In Deep Water

Huck Finn meets Moby Dick in Lee Zacharias’ delightful new novel

For a good wintertime read, lose yourself in the nautical-themed novel, Across the Great Lake by Lee Zacharias prize-winning author, longtime editor of The Greensboro Review and emerita professor at UNCG.

It’s the kind of book that immediately seizes the imagination. Part adventure in the vein of Moby Dick or Huckleberry Finn, part ghost story, part tragedy filled with a motley assortment of characters, Across the Great Lake (University of Wisconsin Press) tells the remarkable odyssey of 5-year-old Fern Halvorsen. Told in first-person by an aging Fern, the book recounts the single most defining experience of her life: a trip in 1936 aboard The Manitou, a freighter ferrying railroad cars across the icy waters of Lake Michigan. Fern’s father is the boat’s captain, who has brought his daughter with him, as her mother lies dying back in their home in Frankfort, on Michigan’s northwest Lower Peninsula (distinct from the state’s Upper Peninsula, or UP, as Fern learns). With no one but her teddy bear, also named Manitou, for company, the plucky child protagonist explores the ship’s nooks and crannies, befriending a gentle deckhand named Alv and fraternizing with the crew along the way. In the following excerpt, young Fern sits in on a poker game among the raucous “black gang” who stoke the coal fires of the boat’s engine room, among other characters — and learns first-hand that The Manitou is haunted.

Like Dick Butler, Nils was an oiler, one step above fireman, but I was confused because I didn’t know what a Yooper did on a ship, and Amund had to explain that he was a water tender, that was his job, but he was also a Yooper because he was from the UP. Supposedly the term is new, but sailors used it even before the Mackinac Bridge was built and the Yoopers started calling everyone who lived below the bridge, on the Lower Peninsula, trolls. Sitting at a table in the flicker playing cards the men called each other a lot of names, though no one seemed to mind. Nils picked me up and set me on his lap even though I was all sooty, but no one in the black gang cared about that, not as long as you washed your hands at one of the sinks along the bulwark between the flicker and the hold before you picked up your cards, because even after they washed up there was coal dust ground into the creases around their eyes and in the back of their necks and their wrists and knuckles. Nils showed me his cards and even let me hold them, making sure I pointed them straight up so no one else could see, and that’s how I learned to play poker. One of his fingernails  was black and sort of bubbled up, but it wasn’t from the coal dust, it was from catching his hand in a hatch. Malley, the other water tender, was at the end of the table playing a sad song on his harmonica instead of cards. That was because his girlfriend wouldn’t marry him, Amund said, she didn’t want to marry a man who was at sea all the time. Nils, Malley, and Amund, all of the men in fact except Bosun and Twitches, would explain a lot of things and tell all kinds of stories as we crossed the lake. They seemed so eager to explain how things worked it was like a contest, who got to tell me most, probably because there wasn’t anyone else to tell what they knew because the other men knew the same things and when they came home the people who hadn’t been to sea didn’t care. Or maybe it was just because I listened so hard. I wanted to learn everything so that I could grow up to work on a ship too.

Amund and Dick Butler each threw another penny in the middle of the table, but Nils took his cards back and laid them facedown. “I’m out.”

“I want to keep playing,” I protested, so Dick explained that when you folded it meant you knew you couldn’t win and if you couldn’t win and you were smart you got out of the game. He said it so nice I wondered if he knew I’d seem him smoking on the car deck. Not that I’d tell. Because that was the second rule on a ship. Though they might quarrel among themselves, sailors didn’t rat each other out.

But one thing no one explained was the shower. It was like I thought it would be, but in the shower you had to turn the faucets just right or else the water was ice cold, and then it was so hot I jumped back and fell, with scalding water pouring down all over my backside. I wanted someone to come, but my father didn’t know I needed help because at home the person who always helped me was my mother. So I had to get up by myself and reach around to the faucets, but finally I found the place that was like a warm summer rain, and after that I cheered up and sang a song because I had heard about singing in the shower. Later I would wonder if the ghost knew about the faucets, because if it did it could have helped me, though I guessed ghosts didn’t care to go around assisting people. What they wanted was some kind of help themselves, but ghosts can’t say what they want, and that’s why people are so afraid of them, though all that was something I thought about later, after I was used to it. That first night I wasn’t used to it at all.

