Virgil Matthews: Chapter 7–Confession
I had known John Ferguson, a Scotsman by birth, more than fifteen years when we boarded Invictus for our final inglorious voyage together. When I first saw him, I found him rather frightening. Narrow at the waist and broad at the shoulders, he wore an unkempt beard in which I supposed might be inhabited by tiny creatures. His curly red hair looked like a pile of leaves and forest debris in which birds might have made their nests. His eyes were malevolent orbs blue or green, depending upon the light: his fists seemed more suited for the hammering of iron than for coiling lines and tying knots. When he first glanced my way I averted my eyes, fearful of provoking him in some unexpected way. But when I finally heard him speak it was almost, but not quite, in the lilting voice of a young mother cooing to newborn infant.
Over the years, we sailed the oceans together, got drunk, told one another embellished tales that often bordered on deceit, and, on occasion, promised ourselves we’d one day leave the sea for a less perilous, if not better, life on dry land. As things happened, John never made good on his promise.
As we redoubled our efforts to insure our cargo was secure and that anything the deck was properly lashed in place, the ship began to rise upon ever growing waves and raced down their steep backsides at frightening speeds. Invictus moaned and creaked like an old house on a cold winter’s morning. She pitched and yawed in the night amidst unceasing bursts of thunder so loud we never heard the screams of the men we lost as the sea claimed her sacrifices for our journey. We fought with the storm and ocean through the night, our way lit only by dim hope and the repeated flashes of lightening that illuminated the towering seas.
Perhaps, you’ve begun to grow weary of my tale. I’ve tried to tell only the parts that matter—but I suppose you’d rather me get on with it. And I will. I suppose what I want to tell you is that I faced that storm, and many others, with the same kind of fearful determination any other seaman worth his wages would have. I did no more. But I certainly did no less. Yet when a man tells his tale, pride and regret taint the memory and in that way I suppose I’m no more or less a man than any other.
So let me get on with my confession and tell you what you might well have surmised. John Ferguson has been dead many years now. My cowardice, it would seem, cost him a gruesome death.
I can still hear his screams today.