Archive for November, 2013

Ode to Justice Scalia

Antonin Scalia believes in the devil
so he told a reporter a few weeks back
and he marveled
at how the most cunning game the wily one down under ever played
was to convince the world
“No, I’m not here.”
So Scalia scolded Mr. Liberal-Bias-Media-Man for doubting.

And as I think about your decisions, Mr. Justice
I think about
how corporations are people
who should vote with their dollars
but actual people who might want to vote
don’t deserve any special protection
I think
About how you’ve banged the gavel for the strong over the weak,
Favored the established over the struggling
and I think, “Yes, of course.”

Of course you believe in the devil.
You, sir, are in his employ.

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Flotsam & Jetsam (Part II, seventh 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.

 

After gathering a few items while she waited silently by the gate to the rope ladder, he stepped around her and climbed into the skiff. When he turned to help her, she had already begun descending after him unassisted, her calves driving downward from beneath the hem of her long, silken dress like pistons, but he still laid his hands on the top of her hips to guide her off the last rung. She sat without commenting and waited as he unmoored them from the ship and began to row ashore.

Each stroke set the palpitations in his chest to a higher frequency. The woman sat still as a snow-covered midnight, and he felt he was transporting something extraordinarily fragile, a shape caught in partially thawed ice, suspended between impossibilities. He became conscious of each stroke, lavishing energy and attention on making his cuts through the water smooth and even, slow like a keen lover’s hands to keep the skiff moving without rhythm or surges, a constant wind without gusts.

When they came near the shore, for the first time she stepped out when he did, her legs sinking into the fine mist of glass and silt shaken into the surf by the keel of the skiff and the Boatman’s own steps. The cloth of her dress spread around her like an orchid as she advanced up the beach. He pulled the boat up the sand, cutting a scar through the beach, and then grabbed the blankets from the thwart and followed her up the rise.

She cast backward glances at the ship and said aloud, “Not here,” even though he had said nothing to her and neither of them had paused at all.

Well away from the water’s edge, she stopped and looked back. The tip of the mast was still visible, but the hull itself was completely occluded by a series of ebony igneous rocks juxtaposed against the sepia tone of the beach sands.

“Here,” she said and took one of the blankets from his hands. She whipped it against the still air of the empty island and laid it out on the ground. He stood uncertainly, watching the bend of her back as she straightened out the edges. She rose again and took the other sheet from him and repeated the steps, spreading it out a chaste arm’s length from the other. “Lay down,” she told him as she lowered herself onto her back.

He glanced to his left and saw her tired eyes close as she tilted her head backward, creating a furrow in the sand beneath the blanket. Her hands were splayed on both sides and she arched her feet so that her thin toes—still glinting with wet sand—pointed down the slope of the beach.

He looked up, matching her gaze, but feeling a prickling anxiety through his chest. His mouth had become dry and the sun began to beat out the moisture from his clothing, leaving an irritating film of salt between his skin and the fabric. It made him tense the fibers of his arms and legs, hips and flanks, to avoid any movement, any friction.

When they had lain like this so long that he was sure she had fallen asleep, he felt her fingers brush over the backs of his hands as she reached across toward him. Her hand found the waistline of his trousers and began teasing at the fastening until she had loosened his clothing and could move her hand against his skin, twisting his hair between her fingertips.

He rose off the blanket as soon as he was fully aroused and faced her, but her eyes remained closed, even as her hands moved quickly at her own clothing. She pulled the hem of her dress up the length of her legs and bunched the sopping fabric about her midriff before drawing down her undergarments and leaving them at the foot of the blanket.

He pushed into her, feeling the soft bed of sand tighten beneath them with the pressure of their combined weight. Her hands locked around his buttocks and controlled the rocking movement of his hips. He began to lean in to press his lips against her cheek or neck, but she seemed to sense him moving closer to her and a flicker of movement across her jaw dissuaded him. Hovering over her, his arms locked in the sand on either side of the blanket to keep his torso raised, he allowed her to guide him until he felt the oncoming release build through his spine and then to his temples.

Then, when that release came and the muscles tightened throughout his lower body and he resisted the steady motion of her wrists to continue, he felt the shallow fulfillment of a wish held secretly for two short days being granted suddenly and without effort or merit.

He stood up and covered himself.

She lay still for a moment, her eyes still shut against the glaring sun overhead. He took the moment to examine the lines of her, the shadows falling along the insides of her thighs, the slight rise of her abdomen, and the dimpled ridge along the top of her hip bone.

Then, she blinked and quickly redonned her clothing.

She continued laying on the blanket, closing her eyes once more. The Boatman waited for her to speak, or to rise, or even simply to adjust her weight, but her repose continued unmolested and, finally, he felt he was somehow disturbing her and he walked, slowly so as not to crunch the sand beneath his feet, back along the line of dunes at the top of the beach. He crossed the length opposite the shore and, checking over his shoulder, when she still did not stir he began idly hacking at palm fronds, cutting one loose that, for some reason, reminded him of the boy and the jungle where he had died.

He studied a swarm of ants consuming a dead bird for some time, wondering if some of them might be the same ones who had raided their food stores the night before. But it struck him as a foolish thought—for what individuals could exist in a mass like that—and he walked back down to the beach to sit in the skiff and wait.

He watched the ship for a long time, never seeing any movement from the client on deck, even as the sun crept closer and closer to the horizon behind the sail.

Finally, she approached from behind him, the dark circles gone from under her eyes. She laid the blankets down in a neat pile on the thwart and said, “We should go back now.”

He nodded. He had not said a word to her since they had come onto the island.

They rowed toward the silhouette of the ship backlit by the tropical sun.

“Here, let me help you with that,” the client said at once, reaching past his wife as she climbed aboard to take hold of one of the lines. The Boatman thanked him and climbed on board before the two men hauled the boat back up onto deck and then tied it down, covering it with the tarp.

“So, did you have a nice nap?” he asked his wife.

“I never actually slept, no,” she answered.

“I thought you were tired.”

“I was,” she said. “I still am. I just rested in the sun.”

“Well, I’m exhausted too,” he told her. “I spent more than an hour wrestling with that thing.” He pointed to the starboard side where, tied with a line to a cleat through its gils, a massive, silver-bellied fish lay prone like the crippled hull, thrown onto shore as flotsam on its side. “It’s a beast, isn’t it?”

The Boatman nodded in sincere admiration.

“Very nice,” his wife said, patting his shoulder.

“Help me clean it?” he said eagerly to the Boatman, who nodded, drawing out his knife.

He paused when he glanced at the knife’s blade. For a moment, he thought he saw a flash of color in the grain of the bone. He turned it over in his palm several times but could not see it again.

The wife had gone below deck and the client had squatted beside his catch. The Boatman stepped across the deck and joined him, making quick cuts through the scaly hide. The steaks were thick and wide, so he set up a metal basin on deck and started a fire to let the fish simmer in the sea air. The client opened the last of his store of wine and they all shared it—his wife from a crystal flute and he and the Boatman from the mouth of the bottle. He regaled them all with the epic saga of his battle with the fish and both laughed warmly at his hyperbole and occasionally self-deprecating comments.

