An Iceland Fisherman

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Author: Pierre Loti

Chapter IX Work Cures Sorrow

When Yann was on deck, he looked around him with sleep-laden eyes, over the familiar circle of the sea. That night the illimitable immensity showed itself in its most astonishingly simple aspects, in neutral tints, giving only the impression of depth. This horizon, which indicated no recognisable region of the earth, or even any geological age, must have looked so many times the same since the origin of time, that, gazing upon it, one saw nothing save the eternity of things that exist and cannot help existing.

It was not the dead of night, for a patch of light, which seemed to ooze from no particular point, dimly lit up the scene. The wind sobbed as usual its aimless wail. All was gray, a fickle gray, which faded before the fixed gaze. The sea, during its mysterious rest, hid itself under feeble tints without a name.

Above floated scattered clouds; they had assumed various shapes, for, without form, things cannot exist; in the darkness they had blended together, so as to form one single vast veiling.

But in one particular spot of the sky, low down on the waters, they seemed a dark-veined marble, the streaks clearly defined although very distant; a tender drawing, as if traced by some dreamy hand—some chance effect, not meant to be viewed for long, and indeed hastening to die away. Even that alone, in the midst of this broad grandeur, appeared to mean something; one might think that the sad, undefined thought of the nothingness around was written there; and the sight involuntarily remained fixed upon it.

Yann’s dazzled eyes grew accustomed to the outside darkness, and gazed more and more steadily upon that veining in the sky; it had now taken the shape of a kneeling figure with arms outstretched. He began to look upon it as a human shadow rendered gigantic by the distance itself.

In his mind, where his indefinite dreams and primitive beliefs still lingered, the ominous shadow, crushed beneath the gloomy sky, slowly coalesced with the thought of his dead brother, as if it were a last token from him.

He was used to such strange associations of ideas, that thrive in the minds of children. But words, vague as they may be, are still too precise to express those feelings; one would need that uncertain language that comes in dreams, of which upon awakening, one retains merely enigmatical, senseless fragments.

Looking upon the cloud, he felt a deep anguish, full of unknown mystery, that froze his very soul; he understood full well now that his poor little brother would never more be seen; sorrow, which had been some time penetrating the hard, rough rind of his heart, now gushed in and brimmed it over. He beheld Sylvestre again with his soft childish eyes; at the thought of embracing him no more, a veil fell between his eyelids and his eyes, against his will; and, at first, he could not rightly understand what it was—never having wept in all his manhood. But the tears began to fall heavily and swiftly down his cheeks, and then sobs rent his deep chest.

He went on with his fishing, losing no time and speaking to no one, and his two mates, though hearing him in the deep silence, pretended not to do so, for fear of irritating him, knowing him to be so haughty and reserved.

In his opinion death was the end of it all. Out of respect he often joined in the family prayers for the dead, but he believed in no after-life of the soul. Between themselves, in their long talks, the sailors all said the same, in a blunt taken-for-granted way, as a well-known fact; but it did not stop them from believing in ghosts, having a vague fear of graveyards, and an unlimited confidence in protecting saints and images, and above all a deep respect for the consecrated earth around the churches.

So Yann himself feared to be swallowed up by the sea, as if it would annihilate him, and the thought of Sylvestre, so far away on the other side of the earth, made his sorrow more dark and desperate. With his contempt for his fellows, he had no shame or constraint in weeping, no more than if he were alone.

Around the boat the chaos grew whiter, although it was only two o’clock, and at the same time it appeared to spread farther, hollowing in a fearful manner. With that kind of rising dawn, eyes opened wider, and the awakened mind could conceive better the immensity of distance, as the boundaries of visible space receded and widened away.

The pale aurora increased, seeming to come in tiny jets with slight shocks; eternal things seemed to light up by sheer transparency, as if white-flamed lamps had slowly been raised up behind the shapeless gray clouds, and held there with mysterious care, for fear of disturbing the calm, even rest of the sea. Below the horizon that colossal white lamp was the sun, which dragged itself along without strength, before taking its leisurely ascent, which began in the dawn’s eye above the ocean.

On this day, the usual rosy tints were not seen; all remained pale and mournful. On board the gray ship, Yann wept alone. The tears of the fierce elder brother, together with the melancholy of this surrounding waste, were as mourning, worn in honour of the poor, obscure, young hero, upon these seas of Iceland, where half his life had been passed.

When the full light of day appeared, Yann abruptly wiped his eyes with his sleeve and ceased weeping. That grief was over now. He seemed completely absorbed by the work of the fishery, and by the monotonous routine of substantial deeds, as if he never had thought of anything else.

The catching went on apace, and there were scant hands for the work. Around about the fishers, in the immense depths, a transformation scene was taking place. The grand opening out of the infinitude, that great wonder of the morning, had finished, and the distance seemed to diminish and close in around them. How was it that before the sea had seemed so boundless!

The horizon was quite clear now, and more space seemed necessary. The void filled in with flecks and streamers that floated above, some vague as mist, others with visibly jagged edges. They fell softly amid an utter silence, like snowy gauze, but fell on all sides together, so that below them suffocation set in swiftly; it took away the breath to see the air so thickened.

It was the first of the August fogs that was rising. In a few moments the winding-sheet became universally dense; all around the /Marie/ a white damp lay under the light, and in it the mast faded and disappeared.

"Here’s the cursed fog now, for sure," grumbled the men. They had long ago made the acquaintance of that compulsory companion of the second part of the fishing season; but it also announced its end and the time for returning to Brittany.

It condensed into fine, sparkling drops in their beards, and shone upon their weather-beaten faces. Looking athwart ship to one another, they appeared dim as ghosts; and by comparison, nearer objects were seen more clearly under the colourless light. They took care not to inhale the air too deeply, for a feeling of chill and wet penetrated the lungs.

But the fishing was going on briskly, so that they had no time left to chatter, and they only thought of their lines. Every moment big heavy fish were drawn in on deck, and slapped down with a smack like a whipcrack; there they wriggled about angrily, flapping their tails on the deck, scattering plenty of sea-water about, and silvery scales too, in the course of their death-struggle. The sailor who split them open with his long knife, sometimes cut his own fingers, in his haste, so that his warm blood mingled with the brine.

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Chicago: Pierre Loti, "Chapter IX Work Cures Sorrow," An Iceland Fisherman, ed. CM01B10.Txt - 149 Kb, CM01B10.Zip - 56 Kb and trans. M. Jules Cambon in An Iceland Fisherman (New York: The Modern Library Publishers, 1918), Original Sources, accessed September 24, 2018, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=DAM8G6PKJPTQ88D.

MLA: Loti, Pierre. "Chapter IX Work Cures Sorrow." An Iceland Fisherman, edited by CM01B10.Txt - 149 Kb, CM01B10.Zip - 56 Kb, and translated by M. Jules Cambon, in An Iceland Fisherman, New York, The Modern Library Publishers, 1918, Original Sources. 24 Sep. 2018. www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=DAM8G6PKJPTQ88D.

Harvard: Loti, P, 'Chapter IX Work Cures Sorrow' in An Iceland Fisherman, ed. and trans. . cited in 1918, An Iceland Fisherman, The Modern Library Publishers, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 24 September 2018, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=DAM8G6PKJPTQ88D.