The first drops fall one hour before sunset. In the beginning, just a few. Then a hard downpour floods the deck. Every few seconds, electrical discharges cut deep irregular lines across the dark-crimson sky. Thunders follow immediately after the flashes, loud like cannon shots. The ocean has turned nasty. It appears set to bury our ship in its liquid hell. The wind gradually transforms into a gale. Many crewmen are working in a hurry to finish stowing the higher sails and stroking the lower ones. At the same time, a dozen hands are unfurling a single storm fore-topsail to maintain the ship’s direction under the strong wind.
Despite doing my best to make myself useful wherever I can, I’m barely moving back and forth along the deck. My legs are wading through a continuous stream of water, sometimes ankle-deep. My boots are slipping on the wet planks every few steps. I have to hold tightly onto backstays, shrouds, hawsers, gunwale, or anything else with some local stability that I can reach with my tired hands. Everyone else exposed to the elements is in the same situation.
While gazing up for a moment, I find out that the fore topmast and fore topgallant sails haven’t been fully stowed. This is obviously the work of less experienced hands. The crewmen are still up there, trembling shadows moving against intermittent flashes of light. Balancing on the wet footropes, the poor lads try to fix their mistakes as fast as possible. However, the wind is getting harsher by the minute, and they are having difficulties finishing their job.
With my vision blurred by gale and rain, I continue to supervise the sailors’ work from the deck. Soon, I notice two young crewmen near the main topgallant platform, working alone and having a lot of trouble untying the gaskets from the jackstay before stowing the topgallant sail. They are almost done with the starboard and are pushing hard to get quickly to the port side. Suddenly, the sailors stop and look upwards, visibly frightened. Above them, a diffuse green light surrounds the top of the mast and the edges of the royal’s yard.
This is a most unusual phenomenon. I want to examine it at a closer distance. Directed by the first lieutenant, all hands around me are busy with other urgent issues. Finishing unfurling the storm fore-topsail is one of them. The canvas hasn’t expanded in the wind. The sailors involved in the operation are moving frantically to fix its orientation. That’s why the captain wanted to test the new hands. This storm is the best exam he could find for them. The crew doesn’t need me on the deck anymore, so I decide to climb up the mainmast to investigate the unusual light. I’ll also use this opportunity to double-check how the upper sails are stowed.
Reaching the topgallant platform in this weather is a real challenge. I’m tossed back and forth like a rag doll by the powerful shakes of the ship. The high-amplitude rolling makes me hold the rigging tightly to prevent being thrown overboard. My boots are not so great for a good foothold on the ratlines, but they’ll have to do. I feel as if I were tied to a giant metronome. A metronome moving in fierce harmony with this deafening symphony of wind and water.
Soon, I arrive near the top, grab the futtock shrouds, and climb onto the narrow platform. I can see the scared faces of the crewmen within an arm’s length of me. They are just getting done stowing the sail. All the ship parts I can glimpse around dance chaotically under flashes of lightning. I take hold of the yard and step onto the footrope, double-checking the hands’ work and ignoring the glow from above.
“Looks fine! You may go back on the deck now!” I shout as loud as I can.
The youngsters seem to understand my words and slide down along the rigging. The rain continues to pour from above like a waterfall. I feel already giddy from the slow but ample rolling motion of Excelsior dancing on top of the waves. Yet, I manage to control my nausea without having to throw up. Anyway, my location is too high, too precarious to allow myself such weaknesses. I suppose “throw down” would be more appropriate, given the circumstances. Although, given the wind’s intensity, this wouldn’t be entirely true, either.
I’m doing a final check of the knots. They look tight enough. The light surrounding the top of the mast generates a tingling sensation on the crown of my head. I have climbed all the way here to investigate it, so I step higher on the ratlines, closer to the mysterious glow.
Down on the deck and close to the prow, five crewmen have just finished stowing other sails and got a few moments to breathe. They are looking in my direction, gesticulating and shouting something. With the ubiquitous roar of the storm, I can’t make out their words. I assume what they mean is something like: “St. Elmo’s fire!”
However, from what I have read in books or heard from the stories of a few sailors, I don’t remember St. Elmo’s fire appearing above a ship while it’s raining so heavily. In addition to this, people who saw it described its color as blue or violet, not green. And why is it not pushed away by wind and rain? Something is different here. As I continue to climb closer to it, the tingling sensation on the crown of my head intensifies.
Right at that moment, a flash of lightning strikes the top of the mast with an ear-shattering noise. I can feel its tremendous power through a wave of pain. The flame from above wraps tightly around me. Its surge of electricity passes through my skin, flesh, and bones. A taste of metal fills my mouth a moment later. My heart seems to stop for a moment, then resumes its hurried beating. My eardrums hurt from the violent bang. For a few long seconds, my muscles twitch in uncontrollable spasms. Then numbness fills up my body. I try to grab the cordage near me, but I’m not successful. My hands and feet are slipping off the ropes. I begin to fall towards the deck, slowly, like in a dream.
Sailing ships are rarely struck by lightning, yet this can still happen every once in a while. And this time, I happened to be in the wrong place, at the wrong time. You can call it bad luck stretched to the extreme. Here it is, all mine to enjoy.
While sliding down, I notice how everything has become quiet all of a sudden. The wind’s whipping has ceased. Large, almost spherical beads of water dripping from the yards float around me, descending in slow motion towards the deck. The bolt that has just hit me still surrounds my body with a faint glimmer. The waves around the ship look like unfinished glass sculptures, reflecting the yellow-blue light of several frozen lightning flashes. Black clouds are hanging above, like a giant carpet spread all the way to the horizon. And the green light still surrounds the top of the mast, unchanged.
From up here, the ship’s frame looks like a leaf tossed into a fuzzy maze of foamy water crests. My field of vision narrows like a tunnel. It closes to a dot as colors turn grayscale. The seascape surrounding me disappears, with the flow of time slowing down even more. The green halo of light expands and swallows me. I’m floating now, weightless, in the air. Wrapped in silence, I find myself in the middle of another scenery, in a different space and time.
It’s dark. It’s quiet. It’s comfortable. The pain is gone.
Soft shadows shroud me like a silk robe. A night view is unfolding before my eyes. There is a man in front of me, watching the night lights of a city. Seconds later, he walks away from them, stepping onto a narrow path bordered by oaks and maples. At the same time, I’m him and I’m myself, observing the scene from a short distance. My senses have become distorted. Apparently, what I’m experiencing now was triggered by this flash of lightning.
Like a mirror reflecting itself… What would it show?