“How fast can you get us home?” the client asked after they had eaten as much of the fish as they could stand. The Boatman, leaning lazily against the wall by the hatch looked about at the night sky. “Not now,” he clarified. “I don’t mean now, but in the morning. Can you get us home by the afternoon?”

“Can’t be sure,” he told them.

“Your business can wait one more day, can’t it?” his wife said, hoarse with wine and weariness.

“Maybe,” he answered.

“I’ll do what I can,” the Boatman promised. The client nodded graciously and the Boatman, his senses somewhat soggy with drink, watched him appreciatively. “I’ll do what I can,” he said again.

“We should put in then,” he replied, rising to his feet with a groan. His wife nodded her assent and followed her husband below without looking at the Boatman sitting with one leg folded out of their way and the other stretching out toward the gunwale.

A gull squawked at him from above, staking a claim to the remains of the fish carcass. Roused, the Boatman walked the perimeter of the ship, checking the lines and kicking the remains of the client’s catch into the waves for the birds and sharks. He dumped the charcoal from the cooking fire overboard and left the grill out to finish cooling in the night air.

He shuddered, shaking off some of the fog in his senses, as he descended into the galley and then to his cabin. He laid out on the bunk with no covering and stared up at the planks above him. The water outside lapped so softly at the hull and his own breathing dropped into a pattern so regular that both became invisible to him and for a moment he felt alone again on the ship—the purifying sense of oneness waking each of his cells.

But he quickly became aware of movement in the next cabin. The unmistakable sounds of human bodies shuffling in the dark. He heard one dull clap of skin slapping against skin. He listened for a moment more to be sure and heard a soft grunting in a male voice and then a shifting of weight on the makeshift bunk. A creaking in his own handiwork.

He rose and went on deck.

His motion at the halyard was so hasty that he felt sure one or both of them would come up, or at least shout out from below, to complain.

But there was nothing. He checked his charts in the moonlight and peered into the night sky using his instruments before wrenching the wheel several degrees and catching a strong wind in the broad canvas sheet of the sail.

As the night wore on, he caught himself drifting off to sleep still on his feet. He took each instance as a cue to walk the deck, urinate off the side, flush his eyes and throat with water, check the course, and then resume his station at the helm.

Dawn’s first glow revealed the shape of the sharp peaks of their island in the distance.

When they woke, the found him slumped against the skiff. They shook him awake before they realized the ship had moved. He stood up in a bustle and brushed away the ants from his dream before explaining to them that, “I didn’t feel much like sleeping and it sounded like you had some important things to attend to back in port.” The client’s wife looked at the island and then back to him with her mouth cracked open and her eyes narrowed—an expression that he imagined could be horror or pity. “So I thought I’d get a head start last night, but then, well,” he raised his hand to indicate the port.

The client laughed his belly-laugh and praised the Boatman’s “intrepid commitment to service.” He stormed below and called back to his wife, “Let’s get our bags together!”

She began to follow him, but paused just by the hatch. She seemed about to look over the length of the cabin roof toward the helm, but whatever glimmer of motion he thought was about to overtake her never manifested and she simply descended.

He brought the ship into the docks.

The eager little crab-men dashed about as he slowed her approach, throwing on lines and driving bumper poles between the hull and the pier. He saw one of them dash off to bring the dock master and his register, but the Boatman laughed to himself, knowing he would be gone before the skeletal man could exhort his fee.

The client and his wife appeared on deck with their belongings. The Boatman helped unburden them and tossed each across the gap to the dock workers, who piled the bags conscientiously on the platform.

“This was everything I’d hoped for,” the client told him, passing him the remainder of the fare they had agreed to. “Thank you.”

“Yes,” his wife said, “Thank you,” though she did not look at him as she passed, waving off the hand proffered by one of the dock laborers and stepping down on her own.

The sun now was an explosion of clear light over the hills above them, drowning out the shapes on the ridge line, including the manor they would be returning to. He signaled to the dock workers that he was ready to push off and they wiped away their puzzled expressions and released the moorings they had just fastened on.

As the ship began to move away from the dock, he looked back to find the couple walking away, but in the haze of white light cradling the island, he could not be sure which shapes were theirs—which shapes were receding into the glare and which would remain.

 

Flotsam & Jetsam (Part II, sixth 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.

This time, they woke first in the morning.

“Dammit!” he heard the client shouting as he stomped the ground. The Boatman opened his eyes to a glaring dawn. He was surprised by the brightness. The shortened hours of sleep, nights on end, were beginning to take a toll on him; usually the first hint of sunlight would have woken him. Instead, he felt stiff and lethargic as she pushed himself off the ground and tried to understand what was happening.

The client was kicking at something on the ground. His wife stood behind him, rubbing the back of her neck and watching with tired purple moons showing beneath her eyes.

“What’s wrong?” he asked them.

“Ants.”

The Boatman stumbled over to them. A line of ants, each as long as his thumb nail, had crossed the ground between their two bedrolls. He followed the precisely coordinated trail past the edge of the long cool fire and found that they had invaded the sack full of food. He grabbed it by the bottom and shook it over the ashen remains of the cooking fire. Dozens of the black insects dribbled out of the bag with each shake, accompanied by the bits and pieces of what was supposed to be their breakfast.

“They got the food?” the client’s wife asked from behind him.

“Yes.”

“Can’t we pick them off some of that?” the client asked. “Save any of it.”

“I wouldn’t.”

“Why not?”

“They’d bite you.”

“So,” he shrugged. “We might get bitten.”

“You wouldn’t want to be,” he told him. “Not by these.”

“We’ll have to go back to the ship for breakfast, then,” the client said.

“I want to clean up first,” his wife said.

“What? How?”

“Your little pool.”

“Oh, now you want to use it,” he said with a roll of his eyes. The Boatman did not react. He was busy flicking stray ants off the water jug. He heard the woman walk away, through the high grass, past the rubbery leaves of the tree just beyond their campsite, and up into the brush around the wading pool they had discovered the day before.

He heard each of these movements and found himself struggling against the urge to turn and watch every one of them transpire.

“We’re alright, you know,” the client said.

“What’s that?”

“I feel like you probably have a bad impression of us now,” he explained. “Seen a little too much of us. We’re fine, though. She and I. It’s like you said, you spend too much time with anyone and there’s going to be little spats.” He sat down on a rock and yawned in the warming morning air. “But we’re fine.”

The Boatman nodded. The two men said nothing else to each other while she bathed and when she returned with a long, wet streak descending to the small of her back from the long sheet of dark hair falling off her shoulders, she said, “Wouldn’t you like to clean up, too? We can wait.”

“I’ll get wet enough pushing the boat back out into the surf, but thank you.”

“Doesn’t the salt water bother you?”

“I’m used to it.”

“We men don’t have your impeccable standards of hygiene,” her husband interrupted.

She huffed. “It was your bath to begin with.”

“Ah, see,” he laughed. “That’s what I mean. I ruined it for both of you.”

