The Man Who Swam in The Winter Sea
At the base of a bluff were the river runs into the Winter Sea lived hardy fisherfolk who lived to lay nets and hooks into the frigid water and draw fish into their boats. Their wooden boats were three times the length of a fisherman and pointed at either end. The boats were wide and deep amidships, like a great chowder bowl, which made each a strong, nibble vessel that could take the fishers out into the sea and return them safely, for the Winter Sea was a forbidding well of frigid death.
Most every day, one could see the people in their boats rowing out of the river mouth, counting on catching fish, and a friendly breeze to carry them home before dark. But, just as the humans took the salmon in the net and halibut from the hook the icy water drowned the fishers without sympathy.
When a stranger named Bjorn came to spend the summer, the folk were at first suspicious. Where did he come from? What did he want? He told them he was sent by the University to count the fish, and measure the river and the tide and the weather, and he wouldn’t be any bother to anyone. He had arranged for the mail boat would bring his food and in the fall take him away before the freezing of the river.
"He wants to buy a boat," Ivan reported, "Perhaps I should sell him mine."
"Did you tell him?" Gunar asked.
"Tell him what?"
"Did you tell him that this is the Winter Sea and this water can kill him?"
"I will tell him," said Carl, "I even have a boat for him."
And so the stranger got a boat and lecture. Carl leaned on the overturned dory and shook an authoritative finger at Bjorn's childlike face. “This water she will kill you like this." He snapped his fingers. “That's how cold it is. If there were no salt in the water, it would be ice all year. If you fall in, don't cry for help for it will be too late. Fifteen minutes and its over."
"That quick?" asked Bjorn, disbelief wrinkling his face.
"Oh yes. First the arms and legs will .go numb. Then cold will creep through your armpits until your heart is frozen, and you are gone -- over the bar. "
"Maybe I don't want this boat after all," Bjorn said.
"Ah, this is a good boat." Carl patted the side with its chipping paint and pointed at the battered thwarts. She is like a cradle for you."
The next day, Bjorn rose early and pushed his new boat out into the mouth of the river and rowed into a quite morning on the Winter Sea. The Man rowed steadily along the shore aiding by a rising breeze. He was so busy rowing and studying the bluff with its dark coal seams and bright flowers that he didn't notice the change in tide and the rising wind. Soon he was bucking along on a choppy sea.
Back at the fishing village, people stood on the beach with concerned looks on their faces for they had seen Bjorn’s boat was gone from the beach. Waves were building on the water and the wind was roaring. Nearly a mile offshore, the man wrestled with the boat against the sea. Then one oar slipped out of his grasp. Bjorn lunged for it, but he reached too far and fell in.
Carl was working on the roof of his house and saw him fall. "He's in the water," Carl growled, "That finishes it. He's a goner."
A few of the fisher folk kept a vigil, hoping his body would wash to shore. They built a fire and sat by their boats talking about all the faces that had lost to the sea. The children soon grew bored and prowled the beach, looking for treasure in the tideline. Suddenly, they were running toward the fire screaming and pointing down the beach.
Their parents left the fire and walked toward them. Carl ran ahead and followed their fingers to the dark form washed up in the waves. The form rose and became Bjorn rising from the sea. "Help me," Carl yelled, "It's the university man! He's alive!"
The astounded people took the man into a house and dried him off where he slept by the fire for several hours. Carl's wife woke him to feed him warm broth and tea. The rest of the village sat around their stoves or drift wood campfires mulling this great event of a man who swam to shore and lived.
One of the old ones said, "That man must have webbed feet and hands like an otter."
“Perhaps he is really a seal,” said another.
“How far did he swim?”
“He was outside the big sandbar, and that’s a ways.”
“Was it a mile you think?”
“Maybe the tide carried him in.”
“No, it was ebbing!”
“None of that matters; only time matters, and he was in the water for almost an hour.”
People suggested he might be the cursed son of a fur seal, living half his life in the sea and half with we humans. Others said he was carried to the beach by an angel. They all agreed that nothing more miraculous had ever happened here nor would again. Never before had anyone ever survived the Winter Sea.
Bjorn left on the mail boat before the river froze, but his story remained. The next spring, a different person came to count the fish and measure the water, but no one would sell him a boat. “You are not like Bjorn,” they told him, “Any normal man who falls in the Winter Sea will die.” That person didn’t understand, and no one felt obligated to explain.