Captain Cotton Top Ch. 01byadrianhayter©
The coral reef lay in wait inches below the graying water's surface, a secret to the Captain as his vessel cut across the swells. Frightened by the growing shape above, iridescent choirs of tiny fish scattered for shelter as the wooden hull advanced.
The chart spread out on the cabin deck was old, maybe older than the coral. Centuries earlier, a leaded line dropped astern a naval schooner had bumped this shelf of life. A sextant's sight of the sun from a rolling deck had led to errors, a degree here, a few yards there, measurements insignificant to harder men. But the Captain who watched the water this morning had lost his sterner stuff long ago. His hard shell had been tenderized by the years afloat and figures unimportant to harder men circled around his head. For this Captain's pale eyes lacked the dark blue steel of a naval master's gaze and only a watery squint served him now as he searched the yellowed chart for a sure path to rest.
More by habit than need, Capt took his eyes off the chart and reached up to tension the foresail line. Some people chewed the ends of their fingernails while they worried, others absently scratched a nose or worse. The Captain found comfort in the strength of his boat's rigging. The woven steel cables holding the high mast reassured him that all was well. Unfortunately, they lied and he knew why. But the rough hemp of the ropes welcomed his grasp and bent to his will as his fingers closed tight; the angry red skin of his hand smothered the tan threads and he pulled in the line another notch.
On his arms, coarse white hairs stood out like thorns on a prickly pear cactus. From the top of his head to the privates below, colorless hairs armored his skin - for he'd been born white. Seventy years earlier, the neighbor women had laid him out on a new sheet and with the best kitchen towels, had washed away the birth blood. In another room, older women had wrapped the still body of his mother in a quilted blanket that had been sewn for Easter. As the new born child dried that hot evening, the Methodist ladies grew nervous at the sight of his head; a head covered in fine bright hair like the snow covered mountain tops printed on penny postcards. But formalities had to be followed so a deacon's wife was nominated to ask the infant's name. Left with a responsibility he'd not wanted, the father hesitated only looking at the blanket covered figure that had been his wife.
"The boy must have a name. Did your wife choose one? He needs a good name to help him carry his burden," the deacon's wife whispered as her eyes sadly settled on the infant.
The father pulled his stare away from his wife's form and saw his son for the first time. The infant's head glowed white with a radiance shaming the new sheet that cradled the child's tiny body. The brightness of the child's hair cleansed the father's grief, washing the anguish away along with the pain. The father had seldom witnessed such grace outside his wife's fine face. For the father, the infant's hair brought to mind the good years. The years the rain fell at the right time and the hail stayed away. Those were the times the cotton plants grew tall and wives made lists of things the family might buy. New patch free overalls for the husbands and a few yards of dress material were all included. High cotton meant new shoes for the kids and everything good and wonderful.
Forcing her back on her heels with a finality that shocked the deacon's wife, the father declared, "The boy's name is Cotton Top".
Seldom speechless, the deacon's wife finally gathered herself into a thin long pole of indignation and said, "You can't name a man Cotton Top. That's ridiculous."
"He's not man, he's a child and he's everything good. When he's a man, he'll make his own name," answered the father.
To further irritate the deacon's wife, the father laughed in her face and said, " I will need to keep him out of the fields during ginning season or he'll be baled and shipped off to Galveston." Shocked at the father's mockery, the beaten woman turned and flew back to the security of her flock.
After the naming, his father had shooed the rest of the timid ladies to a shady spot under the only tree on the place. In the cool of the oak, the neighbors had worried over the reason for such an unusual child with such a strange name and gossiped at what had gone wrong with nature.
"I hear if an expectant mother is scared by a cottonmouth moccasin snake, this kind of thing can happen, you know," confided the minister's wife to the circle of women.
The circle cautiously looked down at their feet, careful of any signs of the slithering devils, then one by one, left and walked home where they spread the word. With hoes and axes and every kind of sharp tool of destruction, the county's men roamed the hills and creeks for months, hunting for what might ruin their children. Ignorant of what they'd done, water moccasins and the fellow snakes suffered for years as the albino headed boy grew older.
