Archive for November, 2013

12 Years a Slave

12-years-a-slave-egifior

Do you remember that a few years after Schindler’s List, Steven Spielberg made a film about the middle passage called Amistad. It seemed as though Spielberg was intent on doing for slavery with that film what his Oscar-winning magnum opus had done for the Holocaust–offer it the perfect, most wrenchingly true rendering in cinema possible. Amistad, though, failed to carry the resonance of its predecessor.

12 Years a Slave is the film that Amistad wanted to be.

If you’ve followed the film’s publicity at all, then you already know that it’s an early Oscar favorite. About that, I will only say that not only does Chiwetel Ejiofor deserve a best actor statue, but so does Lupita Nyong’o for her portrayal of the young slave Patsy.

Steve McQueen has produced a powerful film here and, like Schindler’s List, it is one that perhaps everyone should experience because it serves as a reminder of the importance of empathy–of its primacy in any valid moral or ethical system. Throughout the film there are many characters whose consciences tell them that slavery is wrong, but because of the strictures of Southern society and their own weaknesses of character, they do nothing to help Solomon Northup who has been abducted and sold into bondage despite being legally a free man. Of course, all of the enslaved characters were rightfully free, and the film reminds us that any code that denies that universal truth–whether it’s the Old Testament scriptures quoted by the deranged slave owner played by Michael Fassbender or the law of the land that reduced human beings to property–is destined to suffer the judgment of history.

As Alfre Woodard’s character tells us in the film, “In good time, the Lord’ll manage ‘em all…The sorrow of the pharaohs is no match for what awaits the plantation class.”

We should remember that while the institution of slavery is dead, it nevertheless continues to exist in our time in many forms, as do countless other injustices, from racial bias in our legal system to rampant inequality caused by globalization, and if we mean to be people of conscience, we must never quail from speaking and acting against these affronts to human dignity–lest we become those cursed by history.

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Flotsam & Jetsam (Part IV, final entry)

This is the latest entry in my ongoing NaNoWriMo novel. To read the novel in order, view the NaNoWriMo category (link to the left) and scroll down. Or you can go to the first entry here.

 

At dawn, he sliced off a block of ice from the edge of the glacier and, carrying it with the gloves, brought it over to serve as a platter for the remaining seal steaks he carved out of the body. He threw the last of the fuel on the fire, stoking it to a strong blaze again, and pulled off the seal skin mitts to warm his hands. Before throwing his last wooden bowl onto the rest of the kindling, he melted a piece of ice in it and drank it down. The fire lasted through the morning, and when it was spent, he climbed back aboard the skiff and returned to the ship.

Onboard, he set the ice block with the meat on the deck, counting on the freezing air to preserve both. Even after the meal and the night by the fire, he did not have the strength to lift the skiff back onto the deck, so he left it tethered at the side and pulled up the anchor.

The wind continued to press him to the contours of the glacier and he sailed along its border until the sun began to dip again below the horizon. With the last glimmers of twilight, he swung south in a zig-zagging course to put some distance between him and the shore. He locked the rudder and went below decks to sleep.

The wagers he was making now were based on absurd improbabilities. Leaving the ship in motion as he slept increased the minuscule odds that he might reach a human settlement or encounter a fishing expedition, but it also heightened the probability that the ship would collide with something—a rocky outcropping or the glacier itself—while he dozed. Under any other circumstances, it would be an insane gamble, but he was not deluding himself about his chances. Time was his enemy; safety would likely only delay the inevitable.

So he was not surprised when, at some point in the night, he woke suddenly.

He was not sure what had unsettled him from his sleep. If his senses had recorded anything—a sound or sudden jarring of the hull—then it had passed out of his memory. Still, something had woken him and it left him anxious. He sat up on the wide bunk, pulling the bedding toward him. As soon as he dropped his feet over the edge of the bunk, he felt a deathly cold grab at his feet.

The ship was flooding.

The damage to his feet was done, so he charged through the rising water toward the hatch. He thought enough to snatch the container of freshwater he had collected during the storm on his way out. As he climbed the steps toward the deck, he could tell the ship was sinking bow first. He clambered out of the hatch and recoiled from the edge of the water swallowing the forward sections of the ship.

Rushing, he pulled himself up along the cleats and other handholds until he was at the rope ladder flapping against the hull. With the mittens still wrapped around his fingers, it took him a moment to lower himself and get his foot hooked into the side of the skiff and use his leg to pull it nearer.

He lowered himself into the boat and watched as the sea consumed the ship. He fumbled with the knife to cut the line. As he freed the skiff, though, he lost grip of the knife and it dropped into the sea. He sat back in defeat, holding himself in a ball in the back of the boat as the ship went down. Even in the dark, he tried to hold the sight of her, the fleeting contours of the cabin, the sudden revelation of the rudder rising up from the black sea. She turned at the end, exposing her keel like a grasping palm raised into the air, reaching for the ineffable.

He took up the oars and paddled past the bubbling rectangle in the water marking the ship’s long plunge downward. Finally he saw a translucent shape shimmering in the starlight. A small iceberg with only a short cap above the surface had punctured the ship’s side. He tried for a moment to summon some antipathy toward the thing, but none would come, so he rowed on into the night, pushing against the currents. Now he would have to find another bit of shore, like the seals’ beach, and camp there, likely burning the skiff in pieces to stay alive through the coldest nights. The smoke might attract someone.