He reached for her arm, but she evaded him and grabbed the pack she’d carried the day before. He pretended the gesture was meaningless and snatched his own from the ground to follow her. The Boatman brought up the rear, shaking out the last of the ants from the canvas sack as he went.

The downslope and hunger conspired to hurry their steps. The Boatman urged patience from the back of their short line several times, until the client finally took a spill forward over the uneven ground. He sprung back up to his feet before his wife could even mutter, “Are you alright?” and laughed about his own misfortune before continuing on toward the beach.

The pace soon brought them to the beach, still cloaked in cool, early morning shadows. The couple climbed into the skiff while it was still parked on the high dunes away from the waterline and the Boatman had to ask them to let him drag it out to the water first.

Once in position, they climbed in again and he waded in ahead of the bow to drag it into the sea. He gripped one of the oarlocks and braced his side against the hull as surf buffeted his chest and then his face. As he trudged forward against the pressure of the sea, he looked up momentarily and found the client’s wife watching him battle the frothing tide. Her mouth was pulled tight and he felt as though she had chosen him for her attention then as a matter of default. Her husband and the endless ripples of the ocean had been sapped of their novelty for her, and that quantity depleted, she watched him. A simple economy of wants. He turned away without seeing how long her eyes lingered on him.

Once the dinghy had crossed the first real breakers and he felt his feet being pulled up by the boat’s buoyancy in the waves, he carefully drew himself up over the bow and seated himself facing the couple.

He captured a quick view of them as a fleeting tableau before he began churning the water with the oars. Pressed elbow to elbow, their fine clothes somewhat ruffled and browned by an overnight adventure, they sat with cow-like placidity, staring in parallel lines past him, past the ship, past the material world, perhaps, to the outer gates of their own countries—territories within themselves paid for by easy work and fortunes built of good fortune alone.

They reached the ship and they climbed, one after another, up onto the deck, leaving the skiff tied off at the port side. Despite his bluster, the hike had depleted the client’s reserves most of all and his assault on the pantry was merciless. His wife and the Boatman reached cautiously around him to fetch themselves breakfast in a few quick handfuls while he remained standing at the shelves, snatching samples of everything left in the stores.

While his wife retired to the cabin to change, the Boatman reminded the client that the skiff had to be brought up before they could sail on and get them home by tomorrow afternoon. The man offered a quick, jerky nod before eating a few more pieces of bread and soaking them on the way down with a swig of wine.

All three returned to the deck to bid farewell to the island, their indifferent host from the previous evening.

“Did you see that?” the client exclaimed suddenly.

“What?”

“It just jumped out of the water right over there,” he answered. “It was the size of my leg.”

“What, a fish?” his wife asked again.

“Get me the rod,” he insisted. “I’m going to catch us one.”

“Are these good waters for fishing?” she asked the Boatman.

“I’ve never been here before,” he reminded her.

“What’re you asking him for,” her husband snapped. “I just told you I saw the damn thing.”

The Boatman complied and rounded up the tackle while the client kept his eyes fixed, eagle-sharp, on the blue sheet of the morning sea, waiting for the phantom to reappear and taunt him again.

“It was pure silver,” he said, still watching for it. The Boatman put the rod in his hand and baited the hook for him. Then he staggered to the edge of the ship on his weary legs.

“Mind the sail when you cast,” the Boatman reminded him and the client replied with an open-mouthed bob of his head, like a child being scolded in advance of foolishness he knew he would be guilty of in due time. The Boatman brought the stool over and set it behind the client, who sat reflexively and settled into his vigil with the sea.

From the opposite side of the ship, his wife watched him—and the Boatman beside him.

“If you’re just going to sit around fishing all day,” she called out suddenly. “Then I want to go back to the beach.” The Boatman spun around, as if he had forgotten her presence, and crossed astern to meet het on the sun-lit port side.

“That’s fine,” her husband said absently in a small and distant voice. “You’d enjoy that.”

“Will you take me back?” she asked the Boatman.

He looked down at her, her eyes again fixed on him, but with an unmistakable intensity. During all of the trip he had never seen her look at him that way, expect perhaps that first night by the fire when her eyes had looked like brimstones set into the smooth slate of her face.

“Yes,” he agreed, knowing the full weight of his answer.

Flotsam & Jetsam (Part II, fifth 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.

 

 

“You know what I want to do now?” her husband announced, a half-chewed bite still clogging his mouth. “I want to go somewhere untouched.”

“What?”

“Well, I guess that’s not really possible, is it? There’s no where around here that’s actually unexplored, but I want to feel as though it is. Somewhere like that little island yesterday, but bigger. I want to hack through the jungle and feel as though I’m the first human being to ever do it.”

“You want the satisfaction of ravishing a virgin,” his wife suggested.

“Yes, precisely!” he agreed without irony. “Is there somewhere like that? Can you find us a spot like that?”

So far, the Boatman had been able to accommodate the demands of the simple tour and navigate from his memory of the tight web of islands. Now, though, he was forced to crack open the stiffened leather of the satchel he kept stowed just inside the hatch of the galley and spread out his charts and navigation equipment by the wheel.

The client and his wife watched silently as he examined the maps and adjusted their course.

“I can’t guarantee anything,” he told them.

“We still have two days,” the client answered. “It’s a big ocean, right?”

But most of the day was spent reaching the island the Boatman had chosen off the map. By early afternoon, the client spotted it excitedly and pointed off the bow at the dark walls of volcanic rock surrounding the tufts of green in the interior. The winds and currents required some creativity and they were forced to ride them parallel to the island for some time before he could follow the tides into the only navigable cove. He anchored just off a narrow beach of dark, chestnut-colored sand.

Before lowering the skiff, the client—childlike—said they should bring blankets and other bedding to spend the night on the island.

“You haven’t even stepped foot on it,” she said. “What if it’s awful.”

“It took us all day to get here. What’s the point if we row over, touch the sand and then have to come back to sleep. There’s no one else coming here, right? The ship will be safe on its own?”

The Boatman nodded and the wife acquiesced. The two men prepared the boat while she went below to select the food they would carry over with them. Next they piled in the bedding, wrapping it all in the tarp he used to cover the skiff when on deck. Once on the beach, the men dragged the skiff high up above the tide-line and piled a few non-essentials inside it, arranging the rest in packs to carry.

“Alright,” his wife said when they were finished loading up. “Which way did you want to explore?”

“This way,” her husband answered, pointing off into the thickest section of the island’s miniature rainforest.

“And what’s the purpose of this again?”

“That I decided to,” he answered, facing her mirthlessly. “Isn’t that enough? Hell, isn’t that all anyone’s purpose is?”

“I just don’t see the point.”

“You’d like to, what? Lay out on the beach? Maybe I don’t see the point in that.”

“There’s time enough to do both,” the Boatman interrupted, stepping closer to the couple to remind them of his presence. “But we’re equipped for a hike now, so we should probably do that.”

“Precisely,” her husband said with a smile. “Lead on,” he told the Boatman.

