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

 

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