Proteus on the Vasa | Rebecca Rotert-Shaw


I’m trying to pack for Sweden. I have trouble. I don’t go anywhere much anymore. When I was younger, I just slipped out of my world and dumped myself in another. I always had my tent in the back of my Jeep, and a bedroll. Cereal and dry milk in a Tupperware. Now I’m standing here going, White shirt or blue?

A year ago my father disappeared for an entire day and turned up that night in a pizza shop. The pizza shop called me. When I got there he said, I didn’t know where I was. We looked at each other a long time. His eyes said, I know I’m losing my mind. I took my tent and bedroll out of the back of my Jeep.

Now my life’s all about waiting. For the phone to ring. For anything to happen. As if my being there at a moment’s notice is really important. I stay available because truth is, I’m pulling away. More and more I find excuses to avoid seeing him. I’m acting out a version of the sentence everyone says and nobody means: If you need anything, let me know.

I lay some dresses out on the bed and look at them. Guilt fills the room like a gas leak. This is my hard time: choosing a dress. While my mother is heart-broken ten miles away and my father stares down unimaginable terrors. No part of my life is untouched by this reality. It is a film that settles on everything.

I find a beaded purse of my mother’s from the 50’s and I pack it. Surely she carried this on some date with my dad. She would remember if I asked. Because once they started loving each other, they never stopped. Nothing stopped them until this. I take the purse out of my suitcase. I can’t carry this with me to another country, all of this history. I call mother to say goodbye. Go. Enjoy. Forget, she says.

We explore Stockholm with another couple. I stare at every building, window, square; I pretend I’m a woman wandering with her love and her friends, not a daughter who is failing the people she loves most.

One day we go to the Vasa Museum, dedicated solely to a recovered warship. I wouldn’t have chosen this place if I were alone but I go happily because it will consume my attention.

The Vasa sank on her maiden voyage. She trolled in all her majesty from Skeppsgarden shipyard, past the old city of Gamla Stan and toward the sea. Her gun ports were wide open in preparation for a salute to Stockholm. A breeze filled the sails and she leaned but righted herself. Another breeze came and she tipped again. Water rushed the gun ports, the ballast shifted and the ship went down, 120 meters from the shore. There were 64 cannons aboard, 145 sailors, 300 soldiers, enough food and drink for eons, musicians for entertainment. The vessel was adorned with endless elaborate carvings honoring the King Gustav, Gods and Goddesses of all ranks and order, potent figures in mythology. The Vasa was prepared for absolutely everything. Except, of course, a light breeze brushing into the harbor like a hand under a skirt.

Modern science has made it possible to determine endless details about this 17th century ship – just shy of 3 million pounds and 300 feet long – from the pigments used to paint the statues to the age of the deck hand with the broken nose. But what we don’t yet know is how such a grand aesthetic achievement could be married so disastrously to such profound technical failure. The gap between the two is a mystery as I climb one level after another of the museum, peering into gun ports and into the mouths of carved lion heads.

Toward the bow of the ship is a statue of King Gustav, muscled and huge, standing on a lion. Also on the lion’s head, just in front of Gustav’s formidable feet, a dog plays, nipping at the lion’s ear. The lion and Gustav, a nearby text informs me, represent patience with and mercy for the weak.

There are countless images of Proteus along the hull, his upper body male, his lower body serpent. He is the God of the sea and an oracle but he’ll avoid telling the future by transmuting into something else – lion, leopard, tree, pig. He will reveal the truth only to those clever enough to catch him and keep him in all his various forms. I stare at the curling beard, stout chest, and whipping tail and wonder if Proteus is truth itself – complicated and chameleonic – and only those able to hold it, no matter what form it takes, can keep it.

I suddenly remember when I was younger and occasionally courted, such as it was. Inevitably, my father would shake his head and say, he can’t handle you. And as for the way roles slowly turn around with parents and children, I’m saddened by my inability to hold him, to handle him, as he changes shape. It’s what he did for me, continue to hold me no matter what, and I owe him the same even as I know that nothing has taught me how to do this, how to stop longing to be held so that I can be present to him, as he is, right now.


My uncles, learned men, used to correct dad’s grammar. We are standing around the kitchen, the whole family, and dad is telling a wonderful, terrifying story about the sea. We was going real slow, he says, and an uncle says, were. We WERE going… Dad finishes his story, or an abbreviated version of it, and over time, he keeps quiet in their company. The rage I feel is potent. Men are divided into two groups in my adolescent mind and I take sides with my dad and I vow to never use my mind against anyone.

In a rush of adolescent heat, I told the uncles to stop it or else. Or I think I did; it could be.a fantasy I’ve given myself.

I study a model cross section of the boat that illuminates the reason it sank. An enormous ship with enough ballast for, say, a fishing skiff.

