The boat heaved upward, its bow crashing against another large swell, and the icy water from it splashed over the railing dousing Benjamin’s bare hand and the side of his pant leg. He looked up at the pilothouse. Inside was the shadow of the skipper, Dan Smith, a bearded young man wearing a baseball cap.
“Can you see them yet?” Benjamin shouted out.
The young skipper shook his head.
From the elevation of the poop deck, Smith could see the ice field ahead, stretching horizontally in both directions as far as eyes could see, and he could see the opening in it, where the ice-breaker had entered. A deep, black rift etched its way landward through blocks of snow and ice, toward the islands of the Magdalen, a small archipelago in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence where men came to hunt young harp seals.
Benjamin glanced down at the rifle in his hand. He could feel the wood stock snugly against his palm and the cold steel of the trigger against his finger.
It was fate, he thought. His father had fought on the side of environmentalism, as did his grandfather before him – both men were committed to the preservation of land and sea, and to the animals and creatures living there. His grandfather had worked for the Reno Gazette-Journal and wrote editorials in an effort to stop the eradication of the Nevada mustang. But in the 1950s, a man’s work was more important then the conservation of a misfit animal, and his articles were eventually banned from publication, as was he. And his father, a mill worker for the Georgia-Pacific Corporation, took up the fight against the dumping of lethal by-products into the many streams and rivers of northern Oregon. He gathered signatures and petitioned national leaders, and was eventually fired for it. And he spent many long years unemployed in an occupation that was, at the time, the only one for a middle-aged mill worker in the Pacific Northwest. Two generations of men before him had taken up the pen for the cause of environmentalism. It was why, Benjamin knew, he now stood on the deck of a ship with a gun in his hand.
As they approached the ice field, Smith eased back on the throttle and brought the engines to a complete idle. He waited for the swells to subside and then throttled ahead into the channel at a slow speed. The mouth of this man-made waterway was more than thirty meters across, evidence of how many times it had been used to access the permanent snowfields beyond. Either side of the channel was lined in by four-foot walls of ice, out from which stretched large, diagonal cracks.
Benjamin kept his eyes keenly ahead as the ship inched its way upstream. As the channel narrowed, it became littered with chunks of floating ice, and he could hear them thunking off the bow. He glanced up at Smith frequently, checking for a sign, but Smith offered no signal yet. Beyond the channel, Smith could only see the sprawling white ice floes stretching out to the grey horizon.
Across the ice, perched at the top of his 55-foot, steel-hulled crabber was the old man Kalic, a burly fifty-something Canadian who had run a sealing company for twenty-five years now. From his high point, he watched his men perform their handiwork, that which they had performed in the same brutal, archaic manner for more than two decades straight.
The whiteness of the ice, which stretched out below him, was stained red now with blood. And the redness formed the image of a tangled web, where many blood-lines led to a central hub, a heap of dead or dying seals; their carcasses dumped there after their pelts had been taken. The young seals were shot or bludgeon to death with hakapiks, a metal-hook-tipped club. Then they were dragged back to the ship, sometimes still conscious. It was a scene of butchery, only to be imagined in a dark dream or witnessed in a horror film.
But for Kalic and his boys, it was work, no different than a butcher in a meat shop or a lineman in a packing shed. It was the work of their fathers, and fore-fathers before them. And the animals, though charming in appearance, were nothing but dollar signs, and mortgage payments, and food on the plates of their children.
“There!” he shouted, pointing a strong arm to a young seal scrambling away from the carnage. He looked down at a young man who was working the pelts with a knife below. “Cratton!” he shouted. “There! He is getting away!”
The young man grabbed his hakapik, dashed after the young seal, and gaffed it repeatedly in the head until it stopped moving. Then he hooked it with the spike at the end of the hakapik and dragged it back to the ship, leaving another blood line in the snow. The seal lay there on the ice floe with blood running from its nose. It was still conscious and gasped for air. Not far away, the Sealer sharpened his knife blade, and as he began slicing its fur from its torso, the young seal began thrashing violently, and he thumped it in the head again with the hakapik until it stopped.
In the distance over the rise of an ice berm, there were three other pups getting away. Kalic shouted to his men, directing them with the long point of his arm. One of the hunters scrambled up to the top of the berm with a rifle and cracked out three shots.
“That’s some fine shooting there, Johnston!” Kalic shouted.
In between directing traffic, Kalic eyed the channel east. They had been pestered in recent weeks by a small group of rebel activists who coined themselves The Abalone Alliance, predominantly because they had come from the West, the Pacific coast, where they had rallied to protect the abalone from the intrusive discharge of a nuclear power plant.
