October 21:  Yukon Cornelius delivers letters for the crew of the Flying Dutchman

I thought I had a big curse in my early twenties, after my mom died, and monsters came to find me. Everywhere I went, a new monster. They always found me. I figured the only way to get away from monsters was to go to the open sea, so I joined the Merchant Marines. Yeah that didn’t work. Do you know how many sea serpents there are? Long necked dinosaur sea life? And Leviathan? We “discovered” so many of these creatures that the crew felt like the ship was magical. Until a sea serpent came to talk to me, and then I was magical. I was a “monster whisperer”—and some of the crew liked it, and some of them were wary… what kinds of monsters would I bring to the ship that could endanger the crew? Since we ran commercial shipping in peacetime and wartime, sometimes in the thick of battle,  what would these monsters do? I attracted loose cannons—who might do anything to protect themselves. This wasn’t a good thing.

“I can’t control it,” I told my mates, my captain. It wasn’t like I could cover some beacon light with mud or a sheet. It was a curse I had no control over. I considered resigning from the Merchant Marines, but I was a good able seaman, and there was this other guy who attracted sea gulls, so they figured it wasn’t right to let us go for what came to find us. Simmons was just going to have to manage the gulls so they weren’t a problem, and me— I had to manage the “other things.”

Well, one of those was a ghost ship. One late afternoon, a time for storms to whip themselves up on the water, in the clouds and a time for ships to hunker down, or get out of the way, we spotted another ship in the storm. Some storms are unavoidable. The ship had old rigging and sails, and rumors passed among the crew that it was the Flying Dutchman, a fabled ghost ship from the 16th century when the Dutch and the East India Tea Co were the kings of shipping on the seas. The ship had a curse too—that they were never allowed to go home again, cursed always be adrift on the sea, never able to be with family or those they loved. And if another ship saw them, it spelled certain doom.

I asked, “If it’s certain doom, then how did you hear the stories? Wouldn’t everyone have died—so who’s coming back with the stories?” This caused my bunkmates to think. Someone said, “They.” Another nodded, “Yes, they.” Who is they? They didn’t know. “Survivors,” they agreed and that convinced them the stories were true. The ship looked in trouble and was flying a flag signifying that they needed assistance. “You don’t help the Flying Dutchman!” someone said when more of us  surrounded the Captain and the Mates. “Why?” I asked on the deck. “Why don’t you help them?” And I told them if it involved the whole ship being doomed then where’s the stories coming from?  I concluded, “Maybe others have seen them, but no one’s helped them.” One of the older men spoke up, “They will try to give you letters. Letters that they’ve written to family members who are already dead. If you take the letters, the ship you’re on will sink.” I held up my hand, “If the ship sank, then how do you know someone took the letters?” A long pause. Someone with a scratchy voice said, “I say we send Yukon out there to see them. He’s good with monsters.” They agreed. “And we put him in a tender. If the tender sinks, we go pick him up.” They agreed quickly. I asked, “What if this isn’t a monster– or a ghost ship and they need our help?”  They would send two tenders. Five other crewmates would be in a larger dinghy, but I had to stay in my little dinghy, and go on ahead, and they would wait for a signal that it was okay to approach closer.

I did not want to go out and meet a ghost ship. But if this meant that I was keeping the monsters away from my crew, then I was willing to do it. I told myself, just go see what they want.

I rowed the tender out on a sea becoming choppy. The other dinghy followed at a safe distance. The ship that was in distress slowed as I approached. They also glowed as I approached. I felt I could hear the gasps of the five men in their dinghy behind me. A luminescent seaman climbed the ladder down the side of the big ship, and in his hand he held a bag. I got closer and closer. “You asked for assistance! How can I help you?” I yelled out. They didn’t say anything, but the man held up the bag. The man glowed green. The bag was green, and the wind was swinging it back and forth. “Do you want me to take the bag?” The man nodded and held out the bag to drop it into my dinghy when I got closer. “Do you need me to come aboard?” I asked. He shook his head. The bag dropped from his hand—almost missing–into my dinghy with a thud. I thought I heard a whisper, Letters home. I looked at him, probably closer than any other person not on his ship had been to him, I guessed.  I thought I had a curse. These men could never see their families or loved ones again. They were forbidden. They had no idea that so much time had passed. The crew of the ghost ship lined the railing above us, watching. Hoping. I was overcome with empathy at their suffering, so much that my “curse” disappeared. I asked them, “Do you want me to deliver the letters for you?” The man nodded. I had a wild idea. I said, “I’m going to bring letters back to you,” I said. “Will you come back to this spot in two months?” They nodded and whispered, We will.

I rowed the tender back to the ship where the other five men had gotten aboard. They would not let me climb up. “He has the letters,” someone said. They talked about whether it was safe to bring me aboard. It was not. But it also wasn’t safe for me to stay in a tender in the approaching storm. “Throw the letters into the sea!” they yelled, “And we’ll pull you up.” I said I couldn’t do that. I made a promise. “But you also promised not to let any monsters hurt us. How do we know the letters won’t hurt us?” I called up. “They need us to deliver the letters.” And, I added, I knew that this gift I had would never kill me—because monsters needed me— so therefore, I knew the boat I was on wouldn’t sink. I was hoarse now and couldn’t speak any more and the storm was loud, and the sea was getting rougher. They decided they could not let me die. They hoisted me up. They all stared at the bag which was now just an old burlap bag. They wanted to open the bag. I kept it firmly shut. Not till we were safely on shore, I urged. I tied the bag even tighter with rope and put in a plastic bag to keep it water resistant.

Some monsters don’t start out as monsters. They are made monsters. These men did something to be rejected by the shore, but was it a just punishment, or overkill? Who decided that punishment? “They might say it in the letters!” they said. Yes, I said, but that’s for a family member to read.  When we got to shore, I had a few days. I took them to a museum, and we opened the bag in the presence of curators and historians. Handwritten letters, sealed, folded without envelope into the shape of an envelope. They agreed to use special scanning techniques to read the letters without opening them, and translate them from various languages, and also find the descendants of the recipients. “In two months, please” I said. They nodded, understanding how important it was, “In two months.”  

In two months, a storm sprang up exactly where we had been, and I sailed out to the Flying Dutchman with a bag of new letters from the great-great-great (to the 11th generation) grandchildren of the recipients, or cousins, or some relation. They hoisted the bag up eagerly and it again glowed green in their hands. I told them I could come back every two months. They all looked at me for a moment, stopping what they were doing, and smiled and nodded. Then turned and continued passing the letters to each other, each man who would hear for the first time a response from a relation. And if, as it happened in many cases, a relation could not be found, they  found someone who might be able to answer the lonely letters of outcast sailors that read, “We are still out here waiting to come home.”

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