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.

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