They rose up mild slopes, tackling the elevation of the small island in stages. It was a slow, easy hike. Only once did he have to pull out the knife and hack out fronds ahead of them to clear a path. He cleared his mind as they walked, focusing on the soft, colorless detritus of fallen leaves commingled with silt and the dark green arms of the creeping weeds that covered the ground. Still, at times he could not help but imagine these trees flying by him in a rush, these roots branching out malevolently as he ran, this patchy jungle as the scene of his flight from hostile natives.

“Isn’t it late?” the client’s wife asked. “Shouldn’t we stop?”

Her husband shot a glance up at the sky and squinted. “We’ve still got daylight.”

“Can we at least take a rest.”

“We’ve barely lost sight of the beach,” he complained, but his wife had already brushed off a broad black stone and settled onto it.

“Fine,” he said. “You stay with her,” he told the Boatman. “I’m going to look around more.”

“Best not to wander too far,” the Boatman said, throwing in a clipped, “Sir.”

“I’ll be fine,” the client said as he climbed a small ridge and disappeared behind a clump of bushes.

“Did you need some water?” the Boatman asked her. She nodded so he fished a bottle from his pack and offered it to her.

He watched her sip for a moment, but then thought better of lavishing too much attention on such a simple action. Instead he paced about absently, brushing his fingers over the leaves hanging around them.

Suddenly, there was a cry from the hill above. He shot a look to her and saw that she recognized her husband’s voice. She tightened the bottle and sprang to her feet.

The Boatman stormed through the brush, with the client’s wife following behind him. They broke through a wall of branches and found him standing at the edge of a small pool set into dark rock of almost crystalline symmetry.

“How about this?” he called out loudly. “It’s the damned fountain of youth.”

The Boatman stepped to the edge of the pool and peered into it. The client’s wife studied his expression. “Have you ever seen this?”

“Never,” he answered. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“What do you think?” the client asked, yanking off his boots. “A natural spring?”

“On an island this size?”

“Amazing, right.”

The Boatman nodded, his brow still crossed as he studied the strange formation.

The client had almost fully disrobed. “Aren’t you coming in?” he asked them both.

His wife drew nearer and lowered herself onto the rocks, undoing the laces on her own footwear so she could lower her feet into the water.

“Really? Just that?” He shrugged. “Suit yourself.” He plunged in and his wife shielded herself with the back of her hand as the splash dappled the fabric of her clothing.

Watching the client’s belly bob up and down in the water as he waded backwards in the pool, the Boatman said again, “I’ve never seen anything like this.”

“It’s beautiful,” she said softly.

“A lot better than your damned fish, isn’t it?” the client called out.

Her mouth puckered in and she looked away from her husband, tracing small kicks underneath the water.

As the night descended on the island, the air cooled quickly. They made camp not far from the freshwater pool. The client danced in circles, nearly naked, to dry himself around the fire while the Boatman and his wife arranged the bed rolls. They each sat on their bedding to eat a meal of fish recooked over the fire and some of the cheese from the ship. The client cursed when he realized he had not thought to bring another bottle of wine.

“Damn water,” he lamented. “It’s lukewarm, too. I’d prefer the pond over there. It’s cooler.”

“Might not be safe to drink,” the Boatman reminded him.

“Let him try,” his wife quipped. “His bath didn’t hurt him any.”

“Her affection bubbles over,” her husband said, laughing.

“You’re every bit as sarcastic as I am,” she retorted.

“I don’t think so, my dear. You’ve got the acid tongue. You act like everything I do is sufficient provocation for an insult.”

“I don’t insult you.”

“You just invited me to swallow contaminated water.”

“I was only joking.”

“Let’s get a third party opinion, shall we?”

The Boatman looked up in sudden alarm. “I don’t think I should—“

“Come now,” the client said warmly, as if what he had offered was an invitation to a ball. “You’ve gotten to know us well enough these last few days. You can comment intelligently on the subject.”

“I don’t think so.”

The wife stayed quietly, her eyes darting toward the Boatman with catlike flicks.

“Be honest,” the client implored. The Boatman suddenly felt his urgency and appreciated his talent for salesmanship. He was, when he needed to be, some kind of weaver—slipping bands stitched out of common empathy into a tapestry that was, ultimately, all about his own need.

“I’ve told you,” the Boatman began. “I don’t know anything about marriage. Most of the people I know out in the world avoid it as well, so I’m no judge of anything. In my experience, any two people who spend enough time together will rub each other raw at times. You’re not the worst in that regard I’ve known—though I’m thinking specifically of two men who spent twenty years together as little more than pirates.” The client’s shoulders spasmed with guffawing laughter. “I do have to say, I was somewhat surprised at what you said about vocation the other day.”

“Vocation?”

“Yes,” the Boatman answered.

“What does that have to do with this?”

“In a way you were calling your wife useless. I could see why she might be insulted.”

“Useless?” the client replied, leaning forward to study the other man in the light of the fire. “What do you mean?”

“You said your life had meaning because of vocation,” the Boatman explained. “But what’s hers?”

“Her what?”

“Vocation. Her purpose?”

The client looked to his wife sitting quietly with her knees pulled up to her chin.

“You criticized the idle rich, but she’s essentially got that life. You even complained that she was too eager to spend money at the market, but again, that seems like her looking for something to do—to fill those idle hours you pride yourself on providing for her.”

“She’s not—I didn’t mean like her,” the client tried to explain. “There is the house, you know. She has that,” he answered. But it was a weak defense and all three of them knew it, so a silence fell over the crackling orange ballet of the fire on the bluff. The Boatman apologized for saying too much and the client equivocated by reminding him that he had asked for it and the wife simply argued it had been a long, tiring day and said that they should all go to bed.

To put truth to her words, she and her husband were soon fast asleep in the fading glow of the fire. The Boatman, though, did not close his eyes for some time. It was not as it had been the night before, though. This time he could not help his gaze from drifting across the void left in place of the ground toward the sleeping shape of the woman a few feet away from him, the impenetrable rhythm of her breath making the blanket wrapped about the tip of her shoulder sway like a slowly receding tide.

Flotsam & Jetsam (Part II, 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.

 

 

“If that’s true,” she said with a wave of her hand. “Then I don’t know why you do all that you do. We could be perfectly content with much less than we have now.”

“She says that,” her husband guffawed. “But look at how much she managed to buy in that worthless island market back there. No, a woman can say things like that, but we know the truth, don’t we?”

In the dim, cackling light of the fire he saw her eyes—dull black circles reflecting an orange glow—turn on him as her husband laughed again.

“I wouldn’t know anything about it,” he answered. “I’ve never had to provide for anyone.”

“Count yourself lucky,” the client chuckled.

“You could,” the wife said earnestly. “Those bunks sleep two down there, don’t they,” she added with a lift of her chin toward the ship.

“That’s just the guest cabin,” he said. “Mine’s for one.”

“Better for it!” her husband answered, throwing back more wine.

His wife looked away, biting off bread as she stared at the water. They said little more; the night turned cold. The men packed up the provisions as the fire burned down to embers; she tossed bits of bread to sleepy-eyed gulls waiting on the sand dunes behind them.

