Ghost Ship 幽霊船

A classic tale of three fishermen from the frozen north

Ghost Ship
By Ogawa Mimei
Translated by Hamish Smith

You can see lights shining far out at sea. In an area like this one, right around the arctic, the blue-black water of the ocean is immense and it’s always cold. Once a shining light in the distance was coming closer and closer to the shore. The closer it came, the more clearly it could be seen. It was an iceberg. The iceberg was big, pointed upwards like a mountain and reflected a piercing light, and also had an area flat and wide enough to carry a large number of people. And of course there is no way of telling how far down the iceberg continued below the surface of the water. All icebergs are formed from crystal-like ice and drift with the currents of the sea. It seemed as if a new iceberg came into sight almost every day. Once there was a huge, slow-moving hunk of ice flowing aimlessly, and even from far off, we were afforded a view of its glittering peak. The lonesome setting sun broke through the clouds and the light which shone from the iceberg reflected in the eyes of those who stood on the shore, all gazing upon the mountain of ice as it moved further and further away. Another time an iceberg came towards us with frightening speed, like a frozen steam ship. Up upon this white, shining piece of ice was not a shadow of a living thing to be seen.

Once an iceberg came in close to the shore and everyone saw a small black silhouette fall into the ocean.
“Some kind of black bird, maybe?”
“A bird? More like a sea lion or a seal.”
So said the people standing on the shore looking out over the sea. However, when it came in even closer, they could see that it was a bear. It was angry and trying its hardest to get to the shore. Most likely the bear had ventured out onto the ice to play, but while the bear was playing the sheet of ice would have become separated and the bear would have found itself lost at sea. Everyone knew nothing good would come from that bear making it onto land. It would probably lash out.
“Alright, everyone, just keep your guard up. If that bear makes it to the shore there is no telling what might happen,” was what the people had said. And so the people brought with them rifles and spears. But the iceberg never came close enough to the shore, and eventually it floated back out to sea. Everyone was relieved that the bear never made it ashore, but it was actually a little depressing to think about where that bear would have ended up.

These are the kinds of things that happen in the north. And that is the kind of story I’ll tell you today.

“There haven’t been any icebergs lately and the sea is so calm. Why don’t we go on a fishing trip?” said one of three fishermen one day. So they boarded their boat and headed out to sea. The three fishermen eventually came close to an island. No one lived on the island and it had a little inlet where there was often some good fishing to be had. So they decided to stop and try to catch some fish, all the while mindful of the time. When they did catch fish, they normally caught a surprising amount. Just when the three fishermen were wondering if they should move on to the next fishing spot, they could see signs that today’s catch would be a good one.
“Looks like we’re in luck”
“Luck indeed!” The three fishermen were in high spirits. They dropped their net into the water and when they pulled it back up, they found themselves with a bigger catch of fish than ever before. It was such a big catch, in fact, that they left the fish on the shore of the island to pick up on the way home, as too much fish in the boat would only slow them down.

One of the three fishermen remained on the island. In the evening he would light a fire to let the other two know where he was as they sailed home. So the first fisherman stood on the shore and watched as the second and third fisherman pushed off from the island and into the sea with a heave and a ho.
“Hurry back, alright?!” the first fisherman called out to his two friends.
“Miss us already? Don’t worry, we’ll drag ourselves back your way…” the pair called back with a chuckle as they floated further and further away. A quiet evening began to set in as the first fisherman watched the boat drift out to sea until it disappeared into the blue-black of the ocean. When he was a child he thought the surface of the ocean looked flat as a straw mat, but the rippling, violent sea was nothing like that now. The wind picked up as the sun went down. It was sudden and unexpected. Soon the waves grew high and howling. The first fisherman began to worry about his two friends who were still out at sea.
“Bring my friends back in one piece, as quickly as you can,” he prayed as he set about starting a bonfire to guide his friends through the dark of the night. The weather turned to wind and rain. The fire that the first fisherman had started was eventually blown out. So the first fishermen set about feverishly starting another fire. But the boat he was waiting to arrive never did.
“I wonder where they might be taking shelter from the storm. There is no where else to go in this wide, wide ocean. They must have sunk…”
The first fisherman had started to worry as the stormy night turned to complete darkness. Whenever he looked out, the waves of the ocean were winding into the skies above. He could see no sign of a boat.The first fisherman had been abandoned on the small, deserted island. He stood on the rocks of the shore and waited a full day for his friends to return. But perhaps because the winds from yesterday had made the ocean rough, the sun that day went down without any sign of the boat he had been waiting for.

Three days passed. The first fisherman had started to grow weak. Finally, after standing on the beach looking intently out over the ocean for three days, the boat carrying his friends cut through the waves and sailed towards the beach. It felt like a thousand years since he had seen them last. He could see that the second fisherman and the third fisherman were fine and moving about on the boat.
“Hey!” the first fisherman called out over the water, raising both of his hands high in the air. When he did, it looked like they too had thrown their hands in the air and called back. Only he couldn’t hear their voices. Just then as the setting sun illuminated the tips of the waves, the two fishermen on the boat came into sight, red in the face.
“Ahh, here’s a sight for sore eyes, my two friends! They made it back alive,” said the first fisherman, warm tears of joy swelling in his eyes. Before long the boat was nearly on the sand.
“Hey!” the first fisherman called out, his hand in the air. He thought the other to fishermen would respond, but just as the pair were about to turn to the side and bring their boat in, they disappeared like a puff of smoke. The fist fisherman was shocked.
“A ghost ship!”

The first fisherman lost all hope, threw himself down on the sand and began to cry. His imagination was running wild, and his nightmares ran through the night. When he awoke the next morning his eyes were blood-shot and his heart was pounding. It was just past midday. The first fisherman raised his head and looked out over the sea only to spot the same boat in the distance. But it was the same as yesterday, a ghost ship, that had come to the island. For a moment he was relieved, and happiness danced in his chest, but in the next instant his body shook with fear.
“Damn it. Are they trying to kill me?” said the first fisherman, as he started to lose his mind. The boat cut through the waves and came in closer and closer to the island. The first fisherman pulled out his pistol, aimed at the boat and pulled the trigger. But this time the boat wasn’t a ghost, and it didn’t disappear. Once the boat was docked at the beach, the two other fishermen scrambled up onto land.
“Have you gone completely mad?” yelled one, which was enough to snap the first fisherman back to reality.

The first fisherman had gone completely mad. That night the winds had caused the boat to be pushed back against a nearby island. Once the waves had died down, the two fishermen went back to the island to recuse their friend. The two fishermen got their crazy friend back on the boat and returned to the mainland. The pair cared for their weakened friend, and through their care he was able to lose his madness and returned to how he used to be. And from there the three friends went on to be even better friends for a very long time. This story is still told in the harbors to the north where the head of that deserted island still pokes up from between those blue black waves.

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English translation © 2016 Hamish Smith. All rights reserved.