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Unexpected Grace

For the 3 am Challenge

By John CoxPublished 5 days ago Updated 3 days ago 8 min read
Top Story - June 2024
Other than the wind rustling the sails or the waves pounding the hull, nothing other than the strike of the Cat's cruel tails could be heard over my shrieks and moans.

I keep my eyes tightly shut for several moments as I try to shake the stinging liquid from my head. But still I open them a little too soon, the burn of the uric acid blurring my gaze with tears. Forgetting that my hands remain bound, I flinch involuntarily when I try to reach up to rub my eyes and my hand and arm fail to move as intended.

Then everything begins to fragment, the searing pain from my flayed back blissfully numbing as the sound of the wind furiously snapping the sails above me diminishes into airy silence and the fleeting memory of my wife staring down at me from the rigging fades with it.

Time passes so slowly my awareness is little more than subtext. I lie stiffly on my stomach for a long time without realizing how profoundly uncomfortable my position is. It is only then that I finally realize I have awakened and everything preceding this single moment in time was dream.

One eye half open and one shut, I try to blink my surroundings into focus, but the only working eye refuses to focus. The other simply fails to open at all. It has gotten harder and harder to transition from sleep to wakefulness as I have aged or even to simply shift a little for comfort’s sake.

Slow to realize that my arms are crossed and pinned under my chest, I wonder how long I slept this way. It was clearly longer than I might have wished. Flopping onto my back, my arms slide helplessly to my sides as I lay for a few painful minutes waiting for my circulation to return feeling and movement again.

I'm usually not one to record my dreams. But the one that woke me up this morning felt profound. If today had been a workday, I probably would have forgotten it and gone about my business. Dragging myself out of bed, I decide to turn on my computer and record the dream while it’s still fresh.

Go ahead and write it down. At least you did not awaken until it ended for once. Kind of amazing really. For sixty-eight years you have fought me tooth and nail, your body flailing in your dreams as if still awake in your bed, sleep paralysis be damned. Every time I have placed you in this dream, no matter how I shaped it, you have managed to wake yourself long before you might have learned something.

Even when you were just a little guy, you fought back for all your skinny frame was worth.

I guess I should be happy. You actually slept through to the dream’s ending. Does this mean the lesson will finally stick? Or are we doomed to keep repeating the same stupid dance again and again?

The dream felt familiar somehow. Had I dreamt it before? I had certainly experienced dreams like it in the past. Everything going swimmingly until an unexpected confrontation turns happiness into horror.

Swimmingly? Really? Do you even think about your word selection? You hate to swim. I’ll bet you don’t even remember why.

They held you under the water till you needed air so badly that you opened your mouth and the chlorinated water flooded in. These were kids you called friends. How many times did you let them punch and pinch and gouge you without ever fighting back? But as the water poured into your mouth it suddenly felt like so much more than the bullying you had endured week after week, month after month.

It felt like life and death.

Your little fists flew under that water like a fury, and a moment later they let go and your head popped above the surface like a cork. They teased you for overreacting and called you names as you walked out of the pool to dry off and ride your bike home. You should have learned the lesson then and there.

But you have chosen to believe a lie about yourself that no dream or nightmare has ever shaken, no matter how often repeated.

In the moment, the dream, as they often do, seemed to make no sense at all. Its most striking feature was its almost surreal beauty.

I remember the sapphire vault of the sky above me, the clouds skirting the horizon's edge lit with fire and light. The deck beneath my feet still gleamed from the morning scrubbing. Never could I have imagined that such vistas belonged in the world of dreams. Even the detailed filigree carved into the deck rails and the hundreds of ropes bracing the ship's masts testified that I was awake and alert. The experience did not give me cause to believe otherwise until the dream came to its strange and impossible conclusion.

I stood on the deck of a ship of the line, a battleship from the glory days of wooden decked ocean-going vessels at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Although the roll of the waves was not what a true sailor would have described as heavy seas, the swells were high enough that as the ship rode down into each deep trough, it reminded me of the catch in my stomach I had experienced when jumping blindfolded in full combat gear off a five-meter diving board.

I'm not a sailor by any reasonable definition of the term. I was a soldier in uniform for more than twenty years. But I am familiar with many traditions of the Navy because I taught as a visiting Army instructor at the U.S. Naval Academy.

And yet, in the dream I wore the uniform of a U.S. Naval officer from the early eighteen hundreds as the ship's crew waited for Sunday morning Captain's Mast.

The captain serves as judge and jury at the Mast for infractions committed by members of the crew. Although more informal than a Court Martial, in the early nineteenth century the captain enjoyed fairly wide latitude in punishments imposed.