They loaded in the skiff and the Boatman pushed them off with several quick steps through the soft sand, pulling himself in as it bobbed over the first breaker and grasping the oars to drive them out to the ship. It took longer against the tide and as they bobbed, he saw the husband looking about lazily—from the surging water, to the blinking stars above, to the nail of his index finger—but the wife looked past the Boatman to the ship, to its gray silhouette on the moon-lit water.

They climbed aboard, exchanged some pleasantries, and then retired to their respective cabins. The Boatman put out the light over his bunk and lay in the dark, listening. There were, at first, vague sounds of movement. Some fumbling sounds as they worked their way into the bunk and arranged the bedding.

Then nothing.

If they spoke, it was in church-quiet voices or intimate whispers. He waited for sleep for a long time that night. He remembered the elder’s home. He remembered the prison hut. He closed his eyes and felt how his back and arms had felt pressed into a crook in the ribbed hull of the skiff. He tried to turn his mind to the steady heartbeat of the sea beneath him, to let its long, drawn-out pulse lull him to sleep—as it always did.

It took a long time that night.

In the morning he still woke before them. He ate a quick meal before he climbed up to check the rode and ready the sails. The first stirring he heard was the client’s voice at the hatch.

“You know what I feel like for breakfast?” he called out. “Fish!”

The Boatman smirked and stepped over to the halyard to hoist the sail. Within a few minutes he had them underway, heading toward a spot he remembered for good fishing not far away.

The client stayed below decks, but his wife emerged a few moments later with a mug in hand. She tested the air and then pulled her lavender robe tightly around her before coming all the way on deck.

“Careful,” he warned her as she stepped close to the edge. She nodded to him and gripped the wood above the cabin to steady herself. In the distance, a local catamaran drifted near them with three young, nearly nude bodies gripping the aka between the two hulls. One of them raised a single arm into the air and waved. She returned the gesture and grinned.

“Who are they?” she asked.

“Just a local fisher family.”

“They work as a family?”

“Some do, yes.”

“Are we going where they are?”

“No,” he answered. “We’ll go farther. Deeper.”

“But don’t they know these waters best?”

“Probably, but I know some good spots as well,” he told her. “Besides, your husband won’t want any other ships around wherever we stop.”

“Is that what he told you?” she asked, drawing closer with cautious steps along the deck. “Did he say, ‘sell me the whole sea?’ A whole ocean to himself?”

“Not in those words.”

She huffed and turned her grin back out to the receding shape of the catamaran.

He brought the ship out of range of the islands, out into a patch of black sea with low, puffing waves. He stepped out from the wheel and began drawing back on the halyard.

“We’re stopping here?”

He nodded.

“Shouldn’t we drop anchor or something?”

“Not practical,” he answered.

“Why not?”

“I don’t carry that much line.”

She let go of the cabin and leaned over the gunwale, looking down into the abyss.

“Still be careful,” he told her. “Just because we’re not moving forward doesn’t mean we won’t be moving.”

She nodded to him, but remained where she was, looking through the glass block beneath them, catching the beams of sunlight diving through the living prism of it all. Her husband finally made an appearance on deck, bare chested and ruddy in the morning light.

“Well,” he said. “Shall we? I’m famished.”

The Boatman broke out the tackle from the compartment on deck and offered the best equipment to the client.

“You’ve fished waters like these before?” he asked, watching the man handle the rod.

“Can’t say I have. Mostly just fished in lakes back home. What do I need to know?”

“We’ll set the lures a little differently,” he told him. “And you should be prepared.”

“Prepared for what?”

“For fish stronger than you are.”

He coached him further and showed him a few casts before letting him settle in on one side.

“You should eat something from down below,” his wife told him. “You’ll be half-starved before you catch anything.”

“That sounds like a lack of faith.”

She shrugged and drank from her mug. There were a few false hits. One clever animal snatched the bait and made off with it, hardly disturbing the line in the process. Within half an hour, though, the line dipped with a sudden and pronounced pull. The client yipped gleefully and the Boatman went to his side to guide him through hauling in the fish.

“Not yet,” he told him. “Tire it out first.” The client nodded. “We don’t want to pull it in when it’s got too much fight left in it.” The client held the rod tightly, watching the line jerk across the surface of the water in a zig-zag motion. As it slowed and then dropped toward aft, the Boatman nodded his assent and the client began drawing in the catch.

“What is that?” his wife gasped when she first saw the animal twinkling in the water.

With another hoisting motion, her husband brought it out of the water. It was a tall, stout creature, longer and taller than the length of a man’s arm. Its skin was predominantly blue—a fierce, bright blue—but it was covered beak to tail in coral patterns of a flush red and deep purple.

“I’ve never seen anything like that,” she said reverently as it was lowered, flopping and gasping onto the deck.

“Can we eat it?” the client asked.

The Boatman nodded with a down-turned upper lip. “With the right spices,” he said. He knelt beside it and drew out his knife, extending one hand forward to grab the gils so he could kill it.

“Wait!” she said from beside them.

“What?” the husband snapped.

“You can’t kill something that beautiful.”

The Boatman wrapped his fingers inside the desperately flapping gills and turned his head up toward her. “Everything’s beautiful,” he told her. “We still have to eat.”

She opened her mouth as if she meant to respond, but said nothing. Her husband huffed and looked back at the squirming fish. The Boatman narrowed his eyes on her and let her watch the fish jerk a few more times. Once she closed her mouth and stepped back, he turned to the fish and drove the knife in behind the gills.

He skinned it quickly on deck and brushed the mess of speckled blue, violet, and crimson scales into the sea. He cut several thick steaks from the bone and took them below. Soon thin plumes of white smoke snaked out of the ports and hatch to the galley.

He returned with two platters of white meat dotted by flecks of seasoning.

The client quickly began shoveling bites into his mouth, offering grunts of appreciation as he ate. His wife, though, took the plate and pressed herself against the outer wall of the cabin before raising a bite off the plate. She looked up at the Boatman before placing it in her mouth. When she did, she chewed it delicately. He watched her staring outward and imagined that she was recreating in her mind the animal she’d seen fighting the line.

“Well?” he asked.

“That may be the best fish I’ve ever had,” she said.

Flotsam & Jetsam (Part II, 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.

 

“A quick tour?” the client said, more instruction than question.

“Is there much to tour?” his wife asked.

“I can show you below,” the Boatman offered, stepping over to the hatch and swinging it open.

The client’s wife went first, taking cautious steps as she stooped. Her husband had difficulty; he was unable to crouch through the hatch comfortably and ended up lowering himself with his arms as much as walking down. The Boatman followed, finding them paused in befuddlement in the galley area.

“The kitchen,” the client said. “Obviously.”

“The galley, yes,” the Boatman corrected.

The wife leaned toward one of the shelves lit by the sunlight through the port and studied the contents. She nodded and offered a polite smile. Her husband eyed the bench seat at the table fixed into the wall and said, “I imagine you mostly eat on deck.”

