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The Sisters

    by Derick Wilcox

"Jack!" Sally screamed, grabbing his arm and pointing. "Rocks!"

He'd already seen them, and was trying to steer the Ellie J away, but with the gale blowing so hard, all the sail he dared carry was a tiny scrap of storm jib, barely the size of a table cloth. A small table cloth at that, but even so, the savage push of the gale gave him just enough steerage way, and the Ellie J's bows came round. Slowly, agonisingly slowly, but the jagged rocks passed a harmless boat's length away. He cast a hurried look around. The water was white with spindrift, the tops being blown off the waves by the fury of the gale. He was soaked, Sally was soaked, and without the engine he gave little for their chances.

It had started as a long-awaited holiday, a week or two away in their cutter, the Ellie J, named for Sally's mother, much to her amusement, but she'd dutifully cracked the obligatory bottle of champagne over the cutter's bow and enjoyed the brief maiden voyage around the bay. Things were different now; horribly, horribly different.

Blown towards the reef by the gale, Jack and Sally and the Ellie J were in trouble. Again he cursed the engine failure, probably a blocked intake, but he couldn't check it, not in the gale, and the failure had robbed them of at least a chance of getting away from The Sisters, the rocks of the reef showing jagged above the water. Harmless in mild sunshine last time he'd seen them, but killers now in the maelstrom of wind and water.

Sally was clinging to the cockpit rail, her safety harness fastened, lifejacket bulky over her waterproof clothing, hair soaked and matted on her head. She looked across at Jack and, as his eye caught hers, somehow she managed a smile, but the look on her face changed to shock and she pointed past him. Jack turned, feeling the amazement on his own face at the sight.

The vessel must have been a hundred years old, or more. A lugger, three-masted, main and mizzen sails lowered and lashed, the fore reefed down to a rag little bigger than their own, the figure at the helm in dark, old-fashioned oilskins, struggling like Jack to keep a semblance of control over his vessel. The lugger was between them and The Sisters, and Jack found a moment to wonder why he hadn't spotted it before, to ask himself where it had appeared from.

The dark figure at the helm pointed, and Jack stared, wondering, but the helmsman beckoned, indicating they should follow. The old vessel was leading them slightly and Jack tried desperately to see what the figure was indicating. Sally moved closer, holding tightly to the rail, and put her mouth close to his ear.

"Jack, I think there's a gap in the reef," she yelled, almost inaudible in the din of wind and sea, "I think he wants us to follow him through."

Squinting, Jack peered through the murk. The lugger obscured his view, and he could see nothing. He glanced at Sally, dubious, and shook his head, moving to bring the Ellie J's head up a couple of points. Sally's hand on his stopped the movement. He looked at her, surprised.

"Follow him, Jack, or we'll die here," she yelled. She stared at him as he hesitated. "Do it, Jack, I know - " she broke off, shaking her head. "We have to, Jack, or we'll die. Follow him, Jack, please. Please." Sally's face was strained, but there was a look of conviction there, a look that convinced him, persuaded him to ignore his fears despite his every instinct and to follow the unknown vessel into the reef. Jack nodded and brought the Ellie J's head back on to the course taken by the lugger.

For several minutes Jack was convinced he'd been mad, but the lugger was still ahead of the Ellie J, still on course. Sally gripped his arm and he stared at the black rocks barely thirty feet away, jagged, vicious, waiting for them, but there was water under their keel, not rock, and their little vessel was still making its way through the gap, a gap no chart he'd ever seen had even mentioned. Ahead, the lugger fell away a few points, running more easily now before the wind, the reef taking some of the violence out of the water. Moments later, Jack felt the change himself. He looked around, shuddering at the violence behind him. He glanced at Sally and she grinned at him, eyes sparkling.

He looked forward, searching for the lugger. She was almost invisible now in the advancing night, but now there were two figures at the helm, one a head smaller than the other, close. Jack glanced at Sally and she looked at him, but when they looked forward again, the lugger had disappeared, gone as suddenly as it had appeared. Startled, Jack peered forward, then glanced at Sally. She shrugged, as bewildered as himself.

The storm was easing now, slowly, very slowly, but there was open sea ahead of them now and Jack had faith in the Ellie J in open water. Within the hour, he'd raised the jib, the storm jib back in the locker. Five hours out of port, the lifeboat out of St. John's passed nearby, checking, concerned for them, but carried on after their reassurances. Dawn found them closing the coast, under jib and reefed main in the still-strong winds, and by ten they were moored. Exhausted, they collapsed into the bunk and slept the day away.

