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Ole Stoney

slipsteam by Jude-Marie Green

I called him Grampa. He tolerated that, but expected all of us to call him Stoney.

He was old, a Grampa is supposed to be, and was often absent from our three-story wooden house, landlocked on its safe street in a shore town. It wasn’t that he didn’t like us; he just was not the land-bound sort.

Sometimes ships would dock, spew sailors, eat them up again and sail without him. If he stayed ashore too long, rejected by the ships for his age, I’d see the wind begin to billow in his granite eyes. He’d stop looking at us, stop seeing anything but sky and clouds and sea.

He watched the ocean most from our third-floor bathroom.

He’d sit on the toilet, one of those chain-pull johns with a tank close to the ceiling, staring through the windows; or he’d stand with one foot in the claw-foot tub, swaying forward like a stone dance in a high wind, too hard a man to put his forehead to the pane.

I knew what he did because sometimes he’d leave the door ajar. I’d stand outside — the tall, narrow frame made me feel shorter than I always felt — and watch him watching.

Once he turned and caught me. “Well, girl?”

I thought he’d wallop me, so I took a half step back, preparing to escape, but he lost interest as fast as snow melts off macadam on a sunny day. He turned to the window, stood immobile as a marble god.

Instead of running, I slipped into the room, wielding the perfect nerve that can come with terror. “Why are you Stoney?”

I figured he might kill me, but I had to know. He turned that craggy face again, lips curled in bemusement, and waved to the tub. “Sit here, girl; I’ll tell you.”

That edge was a hard perch for me but I wanted to be close to him. I settled in. Sunlight from the windows gleamed on the tiny mosaic tiles that lined the walls. The pewter fixtures of the sink glowed with lime scales and dampness. He twisted a porcelain handle, let hot water fill the sink.

He reached for his cup and brush, whipped up a storm of foam. The lather hid his face to his eyes, but it was his eyes I watched as he spoke. “I’ve gone to sea my whole life, since I was young.”

I bobbed my head.

“My first trip out, the captain told me of a woman — not your Gramma – – the only woman welcome on a ship. He called her the queen of the seas.”

Grampa pulled his razor along the leather strop, tested its edge. “He said she’d show herself to the right fellow, make his wants come true.”

I tried to figure a sailor’s dreams, imagined gold-filled wooden chests and glass bottles full of rum.

“The sailor she chose had to be handsome, well-washed, disciplined.” He flicked a scud of foam from his razor to the sink. “I decided to be that sailor. Y’see, I had a wish I needed her to grant.”

His pebbled skin showed through the thinning lather. “It was something only a water witch could handle, so I kept clean and neat, hung to the rules so tight the other sailors muttered, and I kept a sharp eye on the waves.”

I squirmed on the tub’s hard edge, waiting for the wish.

He squinted at me. “Aye, youth’s impatient, I remember. I watched for the queen for years, on every ship I sailed, ‘til I grew to my full height. It was a fearful time.

“You see, I couldn’t swim a lick. My life was the water, but I was scared of it. I never once considered what I needed was up for grabs at any YMCA. That’s a land-locked way of thinking.

“One day, near sunset, I spotted her. Oh, she was glorious, wiped away all memories of every girl I’d ever met in any dive in any shore town.”

Grampa didn’t see me any more. He only saw his queen. “She swam up to the ship and winked at me. I was so excited I threw myself overboard, forgetting that I couldn’t swim. She didn’t need to ask my wish.

“‘I can’t teach you to swim.’ Her voice was all the world’s gold poured into my two hands. ‘But I can make you proof from drowning.’ She took me in her arms; kissed my brow. That kiss was every glass of rum I’d ever tossed down my gullet. Warm and heavy and exciting. When she swam away, I sank.”

“To the bottom, Grampa?”

“Aye, but I wasn’t drowned, though I still couldn’t swim. I was hard and solid, didn’t need to breath. I was stone, y’see.” He slapped his hand down on the sink edge. I was sure I saw a tiny crack begin there.

“Well I couldn’t swim up, could I? Too heavy. We were in deep waters, hundreds of miles from land, so I couldn’t walk out, either. I stood there, alive as I am today, pondering.

“The best way up for me –- what do you think, girl? What would you have done?” He studied me. The lather on his hard face had dried into a patchwork scum.

I shivered and shook my head.

“I found a dragline — that’s a cable with a hook big as an anchor. Caught that hook between my teeth, tugged the line and rode the depths to air.

“Been Stoney ever since. Of course, my jaw don’t work too well these days.” Grampa tapped his jaw with his knuckles. His teeth fell into his hand.

I bent double and puked on his shoes.

He laughed, good-natured, set his teeth to rights and shooed me along. And he never left the bathroom door ajar again.

I’m grown now. I watch the sky and ocean, too. And even though I know the trick he pulled, I’ve never been to sea and never will.

Copyright 2010 by Jude-Marie Green

Jude-Marie Green lives in southern California. She is associate editor at Abyss & Apex and a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop. She blogs about writing at Incarnations. Check out her other work at Jude-Marie Green.

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3 Responses

  1. […] Ole Stoney […]

  2. You always have a way of making family sound really mysterious and awesome! Good stuff.

  3. Great story. Read it now!

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