A hundred seagulls cackled overhead as they always did when Dusty cleaned the traps.
Sitting stern side, she methodically yanked the last bits of turkey leg and fish heads off of the hooks within the cages and tossed them into the water ignoring the diving raucous of birds. A pile of cages sat to her right marking work to be done. The traps gleamed uncharacteristically as the sun breached the horizon. All of them were brand new--purchased by her father a day prior from Gill’s Tackle. Her dad claimed crabs could smell the rust of the old traps, so they would buy new and sell the old ones every six months.
Dusty pulled a cage to the side and set it on top of the others she had just cleaned. She grabbed the upturned steel crate that she was just sitting on and set it neatly next to the stack of dirty traps. Stepping up on the crate, she tiptoed for leverage as she yanked the top cage off the pile. Against the weight of her entire nine year old body, she deftly counterbalanced the mesh cage, allowing a soft retreat towards the deck. Hopping down, she grabbed the crate and made her way back to the cleaning station.
Sitting back on her steel box, she worked the pen sideways and began ripping seaweed from the netting of the trap gate. Opening the ringed mesh door to the cage, Dusty reached for the masticated turkey leg dangling on the hook in the center. Snatching the appendage up, she tugged, leaving slough of crab-chewed meat in her hand. Tossing the flesh over the stern gate, she reached again for the bone and pulled.
She grimaced and jerked, but the damn hook was deep inside. One of the problems with new equipment is that it worked too well at times. Heaving the leg with two hands now, it began to budge. Abruptly, it pulled loose sending the hook flailing within its station. Dusty tossed the limb into the water, irritation quickly draining from her face as she made her way to move the trap into the finished pile.
“Shit”, she hissed. Reaching for her crate, realizing a long gash on the back of her left hand. She let out her bottom lip and gave the new wound and approving nod. “At least it’s not the working side”, she smirked. Opening the sterngate, she climbed to the narrow platform below. Kneeling, she dipped her injured hand in the water.
Idling, the boat swayed gently on the morning current. Pops and Uncle Richie were pulling up another trap to be cleaned. Her father would strangle her if she was post stern and they were in transit--she knew she had to be quick. Dusty briskly dashed her hand back and forth to pull out any detritus within the gash. Satisfied, she stood and dried her hands with the clean rag that was aptly tucked away in the back pocket of her overalls. Kicking kernel of rotten meat off of the side of the hull, she turned to unlatch the door above.
A gurgling noise greeted her ears.
She whirled around to see a long stream of bubbles cracking the surface of the calm waves where she had cleaned her hand just a moment ago. The tiny beads of air traveled from the depths to the surface as if channeled through an invisible hose. Dusty knelt to inspect it further, her face inches from the spectacle to get a closer look.
Something was down there. It was getting bigger. Closer. Gaining fast.
An explosion of water met Dusty’s eyes, knocking her lashes inward and blurring her vision.
Reflexively, Dusty jumped to her feet and back over the rails, ignoring the gate. She began to cough as the putrid stench of corpse snatched the wind from her lungs. Dusty knew the scent. When she was six her daddy came upon a dead body at the Calway Docks. He told her not to look, but she caught a glimpse anyway. All she saw was part of the clothes, but the smell was unforgettable.
Rubbing her eyes clear, she could see--calm waves. Nothing there? Her eyes darted around the water looking to see where that rancid stink was coming from. A moment later a small piece of driftwood broke the surface where she had been kneeling. Rolling in the waves, she could make out a face smiling serenely on the wood.
Unlatching the gate, she quickly made her way over to the floating statue, plucked it up and jumped back over the rail.
A whistle sounded.
Dusty continued her suspicious survey of the water.
It sounded again. She could hear the frustration in its tone. Her dad was waiting for her to follow up with a whistle of her own to signal that she was ready. Dusty blew hers twice--wait it said.
Seeing nothing amongst the gentle waves, her eyes fell to her newly acquired prize. This wasn’t a carved piece of wood at all; it was solid stone. The figurine was about half of Dusty’s forearm long with a ring half broken at its crown. Turning it in her hands, she could see it completely unblemished by the sea.
“Ahem”, her father cleared his throat. Startled, Dusty met Gary’s gaze. His eyes guided hers to the unfinished traps piled high. He shook his head.
“Dad you don’t understand”, she squealed. “There were these weird bubbles, then this stat--”
Gary grumbled, “I don’t care. What I do care about is that we are now going to catch half of what we were due to you and your uncles delinquency. First him, being forty five minutes late, and now you playing with bubbles in the water.”
“But Dad!” Dusty pleaded, “Can’t you smell it? Something is in the water!”
“That’s right Dusty!” He threw up his arms, “A bunch of crab are that we just aren’t gonna catch today! The tide will be up soon, and we caught less than half of what we should have. And no, I don’t smell nothing but lack of work ethic.” Sighing, Gary shook his head and turned to join Richie rummaging through a pulled trap at the bow.
