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The Sinking Great Canoe

1 The Belfast Colossus

From far away, a beam from a starlike object scanned the Inner Universe’s Galactic Superclusters. Alerted by a distress signal, it penetrated individual galaxies and was drawn to one Solar System in particular, the source of the distress call. Through a window in the electromagnetic spectrum, at a point where interstellar telegrams could be sent, the star’s third planet issued still another signal for help--this time one much stronger than the first.

Harland and Wolff Shipyard, Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Opening onto Corporation Street, two-ton iron gates hung on faux Moorish towers manned by shipyard rats swung slowly apart to admit the day shift.

Later at dusk a steam whistle blasted loud enough to wake the dead and day shift ended. Sweat-soaked woolens and grime-blackened leather aprons poured out of the ways of Slip #3 where the dry-docked White Star liner, Yard Number 401, soon to be R.M.S. Titanic, towered amidst circling sea gulls.

Mick Moran hurried to catch up with his shift, passing the ship's rudder that was about to be moved to Slip #3 for installation.

He hardly gave the twenty-footer a glance as he wanted to get to the pub where the gang always watered down. He’d enjoy a few stouts, then head home to the colleen he thought about all day at work.

Mick was almost past the company gate when he saw someone in a queue turn his way. He might have been a dwarf he was so short and stumpy, except that wee folk usually were not so down on their luck! Clouds had closed in by this time, dark and full of rain. Watchmen on tall, rickety ladders lit up gas lamps for the long night ahead.

Mick had already passed the line. Then he paused, glancing back to make sure. Men plowed into him from behind, then pushed around. "What's stoppin' you, bloody idiot!” "Git on wi' ye!" "Move aside if you don't know it's a public street!" Fourteen thousand Harland and Wolff workers, coming and going, can't stop for one man.

Mick was unperturbed. He couldn't go on. He thought he recognized--poor little Marty Yeager? Moran was right. It was!

"Yeager! How long’s it been, luv? I'd hate to say myself. Come along! We're off shift and headed to Paddy O'Pugg's as usual. I'll stand you a bloody drink!"

Yeager, stiff to the nines with cold and despair, let himself be dragged away to the popular, homey "American style" pub set just beyond the cranes and dry-docks of company property.

An hour later, Yeager stood on the black cobbles outside the pub, hardly able to believe his luck. He had gone in without a job and a hope in the world. Thanks to his old schoolmate, who forgot Yeager’s religion for the moment and stood up for him for a job opening on his own shift and crew, he was a changed man. Bright and early, he was supposed to report at the gate and follow his “friend” in and start work. It was like a wonderful dream come true!

"Two pint o' stout, please," Mick had shouted over the conversation, pump organ, and a frenzy of dart throwing. He had just begun to smell something from his new companion’s dank, sodden clothes or body, but he was too polite to show it. Guinness hit the tiny, metal-edged table with a bang. Moran paid up.

Yeager cupped his stout in trembling hands that terminated in dark, broken nails. He quickly turned his wrists and ragged cuff ends down on the table.

Mick Moran shifted about in herringbone coat and pants to make himself a little more comfortable.

Yeager scraped off the excess foam with his old, chipped pocketknife and tried to act as if he were in Mick Moran Skanhill tweed too.

"Lucky for you I stopped and recognized you," Mick said, trying not to breathe too deeply now that the smell had grown rather ripe in the pub’s heat. "You'd have never gotten the carpenter job anyway. We take only solid union men and--" The good fellow lifted his stout. “God ‘elp all of us!” he toasted everybody.

“Don’t I know that!” Yeager silently agreed. Eyes lowered to hide it, he swallowed the blessed stout, feeling a tremendous rush of unaccustomed well-being that that nearly made him choke.

They drank, then the generous, working carpenter ordered again. It was only good Protestant Irish beer that could turn an ugly slip of the tongue, and the beer was more than good. It was the best to be had for money. Both men warming up to each other by now, Mick laughed in Yeager's stout-reddened, thin face.

"You'd still be soakin’ up rain, waiting for the pot at the end of the rainbow to come drop on your noggin if good old Mick hadn't happened along! But how could I forget your mug, Marty luv? Not when we were both Cromwell Old Memorial Business School boys! You can't forget old COMBS, the grand times we had and everybody connected to it, not in a million years!" He kept laughing, though Yeager, with no such pleasant memory, couldn’t join in, not for all the Guinness in the world.

Jolly Mick noticed the sudden commotion around the busiest dartboard. The pub's never-defeated champion was shaking down his reluctant competitors. It came to a handful of pounds. Mick turned back to Yeager. His eyes shone so merry and kind even Yeager melted to helpless slush. "Old Chum, I can get you that job you’re dreamin’ about! It's on my shift.” He thrust a pen and a clean cloth napkin at Yeager. “Write your full name on this, lad.”

