Saturday, August 01, 2009

The Woman on the Wharf

A number of years ago, before the harbor was dredged and deepened and the entire surrounding district modernized to accommodate container ships, an old man lived in a kind of cramped cabin or shack on one of the long wharves that used to jut out into the bay. He was employed as watchman and fire warden by an import-export firm that held a long-term lease on many of the harborside properties; in lieu of a salary he received free tenancy of the shack and daily meals and as much acrid coffee as he could drink in the firm's commissary. The work was undemanding -- walking the docks several times a night, keeping a lookout for suspicious activity -- and he found it preferable to life in a mission or the poor house. As he made his nightly circuit he carried a kind of staff or cudgel that he would, if necessary, wave in the air to persuade straying drunks to move on, as well as a switchblade in his pocket should real trouble arise, but the waterside was generally deserted once night fell, and it was no longer certain that much of value was passing through the wharves in any case.

Even in the fairest weather it was cold and misty by the water in the evenings, and the old man never left his lodgings without an ancient leather coat, a snug felt cap, and a pair of heavy work gloves. Though a series of pale electric lights had been strung overhead along the length of his route he carried a kerosene lantern with him at all times; his vision was beginning to fail and he held a particular loathing for the formidable rats that sometimes scuttled in front of him as he walked. He did not drink -- had never done so, even in all his travels in his younger days -- never mentioned family and had not been known to be ill or to request a day off. When he had occasion to engage in conversation, which was infrequently, it was noted that he spoke with a faint trace of an accent, though one that was hard to place. It was rumored that he might have been born in Norway or perhaps Orkney or the Hebrides, but no one knew for sure and no one ever took the trouble to inquire.

One particular October evening, after eating his supper in the half-deserted mess and catching a brief twilight nap in his cabin, the watchman dressed, collected his staff and lantern, and stepped out into the night air to begin his rounds. The moon was two nights past full, and its light was diffused by a thin, lingering mist. There were few ships moored at the docks that night, only a listing German freighter -- the Marut -- whose crew had made themselves scarce a few days before, as well as a pair of dark barges piled with scrap iron. Out on the water a long low coaler was steaming further up the harbor, guided by a pair of tugs, and its wake was rocking up against the moorings along shore. It sounded its horn, once, and the muffled echo repeated several times across the bay before dying out.

He passed beneath the dark belly of the freighter, listening to the slapping of the waves against its side, and began walking slowly out towards the end of the wharf. The slanted-roof warehouses that had been constructed along most of its length were now largely empty and stood in need of a coat of paint and more than a few fresh boards. Here and there a window had been broken and boarded up; the rest were dull with salt spray. Between the buildings lay collections of abandoned things: empty barrels and rusting coils of cable, a broken block-and-tackle and an old propeller.

As he approached the opening of the alley between the two outermost buildings he heard an unfamiliar sound that he thought for a second might have been a footfall. He was not alarmed; there was nothing out this far on the wharf to interest a prowler and he suspected it was really just the breaking of the surf, but almost immediately he heard it a second time -- it was unmistakable now -- and then once more again. It didn't sound like the solid tread of a booted workman -- more the light slap of a bare foot on wet wood -- and he wondered if a dog had gotten lost or had wandered out in search of a refuse pail to knock over for scraps. He turned and passed through the narrow alley, and just as he emerged and started for the end of the wharf he caught a fleeting glimpse of a slight figure, dressed in light-colored clothing, who was moving steadily ahead of him.

He called out, but the figure had already disappeared around the corner. He hastily adjusted his lantern, widening its pale glow, and followed, quickening his step. As he came to the end of the warehouse he saw that the fugitive had once again crossed to the opposite side of the wharf and was now heading outwards along the twenty yards of empty deck that remained at its tip. When he called again the figure turned, just for a moment, and to his considerable surprise he saw that it was a woman, whose long, light brown hair flowed down the back of a plain white dress that was not nearly warm enough for the season. In the instant before she turned her back to him again and resumed her course she gave him a frank stare unmarked by either fear or evident curiosity, and as she did so he observed that she was quite strikingly pretty but also not nearly as young as her stride would suggest -- a woman, to all appearances, well into her middle years.