Around the age of twenty, Capt lost the name of his childhood as he moved on. The whiteness remained but by then, he was described as distinguished by the young women he chased and mature by the men he ran with. Even as a young cadet, most people thought of him as a leader. His clear locks led them to believe he possessed some wisdom normally learned through age and experience. The title lieutenant soon settled comfortably on his shoulders, quickly to be replaced with Captain - this name to proceed him for the next half century.
On his first command as a commercial pilot, right out of flight school, the stewardesses had mistaken him for the first officer rather than a lowly third. With the flashing curls under his enamel brim, he had the appearance of a man who could drive a four-engine jet.
That earlier mistake of identity was embarrassing; as was refusing the advice he'd been offered when entering this Mexican wilderness.
Coming into the Sea of Cortez for the first time, his boat's keel skimmed the entrance shoal leading into the bay of la Paz. With the out-going tide ripping through the narrows, he'd cut it close, a chance he'd never taken with a load of passengers. But the worry of women and children was in his past, his only responsibility now was to himself as he cut the diesel and glided up to the fishermen's fuel barge. As was the custom, several locals offered to lend a hand with the lines and tenders on his thirty-foot sloop. The Captain didn't refuse their help but didn't seek it either. When the boat was secure, the Capt leap over the rail and spread his one chart flat on the concrete apron.
The passing tourists immediately spotted the Captain as an eccentric and began snapping photographs of the long hared sailor. It was something to show their friends back in Dallas. Capt's hair hadn't insulted a scissors since he'd walked out of the airport terminal for the last time. Five years of unleashed energy grew and grew until the white brilliance hung close to his waist.
Squatting down and smoothing the folded paper with both hands, Capt looked around and motioned toward a young fisherman counting crumpled pesos, "Par favor Senor, come over and tell me what you know about the route north."
The fisherman courteously picked his way through the crowd of tourists, looked down at the stained chart and shook his head in the politest way possible.
"Senior, that is a very old chart. It was made by the English survey ship when my great grandfather fished the riff. There's one like it in the village museum signed by all the old fishermen. The port captain will sell you the correct one to replace this old useless thing," the fisherman helpfully added as he sat back against the shaded fuel pump, scratching his head at the crazy American and tucking his knees in to avoid the hot sun.
"Things don't change that much, mi amigo. A rock one day is a rock the next but for the advice, gracias," Capt replied as he folded the worn chart and stuck it under his shirt.
He stood up just as a woman tourist timidly pushed her fingers tips toward his head, frightening her backwards in the process. All the group surrounding him backed further as he unfolded his six foot plus frame. Only the Japanese visitors kept taking pictures as Capt climbed back aboard his sloop. No one ask questions. For no one knew what to ask as the phantom scarecrow of a figure raised the working jib and allowed the evening breezes to carry him across the breakwater and out into the Gulf.
For two days afterwards, the Captain had sailed through the endless fog. Forty-eight hours without sleep, he'd picked his way through the water as a blind man might tap his walking cane across a littered minefield. Tired of punishing him further, the fog lifted early that morning and he'd spotted the distant red rocks. Although the cliff's edges rose clearly above the western horizon, the Mexican shore could have been a thousand miles away as far as he was concerned. For clearly marked on the chart, a shallow reef guarded the shore. He traced the lines on the paper, following the boundary of the barrier with the edge of his brown fingernail. It would be at least a hundred miles to the end of the coral; another full day if he tied on every piece of canvas scrap the old girl could handle. Another twenty-four hours without sleep would crush him down.
He slammed his fist hard against the chart, pounding the map's figures that marked the shallow depths. Everything had to be measured. Your first minute, sliding out the birth canal, they handed you a ruler. Here kid, take this and measure your wealth, blood pressure, and life. Then, figure which numbers should be high and which should be low. 'That's a tough job for a shriveled prune searching for a tit,' the Captain thought.