He did not see the ship at first, but heard the familiar sound of a ship’s diesel engine whispering across the ice floes. Then he saw the crown of its crow’s nest moving above the ice toward them. He entered the wheelhouse, and when he emerged, he had a shotgun in one hand, and several rock-salt filled shells in the other. He had grown tired of these young activists, and of their harassing tactics. They had plastered the local towns with anti-sealing posters, callously displaying the carnage and portraying them as butchers. They had posted videos on YouTube, and painted the words ‘Baby Killers’ in bright red on the side of his ship. And they had blocked the channel by dragging huge chunks of ice upstream and jamming them in the narrows, although Kalic’s double-hulled crabber made quick work of it. More recently they resorted to more irritating measures, using a loud speaker to insult their families and threaten to ram their ship against the steel-hull crabber.
For Kalic, the activists were more of a nuisance than a threat. But their activities interrupted work, and some of his men were bothered by it, and by the escalation of it. Each time, it seemed, the activists were ratcheting up their methods, becoming more hostile, and more desperate. And Kalic was determined to put an end to it.
He looked down at the rock-salt filled shells in his hand. He grunted out a deep-throated laugh as he loaded them into the shotgun. This will teach them!
It was their right, nevertheless, Kalic thought. It was the law of the land. It was Canadian law!
The annual seal hunt was a tradition that dated back several centuries. From before the time of Columbus, on through the advent of commercial shipping, young harp seals were taken for their fur, meat and oil. Since the industry’s boom in the mid-fifties, new generations of Sealers lined-up each year, ready to take the catch. For some in isolated communities, it was the only livelihood; the only means of financial survival. The hunt was even sanctioned by the Department of Fisheries and supported by the government; although Kalic would be first to admit they did not always comply with Canada’s animal welfare standards. But if not for him, there would be others, he knew. It was tradition, and commercially successful, and no greenhorn young activists from California were going to change that.
Benjamin’s mind was still on the rifle held in his hand as he looked forward into the narrowing channel.
‘It is a menace,’ he recalled his father saying. ‘Only to be used by men without reason.’
His father detested weapons of all types. They were the takers of life. That which was the greatest treasure of nature, Life, the most coveted of all things on earth, was to be respected and preserved above all costs. And yet the very weapon that his father detested was in fact the instrument that could sustain the sanctity of life here in the ice fields of the Saint Lawrence Gulf, Benjamin thought.
Benjamin imagined the horror he had seen, coming upon the ice where the Sealers had done their work, the bloodied carcasses of hundreds of young harp seals; the pitiful cries of the pups; the repeated thuds of clubs raining down on soft skulls; the Sealers’ laughter echoing across the ice floes. Perhaps a weapon was a menace of irrational men, but it was the only tangible thing the hunters could understand.
You must speak their language,” he said quietly, looking down at the rifle. If you are fighting irrational men of violence, then a menacing weapon is what one must use.
Nevertheless, Benjamin thought to himself, he did not intend to use the rifle to kill; only to fire warning shots over their heads. Of this, he was certain. The weapon he held in his hands would not be used to kill, but to squash the will in others to kill.
The ship’s engines backed off. Benjamin looked up at Smith, who nodded his head and motioned with his hand to get down. Benjamin did so, promptly, taking a position behind the solid steel lip of the bow. As the ship rounded one last bend, Benjamin could see the 55-foot crabber ahead. Up on the master deck, coming around the rail to his side of the ship, was Kalic with an object in his hand. It appeared to be a hakapik.
As they drifted closer, Smith reversed the engines, ceasing their forward momentum. The propellers went quiet and the two ships were finally positioned, a mere thirty yards apart.
From the master deck of the crabber, Kalic shouted out, “Get the hell out of here! Go back home to California!”
All the seal hunters, who were still busy working their pelts on the far side of the ship, stopped and turned their heads.
“Go home!” Kalic’s yelled again. His deep voice echoed across the ice floes.
Benjamin leveled his rifle, taking aim at a place in the sky just above Kalic’s head.
“You suck off,” he yelled back.
“Go away before I have to do something serious!”
You want something serious? Benjamin thought.
“We don’t want any trouble,” Kalic said. “We just want to get along with our work.”
In his mind, Benjamin saw the dead seals again, strewn across the white ice; the bodies of helpless youth slain without mercy. And sighting down the barrel, there at a place in the open sky just above the ship, he pulled the trigger.
The bullet zinged harmlessly over Kalic’s head
Smith looked on nervously from the poop deck.
“Bastards,” Kalic growled. Turning back, he looked in the direction where the bullet whiz past. Then he took two deliberate steps forward, fully against the rail, brought the stock of the shotgun securely against his shoulder, and pulled the trigger.
