The Burning Sea by Bennett North

I’d always watched the whaling boats going out to sea in the morning; big, asbestos-lined vessels churning through the lava, leaving a black wake behind them. My parents’ house was close enough to the beach that the shingles warped and blistered in the heat, and if you stood at the kitchen window you could see the shapes of the boats through the smoke as they chugged past. When the boats came back, I’d find the crew in the local bars, shiny with sweat and giddy with the relief of being back on land. Few people chose the whaling life if they could help it, but a crew could retire on one good catch if they were lucky. My father had never been lucky, but he made enough to keep my family afloat.

When I turned sixteen, my father bought me whaler’s boots and thick gloves and goggles of my own. I took a place on his crew and as we sailed out of the harbor, I imagined my younger siblings and my mother watching us go, though if they were there, shifting curtains of smoke hid them from my eyes.

It took us two days to get to promising whaling grounds. Two days crammed below-decks with the crew, drinking cheap whiskey and playing cards. I arm-wrestled my father’s first mate, a woman with a bicep like a cannon. She had burns on her arms and shoulders, shiny as the melted rubber soles of my sneakers. All the crew did, and below-decks they all lounged around in tank tops and shorts, showing off pink and white burns. Most civilized folk looked askance at people with burns like these, afraid of interacting with the sort of person who would set to sea; maybe that was why I wanted one. I rubbed my soft flesh and hoped I’d get something to prove I was my father’s daughter.

We reached the whaling grounds on the evening of the second day, and everyone climbed into their suits, transforming from sleek, sweaty crew to moon-eyed monsters in charred asbestos gear. My dad cracked the hatch and we climbed up onto the deck.

The sun had no dominion out here on the sea; low-bellied clouds burned a dull orange with the seas beneath them. The crew pulled out the tungsten nets and began unreeling them over the side of the boat. I helped, watching them spread out like black lace over the glowing surface before sinking out of sight.

The ship jerked as the first net pulled taut with our catch. My father hollered and we heaved on the net, dragging it back in.

A massive, glowing wedge lifted into the air, taller than the ship, and then slapped back down on the ocean surface, sending a wave of lava slopping over the railing. A handful of it clung to my leg like boiling honey and even through my suit I could feel the heat. I convulsively let go of the net to slap at my leg, but it stuck to my glove, too.

The first mate stumbled forward in surprise as the full weight of the net jerked in her grip without my help. I grabbed for the net again but it was too late; her thighs hit the railing. At the same time, another wave splashed up over the deck and for a brief moment I saw her silhouetted against the glow before it washed over her and she was screaming. Lava crashed onto the deck, solidifying into a thick crust.

My father grabbed the back of her suit and hauled her backward, but in the confusion, the net ripped free of its mooring, unspooling over the railing until the entirety of it was gone.

Crew with hooks desperately leaned over the railing, digging deep gashes into overcooked flesh, trying to haul the whale up alongside the ship before it could fully escape the net. It thrashed in fury, rocking the boat from side to side until someone put a harpoon through the whale’s head and it stopped fighting. I saw the crumbling white ash insides of the whale’s head as the whaler pulled her harpoon free.

The boat dipped on a wave and rose on the next one. Everyone strained to hold the whale in place while a crewmember fought to hook its tail to the winch. When they gave the signal, I hauled on the handle. The chain lifted the whale up into the air.

My father was back at the railing as the whale cleared the side; he slit its belly with a knife as it swung over the deck. Hot, glowing guts spilled out in a slippery mess and the distended belly rolled out to my father’s feet.

The ambergris in the stomach was black as obsidian and as large as a year’s salary for the whole crew, but I saw no joy in them as they made short work of the whale with their knives. We dumped steaming sheets of blubber and flaky white flesh into the hold, and my father cradled the ambergris like he used to cradle me.

Below decks, the first mate lay in her bunk, her face and neck puffy with blisters, her eyes swollen shut. I stripped out of my suit to expose my own blisters where the lava had hit me. The anticipation of a fearsome burn no longer held its allure.

The crew passed the ambergris around the room and everyone guessed at its weight and worth. When it got to me, I passed it on without a word, meeting my father’s gaze. He nodded silently, and I knew he knew what I’d meant. My share would go to the first mate, who would never work again. There was plenty of time to make my fortune in the future. I was a whaler now.

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