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The Captain’s Daughter

A Short Story

Photo by John Towner on Unsplash
“This is faith: it does not rely on itself or on favorable seas, favorable conditions; it does not rely on its own strength or on other people’s strength, but believes only and alone in God, whether or not there is a storm. It is the only faith that is not superstition and does not let us slip back into fear, but makes us free of fear.”
— Dietrich Bonhoeffer, from the sermon “Overcoming Fear,” preached on January 15, 1933¹

At sea, whenever a certain variety of cloud appeared — swollen large, gunpowder in both color and intent — the Captain’s thoughts would turn to the night of his daughter’s birth. His memory of it was characterized by two storms raging simultaneously: outside, heavy rain and angry claps of thunder accentuated a wholly different chaos unfolding inside, where the Captain’s desperate prayers had turned to great howls of despair when, as his infant girl took in her first breath, his wife had breathed her last.

Unwilling to let his circumstances claim the final word, the Captain named his daughter Katja, a name whose lineage traces back to the ancient Greek word for “storm.” Then, with no other choice but carry on, father and child set off on their new life together. In quick succession, the Captain buried his wife and baptized their daughter, commending to the Lord each of their lives — one earthly, one eternal.

Shortly after, the Captain wrote a letter to his superiors in Amsterdam requesting the Company grant him an extension on his leave. He knew that for the Company, it would be a particularly inopportune time to be short an experienced Captain — in the years since he’d enlisted as a lowly sailor’s mate, his once-middling employer had mushroomed into a fully-fledged empire. They could hardly build ships or enlist the men to operate them fast enough. Nevertheless, the Captain’s request was granted.

So for the next two years he devoted the entirety of his time and attention to caring for and cherishing his little girl. Katja — Kate as he’d come to call her — was to the Captain the brightest star in the heavens.

When the time came to return to life at sea, the Captain and his daughter made the journey to Amsterdam, whose bustling port served as the hub and heart of the Company’s global trade network. After reporting for duty and signing the requisite documents, the Captain was declared fit for service and issued his assignments: The ship he was to command, a brand-new member of the Company’s growing fleet named the Angerona, a breathtaking three-masted vessel of oak and labyrinthine rigging; the crew he was to command, several of whom he had sailed with on prior expeditions, including — thanks be to God, the Captain thought — his First Mate, a man of fidelity and virtue; and lastly, the destination for their outward passage — the East Indes by way of Cape Town.

The Captain and his crew commenced their preparations, stocking Angerona’s holds with countless crates of cargo and the myriad provisions necessary for a lengthy voyage.

Bringing a young child on board and effectively raising her on the seas wasn’t unheard of, but it wasn’t exactly orthodox either. As such, special accommodations were made for Kate’s presence, which included — at the Captain’s insistence — recruiting a qualified nursemaid for the crew whose sole responsibility would be to care for her. In addition to the nursemaid, the crew’s roster included capable men of various rank and nationality: sailors, sailor’s mates, quartermasters, midshipmen, and gunners, plus a cook, a surgeon, a handful of servants, and the Captain’s mates. The majority were Christian — mostly Protestant with a handful of Catholics — including the First Mate, a man whose people in Africa had come to know Christ some years ago. More notable yet was the fact that the First Mate had only one hand, having lost the other in an accident years ago.

When preparations were complete, everyone gathered on the ship’s deck, where the Captain offered a prayer before setting sail for the other side of the world.

Now, on the mainland a certain mythology had developed regarding the seafaring life, one which equated it with endless adventure, exotic locales, and bountiful spoils. In truth, it was a mostly wearisome endeavor distinguished by prolonged stints of dull monotony only occasionally punctuated by excitement or whatever people meant by “adventure.” It was also supremely perilous — there was a malevolent, ever-present shadow lurking just beyond the horizon, coiled up and ready to strike at any moment like the devilish serpent himself. The threats were many: infectious diseases, tainted food or water, shipwreck, and even attacks by rival nations or pirates.

The crew was prepared for all of these, armed with ample training, expertise, and stores of emergency supplies and rations. It was the last possibility, though — being attacked — that concerned the Captain the most. Should that day ever come, God forbid, and Angerona was unable to hold its defenses, the ship could be overtaken by its aggressors — and a ship held captive by hostile, licentious men was no place for a young girl. So the Captain and First Mate had developed a plan: At the first sign of an attack, the First Mate was to gather Kate, the nursemaid, and a pair crew members straight away to initiate their evacuation on one of the ship’s longboats. The Captain would honor his vow and remain with the ship and his crew until they either fended off the attack or succumbed to it. Either way, Kate would be safe.