As his raised fist prepared to punish the map for the second time, he saw the tiny spot on the chart and froze in mid swing. The spot was an island, brown and black with a touch of red but regardless of its color, it might be a place to anchor and sleep. The Captain dug frantically through his shelves, pushing the cups and forks around until he found the one pair of twisted reading glasses he owned. He held the chart up close to his eyes to examine the small land. It was a peculiar island until his fingernail pried under and lifted the crushed pasta away from the paper.
Upset that his remaining lifeline was last month's lunch, a normal man would have been taken down a notch. However, the anger that fueled Capt's day was spent - only the fumes remained as he rolled the dried piece of flour between his fingers, examining the food's texture in detail. Finally losing interest, he flicked the scrap across the cabin where it settled among the unwashed covers of his bunk. With no one to complain about his hygiene, he enjoyed certain liberties denied to the more civilized and displayed that freedom every opportunity he had.
Long ago, he'd dispensed with the company of travelers, sailing alone by choice or so he said. He claimed the sloop was too small for crowds and he needed the room. Truth be known, he'd given some thought to having another aboard. However, truth was like the sand grains on the beach, a smooth elegance that finally ended stuck in the crack of your ass - irritating regardless of how accurate or refined.
Now a woman on board might be different; he'd given a whole lot of thought to that lately. She'd have to be attractive and mute, definitely mute. Smart wouldn't hurt but mute. Maybe if she knew only sign language. Picturing her doing feminine things in a quiet way around the boat, he warmed to the bright attractive mute woman until the downside entered his mind. She'd fall overboard one night. He'd miss her muteness in several days but it would be too late. Even if loneliness got left behind, wariness was another matter. An extra pair of eyes would make a difference, or sturdy arms to man the helm while he slept below. If only he could lay his head down for even a few minutes of rest.
He grinned and yelled out loud to scare the gulls and wake himself, "If frogs had wings, they wouldn't bump their ass on landing."
The sudden yelling started a fit of coughing as he remembered telling an albatross the same joke. The dignified bird tried to hide it but there was an unmistakable giggle in the six-foot wings.
Recently, he'd taken up talking to whoever came along. A light conversation with several lost terns lasted late into the evening; their mutual complaints of scarce sardines and unusual weather passed the time. But in the blink of an eye, the terns recalled another date and flew in mid sentence. Whales were another matter entirely. Terribly serious, they had a thousand miles to travel and little use for idle talk; a sharp wave and they were gone. The Captain wished they could lag along the side for a while. Their wrinkled hides hinted of scandalous tales.
Sea turtles made Capt uncomfortable. Above a solitary neck, their hooded eyes wearily watched his progress. With their private possessions hidden below, there was a weightlessness to the turtle's crinkled neck as it bobbed above the surface - a disconnection disturbing to the Captain.
For the Captain's own head had begun to bob unsteadily. Without other arms to hold him down, sometimes the laws of gravity deserted him. He'd leave the cabin and hold tight to the lifelines; not afraid of a slip to the depths but terrified of the pull from above. In the hours just before dawn, he'd sail in a thin plane between the two worlds, both forces conspiring to pull him apart. In the worst of times, he'd duck into the cabin, hold tight to the woodwork and thumb through his album - a weathered book of fading photos which pulled him down to the pages, anchored him to a previous life and added the weight he needed until dawn.
Always careful of his mental well being, the Captain seldom spoke to inanimate objects, and then only when they needed straightening out. Sleep's demands now devoured his every moment and the time had come to break his cardinal rule.
Pushing his mental well being aside, the Captain asked, "Can you handled it Otto?"
The autopilot named Otto was German in source and temperament, efficient overall but sometimes going off in two directions at once. When the auto-helm's mood was martial, steel gears meshed perfectly and the course was true.
Hearing no answer, the Captain added a certain threat, "You fuck up this time and I'll rip out your Nazi guts and feed 'em to the crabs".
This was an idle threat. He knew the machine's stingy heart offered little nourishment and even crabs had taste.
The Captain hesitated as his finger hovered above the switch. The switch reminded him too much of the red button that homes for the elderly placed close to their patient's head - a substitute care for some or a desperate last call for others.