“Daddy look! It’s stone or something! It was floating! I’ve never se--”, she chirped.
Gary’s head crooked to the side and his shoulders bunched under his neck.
Dusty’s mouth shut like a coffin.
“Richie, would you be so kind as to help your niece stay on the rails back here”, Gary barked, slamming the door behind as he entered the helm.
Richie threw the last few crabs into the livewell, hoisted the trap on his hip and made his way stern side. “Aye Aye Cap’n”, he saluted with his free hand.
Her dad said he was both kinds of asses in one; sometimes a smart ass, but usually the other. Dusty appreciated Uncle Richie’s constant sarcasm and ribbing at her pops. He was always screwing around, mimicking Gary or confirming orders in his best pirate voice. For her, he broke up the monotony of wrangling sea animals, and as a bonus he would take most of the heat from her dad when things went awry. Sure, he smelt of old cigarettes and last night’s booze on the daily, but she didn’t mind. She loved her Uncle Richie almost as much as she loved her father.
“Arrrrgh, what ye be doing on this ‘er butt o’ the ship eh? Ye be needing a good first mate to finish yer duties Cap’n says does he. Good ol’ Uncle Richie is ‘er to stay for a wee min or two to keep ye on the rails...Arrrrrrrrrrrrrrgggghhhh” Richie laughed as he ruffled Dusty’s head with a dirty hand. Paying no heed to the fish grit and messy hair, Dusty gave a twinge of a smile, grabbed a new cage and sat at her cleaning station. Richie did the same and plopped down beside her. Crab bait and sea scum were flying as Dusty diligently tugged the bits of her trap. Almost as soon as Richie sat down, she was up to grab a fresh trap.
“Why so glum ya bum?” Richie chimed as he pulled a fish head off the trap and tossed it in the air. A seagull plucked it out of sky and barrel rolled.
Dusty managed a tight lipped grin, jaw quivering. “I’m A-Okay Uncle Richie, why do you ask?” She wiped her eye with the heel of her hand.
“Awwwe...yeah you are, aren’t ya? Don’t mind your dad, he’s just wound tight like a top--a well oiled machine, a man’s man, a taut ship, a rigid pickle, a-”
Dusty giggled. “I know my pops all too well Uncle. He’s not usually wound this tight though. Besides, what the front door does a rigid pickle got to do with anything?” Dusty shot a winsome smile at Richie.
“What is tarnations?” Richie exclaimed as he tossed his finished trap on top of the clean pile “I do declare that your daddy wouldn’t be too happy ‘bout you falsifying the F-word like that in his presence. Best not practice it around me, or we will both be scrubbing the boat twice over.”
Dusty shrugged, “Sorry Uncle Richie.”
“Don’t you mind that little missy”, Richie said in his best cowpoke. Snatching a cage, he plopped down next to her.
Richie lit up a cigarette, took a hefty drag and blew it up into the breeze away from Dusty. He worked his trap a bit more and took another hit.
Dusty labored in silence through another cage and took down a new one. As she sat back down a gull flapped noisily to her feet and stared at her expectantly. She tore a piece of the crab-chewed fish off the trap hook and tossed it to the bird. Disregarding the morsel, it cocked its head and continued to leer at her.
No, not at her, but her uncle.
Another bird landed.
A dozen birds plunked to the deck. All of them staring at Richie. Still as stone the birds lingered as others dropped to the deck and followed suit.
Richie sat on his upturned bucket, mouth agape, cigarette dangling from bottom lip.
“Uncle Richie, are you okay?”
Sitting hunched on his bucket, he was almost catatonic. His mouth flitting to talk, but no words. His eye twitching, gawking numbly at Dusty.
The seagulls above were in a frenzy, so loud that dusty covered her ears.
“What’s wrong Uncle?!”
Richie rolled his jaw as if to warm it up. “Where did you get that Dusty?” His eyes widened, locked on the statue in the front pocket of her overalls Clenching his teeth, the tendons pulled at his neck.
Dusty sprung to a stand, “You’re scaring me! Stop it!”
Richie let out a distressed moan as he began to rock with head in hands on his bucket. Dusty took a few steps back, hugging the stern rail, ready to jump.
Richie stood and began to shamble towards her through the gulls on deck. As he did, the cacophony of gulls dove at him. He ignored the birds and came faster. She threw a leg over the railing, but too late. Richie had her by the collar and was groping at her front pocket, a feathered tornado ripping at his face and arms. Dusty scrabbled for grip, but her uncle was too strong. Tearing the statue out of her hands, he chucked it far into the water. Backing away panting with the birds no longer attacking, he regained his composure.