He knew at once that there could be only one explanation for her presence at such an hour, and with more annoyance at her for trespassing on his domain than concern for her welfare he immediately resolved to frustrate her intent. He hurried forward -- not at a run, as the surface of the wharf was slick and treacherous, but as quickly as he could walk -- but she was moving swiftly herself and the distance was too great. When she reached the end of the wharf, just a few yards ahead of him, he nearly caught up with her and lunged for her arm, but it was too late. She did not jump into the bay but instead simply continued walking until the last metal girder was no longer beneath her feet and she plunged downwards and out of sight, making a hollow sound as she broke the surface. The watchman held his lantern up and looked out. A few yards out, the woman had begun to swim calmly and purposefully into the bay; he ordered her to return but she either didn't hear or chose not to heed. He hesitated; there was a dinghy hauled up at the shore end of the wharf but he knew that the oars were locked in a shed and he would have had to find the key. Deciding there was no time, he set the lantern down on the end of the wharf, hurriedly shed his coat and cap, then unbuckled and drew off his boots. Before he leapt he yelled as loud as he could for help, knowing there was little chance that anyone would be within earshot.

As he hit the water the shock of the cold convulsed him and it was a moment before he could regain control of his limbs. Treading water until he had caught his breath, he drew a bead on the woman, illuminated by the moonlight now some thirty yards offshore, and began his pursuit.

He was an experienced swimmer, though no longer as strong as he had once been, and though he quickly drew up to within a few yards of the woman he could not overtake her. Even as he was appalled by her recklessness he could not help but marvel at her practiced stroke. He had never known a woman to swim so well, certainly not in the cold and powerful currents of the bay. She looked over her shoulder briefly and caught sight of him, but gave no indication that his presence affected her or would alter her plan. There were lights on the far shore and on the boats pulled up alongside, casting shining trails across the water, but they were too far away for anyone there to be able make out the two swimmers, even had someone chanced to look, and at that distance the chopping of the waves would muffle even the loudest cry for help. There was nothing for it but to follow the woman until she began to tire, and then hope to persuade her to return with him to shore, assuming his own strength did not give out first.

As she reached the midpoint between the near and far shore, where the channel was cut the deepest, she began to change her course, swinging around until she was parallel to the current, bearing outwards towards the mouth of the bay. For a moment he persuaded himself, with relief, that she was about to make a full circle and return to the wharf and that her madness had, after all, some limit, but all too soon it was clear that that was not at all her purpose. She kept to the center of the bay and even seemed to redouble her pace. He felt fury rising in him at her perverseness and obstinacy, but fascination as well, as he wondered about the mettle of a woman whose strength and determination were more than a match for his own.

They continued swimming and soon had left the busiest part of the harbor behind. The surface of the water was darker here, lit only by the haze-shrouded moon, and the waves began to pick up and slap around him and into his face, but still he maintained a fixed eye on the woman ahead. He could not fathom what purpose she might have in acting as she did; if it were to drown herself she could have done so simply and far closer to shore, unless perhaps his unexpected interference had spoiled her design.

By now, he was no longer swimming to save her -- at this point he no longer thought he could -- nor even to save himself, but still he followed her without knowing why, as if, having already pursued her so far, he had surrendered his will and forfeited the right to turn back. Curiously, he felt no fear. As the cold penetrated his muscles his limbs began to tire and the water felt heavier and darker around him. The steady pull of the falling tide was taking hold, drawing him out into the widest part of the bay. He had begun to swim more slowly now; she seemed to sense this and relaxed her pace as well, turning her head every few strokes as if to gauge where he was. He called to her and for once he thought he saw her listen and consider his words, but still she swam outward, outward...

At last he was exhausted and could do nothing but float. As the current bore him along the woman swam in time with it, still showing no sign of feeling either cold or fatigue. The waves began to break over his head and he gasped for breath, unable to move. The figure ahead of him stopped swimming and turned towards him one last time, treading water, observing him silently, intently, without emotion. As he felt himself being drawn down into the dense, deep water her face was the last thing he saw.

Two days later the crew of a fishing boat spied the watchman's body drifting a few yards offshore at the outermost point of the bay. They notified the harbor patrol, who gaffed him out of the water and brought him to the city morgue. He was buried in an unmarked grave.

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