By morning, he pulled the oars in and rested. The glacier now hung on the horizon as a sliver of white glistening under the rising sun. Hours passed. His mind moved without order, confusing memory and regret. Here, the figures of his recent past strolled through the same corridors in the manor over the sea, the cliff-side estate he knew he had never seen save from a distance, but which now was rendered real as a sanctuary for the boy, the client and his wife, the midwife and her daughter. They faded, losing themselves in hallways and wandering away from verandas, leaving him alone in the desolate chambers of the empty house, which grew dimmer moment by moment as the cold subsumed the mansion with creeping tendrils. He saw his own actions from outside himself, watching the impulsive launch into the sea and his lonely sojourn after fleeing the jungle delta as if they had taken place concurrently. He imagined slipping the gauntlet of the closing storm, finding a safe cove on his maps and plotting his escape before the weather turned too foul. He wondered, at last, whether the girl had cast his charts and navigational equipment into the sea out of spite, perhaps the night he had chased her off the dock, or if, later, she had meant it to keep him from ever leaving.

And he wondered about her mother, too, if she somehow felt his approaching death, if it for even a moment reached into her, found her late in the dark of night, her eyes clenched tight over tears, and made her think of him.

The world blurred away and he fell asleep, wrapped in the death stench of the sealskin and bereft of any real hope.

He opened his eyes inside a peculiar dream.

The sky was solid. And near.

Just overhead, bone-like clouds passed by in ridges. Glassy reflections cascaded through cyan thunderheads frozen into arches around him.

He blinked and turned his head. He was supine in a coffin. The world was a tunnel drifting around him. He smiled.

Only in time did he realize that he was still in the skiff, floating through a cavern of ice. In the night, the currents had swept him into a crevice in the glacier, and then deeper through fissures carved by meltwater. He sat up and breathed in from the still air around him. Smooth tunnels cut through the glacier like the branches of an ant colony rendered in blue and white. There must have been daylight somewhere above, filtering down in stray beams through the mass of ice overhead, but that world was remote and unreachable. The place was simple, vastly more simple than any environment he had ever encountered. There was only the ice and the water—and a thin channel of air between them. It was not quite a labyrinth. If the tide had pushed him in, then he would be able to paddle back along one of the two branches behind him and reach the open ocean again, continue his maddening struggle to find land, or food, or other souls.

He looked down one of the passages that seemed likely to open up to the sea, perhaps just around the bend, just past the glassy arch of the tunnel wall.

He did not reach for the oar.

He lay back, adjusted the alignment of his back against the thwart and tightened the seal-skin covering around him.

 

THE END

 

Flotsam & Jetsam (Part IV, fourth entry)

This is the latest entry in my ongoing NaNoWriMo novel. To read the novel in order, view the NaNoWriMo category (link to the left) and scroll down. Or you can go to the first entry here.

 

He saw each breath as a cloud of tightly packed steam, desperate to hold itself together in the frigid air. He kept his hands off the wheel, shoving them under the outermost layers of his clothing between adjustments to his course. The cold was penetrating those layers; bulwark by bulwark, his defenses were falling.

As he passed, he examined the wall of ice. At times there seemed to be an architectural unity to its layers, proof of the divine hand, while others it seemed almost sinister in its desolation. Looking at it, it could have once been a perfect prism, beaten and chipped now by age. How long could such a thing take to form? How many human beings had walked out on the roof of this plane of pure ice and been consumed by it, entombed as motes in its enormity. For a moment he convinced himself he saw just such a speck, a human shape preserved between glass sheets of ice weighing as much as mountains, some pilgrim from innumerable generations before preserved dutifully as mankind’s ambassador to some future epoch when the glacier would split and its secrets would be left open to spoil and decay in the merciless atmosphere.

His body shook. He was left with no palatable options. Reversing course and turning south would be interminable, but continuing on at this latitude was an exercise in moronic optimism.

He continued on.

At the edge of his vision, that optimism was rewarded. There was a stony black shore extending out from the edge of the glacier and it was writhing with motion. As he closed on it, he saw that the barren shore was populated by a host of bulbous gray-skinned seals, roosting in the afternoon sunlight.

He dropped anchor and brought the ship to a stop as near to the beach as possible. With such a pathetic sail tugging against the anchor line, he did not even bother to trim it. Flipping the skiff and getting it in the water proved difficult with his injured arm and brittle fingertips. When he finally managed and the little boat plopped into the water, he noticed that the tip of the smallest finger on his left hand was turning black. He tried to ignore the surge of panic the spot of dead tissue brought and focus himself. His descent had to be carefully managed. A slip or a haphazard step could plunge him into the water. If that happened, it would not even matter that he was too weak to pull himself back into the skiff or too wounded to swim to shore. The water would damn him instantly; he would never be able to restore the heat to his body. He thought about that heat, about the ebbing flame inside him as he stood at the gunwale, considering his descent. He looked at the distance to the shore and considered the extent of his exhaustion. He left the skiff tied on at the side and went below where he rummaged through the storage compartments and created a pile of stray material by the hatch. Eyeing it, and finding it wanting, he kicked at the little table in the galley, smashing the beam holding it in place and hurling it all in the pile. He did not stop there, though. He pulled shelves from the wall. He rifled through the cabins, eventually smashing the bunk in his room and throwing the wood toward the hatch.

It took him several trips to transport the scrap to the skiff, where he tossed it into the open hull. He then made one quick survey of the deck, checking the compartment there and throwing a few more items overboard before starting down the rope ladder. Delicately, he dangled his foot off the last rung until he had firm purchase on the lower-most strakes of the boat. Then, keeping his weight on his uninjured arm, he lowered himself further.

He rowed toward the stony shelf of land, careful not to splash as he approached. He winced as the keel of the boat crunched against the smooth ebony stones on the shore, but the animals did not react. He climbed out slowly and pulled the skiff up the rocks behind him to make sure it would not drift away.

As he stepped closer to the brood, one of the females let out a warning wail to the others. Most of the seal squirmed enough to watch him, but none slithered toward the water. There was a bull on the other side of the group, close to the water. He raised his snout and honked in the Boatman’s direction. In response, he hunched lower to the ground to seem less intimidating. A few of the cows began to writhe away from him in simmering distrust, but most remained placidly in their ruts.