Relinquishing his command with the flip of the switch, he collapsed into his bunk, his boat and doubtful plans resting in the hands of his unsteady mate. Laying an old hemp line across his chest, he wrapped the bitter end around his bunk and cinched it tight. Whether by rogue waves or unsettling dreams, he'd recently found himself on the floor several times, angry welts across his skin as if some stranger had entered his cabin and whipped him for his weakness.
The autopilot's hydraulics quietly flowed through the cylinders, correcting the course from time to time, a tiny push of the rudder to adjust for current. While the Captain slept on his bunk that afternoon, the automated panzer ignored the warning and took a turn for destruction. Humming a shrill marching tune, it headed the vessel toward the distant reefs. It may have simply tired of pushing a heavy rudder, hating the chains of slavery across its back and ending it all in a rush to nothingness. You could speculate all day. Machines, much the same as people, were fickle.
The first warning for the Captain came as a sonar's alarm, an idiot box of wires and diodes began to scream of impending doom. Suddenly awakened, alert, and panicky from the proximity of threat, the transistors heated and howled their mantra.
The Captain's ambitions of soft sands and softer breasts were breached as the electronic voice squalled; its howling as loud as a spoiled infant's first touch of a hot stove. A child's scream for a mother's rescue tore awake the white headed master.
With his blood now surging, the Captain jerked upright and rubbed his eyes to wash away the dream. Barely disturbing the bumps and bruises of a ripening man's past, his coarse fingers furrowed his colorless hair. Confused at what part the insistent crying played in his feminine fantasy, he stared about the deck, searching for the source.
There were multitudes of amazing devices on the sloop; most he refused to use, too slothful to deal with the tiny knobs and meters. Besides, cruising the tropical seas was a lazy man's treat. Warm days and warmer waters led to an idleness intertwined with rich fantasies; a basket of delicious dramas where cold electronics played only small roles.
He checked off the possible problems of a sunny afternoon then closed the list without an answer. No stream of smoke or sour sea wafted from the cabin. Then Capt glanced over the side of his craft to see the sunrays sinking deep into the clear depths; he watched as the streaks of light struggled with the rapidly darkening water. The problem and solution tripped over each other as he spun the wheel and hunkered down, unprepared for the crash that could cost him his life.
Refusing to surrender command, Otto fought back.
"You son-of-a-bitch, let go the wheel!" the Captain screamed as he pounded and kicked the switch to disengage the terror. Frozen by a narrow duty, the steering resisted, remaining locked to one course only.
With its smothering cloak, fear enclosed the Captain's crouching form - a pressure suit for the uncertain zipped tight around his body. Secure in the embrace of his old friend and companion, he didn't try to escape or fight but clung to the wheel and waited.
Unlike its stepbrother anger, fear had never been an outwardly impressive figure. Many times, the only indication of its presence was the small bumps of sweat above the lip or the single large bead that exploded from your armpit and rolled down the ribcage. But when it covered you, it's tentacles ran deep and the poison of self doubt paralyzed your being. Like a spider, it would sink its fangs into your reason, then retreat to watch as you stiffened dumb.
A close companion many nights, fear had served Capt well in his aviation career. It had come to his aid on the milk run between Anchorage and Sitka. Landing the twin engine Air Queen on the barren tundra gathered the Captain accolades from passengers and company alike. Etched on the gold colored plate were the words, "Maintaining control of an aircraft under extreme conditions thereby saving the lives of passengers and crew". After the awards ceremony he'd turned the bowl into a squirrel feeder, the bushy tailed rodents appreciated the seeds along with the praise and didn't mind if the Captain was a fraud. As his close companion, fear had stiffened Capt's back that hellish night. It had ridden with him to the ground and flared the aircraft just before impact.
A senior pilot had taken the Captain aside and whispered about the intervention of a higher power. Capt ignored the man since the old pilot carried a chart case emblazoned with the gold lettered words 'God is my co-pilot'. Capt needed someone a little more stable sitting to his right. A co-pilot with mood swings didn't inspire confidence-one day angry and vengeful, the next day shepherding the sheep. Fear was more dependable. Sealing out the nagging doubts of decision, it poured over you like a rich thick molasses and never showed jealousy.