I write all this only to preface what happened next.

The lead up to the confrontation. Ordinarily you are so predictable. When you have recognized the threat in the past, it has always led to fight or flight.

But this time you did neither. You stood at attention as the charges were read. Maybe the old soldier in you took over. Or maybe it was because there was nowhere left to turn save for the sea.

"You are accused of dereliction of duty," the captain said sharply, "How do you plead?"

"When and how was I derelict," I answered querulously.

"If you had paid attention to your duties, you might have noticed," he replied angrily. "How do you plead?"

"But I wish to know the specifics of the charge."

"Enter not guilty in the log on his behalf and call the witnesses," the captain replied wearily.

"Is the accused's family present? Yes? Please approach the Mast."

Unaware that my wife and children were present shipboard and participating in the Mast, I briefly lost my composure and gave them a pleading glance as they stonily passed me by.

"Do you verify your husband's gross dereliction of duty?"

"I accuse," my wife stated firmly. I began to feel ill.

Turning to face our children, the Captain asked them - "Do you verify your father's criminal negligence?"

"We accuse," they answered in solemn unison.

The captain dismissed them with a wave of his hand and the three of them turned and marched away without so much as a glance.

Returning his attention to me, the captain continued, "You heard your accusers. What have you to say in your defense?"

"Without knowing the nature and details of the charge, how can I defend against it?"

"Very well. I find you guilty." I stared at him in wide-eyed horror. "Do any here wish to speak on your behalf with matters of extenuation or mitigation?"

"No one?"

I swallowed hard but did not answer. Who could I call now?

"Very well. Strip him to the waist and tie him to the mast. Ten lashes with the Cat, boatswain."

I felt the blood drain from my face.

The boatswain removed my jacket, his face emotionless, and then stripped me of my shirt. Motioning to the mast, I embraced it, my bare chest sticky with sweat as it pressed against the hard, cold wood. He tied my hands together at the wrists with a length of hemp cord.

Picking up the thick handle of the cat, he shook it a few times to better separate its nine tails, each knotted at the end to inflict the maximum tearing of flesh. And then he leaned back to deliver the first blow.

I steeled myself for it, but when I felt the knots press into my back prior to ripping free with a snap of the boatswain's wrist, I bit through my tongue. As the blows continued to raise welts and tear my flesh, I heard someone crying out in sympathetic pain and then beginning to weep aloud. The voice I heard was mine.

Other than the wind rustling the sails, the waves pounding the hull and the strike of the Cat's cruel tails, nothing else could be heard over my shrieks and moans.

After the tenth blow fell and I stifled my final sob, I lifted my head in hope that the punishment had ended. That's when the boatswain threw a bucket of sea water across my back and the harsh bite of the salt in my wounds caused me to jerk my head against the mast and break my nose.

And after all of that, miracle of miracles, you still slept. After decades of dodging every dream's consequence, you finally faced one down.

But there was another punishment in the offing, a seemingly pointless and grotesque indignity. At the captain's command, my wife climbed into the rigging, her petticoats rustling as she moved higher and higher above me. I looked up at her in horror as she exposed herself. Staring down at me, she tried to speak, her lips moving soundlessly in the howling wind.

Then she squatted and I ducked my head and closed my eyes in anticipation of her cascading urine. But when it reached me, it did not splatter or stream. It came down like a flood from the heavens, the urine hitting me with such force that I slid down the mast to my knees. And still it continued to rain down in such a torrent that I struggled to breathe. Every part of my anatomy was soaked as if her womb held within it the storehouse of the mighty sea itself.

I kept my eyes shut for several moments as I tried to shake the stinging liquid from my hair. But I still opened them a little too soon, the burn of uric acid blurring my gaze with tears.

I stop typing and stare at the computer screen numbly for several moments. I can still see my wife's lips moving soundlessly as my tears slide down my cheeks.

In the stillness of the moment, I abruptly realize what she had tried to tell me as her lips moved soundlessly - "I baptize you; I forgive you.”

How many times has she told me, 'We only ever dream about ourselves.'

In the distance I hear the faint echo of a voice so still and small, it feels like it traveled an enormous distance to reach me.

What is the message of the dream, John?

"I accuse myself," I whisper in answer.

What are you going to do about it?

As the tears well again within my eyes, I smile and remember her lips moving with unexpected grace.


About the Creator

John Cox

Family man, grandfather, retired soldier and story teller with an edge.

Reader insights


Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!