He chose the one he wanted and inched toward it, reaching to his belt and drawing out the knife. His target was a fat female, her thick, brown-speckled skin bulging out around her as she sunned herself. Her head was pointed away, but the rest of her body was twisted toward the sea, exposing the area where her skull met her spine.

He leapt onto her and plunged the knife into that spot. To his disappointment, it was not enough. She barked in terror and the whole colony of seals became instantly agitated. Many flopped toward the sea, while the heart of the group wriggled into a tight formation, facing outward and vocalizing. The big bull made a few token lunges in his direction, but he clearly had no intention of endangering himself to protect the wounded female.

She flopped wildly, trying to shake the Boatman. He hung fast with his good arm and used his injured arm like a dead weight, bringing the knife down again and again into the seal’s neck.

Finally the fountain of blood stopped with her fight. His hands actually felt better slicked with her warm blood. The other seals calmed as he began to skin her—a not insubstantial task. He was not familiar with these animals and it took him several careful cuts to gauge how deeply to slice in order to pull the pulpy blubber away with the skin without rupturing any of the organs.

He cut the skin into a cloak and dug out the bones from her flippers to make crude mittens.

As the sun descended to the edge of the sky, he prepared a fire near his kill. At first modest, he continued to add fuel from the supply of wood he had brought with him until it was a roaring blaze. He knew the fuel would not last that way, but his body demanded more heat and he told himself a fairy tale that once he had thoroughly warmed himself, his new seal skin would protect him from further deathly chills.

In the heat of the fire, the seal’s hide began to smell of death, and the fumes almost made him gag and expel the meal of thick, fatty meat he had cooked on a stone by the fire. He held it down through sheer will.

During the night the other animals made bleating sounds and occasionally advanced near enough for him to sea their black eyes reflecting the glow of his fire, but they always retreated from him and took warmth from each other instead of the blaze. As he waited for sleep, he continued peering through the black at the dimly illuminated shape of the wounded ship. Though he had food and more protection against the unforgiving cold, he knew that his odds of survival were still negligible. The ease with which the animal had allowed itself to be killed was actually a dark omen for him. These creatures were not used to be hunted by man. He could try staying on the island, slaughter more of the seals and burn their carcasses for warmth, but knowing that no hunters were likely to happen upon him, that course would only buy him a few days.

Or he could take to the sea again.

Flotsam & Jetsam (Part IV, third entry)

This is the latest entry in my ongoing NaNoWriMo novel. To read the novel in order, view the NaNoWriMo category (link to the left) and scroll down. Or you can go to the first entry here.

 

He half-woke, delirious, several times. His dreams had offered no respite, landing him in the gaping, toothed maws of whirlpools, creatures of sailor lore dancing in rings about his doomed ship. As the boards were plucked away by the wind, he saw that the ship was a living thing, a leviathan in wooden armor, and the storm was stripping away its protection, leaving only naked, vulnerable skin, unsullied as the moment of creation. From these nightmares he would sit up, mumble and lay back down, the exhaustion holding him. 

When he finally regained consciousness, the sounds clanging against the hull left him no hope that the storm had finished with the ship. He did not bother to even leave the bunk. His arm and wrist were swollen and red, but if he was careful not to move, they did not disturb him, so he decided to let himself drift back to sleep. 

The next time he rose to his feet and went to the galley to check the view through the ports. Outside remained a static gray, the only feature of the world he could discern was the wavy refraction of water running over the glass. He found a bucket in the back storage closet and relieved himself in it before crawling back to the bunk. 

It was not so easy to force himself to sleep again. He could only listen to the ravages of the storm outside. It was a miracle the glass in the galley had not been smashed, and more fortunate still that the hatch was holding its seal against the water so well. Dimly, he reached for the wall and patted the outer hull, praising the ship quietly for its resilience. He considered his priorities as he lay there. The sail would have to be repaired. He hoped that it had remained coiled around the mast. If not, there was a shabby replacement—the original cloth that had hung from the mast when he had first acquired the ship—in the large storage compartment on deck, buried beneath the tackle, spare oars, and a dozen other tools. Once the sail was restored, he would have to find some kind of bearing. He needed the storm to give him some peace for that. Without a clear night, he would have no hope of ascertaining anything about his whereabouts. Even then, without charts he would be relying on nothing more than memory. Still, with a decent wind and a clear vector it should be enough to find a port. He had enough money then for complete repairs. With decent weather, he could fish enough to stay alive along the way. 

Water, though.

He bolted upright. Heading out again, he retrieved a wide-mouthed container from the galley. As soon as he unlatched it, the door flung backwards violently. The wind belted him about the eyes through the open passage. Water began streaming in over the lip of the hatch. He held up the jug to the rain, and opened his mouth as well. It was a futile gesture, though. More water was entering the cabin than he was collecting, and splashes from the waves risked contaminating what little he was able to gather.

He closed the jug between his knees and pulled the hatch closed with both hands, shutting out the storm and the sea. The icy water, though, was now ankle deep in the cabin, and he had only one day’s worth of an emergency ration in the jug. He sealed it, and shoved it into a secure spot as the ship rocked back and forth. 

He gathered everything edible that remained in the galley and made his way—in short jerks powered by the jostling of the ship—back to the bunk. Untold hours passed by in the dark. There was no way to distinguish day from night, and the storm was a nearly seamless din of wind and crashing water. Then, amidst the monotony, there was a crash.

He hardly looked up. There was nothing for him to do, no point in feeling anything about it, but he knew. The mast had snapped. The ship was dead. 

He lay in the belly of the ship for what felt like days more. He made little effort to conserve his rations, expecting that at any moment the ship would capsize and he would be drowned in the dark cabin. Faces haunted him. Leering voices from times in his past he barely remembered hissed at him. He knew then what madness tasted like, what solitude and terror asked of the soul in the slim hours before dying.

But he did not die.