“Often,” the Boatman answered before extending his arm forward to show them the cabins. “You will have the room to the right.”

“Will we fit?” the client asked, spreading his arms out in the galley. Perhaps he thought he might really touch both walls, but he ended up standing as a cross with his fingers brushing air and then slapping them back down at his side to follow his wife to the cabin.

“Cozy,” she said, peeking in to the room.

“Yes,” the Boatman agreed from behind them in the passage. “It will be.” The client ducked his head in the room and panned back and forth. “But that is the point, isn’t it?”

“Excuse me?” she asked.

“Just the two of you.”

“And you,” she corrected.

“Oh, I’ll try to be invisible.”

The client drew his upper body back into the passage and faced the Boatman. “No other crew then? Isn’t this ship a little big for one man.”

“It’s usually convenient to have a crew, yes.” The sounds of the river trying to swallow him up suddenly flashed through his mind. “But I’m between mates just now. Besides, I thought since the point of your journey was to enjoy the romance of the sea that you would want to try your hand at a few tricks of the trade,” he answered with a plastic smile.

“Oh yes, yes,” the client answered. “And, what about fish?”

“You want to catch fish?”

“Do you have any gear?”

“Yes, of course,” he answered. “I can break it out for you later, when we’ve found a spot where we’re more likely to have a good catch.”

“Excellent.”

“And until then?” his wife asked.

“Well, ma’am,” he said and the sound of it was ice-brittle and absurd. “What would you like?”

“Is there a seat I can use up top? I’d like to just watch as we go.”

“I can arrange that,” he answered.

“And while she sits, you can show me the ropes.”

The Boatman nodded and stepped back so they could slip past him. They climbed back up onto deck—the husband with similar contortions necessary as before—and he dug into his storage compartment, looking for a stool he remembered being stuffed in there at some point in the past. He dragged it out, listening to the muffled sounds of their voices above him, and ran the scrub brush over its legs a few times before snatching the cleanest canvas sack he could find and stuffing it full of the left-over down from making the bedding.

He hurried back to deck. He found his two guests at opposite ends of the boat. The wife stood by the bow, turned a bit toward the hilltop where her own massive home stared down at them. The husband paced the perimeter of the ship, tapping the tarp-covered skiff with his knuckles and fussing over the tension in the tack line. The Boatman set the stool down and arranged his make-shift cushion on it.

Unwilling to cough up more verbal deference, he cleared his throat quietly to draw her attention. She turned, saw the seat and gave him a quick, perfunctory smile before letting her attention drift back out to to the busy comings and goings of the port. He left her, adjusting the headsail and then crossing up the starboard side of the ship.

“Should we get underway?” the client asked, coming in with him to the wheel.

“Yes,” the Boatman answered. He whistled at the nearest dock attendant and pointed at the moorings. The man shuffled over to the line, slapping the side of another worker as he went. The second worker dashed to the next mooring cleat and slipped the line free. The first man raised a broad-nosed pole and pressed against the port bow, helping the breeze overcome inertia. The Boatman spun the wheel and side stepped to loosen the line of the boom, letting the mainsail catch enough air to set them turning.

“What should I do?” the client asked, surprisingly childlike in his eagerness.

“Just a moment,” the Boatman answered. He quickly adjusted the tiller with the wheel to keep the bow from scraping back against the dock and then leaped over to adjust the boom again. The client stood back, watching the frenzied movement with his mouth slightly agape. “Stand clear,” the Boatman ordered as he let the boom out. The client shuffled back. The sail went taunt and the ship lurched to port, forcing the client to brace himself against the overturned skiff. The Boatman saw the stool slide out from behind the mast step on its side. There had been no sound of distress from the client’s wife indicating she had been astride it when it tipped over, though, so he continued attending to the maneuvers.

At the helm, he kept the ship tucked into the narrow intersection of the current and the outward gust to draw them out of the cove. She gained speed quickly, skirting an incoming barge’s wake, and heading straight toward the rocks beneath the clients’ home.

“Hey,” the client said from behind, seeing their course toward what he must have imagined was oblivion. “Should we—“

The Boatman, though, was too busy to respond. His eyes were fixed on the bands of blue in the clear water as the shadow of the mast fell across the breakers slapping the hull. He was about to step away from the wheel to make one last adjustment, but remembering the stammering of his client, he stayed at the helm and barked to the other man, “Undo that line.”

“What?” the client said, standing suddenly erect and looking about.

“That one,” the Boatman replied, extending one hand off the wheel to indicate a line coming off the clew.

The client checked the sight of the rocks ahead and then, nodding, wobbled over to the gunwale and yanked at the line.

“Just give it a quick rotation,” the Boatman said. Again the man looked up at the approaching cliff face, but this time when he pulled the line at the cleat it came free and the sail rippled and then caught again facing seaward. The Boatman nudged the wheel and the bow swung outward with the sail, facing the empty line of the azure horizon.

He secured the helm and then went forward to check on his other passenger.

The stool still lay toppled over on the deck, but the client’s wife sat serenely just aft of the foresail. Her legs were folded beside her—bare feet curled against one another—and she propped up her poised back with her arm locked so straight that it seemed ready to snap at the elbow. But nothing else about her suggested discomfort. Her face turned slowly to meet his and she smiled, more genuinely than before, and said, “I’m sorry. I was more comfortable like this. Is that alright?”

“Of course,” he said, turning away and back to the helm.

“What’s our first stop?” the client asked, regaining his stature on the steady aft deck.

“Where would your wife like to go?”

“I’m sure she’ll trust us to decide,” he answered off-hand. The Boatman did not so much as raise an eyebrow, but simply faced forward, his hands on the wheel. “Maybe we…” the other man muttered and then stomped forward. The Boatman could not see the woman splayed out on the deck, but he saw where her husband paused and lowered himself onto his haunches to speak with her. The man’s head bobbed a moment or two as they talked, and then he returned to the helm. “She says she would like to visit some of the smaller towns on the outlying islands,” he said, adding, “to see what they have to offer.”

“I can think of one or two that should do.”

When the sun peaked in the still air above them, he served them a light lunch on deck. They sat together—he on the stool and she on the naked deck—taking small, deliberate bites and saying nothing as the wind carried them forward.

Within an hour they sighted a small, funnel-topped island quivering green on the horizon. On its shores were a series of interconnected hamlets, all within walking distance of one another. There was no harbor, though, and he had to anchor well off shore and solicit the client’s help lowering the skiff into the water.

The husband climbed down into the dinghy first and reached up to help his wife down. She eyed her husband’s outstretched hands and the height of the freeboard with suspicion.

“I’m sorry,” the Boatman said. “I should’ve thought to get us a ladder.”

“That’s alright,” she answered, still evaluating the drop into the skiff.

“Just come on over,” her husband urged.

“I’ll manage,” she murmured.

“Here,” the Boatman said, opening his hands beside her. He guided her—his hands on her hips—to the gate. He squeezed her between his fingers and lifted her. She chirped and flung her own hands down on his shoulder as he held her over the edge. Her husband ducked to avoid her kicking feet as the Boatman cautiously lowered himself onto his knees. His arms quaked as he extended her body forward so that her husband could get a grip around her lower quarters.