The uncles would have made a beautiful ship. My father’s ship would not sink. I think about different kinds of men, and different kinds of power. The uncles had a keen hold on beauty and elegance and propriety whereas Dad understood the structure of things. I often felt myself pulled between them, my loyalty shifty.

Dad was ballast. Some men just are. These are the kind of men I’ve loved all my life. I know how far I can lean – where my sadness and anger can take me, how my sexual desires can overwhelm and retreat and mutate, how my mind can take me over and in the same day go dead blank. I have met men, been loved by them even, who I felt I could love back so long as I avoided this far-leaning, which I believed would terrify them. These were the men I left, or never took up with at all.

Our attraction to men with power has nothing to do with them. We love them because they appear to have the ballast we need in order to be fully alive without tipping over, and sinking.


King Gustav inspired some of the most beautiful artistry ever fashioned for a sea vessel. There are 500 statues adorning the ship. He did not, however, inspire his subordinates to tell him the truth, like about how the ship was unfit to sail. In other words, have mercy on the weak but do not listen to what they have to say.

Another problem: Just because a man’s power gives us ballast, doesn’t mean we can tell him the truth.

Three years before I will get sober, I’m sitting in Dad’s office, across from him, and I’m shaking because I’m both terrified and sick. I want to tell him the mess I’ve gotten into with drugs. I’ve decided I have to tell him because he’s the only person I know strong enough to help me. What’s going on? He asks. He’s looking over papers and plans on his desk, leaning forward in his big chair. He loves work. He loves problems. The worst-case scenarios thrill him. He might put everything on the line today, the houses, the other properties, for some potential boon and he loves it. He wins, he loses, he stays afloat. He scares the shit out of my mother with his recklessness but she knows, deep down inside, that he’ll come out on top.

I’m addicted to drugs. I’ve stolen money from you. I can’t stop. I hate it but I can’t stop. Look at me. Help me, I want to say but I just can’t. To this day I don’t know whether or not he knew. When it came to what he knew and didn’t know, he could be cloudy. There were whole regions of his person I would never see clearly. It’s easy to imagine him being oblivious and equally easy to imagine him saying to himself, she’ll figure it out.

I look at a large diorama of the ship’s recovery in 1961. It took years and must have felt impossible. This is a bit of the narrative I love the most. I’m a little in love with this Anders Franzen, who spent his adult life poking around the sea for shipwrecks. I have to be. I get spending years and years trying to pull a sunken ship from the depths, of facing impossibility every single day.

In the end they were able to slide cables under the ship and lift it from its grave. Sobriety feels like this. Writing feels like this. If I let go of the cables for a minute, forget my job, the ship goes down. It is simultaneously my sentence and my purpose.

In my mind I underline parts of this story to take home to Dad. We will talk about ships. He’ll get enough information to teach me something I might not know and his knowledge will mutate into my metaphors and I’ll know myself more, the world more. I’ll tell him about the mythological figures and the history he never studied. This is how we are. We are from two different worlds and he struggled like hell in his so that he might deliver me to mine and as adults, we give freely of what we have with a thrilling amount of respect. We will have our lessons and then move on to the good stuff – to the kind of large-scale human failure that is so appealing because it temporarily dwarfs our own.

This plan enters, blooms in a matter of seconds, and is shut down when I remember that we won’t have this talk, that they are a thing of the past, not to be exhumed. The facts I’d underlined, the questions and connections float away once I realize they have nowhere to go. They drift aimlessly, slowly moving to the place in memory where insignificant bits get sunk.

I want to tell my boyfriend all this but my throat tightens at the thought. I feel alone in this. Like I’ve already talked too much about it. Like I should be further along by now.

Standing in a case is a diving suit. I stare at it, into the dark orb of the diving bell where I can only see my own reflection. I’ll tell him anyway. He hasn’t forgotten his days on the ship. The ship will be there for him, ready and accessible, floating still. He can at least talk about that.


I am gone twelve days. In the time I’m away Dad begins to lose syntax. Words float, cut loose from the bounds of order, and come out rearranged.

I sit with Mom and Dad and tell them about the trip. I’m eager to talk about the Vasa, to drop a bridge between what I have in my mind today and what Dad has left in his. He watches me talk. There is no recognition on his face. I talk about sails, size, ballast, about the sinking, the recovery, the enormous mistakes, watching him all the while, waiting for something to register but nothing does. He has changed into a shape I cannot capture, cannot know, his history and future no longer his, but that of this new shape. You would have loved it, Dad, I tell him. He blinks.

Rebecca Rotert-Shaw received her MA from Hollins College in Virginia where she was the recipient of the Academy of American Poets prize. Her poetry and essays have appeared in Santa Clara Review, America magazine, Hospital Drive Journal of Literature and Humanities, and Temenos journal. She lives in Omaha, NE.  


  1. Janine lackey Yordy

    Rebecca! How I have thought of you and missed you through the years. Not surprised to read what a beautiful writer you’ve become. Please email, I’d love to be in touch, Janine lackey

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