He opened his eyes and realized that the noise of the storm was gone. He pulled himself off the bunk, wincing at the brief flash of pain from his blackened arm, and waded through the slush on the floor of the cabin. The glass was finally gone from both windows, though he had no idea when they had been shattered. Light streamed in from both so brightly that his scabbed-over eyes could not look at it. He braced his stiff body against the hatch and, once his eyes could see the wall clearly, threw it open. 

The white line of the horizon graduated to rich blues above him. The sun was brilliant, but it hung low on the horizon. 

Only a stump of the mast remained, snapped clean off just below where the boon should have been. There was no sign remaining of any of the rigging now. The force of the storm had wrenched the mast free and had swept away every line connected to it. Walking the perimeter of the deck, he found the hull was sound—once separated, the mast had not collided with it. The rudder was intact and he could steer. He only lacked for propulsion. 

He assembled all the material and tools he could to reconstruct the jib, since there was no hope of propping up the spare sail. As he began to work, though, he realized that the sun was not setting, it was moving in an arc across the bottom quarter of the sky. He had not paid enough attention to the cold air biting around him, but now he realized that he was shivering, even with all the layers he had wrapped himself in. He was north—farther north than he had ever travelled. 

The sun reached its apex as he was finishing his work to restore the foresail. The drag was minimal, but enough to pull the hull over the gentle hills of blue around him. The ship could limp where he wanted it to.

“Where?” he said aloud. He could wait for the sun to set and hope to navigate by the stars, but he knew that, unaided by equipment or references, he would be doing little more than guessing. The most logical course seemed to be due south, toward warmer waters, richer stocks of fish, and hopefully civilization. The wind, though, was against him. His rigging was crude and while he could coax it to propel the ship southward, it would be in fits and starts, bending southwest, then southeast. 

A shadow flickered across the deck before him. 

A flock of white-bellied terns passed overhead, bearing northward. As he watched them outpacing the ship, they broke their glide in the clear air for a moment to flap their gray wings and gain altitude. He oriented the rudder to follow their course, even though they slipped beyond his view quickly in the glare of afternoon. The birds were going somewhere, perhaps a feeding ground, perhaps to land. With luck, there might be fishermen out there, or if the flock found land, a village or other settlement. 

He needed to find other human beings. Soon.

He locked the bow north, following the terns’ course. He was less than an hour at sea, though, before he heaved to and brought the ship to rest with a series of abrupt maneuvers at the tiller. He stepped to the edge of the deck and stared emotionlessly forward. 

Before him loomed a monolithic span of solid white and blue—a crag-ridden, immense wall of ice towering above the sheen of the undisturbed ocean.

Flotsam & Jetsam (Part IV, second entry)

This is the latest entry in my ongoing NaNoWriMo novel. To read the novel in order, view the NaNoWriMo category (link to the left) and scroll down. Or you can go to the first entry here.

 

He told himself that with every muscle tensed to maintain the ship’s bearing, his failing strength and reserves of energy would kill him. It was not a possibility, not a risk. It was an absolute certainty. The ship was already a miracle. The speed, the ferocity of the wind. It should have already been smashed to timbers on the cold slate of the sea. He had held her steady and threaded a needle through the menacing waves to keep her afloat, but he would fail her soon.

And as he also failed to imagine any way to maintain his endurance, everything got worse.

The torrents of rain intensified. The already stinging downpour became a deluge. He could scarcely tell when the waves were striking any longer. The rain simply poured down on him, streaming over his head as if a dam had broken over him. He could hardly breath—sucking in air through gritted teeth. His left foot was wedged forward against the base of the helm; without it, his feet would be pulled out from under him by the constant flow of water. There was nothing left to explain how his hands maintained their hold on the wheel. Frozen, icy, and gray, he could not feel them, could not control them.

Within the span of a few moments, though, he crossed into a different world.

The torrents subsided. The wind lessened. Gusts still pressed at the restricted sail, but he was able to stand upright on the deck again and the ship easily mounted the waves without taking on further water.

He saw features emerging in the sky and he could turn and study the shapes of what he had just passed through. They were unlike anything he had ever witnessed. The storm was mountainous—a tremendous, solid-looking mass behind him that extended in a crescent moon from where he had broken out in long arcs to both horizons. He coughed, expelling the last of the salt water taste from his mouth. Looking up, he saw blue sky and the ball of the sun suspended overhead.

For a moment, he was afraid to move. He breathed freely in the light, drizzling rain and kept his hands locked on the wheel. Finally, as the ship drifted lazily along the water, he pulled them back and let them shake freely before him. He managed to use his rigid, numb fingers to untie the rope from his waist and then shoved them under the soaked fabric of his shirt, jamming each underneath the opposite arm for warmth.

Once some sensation was restored to his fingers, he moved forward and knelt beside the hatch. When he pulled it open, he closed his eyes, unwilling to see inside for a moment. The hatch, though, had largely held tight during the ordeal. Some water had streamed down the steps into the galley, but it sloshed innocuously on the floor, not even deep enough to dampen his ankles.

He stripped away his clothing and layered on dry shirts, wrapping himself as best he could and opening and closing his hands to restore full feeling to his fingers. Famished, he rummaged through the galley, shoving anything unspoiled he found into his mouth. Afterward, he sat for some time, slowing his panicked breathing. Nodding to himself, he stood and stretched out his limbs.

Restored, he climbed back up and sealed the hatch behind him again. He hoisted the sail and rigged for speed again, determined to get well ahead of the storm. He still had little sense of a long-range course, but for now, anything away from the cliff-face of water and wind would suffice.

The sea remained calm as he sailed forward. Soon, though, he saw that there was more weather ahead of him. As he closed on it, an eerily familiar sight resolved on the horizon.

He spun the wheel.