Yeager did as told, scratching “Martin Gantry Yeager” on the cheap and plentiful linen.

“Yes, she's in the bag , luv!” said Mick, snatching the napkin. He jerked his thumb toward the biggest guy in the place, the one bossing everyone else around. “And there be just the man I've got to say a word to and you're working full time tomorrow!" Mick bounded up, nearly upsetting remaining stout. Truth was, it was a bit of a relief for him to get away from Yeager for a moment, stick his head out the door, and draw a lungful of fresh air. He went back in and thumped the booming big fellow across the shoulders--the one who had just stuffed a wad of bills in his pocket from the losers at the dart-throwing.

The king of darts glanced Yeager's way somewhat doubtfully after reading his name on the napkin, then back to Mick, who did some fast talking, before he finally shrugged and gave the passing barmaid a slap on her keel that made her squeal. Mick slid back behind their table and extended his hand.

Hesitating, Yeager could not believe what had happened so quickly. A job? Spoken for by a man whom he hadn't exchanged ten civil words with at a school of mostly Protestant Anglo-Irish bullies? Why, at the time they had made him pray he were dead rather than Catholic. Then for years and years he had dreamed of working at Harland and Wolff's instead of always scrounging in homes as poor as his own for minor repairs and privy-cleaning.

Mick wiped his nose vigorously with the napkin Yeager had signed. He laughed and grabbed Yeager's cold, damp hand and shook it heartily. "Basil's owin' me a couple favors, so he couldn't refuse. Well, it's time to celebrate! Me, I got on full-time until the end of the project, and now you be workin' alongside your old chum at H & W, though be it temporary duty." He ordered again.

What with all the excellent stout in him, Yeager now felt different, more a man than he had been in years. He had high-paying work--thanks to this bountiful former school-mate who had burst into his dark-clouded life like a bow of radiant colors. It was just like a dream. A beautiful dream of ....

"God ‘elp all of us!" Mick toasted Yeager, trying not to keep his nose from twitching, and Yeager smiled for the first time. The world at that moment seemed to be a grand, rosy place after all.

Silver-tongued Mick kept up the cozy, Skanhill talk, which was his way from the first minute he somehow spotted Yeager outside the hiring office. "Tell me about your family now, Marty. How many strappin' lads and pretty colleens, and the good wife--what's her Christian name?"

Fortunately, Mick's attention was turned by another commotion at the dartboard, so Yeager wasn't forced to answer. It would have been difficult to say. His wife? Packed up long ago and gone back down to her people in Cork. His “lads” and “colleens.” Grown up, now married, without having seen him since they were little.

"We be going heavy on this special project at the moment," said Mick. "You seen her! Slip #3, Yard Number 401."

Mick laughed, and then scribbed a number on a napkin to show Marty. "'3909 04' is the ship's number we Ulstermen gave her. Hold it to the mirror and it reads 'no pope'!" Mick guffawed, then recalled Marty's religion, and cut his laughing short out of respect for Marty's convictions, even if they were held to be the wrong ones for proper, god-fearing Ulstermen. "Well, as I was saying, she's a bloody colossus! Why, you’d never think that little child’s toy of a rudder they welded on her today could turn her at sea! It’s only twenty feet long and she’s well over eight hundred. Nothing like her in the world, this Titanic. ‘Tis a masterpiece of Irish industry and brains! Got that newfangled electric light system and something they call ‘wireless’ that can speak right through the air to other ships at sea just to say ‘How goes it, gentlemen? I’m jolly fine, thank you’! Imagine that! A body can talk to another body, and the chap’s not even in sight! And we Belfasters have the honor. Ulstermen building the biggest and best ship to ever sail! We've come a long way in the old town! A long way, indeed!"

Yeager said nothing and drank his beer, some of it dripping down his chin. Mick watched him a moment, telling himself he had smelled worse things at a tannery during his youthful job-hunting days.

There was a commotion round the pump organ.

The good old boys were standing up to sing a round of “Drop Oars With Me at O’Sleagel Loch, Kathleen.” Others watering down at the wet bar took up the tune with equal gusto.

After a rousing prelude of fancy footplay and lightning-fast sweeps of the keys by the organist, the big, lusty working men really took off. It wasn’t overly long for Irish airs, and fifteen stanzas later they came to the foot-stomping, hand-clapping climax:

I hard-a-starboarded, and my darlin’ screamed “OH!” I reversed the engines and don’t she say “NO! NO!” So I hard-aported and we passed in the night, Old Chum. We passed in the night...”

