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.

 

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