A wall of white cloud was ahead, just like the one he had escaped from. As he tried to turn to starboard, though, he had the sense of a hand closing in around him. Long, white fingers stretched across the skin of the sea, encircling him. He had not broken free of the storm, only found its eye. Now, the fast moving air was flushing him out, threatening to snap the ship in its vice.

For over an hour, he futilely tried to outmaneuver it, but he had chosen the wrong course when he first reached the heart of the maelstrom. He cursed himself. Maybe if he had tried to ride the eye all the way to shore—but was it heading to shore? Where would it make landfall? How far from the settlement could he be now? Would it wash the timbers of his broken ship up on her shore, or simply commingle them with the splinters of her home when it descended at last on that shoddy, marsh-bound hamlet.

A gust ripped at the sail. He had run out of ground to fee. A mass of water swept over the deck and tripped him. He was flattened out and water was streaming over the boards, pushing him away from the helm.

Frantically, he reached for the rope still fastened to the helm. He saw a colossal blue swell rising toward him. Without time or traction enough to get to his feet and wrap the lifeline around his waist, he gripped the rope and looped it around his wrist as many times as he could before the ocean hurled its next assault. When it came, he focused all his will into the fingers holding the line. His whole body’s weight was pulled along his arm, wrenching his wrist inside the tightening line of the rope. He felt it cutting through his skin and imagined, from the pain, that the rope might slice his whole hand free.

He managed to open his eyes. The water had swallowed him, taken him down its gullet. A black whale-shape hung in the space beside him. He saw its stiff fin backlit by the rippling undulations of the scant glow behind the sea. He was no longer on the ship. It was there before him, inert, but intact. An obelisk in the embrace of the ocean.

Then he saw the taut black line of the rope still holding him to it. He pulled his other arm, heavy and sodden, and reached for the rope. With a few labored hauls, he brought his head above water. The storm’s relentless wind continued wrenching the ship forward and he was caught along the port side of the hull, gasping and weakened.

Through the sheets of water pouring off the hull, he managed to keep his eyes open long enough to see the sail, stretched and bulging painfully.

Hand over hand, he hauled himself up along the side of the ship, grasping for the gunwale and clinging to it desperately as the next wave tried to dislodge him. His first attempt to hoist himself back up to the railing failed and he was left panting with exhaustion when the next gushing torrent of water descended. He held fast, choking and trembling. Again he tried to bring himself back on deck, and again he failed. This time he held his breath and waited through the wash, and then flung one leg upward and caught it against a cleat, drawing his lower body up first and then squirming onto the deck.

His footing restored, he began to inventory what he must do. The sail must be trimmed. He needed the rudder adjusted to starboard, to better meet the oncoming thrust of the waves.

Then the mainsheet snapped.

The boon swung outward, and the sail went slack, snapped into a tight rope against the mast. The boon rebounded, springing backward toward him, snapping more lines as it crashed wildly before his eyes.

He was struck by a sudden flash of relief.

There was nothing left to struggle against. He struggled forward along the length of the cabin. The storm had crippled the ship. He could only lie ahull now and hope. He waited for the next wave to smash against her and once it was past, cut loose his lifeline, dashing madly for the hatch. He dove through it and then fumbled to shut it against the wind and icy nails of the rain. Within the womb of the ship, he exhaled deeply and tended the shredded flesh around his wrist. Once he had bound it in a wrap, he made for the cabins. The hull rocked wildly and he had to brace himself against the walls to make his way to his bunk. He stripped the sheets from his and collapsed on the wider bunk in the other cabin, wrapping himself in all the bedding like a cocoon.

The exhaustion closed around him, darkening the world as the hull rattled madly. Trying to ignore the clattering sound of the ship being brutalized, he told himself that when he escaped this he would sail past the marshy village, back to the island port, up the slope of the great hill leading to the manor, find his former client, slit his throat, and drag his wife away out to sea to ravish her with every passing day. He should have never left the sea at all. If he had dropped the family off from the catamaran, or left them to their fates, and kept sailing, he would never have become mired in the tempest. The ship would be whole. The midwife would never be his, after all. If he went back there, he would belong to her, and even in the cold despair, he knew he would never risk that, never be property.

And yet, as he closed his eyes and tried to remember what warmth was, it was her body beside him that he imagined.

Flotsam & Jetsam (Part IV, first entry)

This is the latest entry in my ongoing NaNoWriMo novel. To read the novel in order, view the NaNoWriMo category (link to the left) and scroll down. Or you can go to the first entry here.

 

The storm closed in on the ship as surges slapped against the hull and soaked the fabric of the sail.

When the weather had first shifted and he had seen dimly that the clouds would overtake him, the Boatman had cursed himself for the impulsive lurch into a dark night so unprepared. When the first fingers of dawn crept into the distant sky, he pulled open the compartment before the wheel and stared into the empty bin as the wind howled past him. A voice in his mind tried to urge him past the empty space, but for several moments he could not shake loose of the sight.

He shook his head and closed it. He had hoped that he could quickly find his bearings and plot a course back to the coast, huddle in a sheltered cove—maybe the one with the township, maybe another. Without the charts and gear, though, he had only the diffuse light of the sun to steer by.

He checked the cloud mass. Soon he would not even have the sun.

Buffeted by the gales, he reminded himself what idiocy it had been to set off. He had laid in no supplies, taken on no water—though that would hardly be a problem any time in the foreseeable future. Idiocy. And again he thought about the empty compartment. It could only have been the girl. Had there been wet footprints on the deck? Should he have seen some sign of her presence? He knew he was wasting energy on thoughts that did not help him, that only kept him focus on what was already done, what could not be undone.

He could see from the size of the waves that this would easily be the worst storm he had passed through.

