“I wouldn’t want to be there myself,” Ezekiel said into his beer. “It’s a lonely place, after all. Don’t get me wrong, mind you, I’ve got nothing but respect for your profession, but life as a keeper is a lonely thing.”
I told him I did not mind the isolation, in fact, I welcomed it. Like himself, I spent most of my forty-six years pulling line on the sea, ground fishing for cod, haddock, and the like. It was an exhilarating life, but my injury would no longer let me sail, and if I could not sail, I would do the next best thing.
“And we ‘ppreciate it,” he said with a raise of his glass. We toasted, the clink of the glass echoing through the empty room.
“Meet Ol’ Tom yet?” he asked, referring to the keeper I was to replace for the next nine months. I had not but was told he was a gruff sort.
Ezekiel scoffed. “Gruff ain’t the word for it. I can think of another, but the bless’d Mary wouldn’t approve. Getting away from that place will do him some good. He’s been too ornery of late, leastways that’s what Jack says.”
I asked how.
“Oh, mutterin’ to himself, barking orders about staying where he can see you, watching the land more than the sea. Going off his rocker, if you follow me.”
I took a drink and wondered how much of Old Tom’s oddities were a result of aging, or a byproduct of the job I was about to undertake. Not wanting to think of it, I asked about the town, its people, and history.
“Oh, Marlow’s got its sights. Seen the old church?”
“And the docks?”
“Ah, well, that’s about it then.”
He ordered another beer. The tavern keeper, a grim, bearded man with a white eye, delivered the brew. I glanced up, noticing that while his good eye busied itself with wiping the counter, the other, glazed over with unseeing death, glared at me, a grim welcome to the town.
“Not much more to tell, sorry to say,” Ezekiel went on, scratching his stubble. “The church were built ‘round 1857, if I recollect proper. Homes and business afterward. Good fishin’ here. Lot of big whaling ships come to port, for supplies and what not, before heading out to the great blue sea. Aye, most folk just live off the sea. Mighty fine, noble business is fishin’, but there’s some that’s farmers out on the east side of town. Superstitious bunch, if you ask me.”
I pointed out that sailors were, by tradition, the most superstitious humans in existence.
Ezekiel waved a dismissive hand. “They think there’s something out in the woods, eatin’ animals.”
There was no shortage of wild animals willing to take advantage of a farmer’s livelihood. Half a dozen such beasts came to mind, but Ezekiel shook his head.
“No, something else. Something big. Big like a wolf.”
Perhaps it was a wolf, I suggested. The old man shrugged.
“The farmers tend to their problems, I tend to mine.”
I thanked the old man for the talk, paid my tab, and left the tavern.
The streets of Marlow were quiet on that clear night. The sea air and the stink of newly caught fish thick in my nostrils. Overhead, millions of stars twinkled as the had for centuries, heavenly guides for tough men on the sundering seas.
I entered my lodgings, a rundown house where every room permeated with a salty air, and entered the dining area to look over the night’s menu. My stomach rumbled at the idea of cutting through a thick steak, juices dripping down the flanks, red and tender on the inside, but I was to be disappointed.
Tonight’s special, baked cod.