Mr. Potter’s Ocean


The afternoon wind rolled like a wave up the little hillock above the sea, tugging at Joby Kelsey’s huck shirt as he tromped up the crooked dirt road toward home. He was trying to keep pace with Lucius Potter, an aging fisherman with a mass of wild white hair that looked like the breaking surf. Lucius’s long beard jerking in the wind resembled a great tuft of dry seaweed.

The tall, craggy seaman paused at the crest of the hill and looked back longingly at the restless, swelling sea. “Hear that song, lad?” he asked. “Hear that mighty chorus swell?”

Joby stared at the pounding surf, feeling its power as it lashed the rocks below them. Then he turned to look at Lucius, whose face mirrored the excitement of the churning sea.

This wasn’t the first walk the boy had taken with Lucius Potter, nor was it the first time he had listened to the seaman’s tales expressing his love for a fisherman’s way of life. The pair had become quite close after Joby moved with his parents to the small fishing village along the rugged northern California coast two months before. Joby’s father had taken over the job of the retiring proprietor at The Tradewinds, a mercantile store at the edge of town.

It was summer, 1910, and there were few fences to restrict a young boy’s desire for barefoot wanderings across the grassy, flower-blanketed seaside slopes. Nothing to restrict him except, perhaps, the old man’s stories of the sea. Lucius told them with such passion and mystery and wave-slamming excitement that Joby regularly sought out the old fisherman. “Can you tell me another story?” Joby would ask eagerly. Lucius’s smile would deepen the lines of his weathered face, and another adventure would unfold as they tramped the beachline. Sometimes they would stop to watch seals slip in and out of the churning tidewaters or rest atop a great barnacle-laden rock in the dampness.

Lucius never tired of reliving his yesteryears when he’d hauled his nets down to the sea with his crew and set sail upon the capricious water. Fishing was his life.

What puzzled Joby and his parents were the tattered clothes Lucius wore and the small shack in which he lived—a crude little dwelling made of tin scraps and driftwood. And the old seaman was so thin! Why such an experienced fisherman with a sturdy, seaworthy skiff and ample nets didn’t fare better was a mystery. Someone told Joby’s father it was because the old man refused to hire a crew. Why, no one knew. It seemed obvious that he desperately needed help. But Lucius sailed alone, never allowing anyone to accompany him, even when seamen out of work volunteered their services.

“There was a time when he was a rather prosperous man,” someone had said. “He wasn’t rich enough to live in a big house, but he didn’t live in a shack, either. He always had more than enough to eat, and he wore the nicest clothes in the village.”

Joby looked earnestly and curiously at Lucius as his friend gazed seaward with a kind of disturbed, unbroken stare. Finally the boy’s curiosity got the best of him, and he asked Lucius once again why he didn’t take on a crew. As always, the old fisherman quickly avoided the subject, pointing out the hump of a great whale on the horizon. Then he got up abruptly and said, “The day will turn into night before we reach your place if we don’t get a move on.”

Lucius had been invited by Joby’s parents to an evening meal, and along with his desire to keep ahead of any more of the lad’s uncomfortable inquiries, the thought of good food quickened the old man’s step.

Lucius was halfway through dinner when the soft glow of candlelight on Joby’s hair caught his eye. He gazed fixedly at the lad across the table, then noticed Joby’s parents staring curiously at him. Lucius spoke softly. “It’s the lad’s hair. It has a gold-dust shine just like lamplight reflecting on miller moths. Or like the gold on the waves at the last light of day.”

The Kelseys were often touched by Lucius’s poetic way of saying things, and the old fisherman always spoke with such deep reverence that it was hard to doubt what he said. That’s why the trio waited anxiously for Lucius to put the last forkful of potatoes into his mouth and wipe the leavings from his beard. They knew a colorful tale would follow—it always did.

“It’s the least I can do,” Lucius would say, “after a meal like that.”

Joby’s mother always glowed with appreciation. “Tonight,” she announced, “there’s blackberry pie—after your story.”

Lucius’s eyes grew as large as plump berries. “It’s liable to be the shortest story I ever told,” he replied, and everyone laughed.

The three Kelseys sat spellbound. Ocean waves seemed to roll and fall off Lucius’s tongue. Masts split, and men were hurled into the sea!

Suddenly Lucius stopped. Joby and his parents traded puzzled glances. The boy saw the same troubled look on the fisherman’s face that he had observed before as Lucius gazed out through the window at the heaving sea.

“Were you washed overboard, too, Mr. Potter?” Joby asked, caught up in the man’s story.

Then, as though the boy’s question had released a floodgate, Lucius’s painful secret tumbled out. He seemed almost relieved now in the telling of it … “Me and two others,” he sighed. “We were securing the rigging when the wave hit. I … I tried to save the men,” he said with anguish, “but I was the only survivor.”

“Is that why you never take anyone with you on your skiff, Mr. Potter?” Joby’s father asked gently.

Lucius nodded. “I never want anything like that to happen on a boat of mine again.” He rose from the table. “It’s late. I’d better go.”

“It wasn’t your fault in happened,” Joby’s mother consoled him.

“Mom’s right,” Joby chimed in. “You were in a storm.”

“It could’ve happened to anyone,” Mr. Kelsey added. “You have no reason to punish yourself, Mr. Potter.”

“Perhaps,” muttered Lucius as he turned toward the door and opened it. “But it’s a shameful thing when a man loses faith in himself.” He stepped out into the raven-black chill and was swallowed by the darkness.

“There must be something we can do to help him,” Joby said.

“I wish there were,” Joby’s father replied, “but I’m afraid the only person who can restore Mr. Potter’s faith in himself is Mr. Potter.”

Saturday morning the sea was furious as Joby climbed the brow of the great surf-battered rock where he had often sat with Lucius and listened to the old man’s tales. In two days the lad would be returning to school, and the times would be fewer when Lucius could tell him stories.

Lucius emerged from the dense fog on a small hillock above the churning water just in time to see a huge wave spill over Joby and dash him into the sea.

“JOBY!”

Lucius leaped across the narrow cleft that divided the steep hillock from the big rock, and gazed agonizingly into the seething water below. The boy was nowhere to be seen. Then, shouting louder than the thundering waves, Lucius doubled his fists and leaped into the sea.

The old fisherman carried the boy in his arms along the little path toward home. Tears streamed down his face—tears not of sadness but of indescribable joy. Joby was alive! Lucius had saved him.

One morning a few days later, Joby bounded out of the house with his schoolbooks slung over his shoulder. Multicolored autumn leaves fluttered about his feet. He paused to join his mother and father, who stood just outside the gate, staring toward the sea. A fishing boat bobbed in the sun-glazed water, and a crew could be seen pulling in a line of nets—Lucius’s crew! An old fisherman with a long, seaweedlike beard and a new pair of boots paused to wave at the trio on the hill.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Richard Hull