And he had never passed through any serious storm alone. He reduced sail and worked the rudder. Billowing white crests rose up and swamped the deck. He felt his feet sliding out from underneath him as he clutched more tightly to the slick, wet wood of the wheel. The ship was being rocked so hard by the violence of the storm that he could barely budge the rudder. The bow dipped as the trough of one of the waves swallowed the ship. His eyes widened with panic; he wrapped his arms around the wheel and held on as a wall of water crashed over him, trying to rip him from the deck. The force spun the wheel and cracked his arm in the spokes.

The world was black as the wave doused him. He coughed furiously to clear his lungs, fought to ignore the pain in his arm. He tried to blink the salt from his eyes. He needed a few seconds—a few seconds without any torrents sweeping over the deck.

The next one was bearing down on the ship. He counted to track its approach.

It hit.

Holding on again, he held his breath and tightened his eyes. His feet came off the deck—he was fully submerged.

It pulled back.

He counted.

He stumbled away from the wheel and dove onto the deck. Quickly he loosened the line holding the tarp over the skiff and pulled it loose. It was shorter than he would have liked, but the count running in his head was almost out.

He slid back toward the helm, frantically securing the rope around his trunk and then roping the other end to the helm. He pulled the last knot just as the next wave broke over the ship.

He had no time to grip on. If the rope had failed him, he would have been washed off the deck.

He slammed into the boards. The pain in his arm intensified with the pressure of his body striking the deck. His head was foggy, stunned. Another wave crashed over and he swallowed a mouthful of seawater.

When it washed over, he looked up to the mast. The boon was being yanked violently against the mainsheet. The sail looked ready to fly off the mast, or fly off with the mast.

He needed a longer tether.

He pulled himself along the slick deck, reaching for more rope from underneath the skiff. As he faced it, the wind took hold of the tarp and ripped it free. The sheet blasted off into the air until it vanished in the gray haze surrounding the ship. The line he had tied on did not reach far enough and he found himself flailing with one arm underneath the lip of the over-turned skiff. He knew he had left the mooring line he used for the skiff coiled underneath the thwart, but he could not find it with his outstretched fingers.

The ship was bashed again, but the wave struck from behind. He looked back over the length of his body to see the wheel spinning toward the port. He scrambled aft again. The blast from behind had flushed the rope he needed forward on the deck. He pulled the length toward him and yanked the knife from its sheath. With no way to reach where it was secured inside the overturned skiff, he began to saw at the line as far away from his as possible to free up enough length.

The ship was rocking fiercely back and forth. He checked the pivot in the mast. If the pendulum swung much further, the keel would rise and the ship would capsize—with him tied to the helm.

He pulled himself to his feet and tied on the new line to the old, knotting it as well as his painfully cold fingers and the shooting sensation in his arm would allow. Another wave crashed over the side, but he managed to clamp his mouth shut and hold on.

When it subsided, he adjusted his lifeline and freed up the span to reach the boon and adjust the mainsheet. He reduced sail again before gripping the wheel and wrestling with the rudder against the storm.

He had control again.

The deck lurched forty-five degrees to starboard and he leaned against his tether to port with his hands working the wheel to keep the keel opposite the advancing waves. It was a delicate balance, if the forces did not counteract one another—which would happen if he did not mind the rudder carefully—the ship would flip end over end, the mast lancing the sea and flinging him into the white water like the crack of a whip.

But she was dashing now. The energy of the storm launched her forward. The bowsprit sliced the water ahead.

He was moving and moving as fast as he ever had at sea, but he had no sense of his bearing. There was no suggestion of the sun’s whereabouts in the gray canopy about him. He hoped that this course would take him outside the grip of the storm, but it was hope alone, divorced from the callous reality of the situation.

There was nothing but the furious shaking of each wave against the hull to lend any sense of time to his passage. The wind was no longer gusting, but was a solid roar in his ear. The sky remained an impenetrable wall. His arm throbbed. His side felt pinched by the line as he leaned away from the sail. As the cruise dragged on into monotony, he became aware of his other physical needs. He had eaten nothing—breaking port with no provisions, he had thought in passing about casting a line for breakfast—and his body was fighting extraordinary exhaustion. He had sailed through the night without sleep and taxed every inch of his frame fighting to regain control of the ship. Only as he took an inventory of the situation did he become aware of something else. He could hardly feel his feet beneath him or his fingers clutching the wheel. He looked at his hands through the mist spraying across his field of vision. Though he maintained his grip, his hands were shaking.

The ship was stable now, but he was not.

Flotsam & Jetsam (Part III, eighth entry)

This is the latest entry in my ongoing NaNoWriMo novel. To read the novel in order, view the NaNoWriMo category (link to the left) and scroll down. Or you can go to the first entry here.

 

In the morning, he woke later than her again. This time he saw her shadow pass over the curtain hanging behind the bed and lifted it to find her tending the sheltered garden. With small shears, she pruned the vine-riddled surface of the wall, collecting small shoots in a burlap sack. He watched her for several minutes without her noticing. When she finally turned enough to see him looking out, it startled her into dropping her work.

“Sorry.”

She shook her head, playfully scolding him, and collected the sack and snippings before slipping back inside through the door into the rear of the kitchen. He rose, dressed quickly, and circled around through the house to rendezvous with her.

“What are those for?” he asked.

“They’re medicinal,” she replied.

“I should’ve known.”

“Trade secret.”

“You wouldn’t want your competition to find out.”

“It would be devastating, yes,” she answered. “Hungry?”

“Always, but I should fetch food myself.”

“Why?”

He paused, pressed his lips together and answered, “Well, shouldn’t I?”

“We don’t want for food around here, you know.”

“So I’ve seen. Chicken and pigs abound.”

“The other day some damned fool brought in a brace of mudskippers and everyone had to eat them out of courtesy.”

He laughed and grabbed her by the arm to pull her near. “Those were delicious,” he said. “And they weren’t mudskippers.”

“I saw a vestigial leg, I did!” she shrieked as he wrestled her away from the counter.

