and he would stare out at the horizon as if he’d never seen it before. 

“You see that, boy?” he would say, gazing far away. “Ain’t anything more beautiful than the waking sea.” 

I would nod but he never really looked at me, not needing or wanting my answer. 

Sometimes my mother would stand on the porch, wrapped in her nightgown and clutching her steaming mug, but she never went any further. 

“Not a fan of sand in my slippers,” she said when I asked her to join us one day. 

I brought her shoes once, the ones I knew she liked to wear on the beach; they were slip-on sneakers. She wouldn’t even need socks. 

She smiled at me. “These are your father’s moments. It’s best I don’t interfere,” she said. “Maybe after lunch we can all look for shells.” 

By the end of the first month at the new house, my mother and I had collected enough shells to encircle the retaining wall that kept the front yard from falling into the sea. My father, however, didn’t much care for our found treasures. 

“Why waste time collecting shells?” He’d asked after I had handed him what was in my eyes a particularly special sea snail shell. It was striped like a tiger and not chipped even a little. “There’ll always be more and more. The ocean has billions! You’ll never beat her collection.” 

After that, I didn’t feel like collecting shells anymore. 

Eventually, my father bought his first boat. A small aluminum fishing boat that the neighbours had been trying to sell long before we’d moved next door. It had spent several winters tucked alongside their house beneath a tarp and when they heaved it out, I watched spiders and beetles and other insects I didn’t know the names of scuttle away. 

I didn’t trust it. My father assured my mother it was safe and that he had cleaned it out thoroughly, attempting to convince us to join him on a trip. He almost got Mother in the boat, but she noticed a stray Band-Aid plastered the hull and when she peeled it off found it was purposely placed to patch a large crack the length of my pinky. 

He’d push off alone and I would stand on the shoreline, letting the cold water lap at my gumboots, slapping my toes then retreating while my father paddled about. 

“My boy, come join me!” he would call, face to the sea. I would nod, but he never looked back. 

  

I was the only kid in our neighbourhood who couldn’t and wouldn’t swim. My mother enrolled me in lessons at the local community centre but when we’d arrive for the 8 A.M. classes I would dart into the boys’ changing room, undress, slip on my swimming trunks, and hide in the handicap stall. I wouldn’t have bothered changing at all if my swimming shorts hadn’t been new; they were the only new clothes I owned other than what Grandma sent over from the mainland, bought as an enticement to get me into the pool. 

My mother pleaded with me from outside the changing room. Her voice carried surprisingly well, bouncing off the cold cement walls but still, I refused. 

“Dad doesn’t know how to swim, either!” I would argue back and finally, she stopped trying.  

Somehow, learning to swim felt like accepting our fate. I’d convinced myself that if I didn’t let this place change me, there was a chance we’d go back to the city.  

   

As October rolled into November, the weather turned bitter and the water vicious. My father still awoke before dawn and still prowled the seaside strip. 

“Today’s the day, my boy!” He called to me one particularly sunny day. “The day you set sail with me in my craft!” 

“Are you sure it’s safe?” 

“Of course! You’re just like your mother, you know. Why, if I had the ocean in my backyard when I was your age, I would never be inside the house. I would spend hours out on the surf, scouring the ocean floor. You’re taking all this,” he spread his arms wide, “for granted! Well, no more!” 

I tried helping my father carry the boat down from the house but he moved too fast and carried the boat too high and so I was left to walk a few feet behind, tasked only with not being in the way. Once he had set the boat onto the shore, close enough to the water that waves kissed the bow, he instructed me to climb in. 

We didn’t rock as much as I had expected. The boat stayed relatively steady and with my father manning the oars, we glided through the bumps of waves without too much hassle. Against the aluminum frame, the water mimicked the sound of a clicking tongue as if it was impatient with us—with me. The orange life vest clasped around my chest stuck up too high and squished my cheeks and smothered my mouth. Dark spots tinted the once vibrant nylon and the stench of mildew mingled with the ever-present stench of dead fish. A red, plastic whistle dangled from my buckle’s strap. I picked it up. 