When it came, it was after the rudder pin broke and the engineer began his walk across the ice, after the bowling alley closed and I could no longer hear the crack of the ball and explosions of the pins, and I began to hear the ship speak in a way you don’t hear it in the daytime, maybe because the way you listen in the dark is different. There was still the grinding of ice against the hull, though not as loud because we weren’t trying to push through it anymore. Instead the ship itself was groaning and creaking, moaning and carrying on like it was a ghost, or like you think a ghost might do, but it wasn’t the ghost, it was just the night air making the steel hull contract. A ship is built to flex or else the hull will break apart, so I knew what I heard was the ship and not a ghost, but even so I clutched Manitou tight against my neck and kept my eyes open. The snow had stopped hours before, and the air outside was colder now not just because it was night but because the sky had cleared, and before I went to bed I knelt in one of the hemp chairs in the observation room and saw all the stars like a sky full up with diamonds, the way you only ever see them from the beach on a winter night because up on Leelanau Avenue there were too many trees, and so I tipped my head up and looked until I was dizzy, and then I went back to my cabin and closed the door and got in bed and the ship started making all that night noise.

But even though my eyes were open I never saw the ghost, because no matter what some people say about glimpsing apparitions, figures you can see through or shadows without anyone to cast them, the main thing about ghosts is not what you see. Holgar, who was one of the deckhands, the one who didn’t like Finns and was always taking pictures with his Brownie camera, was forever asking to see the special compartment because he’d heard you could see the ghost’s face in the wood paneling, and he said that sometimes ghosts will show in pictures even when you can’t see them in real life, but the crew wasn’t allowed to hang around the passenger quarters, except Alv, who came and got my clothes and washed them and hung them to dry on the line strung across the flicker, so I don’t know whether this ghost would have showed in a picture or not. Also when the ghost came it was dark. Outside, all around the deckhouse and the aft pilothouse there are lights. On a platform on the forward spar below the crow’s nest, red and green port and starboard lights keep ships from running into each other in the fog or at night, and from the passenger lounge you can see the light that’s kept on all night in the galley, but inside my cabin with the door and shutters closed up tight it was what they call pitch black.

And what happened when it came, it wasn’t the way you would think, because it didn’t make any noise at all, and the way I knew it was there was how quiet the ship got. All of a sudden you couldn’t hear the ice or the flexing steel plates on the hull, all the moaning and groaning and shrieking just stopped. Some ghosts are supposed to weep, and the ghosts of the cholera victims buried alive on South Manitou Island cry out for help, their voices echoing over the water, trying to hail the passing ships. People hear footsteps on the stairs, the thump of an empty chair set to rocking, or the slamming of a door, though the only reason a ghost could have to slam a door would be to get your attention, because they don’t need doors or windows to go from room to room, not that they travel much—they don’t wander the earth like some people say, only a very little part of it where something terrible happened. I didn’t know what happened to the ghost on the Manitou or even who it was, nobody seemed to, only that in the daytime it lived in the special room the managers used when they crossed the lake. I’m not sure the men even knew that it came out at night and moved around the passenger quarters because it never went anywhere else on the ship, not down to the flicker, where the black gang bunked, or up to the pilothouse, not even to the galley or messes nearby, because if it had, the men would have talked about it, but they never did, not even the bosun, and he was not one to keep a ghost to himself.

So that was how I knew it was there, because everything got so quiet, and at the same time I felt it, because you don’t have to see or hear a ghost to know one’s there. You feel it the same way you feel a storm is coming, there’s a change in pressure, a heaviness in the air, you can’t breathe, and what you hear isn’t the ghost but your own blood pounding inside your ears and what you feel is that same blood beating in your throat, but a ghost doesn’t warn you like a storm will, it just comes all of a sudden and then it’s there. And what this ghost did, it reached down and took hold of my big toe. I can’t say whether it lifted the scratchy wool blanket, reached through it, or what, because I couldn’t feel anything but the pressure of its hand on my foot, not the nib of a fingernail or warmth of a palm, because the ghost didn’t have surface, only weight, a heaviness that was not like anything else, and all night long it gripped my toe and never said what it wanted or why it was there, and I wanted to be the girl I bragged I was, but I wasn’t, because that first night when the ghost came into my compartment and clasped my foot in its hand I was so scared I couldn’t even scream, and in the morning when I woke and the ghost was gone, my eyes were all crusty in the corners, and both Manitou and my pillowcase were wet, and I realized that I had cried all night long without ever making so much sound as a sniffle.   OH

Excerpted from Across the Great Lake by Lee Zacharias. Reprinted by permission of the University of Wisconsin Press. ©2018 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. All rights reserved.

Recommended Posts