“Mama,” the little girl suddenly said from behind them. The Boatman started, and moved back away from the midwife to stand shamefaced against the opposite wall. She gave him a curious glance as he did, but addressed her daughter.

“Good morning, darling,” she chirped. “Did we wake you?”

The girl shook her head and walked sleepily to the table. The Boatman watched her with trepidation, but to his surprise she did not react to his presence at all. “What should we eat?” she asked her mother.

“We were just talking about that,” she replied.

“Fish?” he suggested, only half-joking.

“No, thank you,” her daughter answered softly.

“I’ll whip us up something,” her mother answered and she left the two of them at the table while she warmed some bread in the iron belly of the stove and pulled a jar of fruit preserves off the top shelf.

When they had eaten, the midwife turned to him and said, “Since I’m sure you have no plans to take me out to sea today, what were going to do today?”

He brought his hand to his mouth and wiped the last smudge of the jam from his thumb, looking between her and the girl. He saw again, with them in the same light and so near, the perfect similarity in the shapes of their faces. He shook his head.

The three of them left the house together a while later. He walked apart, allowing the girl to cling to her mother, as the soft, wet ground beyond the paths of the town warmed and expanded in the morning sun—setting creatures free to scuttle about for their sustenance. They passed a few of the residents he recognized from the evening gatherings. Each one greeted them familiarly, as if everyone had known that these three would now be stitched together in this tableau: a morning walk.

As they moved aimlessly to the edge of the cobblestone-laden town square, there was a commotion in the distance, deeper into the settlement and closer to the wetlands where the houses were packed tightly around the walkways. “What’s happening over there?”

“Only one way to find out.”

They discovered a crew of men, shirtless and already sweating profusely, hacking at a broad tree trunk with feeble axe-strokes. The workers took no notice of the onlookers. They continued to chop erratically at the tree.

“What are they doing?”

“Probably a new house.”

“Here?”

“Have to build somewhere. I told you, there’s going to be a new addition in a few days. The happy couple probably wants to start their own home.”

“Is one of them the father?”

“No, but that doesn’t mean anything around here.”

“They’re going about it like damned fools.”

“That’s pretty typical, too.”

“That tree’s going to fall straight into that other house.”

“Somebody should set them straight,” she said with a smile.

“Boys!” he cried out, and all five heads spun around to meet him as he trooped down toward the muck that gripped them up past their ankles. “Listen, what’s your plan here?”

The midwife watched with her characteristic wry smile as he revised their shoddy plan for them, and then she led her daughter back toward their home. With his guidance, the young men left the stump in place and began building the platform for the new house above it, only felling the top sections of the tree—and with a more concerted effort so that it went down away from the nearby structures.

More men came throughout the morning and he organized another detail to cut some proper lumber. He led the original crew in laying down additional posts deep into the ground to anchor the foundation.

Some women brought them bread and dried meat strips for lunch, which they ate in handfuls while moving from task to task. By the end of the day, they sat down together on the platform they had laid out for the new house and imagined the future walls together while relatives came to admire the handiwork and pass around cisterns of foul grain alcohol. This time, with every muscle in his legs and arms aching and wrenched, he gratefully drank down the cup he was handed.

He stumbled back to the midwife’s home after sunset, stinking of more than just his labor. She helped him strip away his filthy clothes and promised to launder them in the morning. “But you first,” she said, laughing as she pushed him toward a bath at arm’s length.

What followed was unaccustomed for him. He had always lived as a series of carefully meted days, a deliberate calendar of action and reaction—planning not for a future necessarily, but always to at least maintain momentum in a world he knew lived by that principle. His life with the woman, though, settled into an undifferentiated batter from which a moment might be refined, but which, as a whole, had little form. The only constant was the bed he slept in with her, where she would pull closer to him, snaring her feet around his in the night, laying her body into the arch of his, sharing the same breath as hands fumbled around unconsciously, touching hip or arm or chest and slumbering on. Everything else simply manifested, without purpose or direction. One day a neighbor might ask for help with some carpentry. Another morning might see him stomping through the swamp, helping flush out traps in the thrush. Off and on, he visited the build site for the new house and advised on the raising of walls or the slope of a roof. The town gathered some mornings for impromptu banquets, sometimes just to exchange stories in the afternoon, and, of course, sometimes in the evenings. But largely, the people of the community nestled there between smoke and cloud did very little, imagining on some level that their mean idyll was the secret axis of that world beyond them.

At least once a day, the midwife sat down alone with her daughter. Sometimes she pulled her into the couch of cushions in the main room. Others they might sit across from each other at the kitchen table. There was always one moment of quiet communion between them, though. He listened from a distance and only ever heard the mother’s voice, like an empty vessel being filled from a tankard. The only time he was privy to any of the substance of these meetings was when he happened to pass the girl’s doorway before they all went to sleep.

“We always do,” he heard her say. “But you know…maybe not. Maybe not everything has an ending. Maybe beginnings and endings are just a mistake we make in our minds, all of us,” she said. The Boatman peeked around the corner and saw her sitting beside her daughter, who looked to be snugly asleep except for a slender, but clearly conscious smile on her face. “What if there are other living things living time backwards? We wouldn’t know, would we? And they wouldn’t understand us, either.” She leaned in to kiss the girl on the forehead; when she did, her daughter’s small fingers wrapped around her wrist before turning away and pulling the blanket in around her folded legs.

He moved quickly and quietly back to the bedroom and waited for her. She entered, saying nothing, and slipped in beside him in the dark.

On his last day there, they woke more or less simultaneously. She ran her thumb through the hair over his ear before pulling herself out of bed and heading to the kitchen. After scraping together some of his clothing from the pile he had left on the floor, he followed her, tramping barefoot across the think boards of the floor, so cool to the touch in the blue hours before dawn. They sipped from steaming cups as the sun bled in through the windows. He watched the crook of her knuckles while she talked about her ordeal the day before struggling with an infected leg wound in one of the older women.

