Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1199
When Kristaver Myran brought home his own Lofoten boat, his oldest son Lars was tall and strong enough to join the next fishing trip to the islands off the coast of Norway. Lofoten men thought of their boats as descendants of dragon-prowed Viking ships, and Lars dreamed that he was an early Norseman who would do battle when the time came to sail north.
Kristaver had bought the Seal cheaply at auction, though even that low price was more than he could pay without guarantors. People said he must want to die early to have bought that boat which had capsized during the last three winters. Kristaver was sure he could tame her.
His crew consisted of Lars; Elezeus Hylla, a brother-in-law; Henry Rabben, who was always combing his beard; Kaneles Gomon, boyish except for his yellow mustache; and Arnt Awson, a shoreman who had never before sailed on a Lofoten boat. The boats to travel with them were Peter Suzansa’s Sea-fire, Andreas Ekra’s Storm-bird, and Jacob Damnit-all-with-a-limp’s Sea-bird. Kristaver had some trouble keeping the Seal up with the other boats as they sailed through the fjord to the open sea. As he and the rest lay in the long bunk on deck after their first day’s sailing, he slept, but even in sleep he was working on his problem. Half-awake, he got up and moved some of the cargo back a few yards. The next day the boat, in better humor, pleased Kristaver’s crew as she plowed steadily past the other boats. For days they sailed through the snow and anchored at night. The men began to look alike, snow-covered, and to learn to stand wind and cold.
As they passed Helgeland, the Nordland boats came out to join them. Soon the waters were covered with sailing ships and a few steamers. Held over by the weather at Bodo, Jacob was nearly killed in a fight. Henry Rabben carried him on board, and the next day Jacob was sailing along with the rest. Whenever the Southlanders met the Nordlanders, there was likely to be a fight in which everybody joined.
One day, across the West Fjord, they sighted Lofoten, a long chain of snow-streaked mountains. At the foot of the mountain wall lay the fishing station from which rose the odor of fish-oil pitch, and fish. Peter’s and Kristaver’s crew were to share a hut there for the winter.
When the Inspector raised the signal flag for the first sea-going day, everybody was ready to head for the banks. It was a great day when they first put out the nets. Each man knew that only plenty of cod in those nets could make it worthwhile to bear the wind, snow, and sea for months in that frozen place. The first day’s catch was poor, and the men were discouraged when bad weather kept them imprisoned at the station. They slept all day. When it was time for supper, each man went to his own chest to take out the flat bread, cheese, and butter his own wife or mother had put in for him; the fishermen felt that they were paying a short visit home. After the storm, they found their nets torn and tangled—a bad beginning.
When the cod came, there was no time for rest. The men pulled on their nets and filled their boats until they lay far down in the water. There was hardly time to rest after cleaning the fish before Kristaver had the men out for the next day’s fishing. Even with their big woolen gloves, their hands were rubbed raw, and ice clung to their clothes. Nevertheless, with fourteen hundred cod in a day, each man figured he would be wealthy by spring. They worked until Saturday night, when they dropped into a heavy sleep that lasted until dark on Sunday. Then, rousing themselves, they called for “Melja,” a dish fit for a wedding. They broke flat bread, put boiled fish liver over it, then grated goat’s milk cheese, and long streams of treacle. They had lived on coffee and bread for so long they could not get enough “Melja,” and Henry Rabben had to make more and more for them.
Lars was not yet a full-fledged Lofoten man; he was a “scaurie” until he stood treat. To save him embarrassment, his father gave him money to buy French brandy for all who came to the hut. Then he could hold up his head among the fishermen.
As the fishing slackened, the men began to wonder whether this would be a golden year after all. After weeks passed with no cod running, Kristaver listened to the inner voice that had led him right before; this time it told him to turn east. He spoke to Peter about it and then led his men silently down to the Seal at night to row away. As dawn came, they saw a host of boats coming out of harbors, all hurrying as though they had news of fish. Then they saw a whale spouting. Where there is a whale, there are herring; where there are herring, there are cod.
After the whale had been driven into a fjord, trouble began because the steamers came and blocked the entrance to keep the fishermen out. The fishermen, seeing shoals of fish just inside the fjord, were frantic to get them. The cod were gold just outside their reach. Men cannot stand back under such circumstances, and so they began to fight the men on the steamers. Driven back by streams of boiling water from hoses, the fishermen were about to give up when Kaneles swam under the steamer and came up on the other side to turn the hoses on the steamer men. Then the fight started all over the ships until the fishermen drove their little boats past the steamers. Soon the fjord was packed with boats. The fish were so thick that nets filled immediately, but the boats were so close that the nets fouled. Not until the next day, when the Inspector brought law into the fjord, could the fishermen pull in their nets. Then Arnt came into his own. He built a cabin on the shore so that Kristaver’s men would not freeze while they slept at night. Elezeus was nearly frozen that first night, and he never recovered; but Henry Rabben gave him the sacrament, and he died in peace.
Sailing back to the fishing station, the Seal heeled over in a storm. Kaneles was knocked unconscious, but Kristaver held him while the others clung to the keel. Peter Suzansa, in the Sea-fire, was swept by them in the storm. Jacob Damnit-all-with-a-limp was able to tack around and drive his boat over the keel while his own men pulled in the survivors, all but Kaneles.
When his boat was recovered after the storm, Kristaver put his new mast four inches farther aft than it had been before. After that he was able to make her stand up. When he sailed home in the fair spring winds, he felt that she was a Viking ship and he a chieftain.
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