The projectile vomit just sprang into being. I don’t remember a transitional state or any inkling that it would happen like that—just the timeless, world-ending nausea of “before” and then the “oh my God.” This was how I learned that I had become susceptible to sea sickness.
Previous family deep-sea fishing trips had been one of everyone’s favorite vacation activities, but this was the day that the ocean and I rejected each other. We’d been so far from land for so long that I had no way of even guessing which way the shore was. A constant misty drizzle made the difference between the air and water feel as fuzzy a distinction as the grey-on-grey horizon. The boat rocked on the unease of a thousand generations’ collective memory of storms and ghost ships.
I was born 475 miles from Rugby, North Dakota: the geographical center of North America. By contrast, the nearest ocean is something like 1,200 miles away. Most of my dad’s forebears immigrated to the United States in the 1880s; all of them farmers, and all so clearly taken with the journey across the Atlantic that the number who have done so again is exactly zero. Their oceans, and mine, are the rolling horizons of grain and pasture. Solid, immobile land that is plowed, sown, tended, and harvested; harsh and changing in this climate, but still a steady, workable base.
In reality, this steady, workable base, and everything that’s ever transpired on it, are a gasp of ephemera between the two halves of the abyss: space and sea.
Both are gaping maws of swift death, completely enveloping the entirety of human existence, held at bay only by the kindness of physics. Space, and its sobering embodiment of the infinite, tend to overpower the sea in modern imagination. But the facts remain that the seas cover 70% of the Earth and that, while 12 men have walked on the surface of the moon during six trips there, only three men have been to the deepest part of the ocean; two in one mission in 1960, and one in 2012. This almost untouchable place is the Challenger Deep, a depression at the bottom of the Marianas Trench, 35,700 feet deep: almost a mile deeper than Mount Everest is high. There is no light, no heat, and 16,000 pounds per square inch of pressure. To call it unforgiving is arrogant in the assumption that it could ever conceive of such a fragile existence as ours.
I do remember making some effort to keep myself from being thrown off of the boat. I was at least aware that I should probably not fall off of the boat. But my body was no longer my own. It was instead piloted by the heaving that pulsed through every vein and ended somewhere far beyond me, drawn away by powerful currents. I wasn’t so much “on” the boat anymore as I was suspended over the side by a practiced fisherman’s grip on the back of my pants. I had no sense of space and no will to live: I was just a sack of meat and bones that had gone completely haywire and was trying to expel all of its meat.
The only lucid thought I remember was not an appreciation of how close I was to being consumed by Davy Jones’s Locker—but how expansive a giant arc of puke was, flying away from me in slow motion. How unlikely it seemed that my adolescent body could produce such a tremendous rainbow of horror.
* * *
My mom has one ghost story.
Some 15 years ago on another vacation, my family visited Quebec City in Canada. The city began as a fort on the St Lawrence River in the late 1500s and thrived as a major port for hundreds of years. We stayed in a very old hotel not far from the original stone walls. My mom woke up on one night to see a woman leaning over her. She was dressed in a simple, dark grey layered dress of the 1800s and seemed to be watching my mom sleep, or tucking her in. The woman had a very maternal quality and rather than scaring my mom, gave her a feeling of tremendous comfort and safety. She faded away as my mom continued to wake up.
It remained one of a collection of weird vacation stories until my mom, in piecing together her family history recently, discovered Mary.
Mary Booth was born in 1820 in Argyle, Scotland, and traveled to North America at about the age of ten. William Starkey was born on the Isle of Man in 1824. He was in the British Navy, but small script in the margin of a document states that he deserted. Once in Canada, William was the captain of a ship sailing regularly, and nonspecifically, across the Atlantic. Mary ran a hotel. Solemn family lore has Captain Starkey transporting slaves between continents and Mary as the Madame of a boarding house.
Mary and William were married at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church on June 1, 1848. William was 24 and Mary was 28. They quickly had three children and then in 1858 William enlisted in the U.S. Navy in New York City, while Mary remained in Quebec with their children. The documents describe William as a man of five feet and one inch, of light complexion, with light hair, blue eyes and an occupation described as “none.” In 1861, the Canadian census lists Mary as a widow. But by 1870 the entire family was back together in Chicago.
My mom was positive, the moment she saw this information about Mary for the first time, that Mary was the woman from that night in Quebec.
It was not uncommon for women to be listed as widows when their husbands were lost at sea. People just vanished in the ocean. Even if it was known that someone had died on a ship, and was buried at sea, it still left a vacancy on land. They were bodily transported to the world below: the cold, dark one, long described by maps only as “here be monsters.”
We know now, of course, that the sea is not filled with literal monsters, but the largest animals on earth that we know precious little about. The sperm whale and the giant squid, once colossal harbingers of death to whalers, are the ephemeral sea through which we drift. The tides of the deep we can not know still roll in; an unshakable wanderlust of salt, a white whale, an echo in soothing, grey garments.
* * *
At the relative dawn of life on Earth something gradually became able to leave the sea—where it, and everything that had come before, had slowly simmered into being. The planets drew themselves together in vacuum, tumbling into their orbits. Life crawled from the second primordial void, persisted, and now I have walked across fields, encouraged by nodding the heads of oat and wheat. It feels like an eons long walk, always away from the sea. Like how I was meant to.
Even in trying to trade land for land, though, my great-great-greats and others still found themselves between two continents, balanced hopefully above the unknowable. Despite the knowledge of our relationship, I seem to find myself facing the deep again and again. Regardless of what sliver of land we’ve clung to since the first something escaped from it, the sea wants us back—and something in us wants it. Our islands are awash in tides of stories and science, defined by their uncertainty. We are the ghost story that the ocean tells to itself.
This story was first read at the Nomad World Pub’s Craft Collective on September 9: a celebration of the sea, in collaboration with The Growler and Ballast Point Brewing Company. Watch the Nomad’s website for information about future installments of Craft Collective.