Mercifully, the voyages in their first few years were relatively uneventful. There was, however, one persistent struggle the Captain had been unprepared for, despite their readiness to confront the many dangers at sea. As she aged, Kate had developed an intense and terrible fear of storms — whether on land or sea, they would render her nearly catatonic with dread.

On one such occasion, when she was maybe four or five years of age, the crew was busy unloading exported goods and replenishing the ship’s provisions at port in Batavia when the tropical sun was swallowed whole by fast-approaching monsoon clouds. At some point during the downpour that followed, the nursemaid and Kate had become separated somewhere on the docks and, unable to locate her, the now frantic nursemaid alerted the Captain. As they commenced their harried search, retracing their steps along the docks, the storm began to subside, bringing with it a certain stillness in the air. And then, over the rapid-fire thumping of his own heartbeat, the Captain heard Kate’s voice — faintly at first, then more prominently as he followed it to where she was hiding. There, cowering between stacks of barrels, he found his daughter sitting wrapped around herself like a frightened caterpillar, rocking back-and-forth and singing a song to herself, a lilting melody with unintelligible lyrics the Captain was certain he’d never heard before. Relieved, he lifted her up and squeezed her in a strong embrace, feeling her body slacken as peace replaced fear. Slowly, she opened her eyes and looked out at the harbor, then pointed toward the horizon, as if confirming the storm’s departure. “Yes, my love,” the Captain whispered in her ear. “It’s over now. Daddy’s here. You’re safe.”

Just a few months later, a similar episode occurred on board the ship one night as it sailed the open ocean. While the Captain was occupied with navigational matters on the forecastle, Kate had been playing quietly on the quarterdeck as a treacherous storm materialized, agitating the sea into a turbulent rage. As the ship tossed about violently on the waves, the Captain and crew scattered, taking their designated posts to weather the storm unscathed. The Captain manned the helm, struggling to keep the ship upright and intermittently shouting orders to his crew, when, at some point, he discovered Kate crouching behind him, balled up and singing just as he’d found her before. He quickly scooped her up and yelled for someone to take her below deck. Kate, meanwhile, carried on softly singing that unfamiliar tune until suddenly going quiet, reaching out and pointing to the churning water as if recognizing a great and profound truth. And then, almost in sync, calm descended upon both Kate and the seas.

Years later, Angerona fell victim at last to the unthinkable. The serpent, it seemed, had run out of patience, intent on loosing its hunger for evil and destruction by taking form as pirates. It was the First Mate who initially spotted the enemy ship in the distance, hastily alerting the Captain of the likely assault before any shots were fired. Even so, the Captain was horrified. At once, determination seized him, filling him with a singular fixation: Kate. First my girl, then the ship, he thought. The Captain turned. No words were needed as he met the First Mate’s gaze. The First Mate bolted into action, initiating the emergency evacuation plan they’d devised years ago. Within minutes, with the enemy ship drawing ever more near, the Captain was embracing his daughter, praying fervently it would not be the last time. Then he watched helplessly as the longboat and its passengers descended to the water and floated away. With a trembling hand, the Captain blew a final farewell kiss, and then turned around to set about defending his ship.

The confrontation that ensued was lengthy, but in the end Angerona and her crew prevailed. Seeing no sign of the longboat in any direction, the Captain ordered a change of course to the nearest port in order to rendezvous with the evacuees, in accordance with the contingency in their evacuation plan addressing this very scenario. Although they made good time, arriving at the local port within days of the ambush, they found no sign of the longboat or its passengers anywhere. The Captain, downplaying his growing distress, ordered the crew to stay put and wait for the longboat to arrive — first one week, then two, then four. He also mounted several rescue expeditions during that time, discontent to sit idly by and pray. Ultimately, after months of waiting, searching, and hoping against hope, the Captain had no choice but to bitterly accept the grotesque truth — Kate was never coming back.