The sweet Gaelic air adding a light touch in contrast to the smuttiness of the powerful smell off damp woolens and dirt-clogged boots and unwashed hands and old ale spills everywhere , Mick glanced over to the big man at the dart board and jerked a black thumb that direction.. "That was the shift boss I was just talking to. But there's one other bloke I got to see. So meet me at four sharp by the gate. I'll go in with you and tell the union toff that we need you bad. He'll listen to me--being Sharkey's--I mean, Mr. O' Nabb's my son-in-law's brother's godfather!"

Later, outside on the cracked, heaving pavement, in the first shock of the cold, fresh air, Mick really seemed Yeager's best friend. "God bless, take care o' yourself, Marty lad! The blessed saints warm your socks and sweeten your woman's kisses! See you in the morning." "God bless, Mick, all the best."

Mick walked off up Corporation, heading for the solid, warm comforts of Skanhill Road.

Yeager took a few, reluctant steps toward the black, oozing miseries of Lower Falls Road, but a bright object in the gutter caught his eye. He picked up a razor-sharp Sheffield--worth a clear pound, maybe two. Now he could get rid of his old knife, maybe for a whole penny. Yeager's lips curled in a faint smile as he looked up, for the first time, at the heavens. He even forgot to spit when he passed by the towering statue of Oliver Cromwell--England’s champion, Ireland’s Woe. Oh, he was a changed man! A man with one foot up in the world! Truly, the saints had come out in his favor, his bloody ship had come in at last!

Soon Marty got his chance to see what Mick was so excited about. He was led to Slip 3 for the nightshift, and there it was: no mere ship, the Colossus of the World! And, blast Cromwell to hell, a bloody Belfaster at that!

With very little introduction or training, Marty was put to work to complete the mighty ship. Deadlines pressed everyone on toward the grand finish. Yeager and the others of the crew found themselves working shifts back to back, just like the woodworkers. They scarcely had time for beer and sandwiches. Painters were finishing on the hull. They'd soon want to start interiors and paint round the clock, now that the electricity and lights were in. A smartly-dressed lady pay clerk from the front Harland and Wolff's offices came in to joke with the shift boss. She wrinkled her pert little nose when glancing with Croakum in Yeager’s direction, then left.

"Come back anytime, luv!" called Foreman Croakum after giving her rear the signature of his hearty slap. He noticed Yeager had stopped work to gawk. "Hey, get to work, you miserable gutter rat!" said Croakum. “And keep lively, you hear? The more your kind stands around, the more fishy and ratty stink I seem to smell Pfau!.”

Yeager did as he was told, swallowing back Lower Falls Road pride.

The foreman stood and eyed him for a few moments, then stalked off.

"Hey, be careful not to look at any woman he takes a fancy to," whispered Pat O'Connor, who partnered with Yeager on the green tile beneath the exercise bars in the gymnasium. "You be settin' yourself up for a little takin' down if you're not careful on that point."

Yeager heard him and forced back some hot words.

The hour passed. Croakum came back. It was close to break. Croakum went down the line of lunches on a bench until he got to the last. Yeager suddenly was aware by the snickering around him that the foreman was pouring beer on his penny-worth of bread-and-drippin’s. Still determined to hold his bile, the Lower Falls underdog turned away. He heard the foreman chuckle in that low-snorting, porcine manner of his.

"He's only pullin' your leg," said Pat. "He always does that with new men. He just wants to see how they take it."

Yeager kept working. With no fuel for the fire, the foreman moved off.

The end of shift came and went. Several men slackening off looked at Croakum on his return. "Are you fish-eatin’ Catholics or self-respectin’, working men? " they were told. "We got to finish!"

The foreman disappeared again, then came back two hours later, a scratch or two and dark red smudges on his ear and left cheek. Men grumbled by that time, especially Mick, but they all shut up when Croakum came in. "Break!" he announced along with a belch. "For them's that deserves it, that is."

All the men threw down their tools. One started whistling “Drop Oars With Me Tonight at O’Sleagel Loch, Kathleen,” a racy tune going round the dockside pubs.

"No, not you!" Croakum snarled at Yeager. "You're not puttin' us behind any more than I can help it. You stay and make up for lost time while we Ulstermen take our little pub run."

This time Yeager's face reddened beyond control. "I’m going, blast you!" he blurted out. “I’ve worked as hard as any. Can you say the same yourself, guv’nor?”

The men were shocked by Yeager’s cockiness, and even Croakum was taken aback for a moment. But he quickly recovered. “Got money to buy your own pint o’stout?” he challenged Yeager.