The shotgun bucked and the salt pellets shattered the glass in the pilothouse just in front of Smith’s face. Smith ducked down and to the side, behind the metal frame of the windshield.
Kalic grinned. Though he knew the rock salt would not cause serious injury, it would cause immense pain, and with this stinging message, he hoped to turn these young activists away.
He quickly aimed and pulled the trigger again. The second shot sent salt pellets scattering around the pilothouse, some of which hit Smith in his leg, tearing into his skin.
Smith dropped to the floor with a yelp, grasping his leg.
From below, Benjamin could hear all the action.
“You okay?” he yelled out. But there was no answer, only groaning, and when he looked up at the pilothouse, he could not see Smith, only the shattered glass of the pilot’s windshield.
Benjamin immediately lifted his rifle back over the bow’s bridge and took aim again, a more sincere aim this time with the barrel pointing directly at Kalic’s large frame. At the same time, Kalic swung his shotgun around toward the bow of their ship to where Benjamin had fired the original shot. Benjamin pulled the trigger first. Though the shot narrowly missed, it caused Kalic to readjust, and Benjamin pulled the trigger again. This time, the large, burly Kalic crumbled to the deck, grasping his chest in his hand.
Kalic’s shotgun discharged skyward. He fell backward and dropped harmlessly to the deck. Two hunters close to the ship leaped aboard and scrambled up the iron ladder. They found Kalic flat on his back halfway out the doorway of the wheelhouse. There was blood on his chest and his eyes were lifeless.
“You’ve killed him, you bastards!” one of the hunters yelled out.
The other picked up the shotgun and emptied the three remaining shells in the direction of their ship.
Benjamin lay flat in the bow, cuddled against the cold steel. He could hear the three shotgun blasts ricocheting on the upper deck. Then he heard another rifle ring out, a different sound, and heard the ping of a bullet careening off the metal near him.
“You Bastards! You killed him!”
Another shot rang out and another bullet dug deep into the metal hull of their ship. Then there were multiple shots, from both land and sea, pummeling the ship from all angels.
Up in the pilothouse, Smith pulled himself to his feet, limped over to the wheel, and dropped the gear-shift into reverse. Keeping his head low, he throttled it down. As the boat picked up momentum, jettisoning in reverse, he could hear it, and feel it, the stern slamming against the ice-walls of the channel. He could not swing the boat around without risking a further barrage of bullets. Nor did he have the advantage of sight. Using the bottom of the wheel, with head down, he had to steer it, the best that he could, trying to find open water.
At twenty yards, and forty yards, and sixty, the bullets whizzed past. At last, at a distance of one hundred yards where the channel widened sufficiently, Smith was able to swing the bow around. He pointed the ship straight out the channel and throttled it all the way down. A few more shots rang out from the Sealers, but eventually they were out of range and out of sight.
Benjamin remained flat on the foredeck, prone with the rifle beneath him. It was still clinched in his hands. He could feel himself breathing hard and shaking. The adrenaline rush from the whole thing was still peaking through his veins.
“Wow! That was something!” he heard Smith yell down from the bridge.
Benjamin turned and looked up at Smith. Behind the broken glass of the pilothouse, beneath the ball-cap, he could see Smith’s face smiling.
“I think you killed that old bastard,” Smith shouted.
Benjamin stood up, still holding the rifle in his hand. He looked down at it and realized his hand was trembling.
“Are you okay?” Smith asked.
“Yes,” Benjamin replied, not sure of it.
“I think he was shooting salt rock,” Smith said, looking down at the blood on his leg. “Did you hear what I said? I think you killed that old goat.”
Benjamin stared up at the pilothouse without answering. In all his life, he could not imagine himself killing someone. It was sacrilegious, contrary to the teachings of his father and grandfather. It was a betrayal of one’s beliefs; an outcome not part of the plan. He looked down at the rifle – the menacing instrument used by men without reason. The barrel and chamber casing was still warm from its discharge, and although his grasp had unconsciously loosened, it felt awkwardly comfortable in his hand. A chill passed over his body.
What have you done? he thought. How could you fire that shot?
“Yeah, I really think you got him,” Smith shouted down gleefully from the pilothouse. “I think you got him in the chest!”
Benjamin looked up, his restless brain quiet for a moment. It was a betrayal, all right; a betrayal of all that his father stood for.
As the ship made its way out the main channel into the open waters of the Gulf, Benjamin remained on the foredeck, feeling the rhythmic thumps of the swells against the bow. They thumped loudly, as did his heart. I have killed a man, he thought. He looked out across the Gulf to the southwest. The dim northern lights faded. He bowed his head and watched the dark water rushing toward the bow. It was fate, he thought, the fate of his fathers.