When he felt the tension released form his arms, he let her go and her body fell slightly against her husband’s, rocking the skiff.

The Boatman climbed down and loosed the lines holding them to the ship. With a sweep of his hand he invited them to settle in at the forward thwart while he sat to the aft and took one oar to the water. With the favorable tide, it only took them a moment to reach the sandy shoal. The locals—immune to alarm—looked their way with toothy-mouthed good nature and went about their business.

Once again, the Boatman offered his hand to help the client’s wife step over the licking edge of the water and onto dry ground. This time her fingers passed more ephemerally through his but still left a trace of warmth on the skin of his palm.

“There’s a market square just down that path,” he told them.

“You’re not coming?” they asked him in unison, but with decidedly different tones.

“I’m going to talk to some of those fisherfolk over there,” he said, gesturing toward some long boats parked alongside each other at the other end of the beach full of shirtless men gabbing in the afternoon sun. “I’ll see if I can buy a ladder from one of them. I’ll wait here for you whenever you’re ready.”

The clint nodded, grinning with a satisfaction that suggested that this was precisely as he would have liked. The woman just looked away and started toward the path to the market the Boatman had suggested.

He made easy talk with the fishermen, who were biding their hours until twilight when they expected their quarry to swarm the neighboring reef, and talked one of them out of a rope ladder for a ridiculously low price. When their banter and indolent talk died down and he found himself standing among their errant stares into the distance, he returned to the skiff and sat against the side, waiting for his passengers.

At one point two sun-baked children of indeterminate sex caught his attention. They had slowly progressed on his berth in the damp sands during their play, though neither seemed at all aware of his presence, or his gaze, as they made sport of a small hermit crab they had frightened out of his niche. The creature attempted flight on his stubby legs, but one child or the other would continually snatch it up by the twisted, brown snail shell on its back and turn it about, forcing it to retrace its own pinprick footprints in the sand.

“There’s a metaphor in that somewhere,” a woman’s voice said as he watched.

He looked up—catching a stab of sunlight in the eye that made him blink for a moment—and saw that the client’s wife had returned. Her husband was short behind her as she raised one sandaled foot to step over the Boatman’s legs and into the boat. Trailing the client was a local whom they had apparently hired to ferry their purchases back for them. He carried only a short stack of linens topped by a few trinkets, items the Boatman knew she could have easily purchased in the shops on the bluff back in port.

The husband gestured for the local porter to set their items in the boat while the Boatman climbed out and made ready to shove them back into the waiting surf. Before he could, though, the client leaned in toward his ear.

As the local accepted payment from the wife and bounded back up the beach, the husband hissed, “Get me away from people.”

Back on the ship, the Boatman obliged, aiming the bow away from the arc of the slow diving sun and toward the outer atolls. They sailed past two more inhabited islands where already evening lights were being lit for that night’s communal meals and headed off into open water.

Then, near dusk, a small, black shape rose off the horizon line ahead of them. As they drew nearer a slender beach appeared from the indistinct shape of the island, colored rose by the games of the setting sun. At the center of the island, only a small clump of vegetation rose above the level of the beach.

“It’s tiny,” the wife observed.

“Not even enough to support a colony of rats,” the husband said.

“No. Those four trees and a few beetles are the only life on it.”

“Perfect,” the client said, slapping the mast. “Let’s land.”

Once again they lowered the skiff into the water, this time loading it with bundles of food from the galley and one of the bottles of wine the client had included in the cargo his servants brought aboard. The Boatman was about to apologize for having no glassware for it when the client produced a tall box of thin, pale wood. From it he pulled one of two finely-crafted glass flutes and checked it for cracks before sealing the box again and including it in the bundle for the Boatman to lower onto the boat.

Once on the beach, he made a small pile of lumber and set it alight to warm them.

The couple reclined together and opened up the satchels of food just as the stars were winking into their brilliance above them.

“If you wanted to stay awhile I could…” the Boatman began, gesturing toward the skiff.

“No, no,” the client said. “We’ll be eaten alive by bugs if we stay too long. Let’s just make a meal of it and then get back to the ship.”

“But it’s so pleasant,” he wife mumbled without impact.

The Boatman nodded and sat down in the sand across the fire from them.

“Get something,” she suggested, extending the fingers of her right hand toward the containers of food. He nodded graciously and shimmied over toward a plank of cheese.

He drew his knife and sliced off a chunk.

“That’s some knife,” the client observed. The Boatman turned it in the light, watching the fire reflect off the serrated ivory line of the blade. “Where’d you get something like that?”

“A long story,” the Boatman answered.

“An interesting one?” the wife asked.

“Not very.”

The client shrugged and, while still grinding some hard-baked bread in one corner of his mouth, fished out the flutes from their case and poured the wine.

“How will he—“ his wife began to ask, seeing only two glasses.

“I’m fine, please,” he assured her.

“A toast,” the client said, raising his glass. Comically, the Boatman raised his remaining brick of cheese. The wife laughed.

“To what?” she asked.

“To the good life.”

The couple sipped their wine and the Boatman sliced off a nugget of cheese before popping it into his mouth.

“It seems ironic,” she said. “That we’re toasting the life you enjoy every day.”

The client scrunched up his brow and looked at his wife disapprovingly. The Boatman simply replied, “My life isn’t always this…”

“Placid,” she suggested.

“I think your husband was toasting the life he’s provided you,” he answered. “The house on the hill and all of that.”

“Oh,” she said, already much louder with the wine on her lips than she had been all day. “That place isn’t ours, you know. We’re just managing it for someone back home.” She drank from her glass. “We’re not that wealthy, you know. Of course, he won’t be happy until we are.”

“Now,” her husband said, rising off the sand a bit. “Why do you say that?”

“Isn’t that why you do—all that you do?” she asked without looking in his direction.

“I’ve never said I want us to be fantastically rich, no,” he answered.

“No?” the Boatman quipped from across the unsteady flames. “Doesn’t everyone?”

“No,” he answered firmly. “This is just about right. Think of yourself,” he said to the Boatman. “Would you really be satisfied if someone paid you for one of your expeditions with your weight in gold and you never had to put to sea again? Hardly knowing you at all, I can say, ‘no.’ You’d hate it.  Our lives have meaning,” she said before taking another swig of wine. “You must work. I must work. I must do things or else the food and the wine, the house and everything we enjoy will fall away. That’s the value of vocation. The truly wealthy, I pity them. What must they do? Nothing.”

“If it’s work that you value,” the Boatman asked. “What’s the purpose then of this little cruise?”

“It’s natural for human beings to seek pleasure, to enjoy themselves, to make light and sport,” he answered, nodding with satisfaction. “You’ve travelled widely. You know that’s a universal. Even the poor have festivals, have diversions. Everywhere you see people find their enjoyment, even in lives of deprivation. They play in the dust if they have to….No, there’s nothing wrong with diversion, unless it’s all you have.”

