The Tale of Old Silas | E. Christopher Clark

The Tale of Old Silas

The most troubling thing about his nightmare was that it never ended the same way twice. If there had been some sense of continuity, some sticky end he could anticipate with dread each time, then it might have been easier to bear. But, no. One night it was the simple, profound pain of seawater flooding his lungs; the next it was a great white whale swallowing him whole; and the night after that it’d be the plank, walking the plank and plunging into the embrace of the shark below, feeling his flesh torn asunder, watching his foot and his boot float off toward the shore. Yes, the conclusion was revised each night, the only common theme his untimely demise. Which was what made this night’s version all the more troubling. In this one, he didn’t die.

Silas sat up in his bed in the attic of the old colonial, its drafty windows clattering in the strong winds of a November gale. He drew the thick wool blanket tightly around himself, hoping that, like the armor of Achilles, it would protect him from all comers. But still he shivered. Still, he wept. Now that he’d pulled it up over his head, there wasn’t enough blanket left to cover his ankles, his heels.

The ninth to bear the name, Silas Odysseus Silver was the first of that long line to fear the sea; the rest of them had actually worked it, had actually made their names as the pilots of English, and now American, sailing vessels. But the trade was already at the beginning of its steady decline on Cape Cod; by the dawn of the next century—the twentieth—most of the business would move north to Cape Ann, our cape’s rocky, inhospitable cousin. His brothers-in-law, once commanders of the grandest of ships, and travelers to exotic ports of call—they had traveled as far as Canton and the Sandwich Islands—would soon be reduced to cultivating the lowly cranberry. Thus, there was no need for a young man who actually shrunk at the sight of the slippery seductress he was meant to tame, not time anymore to wait for someone like Silas to overcome his particular psychosis. Maybe in some other, earlier age. But not now.

Rain lashed against his window, like a vengeful sprite trying to force its way in. The boot, the boot, the boot. It all came back to the boot. For the boot had been there this time. But not like before, not like before. Because he wasn’t in the jaws of the shark this time as he watched the boot borne off on the waves—this time the embrace was far warmer, far more…

He was an infant when it happened, the incident with the boot. Too young to remember the details of it himself, he knew the story only through the lens of his sisters’ own fractured memories; their mother refused to speak of it. And perhaps it was worse, knowing the story only this way, knowing only with the distant and often contradictory embellishments of three young women who were barely old enough to remember that day themselves.

Silas shook harder beneath the blanket now, so vivid was the horror inherent in his vision of that fateful day.

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