“She’d used some old remedy involving just covering the damned thing with mud,” she said. “Which might not have been so bad, except that you never know what’s in the mud if you just dig it up at random, you know?”

The girl entered, as she always did in the mornings, with slit-thin eyes and a foot-sliding lethargy. Her mother greeted her first, but then he, too, wished her good morning. She replied in turn, without changing her expression between. He looked at the inscrutable girl as she bit into the biscuit her mother set in front of her. He thought now, after hearing what he mother said to her the night before, that he understood something about her better than before. He imagined her mother crafting the girl’s peculiar mind, filling it with abstractions and paradoxes for eleven years.

A chunk of the biscuit fell away, rolling onto the table beside her.

“Hey,” he said, pointing. “Some of that’s getting away.”

She glanced at the stray crumb and smiled back to him, snatching it up and pushing it into her mouth with the rest.

Just then, someone pounded on the wall by the front door, calling for the midwife. He rushed with her to the entry and found a gray-haired woman panting desperately.

“It’s time,” the woman said. “Oh, come now, please. It’s time.”

The midwife nodded and instructed her daughter to gather her things.

“You need any help this time?”

“Oh no,” she told him. “I just checked in on her daughter yesterday. This should be fairly routine.”

“How long will you be?”

“Hard to say,” she answered. “I doubt her panic is warranted,” she added, gesturing to the figure of the woman hurrying her brittle bones back across the square ahead of them. “It might be several hours yet.”

He nodded and she and the girl slipped around a corner toward the other side of the settlement.

He was left adrift in the empty square. Noticing the door was still ajar, he turned around and shut up the midwife’s home, leaving himself out of doors. He walked up the path toward the water. He passed a few residents along the way and they exchanged a few casual remarks. Even without her at his side, he was no longer a novel presence in their lives.

As he stepped past the shadows of the trees on the edge of the water to the dock, he saw his ship floating serenely on the lip of a slow-rolling wave. He realized that he had not stepped foot on her for several days. A surge of longing gripped him as he watched the water try in vain to shake her loose from her anchorage.

He walked the length of the dock slowly and paused at the end. Suddenly, something struck him. “Where’s the catamaran?” he asked aloud. One of the townspeople was fumbling around in the little boathouse beside the platform and he looked up at the question.

“What’s that?”

“The catamaran? Where did it go?”

“Oh, they set out a few days ago.”

It was only then that he realized he had not seen the young father or his family around the settlement recently. “All of them? The baby, too?”

“Yes, all of them.”

“Where did they go?”

“Who knows. Somewhere out there.”

An unfamiliar feeling clamped onto his chest; he brooded over it for some time and eventually decided it was jealousy. He marveled at their pluck, to take on the sea in that flimsy craft, particularly with such a fierce storm still lingering in the distance.

For a moment, something about the sea’s churning rhythm embittered him and he walked back toward the settlement and studied it with newly awakened eyes. He saw it again as he had when he first came ashore: a motley collection of ramshackle structures. Some were well made—and he wondered for the first time whose conscientious hands had built the midwife’s house—but most were raised awkwardly and had persevered only through blind luck. The people, who had lately been patting him on the back and passing him cups of their spirits, were too rooted, felt too safe in their liminal settlement. They imagined their homes more permanent, more steady than a ship at sea. But they were fooling themselves, all of them. He turned and looked at the storm still stirring in the distance, then back to the thin streak of smoke across the sky in the opposite direction. If not that tempest, then someday the fire in the distance would find the right winds and blow its way into their marshy sanctuary, scorch everything and everyone. The smart ones would run to the sea.

He moped at the dock throughout the day. He kept expecting the midwife to come up behind him, still wiping her hands clean from her work tending a new mother, and lure him back into her bosom, back into the walls of her home. He could not read the unsettled feeling that stirred in him. Was he anxious for it, or dreading it? He counted the days he had lingered there in the settlement and could not be sure the exact number. Longer than any other stay ashore in his recent memory.

The offshore wind blew in. There were a few squeals as people shuttered their windows and tucked themselves in as the sun dropped away. Again, the dock darkened and he went into the shed to light the lamp on the end of the unsteady pier.

Once its faint glow spread along the water, he saw the outline of his ship catching a little of the orange light. It felt remote, unreachable.

He looked down at his hand and the taper still clasped in his fingers. He sat down without putting it out. He had woken that morning without a direction, living as these people lived. In a long, unstructured moment, subject only to their bellies and the weariness that dragged them to bed at night. They lived by whim—why shouldn’t he? He could fling this light over his shoulder, set the whole of their little village on fire.

He blew and watched a thin band of white smoke rise out of his hand.

There was a flash on the horizon. Looking up he saw storm clouds again, as he had seen throughout his respite on that shore. Yet in the brilliant eruptions of lightning in the distance illuminated the whole of the horizon. There were now two walls of gray, dropping rain in sheets on the far edges of the world. Between them, he saw stars emerging as the last rays of the sun bled out of the sky.

She would come back. She would touch his shoulder and lead him, like a leashed pet, back to her bed, soothe him with her body and wash the grime from him like a beloved child.

With a sudden fury, he leapt down into the skiff, still moored to the dock, and started out toward the ship. Straining his arms past agony, he managed to lift the skiff onto deck and tie it down. He hoisted and unfurled the sail quickly.

The wind took hold of it and once the anchor was up, the ship moved briskly out to sea. The Boatman fixed the bow on the open water between the two storm systems. He shut out thoughts of the settlement save for one moment when he looked behind him over his shoulder and saw an orange glow on the horizon, forcing himself to wonder if he had started the conflagration after all.

He sailed tirelessly through the night to put distance between him and the snare he had slipped through.

It was only in the morning, at first light, that he discovered that the girl had been aboard more recently than he had and had cast his charts and navigational equipment into the sea.