“No? Well, there’s no pint in your o’goin’ then, is there?” quipped the foreman, winking at the crew with one eye..

Everyone but the victim erupted in classic, hearty, Irish laughter. For a moment anyway, the air was cleared and the Sun shone once again on grand, old downtroden Ireland.

Face beaming, Croakum turned and walked away, Mick and the others dogging close on his heels.

Yeager slumped on the bench, breathing hard and fists clenched until his knuckles hurt. “I shouldn’t have said that!” he thought. “I got to remember my place here. Or I’ll ruin it! Ruin it!”

They were assembling their gear, cleaning up. Yeager, thinking to make amends for the slip of the tongue, hadn’t insisted any more on leaving with the gang on break. Working straight through break and the next shift, he was shoveling away a big heap of waste mortar and tile bits. He was working as fast as he could, but he felt like throwing the scoop and plopping down right there. All that kept him going was the thought of collecting his pay as soon as he caught some sleep at home and could run to the H & W pay office.

"Hey, what the hurry?” growled Croakum at Yeager. “You're getting half that filthy muck in the King's air! Be you light'ning the load a bit, Fish-eater?"

Yeager bridled. Slurs on his religion were one thing. But he was having no murdering English tyrant forced down his throat! He threw down his shovel, as he had been loading the wheelbarrow.

Croakum turned and stood right in front of Yeager, legs spread.

"Too good to finish your job, are you?" Croakum smirked. "You'll shovel all that nastiness up and get this place to sparkle like the angels’ backsides or you'll not leave here on your own bloody legs!"

Yeager still did not pick up the shovel. It might not have gone any further even then if Yeager had picked it up and stopped being so Lower Falls cocky. But he looked Croakum in the eye and saw the Devil, Oliver Cromwell.

Croakum suddenly gave Yeager a shove that sent him over the side of his barrow, upsetting it as he fell.

Yeager landed on his back with his feet up.

It was such a good joke, the shift boss was laughing as if he couldn't stop. But he stopped abruptly as Yeager scrambled up, no shovel but a gleaming, equalizing Sheffield in hand.

The foreman held himself ready to bash Yeager straight into hell.. Grinning ear to ear, he gripped a stone mallet behind his back, waiting.

Even with his dandy knife, Yeager had a sinking feeling he was washed up. Done! He might as well go back home as fight and get hurt for nothing. But everything that had been bottled up in him, seemingly for centuries, rose in romantic protest. “Roundhead devil!” shrieked Yeager as Lower Falls Road flew at Skanhill with the shining but somewhat bent and threadbare lance of Sheffield.

Oh, 'twas a brave attempt of Yeager of Skanhill--but like all such attempts of the underdog, it didn't go well for him. Yeager lay on the floor, eyes open and pupils dilated. He saw shadows like upside down trees where men stood. His head oozed and puddled after Croakum done him with the mallet, and the smell was just as powerful as the sight.

"Pity you had to do him up so hard," said one shadow, pocketing the Sheffield on the sly. "You know I ain't no bleedin' heart, luv. It's jist a pretty bad omen for the boat we’re doin’--that's what's hard to swallow."

"Aw, shut your bloody mouth, you saw him come at me so low and dirty with that meat cleaver!" said the biggest shadow. "A man has a right to defend his woman pleaser, don’t he? Besides, nobody calls me names and lives to crow about it. You want to keep your jobs, don't ya? Then shake a leg! Now get him in that barrow! Quick! I know just the place for the rotter! Nobody’ll ever find him! And dead men tell no tales!"

A hour later, it was quiet, as still as it could be on a booming construction site that continued day and night, in all weathers.


“M-G-Y! M-G-Y! M-G-Y....

A radio signal, faint at first, gathered strength as hydrogen atoms in Yeager’s entombed body grew ever more agitated and vibrated from the secret place.


The distress call inside the great resonating bell chamber of the ship rose skyward, appealing to whatever ears might happen to be out among the cold, unwinking stars.


2 Night of the Tornnarsuk

Poor Marty Yeager is no more? Not so! He may be as dead as a head of a cod thrown in the loch of Belfast Harbor, but something of the murdered man lives on, so potent it can reach the stars with its terrible pain, misery, and distress. Just as the slain Abel’s blood near the beginning of the human story on earth cried to the stars once upon a time and his blood cry was heard, so Marty’s atoms danced up a frenzy of a frequency that made the vast distance between transmitter and receptor no problem. And the response to the transmission, M-G-Y! was not long in coming--now, at the onset of Kaushitsup unua, the Polar Night.