Dusty looked to him with teary eyes. A whole colony of seagulls perched on the stern rail to either side of her and on the deck below her feet. Richie glanced at the birds confused, then to his niece clutching her chest. A damp mark on her overalls marked the spot where the now-wet-statue remained peering over the ridge of her pocket.
Richie’s mouth twisted into a ghastly frown as his mouth flapped open and closed.
The boat sounded one time marking their departure. He calmly pulled his whistle from his pocket and blew it once, then sat down once more on his bucket and began to clean the trap mesh in a mechanical fashion.
Petrified against the rails, Dusty managed a gradual hand toward her whistle. The ship blared its horn again and she instinctively gave it a hearty toot. The engine hummed louder as the vessel lurched into motion--the palisade of gulls leaping airborne to mark their depart.
Dusty peeled herself from the wall and made her way over to her crate and crab pen. She grabbed both and drug them as far away as she could get from her uncle’s cleaning station. Plopping herself down she began to fish out gunk while keeping a good eye on Richie. Every few pulls she would peek back up at him. And every few times she looked, he would peer back and return a robotic smile that she guessed he saw as comforting.
With no distractions, the two finished the remaining traps just before the boat slowed to a halt. Dusty could hear the helm door open as she drug the last trap to the clean stack.
“No need to stack that one missy, I do believe your daddy plans on laying his eggs here”, Richie beamed, giving Dusty his trademark toothy grin.
Something in his tone seemed comforting, yet Dusty gave him a berating scowl anyway. He may just be drunk she mused. Richie had shown up a few times in the morning in a condition her daddy called “slobbering drunk”--he could barely stand. When that happened, her dad would cut him off work for a week and he would show up pouting every morning trying to nudge his way into readying the boat. Gary wouldn’t have any of the charade. It would always end the same way; her pops walking Richie into the marina and reprimanding him a good ways from the boat. She figured her dad wanted her to respect her uncle, hence the discretion.
One time her uncle was waiting for them when they got back mid-morning and he was making all kinds of fuss. This was the first time Dusty had seen a grown-up cry. Richie was falling on himself all over the dock, and threw an abundance of trash at the boat including a big bottle of what her uncle always called his “night syrup”. It shattered on the hull and some of the glass made its way on deck. Her father cooly throttled the boat to a stop and jumped straight from the bow onto the dock. Grabbing Richie by the scruff, Gary drug him around the corner and she could hear some angry whispers followed by her uncle yelping, then a big splash. This was also the closest she had ever experienced her dad to violence. Sure, he was wound tight, but he never broke that branch.
“Wow, good job you guys” Gary snorted with a nod of approval. “It’s amazing what a little silence and some elbow grease can achieve isn’t it? We just may catch somethin’ today after all.” Smirking, he gently closed the door to the wheelhouse and made his way over to his daughter. Still hard focused, Dusty was vigorously pulling the grime from the cages. “Heya Dust”, her father knelt next to her and brushed a piece of bait off her shoulder.
Batting his hand away, she jolted to a stand and back-peddled to the rail.
Gary’s face pinched with concern, “What’s gotten into you Dust, you okay?” Her eyes darted towards Richie and back to her father. Stammering she bleated,”Uncle Richie, he he-”.
Dusty paused to recollect her thoughts. She knew telling any of this to her father would just cause more issues. Maybe he was drunk? He’d never acted like this before. Telling her pops would just result in some kind of drama, and she’d had enough of that when her parents split. Plus, when he wasn’t trying to throw her belongings in the water, Uncle Richie sure helped the day pass a lot faster. Why can’t adults just get along?
“He helped me a lot dad!” she finally yelped.
Gary’s eyes narrowed and he pursed his lips, “What’s really going on? You’re back here as jittery as a silverfish. I know you, and you know me, so how about you shoot me the truth?”
Wearing her best plastic smile she blurted, “Uncle Richie just set a good pace, we both got into that ‘work zone’ you tell me about, and I was just really really focused and trying to hurry.” In unison, Dusty and Gary looked at Richie as he shrugged with his hands up.
“Yeah Gar”, he grinned. “We were just in the zone--and if you would have come up like a ninja on me like you did your daughter, I’d be over the rails and swimming. Count yourself lucky.” Richie flicked his cigarette overboard and disappeared behind the wheelhouse.
“Get two buckets of bait this time, we are gonna string ‘em out long”, Gary barked at Rich. “We got plenty enough cages cleaned, and this’ll be our last pull of the day.”
Her dad flashed a proud smile and a wink, “You did good today “Swee’Pea”.
She hated when he called her that. She wasn’t a fan of Popeye or the funny looking baby. But a real smile broke her face now, and the pride from her daddy’s praise seemed to wash that all away.
Gary put his hand on her shoulder, “You sure you’re okay?”
“Yeah dad, just in the zone”, she gave a wink back.