“That’s for emergency only,” my father warned. I didn’t touch it after that. 

I focused my eyes on the sky, away from the dark water and the creatures it hid. Skiffs of cloud grazed the blue wash far down the horizon and seagulls cried mercy overhead. Despite the unbridled sun, the air bit my nose and fingers. Every so often a paddle nicked a wave and spit spray into my face; soon enough my teeth began to chatter and my hands, which I had pressed down between my thighs, trembled. My father didn’t notice my discomfort or if he did, he chose to ignored it. 

Even though I kept my mouth shut, lips glued together, I tasted salt. My father didn’t speak to me once we were adrift, his watery eyes gazing through me. That awkward itch one feels when sitting with two others who are deep in conversation began to tickle inside my chest. I suppose my father expected I’d be brought away as he was, lose myself in the stretching horizon, let the world fall away and just float on the edge of consciousness. But I stayed firmly in the boat, unable to follow him. I was never able to follow him, never privy to the secret bond that tied my father to the water. 

We were out all day and when we finally hit the sand, brought in by my mother waving a dishcloth from the porch signaling dinner, I was blue. 

“Isn’t she a thing of wonder?” my father asked dreamily, still gazing out at the water. I went inside. 

         My father didn’t join us for dinner that evening. When I had staggered inside earlier, shaking and unable to form words past my clattering teeth, my mother had been furious. I had never seen her angry before and when her lips hitched and her eyebrows creased together, I thought she was going to be sick. Instead, she wrapped me in a quilt from her and my father’s bed and tucked me in against the dinner table, encouraging me to eat the hot soup she placed in front of me before disappearing out the front doors. My parent’s voices clashed like whitecaps kicked up in a storm, but I couldn’t catch their words.   

I never asked to go out with him after that and he rarely offered. The few times he did however I went along, hoping he turn to me and away from the horizon. That he would choose conversation with me over sharing secrets with the tide. Disappointment became a constant. My apathy towards my father’s everlasting companion turned to hate much the same way the tide comes in: never seen at once but instead in advancing intervals and before I realized, I could no longer look at the ocean without spite.  

Three years later, my father bought a sailboat and learned to sail, in that order. I went out with him now and again, enough times to learn how to manage the boat but not enough to learn how to enjoy it. My mother begged my father once to take up swimming lessons but my father would have nothing to do with them, always saying he didn’t fear the waters. He did promise to wear his life vest, though the times I was with him he’d take it off the moment we were out of eyesight. I didn’t tell my mother. I also didn’t tell my father that she’d bought binoculars to watch us and that she knew he took it off. 

One day, before I was to set out with my father, my mother pulled me aside. 

“If he ever goes over,” she said in a stern whisper, “don’t reach for him. Not even if he asks. Not even if he begs. He’ll just pull you under with him.” 

It was a small sailboat, only a foot or two longer than its aluminum predecessor and painted deep blue. The sails, though old and stained, weren’t tattered and the boom swung easily without a squeak. There were cables and pulleys and cords and ropes all jumbled together in what looked to me to be a rat’s nest yet it all made total sense to my father. The white fibreglass deck, no matter how often my father scrubbed at it, always appeared scuffed. He christened it ‘Ferry.’ 

“Come now, my ferryman,” my father would call on the days he wanted me to join. I went, knowing refusal was not an option. My rides were sweaty and if I wasn’t quick enough, sometimes bloody. The boom dealt more blows to my head than punches I had ever thrown in my entire life. Whether my father knew of my dislike for the boat, the spray, the ocean was never clear to me. When we were off, nothing existed to him but the salty waves beneath. Every time he leaned over the edge, gazing down at the ocean, I remembered my mother’s warning. 