Far to the north above the coast of Greenland, an Inuk hunter on his journey around Kane Basin camped on the Humboldt Glacier. From his ten thousand foot high vantage he saw a spot of red appear and streak out of the clustered stars.

He chewed a fatty piece of dried whale hide as he watched the dot dart from side to side before dropping down. It cut two half circles in the cold night sky before slowing its approach, shrinking all the while.

The Inuk stood up, amused by its antics.

Would it disappear entirely? Would it grow bigger and go back to its camp the way it had come? It was not acting like stars, even the ones that occasionally fell to earth. Nor did it look like them. It caught his full interest, so much so he forgot to chew.

By this time, the star, if that was what it was, had shrunk to the size of a big spark. It flew so near that he thought he might reach out at the right moment and catch it in his gloved hand. He really wanted to capture the thing. It would make a good story when he got back to camp. At the right moment he would open his hand and out it would fly, to make everyone laugh and laugh.

Obligingly, the spark fallen from the stars drifted lazily down toward him as he waited.

It was only inches away from him when he suddenly grabbed.

The Inuk tumbled across the snow and ice.

Staggering to his feet, he looked about. His ears rang, his face felt on fire and he smelled burned sealskin. He looked at the scorched glove wonderingly. It held nothing. Where had the odd spark gone?

Turning his head, he looked back of him. He looked to each side. Still no sign. He looked toward the crevassed lip of the glacier, and was about to give it up when he saw steam suddenly jet out of the ice.

He took several steps, then stopped. There was no sound but hissing steam.

The steam had risen to a fountain. It grew and grew and made more noise. The plume shot up so high it soon covered the stars with smoky vapor. And still the volume of steam, water, and noise grew.

Clouds swirled around him. He cried out and shook. But he did not run away.

What was it? What was causing all the steam and smoke? And the roaring?

It was too early for the glacier to calve, he thought. He was safe from that.

He took a step and pitched forward, falling into a small crevasse. He had not seen it. He was lucky it was so shallow. He went more slowly, much more slowly, toward the place where he had first seen the steam spurting upwards.

Big pieces of ice lay jumbled in his path, slick and wet, as if thrown out recently from a big hole. He crawled most of the way, and went on though he could not see anything ahead.

He fell several time in cracks, got out, and crawled again.

The clouds felt warm and wet, then hit him with spray. His hands went up to shield him. The spray scalded.

Finally, he found the edge of a hole. He felt even through his glove that it was razor-sharp and it went straight down. The fountain was going all the while, and he realized he was right under the plume.

He could hear only the roaring steam.

The ice beneath him lurched.

The blinding mist swept away like fine-combed hair. Light dazzled his eyes. Red rays shot out of the hole, roaring as they flew up into the clouds above his head.

He fell backwards, thrown so hard his breath was knocked out and he bit his tongue.

One pulse went starward, straight into the center of the Sun. Another circled the globe and then plunged to “ MGY's” outer core, a third dropped into the Mid-Atlantic, a fourth touched Novarupta, a volcano southwest of Homer, Alaska, on the Alaska Peninsula...

Half-blinded by the firebolts, the Inuk groaned and flopped over on his belly. He crawled a few feet from the fountain.

He stopped, turned his ear to the ice.

Growls of a Tornnarsuk. Giver of power, she had finished her sleep and wanted to get out of her den. Then the Inuk heard claps like thunder--the sound she made as she broke through her ice roof, smashed it to pieces with forepaws.

The whole world seemed to roar and crack up beneath him, for she was lunging out to chase the bearded Ugjuk.

But he realized something had gone wrong. It was not wide-roaming, white Tornnarsuk his people revered and seldom ever killed for food.

He knew it because of the way the wind suddenly whistled around his head and ears, then whipped and tore his clothes. He clutched for handholds as the ice beneath him plunged.

Suddenly, all clouds and smoky vapor heaved away and became a towering column receding at his back. He saw stars shrink out of sight behind a wall of ice that plummeted down and down as though there was no bottom.

Yet there was a bottom ten thousand feet below, the bay, which he could see clearly now.

The Sun, low on the pale golden horizon, bounced quickly upwards until he was level with it. Suddenly, it bounded round to the other side of the world.

He clawed at the ice for dear life but flailed at thin air as the ice he rode shook him free.

His body turned as he fell.

Beneath him water had chunks of ice bobbing in it. But they grew huge and became peaked icebergs--like the one poised above his head.

Would he strike the water or the ice? Would the ice mountain falling with him--?

He soon had answers.

Ice, Inuk, and bay--together they converged.

A last thought struggled through the Inuk's wide-awake brain--a tocsin no one would hear.

“The little devil-star, it has done all this! All this!"

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