The sea was high and gray and spat foam. The boat pitched and yawed over the waves. The small crew stayed indoors as much as possible; the weather was turning cruel and the temperature was falling. For days now the nets had brought sparse hauls, and the prospect of going home light hovered over them all like an evil fog.
They were at mess, clutching hot mugs of coffee and keeping them balanced in the rough waters with the practiced grace of men who are often at sea. Netting was strung over the shelves to keep the kitchen supplies from clattering all over the floor. Talk was muted and grudging.
“We need to head back home,” one of them finally said.
A few glances came his way; some of the men wanted to protest but the spirit was leaving them. Each man got a cut of what they brought back, and with so little to show, they would be making a lot less than they’d counted on. Still, they were pushing their luck out here, and they’d been gone a week longer than they had planned. Nobody had the taste for it anymore.
Laird pushed himself away from the table and stowed his mug. “I need some air,” he said.
The fishing boat cast fountains of spray as it pushed through the sea; it’s seine nets were spooled in the drum at the ship’s aft, and Laird maneuvered around them, until he stood watching the vessel’s foamy wake. A boil of grey clouds covered the sky and seemed to fall all the way to the water.
The mood inside was bad, and it would be worse when they got home. Poverty bred fear, which bred anger. Blood rode so close to the surface of the skin. There would be drinking and violence and pain. Some of the men would not be back next season.
The spray gathered on his coat and in his beard and became little crystals of ice. He did not know how long he stayed out there, nor was he much concerned. The night fell regardless. The clouds broke apart and the stars were deep and hot.
Eventually he noticed the thing following them beneath the waves. He couldn’t make out its shape but the shadow of it was unmistakable, coasting maybe half a dozen feet down. It was big enough to be a whale but it moved too capriciously, whipping and diving, falling back and then jetting forward with a burst of speed, almost as if it were teasing the boat.
He stood transfixed, ice rinding his beard and his eyebrows, until after a while it turned over and he saw its vast, yellow eye, nearly as big as the boat itself. He had dramatically underestimated the thing’s size. The eye swiveled and fixed on him, and they regarded each other for a long moment. He recognized something in it: some old urge, some nihilistic impulse. Some ecstatic horror.
Around the fishing vessel long, ropey arms breached the surface, shedding water over him like rain. Arms continued to uncoil and writhe seemingly a mile in every direction, until it seemed the sea itself bristled with them. They extended far above him, occluding the sky, weaving like glistening threads between the stars.
The compulsion to jump overboard was almost overwhelming.
But after another moment the thing withdrew into the sea, as quickly and quietly as a retracting anemone. Laird sat where he was, staring into the muscular heave of the water. The clouds began to pile overhead again, and soon spat an unseasonable snow.
At some point somebody brought him inside. They brushed the snow and ice from his clothes and his face and asked him what the hell he was doing out there, staring at the snow and the grey sea. They called him an idiot but it was plain they admired him for it. For providing this flash of oddness, this bright moment, in this long unhappy voyage.
The next morning they turned for home, and whatever awaited them there, their hull nowhere near full.