He nearly fell in once, but I managed to grab at the back of his sweater. 

“Quick hands, son. Quick hands” was all he said. 

The next day, I asked my mother to re-enroll me in swimming lessons. 

When it was time for me to leave home, I went far, surrounding myself with trees and mountains and land. While the edge of the horizon meeting ocean had always made me feel small and vulnerable, like I was no more than a piece of driftwood that could easily be carried out to sea, the rocky outbursts cradled me in giant hands. Rolling hills kept me grounded and I never feared they’d turn on me in a storm. I controlled how I moved and when, never again to be jostled by an unexpected blow from below. There was no smell of dead fish or wind churned waves beating right outside my house as if demanding to come in. The only licks my toes felt came from soft grass kisses and not from reaching seaweed tentacles. I was locked in the land and it was where I intended to stay.  

My mother would visit me and stay for weeks. My father never joined her but I didn’t mind. It was better that way. 

I returned home many years later, not because I wanted to, but because it was time. My mother met me at the door of the seaside home that never was fixed and wrapped her arms tightly around my neck. 

“Your father has asked you for a favour.” 

The Ferry was moored at the local dock, tucked with a blue tarp. In his failing health, my father hadn’t been able to work the sails. He needed younger, stronger hands. He needed someone to be his ferryman. The wind wasn’t strong but cold water still splashed my hands and face. Above, in the orange buffed sky, seagulls cried goodbye as we crossed over sticks and seaweed, floating on the rolling surface. 

“I’m surprised I remember how to work this thing,” I said out loud. I decided to let the sails out when we were far enough from the shore that the land could pass as an alligator’s back breaching the surface. 

We rocked, the waves drubbing at the hull and the sheets luffing in the wind. Ropes with their metal clasps dinged against the mast like church bells. Finally, I reached for my father. It had been years since I’d held him. Years since he’d held me. How long, I wondered, had it been? Long enough for me to forget. Did he remember? The last time he’d held me in his arms. Did he care? I didn’t know which answer would’ve hurt more.  

The lid came off easily. 

I stood, making sure to face downwind, and turned the brass urn on its side. My father caught the wind for the last time, sailing in the breeze before settling on his blue queen. I looked down to where his ashes were already being swallowed by the waves. 

“You can have him,” I said. “He was always yours.” 

I realized then what my father had meant about the city ocean being too tame. Alone now and miles from shore, I felt her. There is a knowledge that comforts those who walk the shores around Vancouver whether they realize it or not that out there, far in the distance, there is a buffer between them and the ocean’s expanse. But here, on the western side of the island, the ocean only continues. I felt her pull, the dare to push onwards, to see how far I could go before she took me. 

But I wasn’t my father. I had always been like my mother and the ocean’s dare frightened me. I turned the boat around, aiming it back to shore. The return sail was gentle and I wondered if she knew she had won with what remained of my father settling in her depths. I hadn’t planned on looking back but once I’d tied off the Ferry, furled her sails and pulled her crinkling, blue shawl around her for the last time, I did. Call me foolish or naive but I wondered if the ocean would take me the way she had my father if I gave her one last chance. If I would finally be privy to their secrets. But I saw nothing. I heard nothing. And so, I unfolded the paper my mother had given me and withdrew the packing tape I carried in my jacket pocket. It was quick work, securing the ‘For Sale’ sign and as I walked away, feeling the waves roll beneath the dock and the salted air crusting my skin, I swore I heard my father’s laugh in the breakers.  

About the Author

Claire Halleran has always been obsessed with stories and storytelling. Lucky enough to be born and raised in Nelson B.C. she has found no shortage of ways to fulfill that need. As a greedy child, she took in all she could: live theatrical acts, art classes, and voracious reading. She has studied creative writing at the high school and college level. While completing a Bachelor’s degree in Human Kinetics, her writing practice fell to the wayside, but since finishing her degree, she has reignited her love of writing.

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