Top insights

  1. Compelling and original writing

    Creative use of language & vocab

  2. Easy to read and follow

    Well-structured & engaging content

  3. Excellent storytelling

    Original narrative & well developed characters

  1. Eye opening

    Niche topic & fresh perspectives

Add your insights

Comments (36)

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  • Mark Gagnonabout 5 hours ago

    Sorry, I missed this earlier. I've been busy looking for a place to live which is taking much longer than it should. Enough about me. That was a great story, captivating from beginning to end. Congratulations on Top Story!

  • JBazabout 12 hours ago

    Congratulations on first place I cannot think of a better person to come in second too.

  • Nathal Nortanabout 24 hours ago

    John, that's a good piece, thanks for everything.

  • Hannah Moorea day ago

    I love the morphing of humiliation to baptismal cleansing in the heart of the other.

  • Anna 2 days ago

    Oh, wow John! Congrats on Top story!

  • Your storytelling captivated me from the very beginning. The way you intricately wove together the elements of mystery, emotion, and ultimately, redemption, truly showcased your talent as a writer. Each character felt vivid and alive, their struggles and triumphs resonating with authenticity. Moreover, the theme of unexpected grace deeply resonated with me. Your exploration of how moments of kindness and understanding can transform lives left a lasting impression, reminding me of the power of compassion in our own lives. Your prose flowed effortlessly, drawing me deeper into the narrative with each passing paragraph. I found myself eagerly turning the pages, eager to uncover the next twist in the plot and discover how the characters' journeys would unfold. Thank you for sharing your gift with the world through "Unexpected Grace." It's evident that you poured your heart and soul into crafting this story, and the result is nothing short of magnificent. I look forward to reading more of your work in the future and witnessing the magic you create with your words.

  • Lamar Wiggins2 days ago

    So many words come to mind after reading this. If had to whittle it down to just one, I think I would go with Brilliant!!! I always seem to learn more about writing while reading your work. Whether it's sentence structure or the unique ways of inserting descriptions, I find myself not only reading to experience the words but to also study the ways they were conveyed. Great entry, John! Ps: I wonder what the deep-seeded symbolization behind the flood of urine is🤔. It took me by surprise, lol.

  • Back to say congrats on your TS,.

  • Khan3 days ago

    Congratulations on the top story.

  • Cindy Calder3 days ago

    Interesting read. Congratulations on the Top Story.

  • Rachel Deeming3 days ago

    This was unsettling. The grasping of a dream to retell it is always tricky, I think but this is grimly and vividly evoked. We are our own worst critics but we should be our own best friends. I'm just glad you're back storytelling and what a return. I like the way that you have the dream's cognition too. That is an interesting touch. I've just reviewed a book where the author does this with a curse which is timely. I often find these echoes in life.

  • Ameer Bibi3 days ago

    Truly a beautiful read Facilitation for your win

  • Back to say congratulations on your Top Story! 🎉💖🎊🎉💖🎊

  • Rachel S3 days ago

    nice job!

  • Cathy holmes3 days ago

    Congrats on the TS.

  • angela hepworth3 days ago

    Amazingly written — congrats on Top Story!

  • L.C. Schäfer3 days ago

    Well done on the TS!

  • Kendall Defoe 3 days ago


  • D.K. Shepard3 days ago

    Congrats on Top Story, John!! Well deserved!

  • JBaz3 days ago

    So glad this was pick as a top story Congratulation

  • Babs Iverson3 days ago

    Impressively penned!!! ❤️❤️💕Congratulations on Top Story!!!

  • Christy Munson3 days ago

    Congratulations on Top Story, John! 🥳 I haven't had time to read this one yet, but I will return to do so and will comment fully then. Again, congratulations!

  • Andrea Corwin 3 days ago

    Jesus H! I…although I loved the detail, I Hated the cruelty. I can only wonder if your wife read this🤔 Incredible details. I believe we have lessons in life we must learn or they repeat. The baptism by the wife was … shocking. (I know others here liked it but I did not) The whip on the cat-o-nine tails was vivid and then more cruelty with the salt water. And your description was of Army yet Navy captain judge and asking for your crime - so realistic (as you know, I would get this somewhat). This will garner lots of attention here. Incredible details, writing, evokes many emotions!! Bravo you have a roused the Vocal group again, my friend. ❣️❣️❣️❣️

  • Oh, John, this is incredible. I think you have outdone yourself! I You should also look for an outside outlet, a literary magazine, although it's a fabulous entry for the challenge. The dreamlike quality interwoven with real life, the shock of the baptism, and that dreams untether our deep feelings about ourselves is perfectly wonderful work. Bravo!

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