by Jamie Logan Benner
Some ferriers will tell you the key to a good stroke is in the elbow—you need that sucker positioned just right for even weight distribution on the arms. They’re wrong. It’s all in the back.
I’ve been rowing cross-river for five years, and I’ve seen crews go under because the man in front wouldn’t slow his stroke. Ever since the rivers went wide and the tech corps went north, ferriers have been in high demand. We’re not abundant, not like the bargehands who slide port-to-port along the Mississippi on flat-bottomed freighters. We take on tributaries and bayous, places they can’t fathom or fit.
There are a lot of men—all muscles, no brains—who take this job. But there are boys and girls too, small or smart like me. I’m mature enough to admit I’m not the muscle. I man the rudder.
We put in where the forks of the Atchafalaya meet. We’ll end up downriver around Hurley or Crean. This is how supplies travel to waterlocked towns, shore-to-shore like it’s 1776.
We leave before sunup. Kasey’s antsy because the group before us went down.
“They left yesterday,” I say. “Rain’s washed out by now.”
All they lost was their cargo. They even kept their oars.
“It’s coming back, Beet. I can feel it in my knee.”
It’s sunny and cloud-free, but that doesn’t mean a thing.
“You should have mentioned that an hour ago,” Stain says. He jerks his oar and the guy in front of him throws a curse over his shoulder. Hurley, he’s called. I don’t know if he’s named after the town or the town’s named after his folks.
“Shut it,” I tell all three. “Sing one of your crazy old shanties if you can’t keep your stroke straight, Stain. I’ll make the others join.”
They don’t grumble so much after that.
Later, the singing starts. A confident baritone bites back choppy waves. Hurley sings, of ships and sails. Stain matches his tune until we are a chorus, and though I’ve never seen it, I find myself longing for the sea.
I always thought I’d be a dockworker in Baton Rouge when I grew up, but when things go sideways, you find your own upright. I tell the men I do this job for my sister in the city. I want to make her proud. The truth is: I lost her two years ago. She walked out and never came back, so I left too. Stacia’s the one who gave me the nickname Beetle. She never got over the way I was so many years old and still crawling like a bug. Still, when I tell people I do it for her, I don’t feel like a liar.
I like the water, the murk and spray, the line of sweat that smears my shoulders, the camaraderie of the ferry. I like Stain’s shanties and Kasey’s nerves. I even like storms, which is why I get excited when a squall appears.
“Shit,” someone says.
The sky’s a mess of purples, but this is no hurricane, just a pop-up summer storm.
“Steady,” I reassure my men. “We trained for this.”
Anyone who has ferried knows you listen to your rudderman. While the rowers get to rowing, I scan our surroundings. I note static in the air and tension in my gut. The horizon breaks open.
Rain’s not usually a problem. The supplies are sealed up tight in the hull. If we don’t take on too much water, we’re all good. But these parts are known for flash floods, the one-and-done kind of storm that beats you to a pulp before it leaves you sunning. So, I put my middlemen Hurley and Simon to work bailing rainwater.
“Pick up the pace.” Kasey says.
Hurley and Simon are newbies, but I vetted them. They have some experience, and they’re doing the best they can. They don’t know that Kasey’s brother was a rudderman once. He nearly drowned and now stays put on land.
Simon mutters something about Kasey’s mother, who I also know. She’s an awful woman, but his words would start a fight on firmer ground.
“Focus.” I thwap Kasey on the back of the head, because he’s the one I can reach.
The wind is at its worst and the current is no joke. It takes all the men have to keep moving forward. Our ferry isn’t a dinky rowboat, but it’s not a real ship either. We’re sailors, technically, but we can’t usually rely on our sail. So, I imagine us as Vikings, cutting across a deadly sea. We are fighters, and this river, she’s trying to kill us. Her water is brown and angry. We can’t see the bottom, but we feel her riptides. She’ll take it all if we let her.
My left front rower loses his oar.
“Dammit, Jake,” I say. “Take Simon’s.”
Simon hands his oar over and continues to bail. He’s soaked. We all are. Droplets coat my skin as I turn liquid. Up front, Jake pulls it together. We dip but remain afloat.
Stacia used to talk about cartoons. I never got to see one, or even a TV, but she said they were funny, like when a mouse caught a cat instead of the other way around. I imagine them sometimes, those drawings come to life. Watching men scoop water from a sinking ship while the sky laughs until it cries is the closest thing I’ve seen, so I start laughing too.
“I hate ferrying,” Stain says.
“Surely it’s not always like this,” Pierce says.
“It’s not,” Stain says. “But I always hate it.”
No one asks why, not even Kasey, who has been Stain’s crewmate for four years. Their oars are tucked between their knees. They’ve given up crossing.
Hurley’s still singing, but this time, no one joins him.
“I have a kid,” Stain says. “And a dog.”
“I’ve got one too,” Jake says.
“A kid?” Stain asks.
“No one cares about your dogs,” Kasey tells them. “Those mutts will live long after the rest of us have gone.”
Jake says he doesn’t want to die.
I tell him he’s an idiot. My men can swim. My hands grip the rudder, trying to turn the boat any other way. The current overwhelms her.
Pierce confesses that he can’t swim.
I tell him he’s an idiot too.
Hurley grows louder. I realize the song isn’t one I’ve heard, so I lean in. His voice becomes thunder, invoking lightning. The other men lean too. We thought we were finished, but here sits Hurley, with all the power in the world.
Man rerouted this river once, and she resents him now.
She strikes back.
We’re nowhere near the shore, but we hit something hard. We shake and topple. Next thing I know, everyone’s in the water and so are our supplies. The latch has slipped, but the ferry’s whole. From beneath the waves, I see it right itself and slip away, someone still hanging on.
A large wooden box floats toward me, and I try to grab it. My shin bangs against a rock. I realize we’re in the shallows. We’ve hit a bed of elevated sediment. My shin stings as I try to tuck my legs. I look for my men, but I don’t see them.
The water tastes like mud and feels like the inside of a machine, a washer or truck engine.
I’ve been ferrying for five years, and this is the first time I’ve gone down. I latch onto a box. I rub at my eyes and see where it’s labelled: canned goods. I try to be grateful for beans and peaches, but the truth is there’s something nice about being tossed back and forth, about having lost all control. Somewhere in the distance, Hurley’s singing still. I wonder if he’s the one who managed to hang on. I try to hang on too, to my own wooden float, but my hands are small. The river is big, and I can feel her beneath me, waiting to swallow me whole.
Jamie Logan Benner has served as Managing Editor at The Pinch, Product, and BreakBread magazines. She is pursuing a PhD at the University of Southern Mississippi and is Associate Editor for the Mississippi Review. She has work published in or forthcoming from the New Ohio Review, Barrelhouse, VIDA Review, Palette Poetry, and elsewhere.