In his despair the Captain sought spiritual consolation from the most devout Christian on his crew — the cook, a man who happened to be mute. Over time, the crew had pieced together a vague backstory for the cook that included, they believed, a stint serving as a monk before possibly being excommunicated — for what, they didn’t know. Regardless, the cook welcomed the Captain warmly and let him vent his sorrow. Then he retrieved his Bible and opened it to the Psalms, motioning for the Captain to read a passage from Psalm 145: “The Lord upholdeth all that fall, and raiseth up all those that be bowed down.” Though appreciative of the cook’s guidance, the Captain was not comforted. Grief, he had decided, was like scurvy: There was simply no remedy in heaven or on earth for a man afflicted by it. The difference being of course that in grief you’re obliged to keep on living.

Many years later, having forsworn life on the sea, the Captain was back in Amsterdam, scraping together a life through an assortment of jobs. When he wasn’t working, he spent most of his time longing for the past or drinking to forget it. His pub of choice was an old favorite frequented by sailors, shipbuilders, and merchants. One day, as was his new routine, the Captain ordered a beer and sat down at his regular table, when his attention was suddenly drawn to the entrance. Standing there in the doorframe, silhouetted by the afternoon sun, was a person whose likeness the Captain would have recognized anywhere — the missing hand made it all but certain.

The Captain shot up, pushed his way to the entrance, and threw his arms around his First Mate. “It’s you!” he shouted, welling up with tears. “It’s really you! You’re alive!” The Captain pulled back, and before he could even ask, the First Mate was shaking his head. “The girl did not survive. They’re all gone. I am sorry, Captain.” The Captain reeled, his brief swell of hope crushed yet again. After regaining his composure, the Captain bought the First Mate a beer and invited him to sit. “Tell me what happened,” he said “I want to know everything.” So the First Mate told him.

The longboat had been loaded with enough food and water to last each of its five passengers a week — plenty of time to make it safely ashore. By the time they’d gotten far enough to lose sight of the Angerona, the First Mate set out to chart a course for the nearest port, but quickly discovered that none of the navigational equipment had made it on board the boat. No sextant, no nothing. They were immediately and effectively lost at sea. The First Mate had tried navigating by the stars, he said, but his efforts were futile. They drifted aimlessly, and although they’d begun rationing their food and water right away, there was nothing left within three weeks’ time. After that, it was basically a waiting game. It took a few weeks, but the nursemaid was the first to die — dehydration, presumably — and within another only Kate and the First Mate remained.

“At this point I had given up any hope of surviving,” the First Mate said. “I could tell your daughter was nearing death — she’d started hallucinating, seeing things, you know? I remember her pointing to the waves — pointing at nothing, really — but I remember her pointing and saying, ‘There you are. I knew you would be here.’”

This loosened something distant in the Captain’s memory; he leaned closer as the First Mate continued: “Then,” he said, “and this is so strange, but … then she started singing.” The Captain’s eyes grew wide. “It was as though, as she breathed her final breaths, Kate was using them to comfort me. Where she learned that song is a mystery to me, but it was unmistakably a song of my people — she was singing it my native tongue.” Then the First Mate closed his eyes and began quietly singing, “Usiogope, usiogope, usiogope…” until he could stave off his weeping no more.

The Captain was dumbfounded. “I know that song,” he said. “You remember how Kate was deathly afraid of storms?” The First Made nodded. “That’s the song she’d be singing to herself when she was afraid — the song you just sang. I always assumed it was some sort of made-up gibberish, though… You’re telling me it means something?”

“It isn’t made up,” the First Mate replied, “it’s Swahili. Usiogope means do not be afraid … it’s from a Swahili hymn.”

“Wait,” the Captain interrupted, “You said she pointed out at the water? Before she died? Did she say anything else about what she saw?”

“All she said was, ‘There you are. I knew you would be here.’ That’s it. I will never forget it.”

The Captain went quiet, sitting motionless in his chair as if restrained like cargo fastened tight with dunnage in a ship’s hold. When he finally spoke, the First Mate could barely hear him at first.

“It was Jesus,” he said. “On the water. She wasn’t hallucinating. It was Jesus all along. In every storm, he was there with her … with us.”

The Captain closed his eyes and inhaled deeply. “Usiogope,” he said. “Do not be afraid.” Okay, little girl.

¹Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. The Collected Sermons of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Edited by Isabel Best, Fortress Press, 2012, p. 65.

This story was originally presented as a sermon reflecting on John 6:16–21 for the congregation of Faith Lutheran Church in Clive, Iowa. Special thanks to Brandon Mick for his enthusiastic help in crafting the story’s concept.

You can listen to the song Simama imara katika imani here. The refrain’s lyrics, roughly translated, are Stand firm in faith / do not be afraid / hold fast in prayer.