As the day darkened again they roused. Showers, fresh clothes, and they felt recovered.

"Dinner," said Sally.

"What about dinner?"

"I think we should go to that bar along there. They're advertising meals. I think we deserve a treat."

Jack laughed. "Okay, let's go."

Walking along the quay, Sally turned to Jack. "Sweetheart?"


"That boat?"

"The lugger? What about it?"

"Did you see a name?"

Jack frowned, remembering. "Something beginning with 'A', I think, a woman's name?"


"Yes! Alice. That was it. The Alice."

"Where did it go?"

Surprised, Jack pondered for a moment, then shrugged. "No idea, but there are other ports on the coast, they could have made for any one of them."

"I suppose so," said Sally, frowning, but then she brightened. "Come on, I'm hungry."

The food was delicious, and they made short work of their ham, eggs and fried potatoes, even shorter work of the blueberry cheesecake for dessert.

"Would you prefer to take your coffee in the lounge?" the waitress asked.

"Please," said Jack, on Sally's nod, and they made their way to the comfortable lounge. Not many patrons this early, a bar in the corner. They found comfortable armchairs and very shortly the waitress brought their coffee. They sat in easy conversation for a while, talking about their plans for this long-awaited holiday.

"We'll never fit everything in," said Jack, laughing, "and I have to fix the engine." His eyes lifted to his wife's face, but she was staring over his shoulder at something behind him. He turned, feeling the short hairs on the nape of his neck standing. He looked at Sally and she locked eyes with him for a moment. Unspeaking, they stood and moved over to the picture on the wall beside the bar.

There was no mistaking the vessel in the painting. A three-masted lugger, the name Alice was plain and clear on the bow. A brass panel at the base of the painting took their attention. 'The Alice, of St. John. Lost with all hands, May 20th, 1880. Another victim of The Sisters reef.'

Sally turned to Jack, her face strained, white. "It was May 20th yesterday," she whispered.

A cold shiver ran down Jack's spine, and at first he wasn't aware of the voice.

"Sir? Sir? Are you all right. You went white." The middle-aged man behind the bar was staring at them, concerned.

Jack nodded. "Yes, I'm okay. I just got a shock."

"A shock, sir?"

Jack grimaced. "Do you know anything about the vessel in the painting?"

"The Alice? Bless you, yes, sir. Everyone around here knows about the Alice."

"I take it she's famous?"

The landlord shook his head, a wry smile on his face. "Perhaps notorious would be a better choice, sir. The story goes that a wrecker on these coasts used to lure vessels onto the reef using a false light. Only, it so happened that his sweetheart was on the Alice. She was pregnant with his child and was coming to tell him. He didn't know she was on board until he found her body among the wreckage. Why do you ask, sir?"

"We were on our way here yesterday," Jack said. "The gale got up, and our engine failed. We were almost onto The Sisters. Frankly," he said, glancing at Sally, "I'd almost given up hope." Sally took his hand and squeezed it. "Anyway, another vessel appeared and signalled us to follow. She led us through a gap in The Sisters."

"There is no gap," the landlord said, frowning.

"That's what I thought," said Jack, "but she led us through it."

"Which vessel?" said the landlord, a strange look on his face.

"That one," said Jack, pointing at the painting, "the Alice." He looked at the landlord. "Why aren't you surprised?"

The man made a face, glancing at Sally. "There's more to the story."

"There is? What?" she said.

"Well, apparently, the wrecker made a vow, a vow that he would never again allow harm to come to an unborn child, if he could prevent it. Over the years, a few vessels have reported being guided to safety by the Alice, and they all have the same one thing in common."

"What?"said Sally, clinging to Jack's hand.

"There was a pregnant woman on board." The landlord smiled at Sally. Jack stared at his wife, shocked speechless.

"I was going to tell you tonight, sweetheart, when we're back on board," Sally whispered, tears trembling in her lashes, but a smile of love on her face. "That was the phone call I made before dinner. Doctor Ellis said to ring today for the results of the test." Sally smiled at the dawning realisation and joy on her husband's face. "Yes, darling, it's true. We're going to have a baby."

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