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.

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