There are spring tides, the point in the month when the tide is highest, and there are neap tides, usually about a week later when the tide is lowest. And then there are grim tides….
There was a point during the neap tide when the tide was so low that Nathanial – Nate to his friends, but always Nathanial to his daughter – didn’t bother taking his boat out. Instead he would use the day to sit down and catch up on the chores that had built up through the rest of the weeks; he would repair nets, softly cursing over every knot like a charm to ensnare the fish, or he would paint the boat a little more, or he would sew up holes in the sails, or scrub barnacles if the weather was nice and he’d slept well the night before. There were always jobs to be done, and the day of the lowest tide there were least fish to be caught so it made sense not to go out.
Two days after that low tide though, his daughter’s husband would come and visit him late on in the evening, and the two men would sit outside for a while on the porch, saying little but drinking copiously. Robin, his son-in-law, was the undertaker for the town and was considered a solemn, solid chap by everyone who knew him. He dressed soberly at all times, and could be relied upon for solemn words on solemn occasions, and gentle, usually punning, jokes on happy celebrations. His eyes were grey and his hands were strong, and overall folk felt secure knowing that this man would see you properly into the next life. They would sit and drink until the moon rose fully above the horizon, and then they would walk out to the boat and push it out, and sail off into the night.
When they were out of sight of the land the grim tide would become visible as a silvery haze above the water. Silent as the grave the two men would steer towards the haze and eventually into it, where it became apparent that the haze was actually hundreds of ghosts, milling around atop the waves. Robin would then move to the side of the boat and cast out the nets, throwing them to catch at many of the ghosts as he could. Where the nets fell they pressed heavily on the ghosts pinning them to the surface of the water, where they held the nets and prevented them from falling down. When all the nets were out, Nate would step up and the two men would draw the ghosts in, pulling them aboard the boat and letting them drift gently down into the hold that smelled permanently of fish and fish-guts. When all the nets were in, Robin would cast them out again, and Nate would marvel at the light that limned each rope that formed the net, and how that light danced on the surface of water when the net fell and didn’t catch a ghost. Two casts was all they got; then the moon’s light would break through the haze and the ghosts would drift away, slowly at first but then gaining speed, dissipating in the nighttime air and becoming nothing more that tattered blades of light reflected from the choppy waves.
They still couldn’t head back to land though, as the hold was full of ghosts now. They would descend together, their nervousness palpable but unspoken, pressed tightly in a staircase intended for two men to only pass in opposite directions, and push open the door to the hold as though opening the door to the lion’s cage.
In the hold Nate would stand watchful, alert and aware, and Robin would greet each ghost in turn as though meeting an old friend, and bid them welcome. Sometimes he did greet old friends; men who’d died at sea and only now found their way back home, or people from the village who’d simply disappeared without trace. Their ghost being here explained where the body had gone, even if it didn’t explain how the body had got there. But most of the time the ghosts were hoary-headed, desperate-eyed strangers, whispering in foreign tongues and clutching at the living with cold, insubstantial fingers.
Robin blessed each ghost, his fingers tracing out a seven-pointed star on their breast as he did so. Each ghost seemed to thicken, becoming milky white, and then ran like candle was in a hot room. As they became just an ectoplasmic puddle on the floor of the hold new light would emanate from it, soft, pales rays like a new moonrise, and the ghost would evaporate altogether.
Only when they were done, and all the ghosts sent on their way did the two men return to the deck and turn the boat around to go home again, each checking the moon against the stars in the hope that they wouldn’t be too late in getting back.
And then there came the day when both men recognised a ghost.