 

Flotsam & Jetsam (Part II, 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.

 

They talked only a few minutes more, so that the client could make clear his expectations, including where to meet again—“Not out here,” he said, looking about the bluffs.

“No, no,” the Boatman had agreed. “Of course not.”

“She’ll be more comfortable at the other docks.”

“Of course, of course,” he had said again.

With the stranger’s money in hand, the Boatman walked down the steps to the harbor and made his way to the ship. Taking up a lamp, he opened the hatch and went below deck. He passed the bare shelves of the galley and entered the narrow passage between the two staterooms. He paused at the closed door to his right and let the glow of the light hover on the latch, before shaking his head and turning in to his own bunk.

In the morning he retraced his steps back up the perilous stairs and sought out first some breakfast. Later he hired a porter with a cart and purchased tools for carpentry, some lumber, a sack of down, and several yards of cloth.

Awkwardly, the scrawny porter helped him ferry the supplies down in two steep descents. When the materials were loaded on the deck of the ship, the Boatman looked down at him, scruffy beard and impassive jaw, and sent him away with the sum he had promised. He hauled everything below deck himself.

There he finally opened the door to the boy’s room and examined it. There was not much in the room that pointed to any specific human habitation. A few candles were melted down on a shelf by the bunk and a pile of his companion’s clothes lay folded underneath. The Boatman gathered the articles and placed them individually in the base of a large canvas sack, then knotted it closed and stowed the bag in the cluttered compartment before the mast. Then he set to work with the saw and hammer, building a wider platform for the bed.

By afternoon, he had modified the stateroom to sleep two, though there was no longer much room to move about. The rest of the day he spent on deck sewing the down into padding for the bunk. Other than one break when he climbed up to the city again for food, he spent the rest of his waking hours preparing the sheets and other bedding.

The next morning, he once again climbed the steps at dawn, but returned much sooner with only one bag of supplies. He took a scrub brush and soap below decks and began scouring the interior of the galley and the new guest cabin. After several hours of cleaning and then drying the timbers with thick swabs of cotton, he climbed out again and returned with several bags of victuals—breads, cheeses, and other stock hardy enough to last a few days at sea. Other, finer morsels like fruits and olives he would procure on the other side of the cove before rendezvousing with the client and his wife.

At twilight, the ship was ready and while taking a late supper he sat on the stern between the tiller and the over-turned skiff watching the lights go up in the city above him. He followed the lines of the port with his eyes, from the highlands with their scant pinpricks of light to the broad glowing mass of light hovering over the beach. Then, above it all, he saw his client’s house—the sprawling wings beneath its parapets lit as if for a banquet, as if the lights themselves were guests.

He thought for a moment that he could untie right then and coast out on the tide, skirt the outer edge of the cove and sail into the night. He had food enough for himself to last weeks and a small store of money that would be good in every port within sailing range. The only loss would be a day’s work converting the bunk, but the swindle would already profit him more than five runs upriver without ever having to stomach the wealthy client’s orotund voice again.

Shaking his head, he tossed the last nibble of bread to a gull floating aft of the ship and, stretching his arms in the cooling air before going down, put in for the night.

In the morning, he pushed off and opened the jib enough to let the ship drift lazily across the mouth of the inlet.

As he neared the dock, obsequious workers scuttled on the edge of the platform, readying their eager hands like crab claws snapping in the air. When the ship nudged up to the pier, they lampreyed on and tied her down. He hopped down, but before he could even mutter a thank you a slim man with rat-trap eyes had appeared to collect his fee.

He disliked bureaucrats who were not susceptible to bribery or even haggling, and left grumbling as the dock crews watched over the ship. His first stop was to buy himself more fitting clothing for his new role as yacht captain and from there he visited several exclusive shops and warehouses for the finer foodstuffs he imagined his guests would expect.

Returning to the dock a few hours later, he passed a bustle of activity. More ships had come in to port and dozens of sailors and merchants were scurrying over every inch of the wide platforms not piled high with crates and boxes.

When he reached the end of the longest pier, he found that some of the activity had spilled over onto his own ship.

“What’re you doing on there!” he barked at three young pages crawling up and down the ramp to the deck. One of them looked up with a start, his arms full of several leather cases stacked higher than his shoulders. The boy did not answer, though. He only stared blankly at the Boatman, forcing him to repeat. “What are you doing on my ship?”

Still mute, the boy answered only by gesturing with a twist of his neck back up the length of the dock. The Boatman followed the line of the pier and saw two figures emerging from the cabin of one of the many vehicles clogging up the street nearest the harbormaster’s offices.

He saw his client dressed in a seemingly identical suit of clothes as he had worn at their first meeting and clearly, even at a distance, brandishing the same supercilious manner. Just behind him was a woman in a flowing white dress with slender, pinion ankles emerging in quick springing movements between the draping cotton and then slipping back into cover as she floated forward.

While the couple made their way down the length of the dock—loaders and shippers leaping out of their way—he boarded the ship and unlocked the hatch to let the servants stow his clients’ luggage.

Without exchanging any words, the servants followed him down the narrow steps below deck. He raised his hand for the first of them to pause and asked, “What’s in those?”

The young servant looked grief-stricken at such a personal inquiry.

“I need to know whether it’s something they’ll want easy access to,” the Boatman explained. “There’s not much space in the stateroom, but I have some storage aft.” He pointed toward the locker at the end of the passage. “Or I’ve got the compartment up on deck behind the mast,” he added. The porter’s face twitched and then he pointed toward the cabin doors. “Fine,” the Boatman said. “On the right.”

When he returned topside, it seemed the wealthy couple had hardly moved. Unlike the harried labors of their servants, they drifted imperturbable among the seafolk on the dock, itinerant gods dripping rose oil blessings with every patient, sedate step. Finally, the formic servants returned unburdened along the same path they had followed into the belly of the ship and left the deck in a clattering of six legs. The Boatman continued to wait at the bow and watched as the pages passed their masters without exchanging any words and without receiving any more recognition than the dozens of others lingering on the dock.

The client stepped to the edge of the ship, smiled up, and nodded appreciatively—though whether for the ship itself or the stance of the captain on its deck, he could not say.

“Everything’s prepared?” he shouted, as though the Boatman was much further.

“Ready when you are.”

The client nodded, and walked forward with his wife trailing.

The Boatman walked to the edge of the ramp and returned the gesture as the client strolled up. Then, as the lady approached with careful steps, he reached out his hand to offer her support. She took it reflexively and did not turn her small eyes toward the Boatman. He, though, noticed the soft meat of her hand as it pressed into his.

“Oh, yes, you haven’t met my wife,” the client said, strutting in a small semicircle beside the boom. “Dear, this is our captain.”

She moved her hand out of his and pursed her lips as she studied the ship.

Suddenly, the wind blew against her from the water, wrapping the muslin against the bony rise of her shoulder blade and she looked up at the Boatman beside her, as if he might be responsible for the gust, showing a face like the stern peaks looking down upon the mountain.

“Thank you,” she said in a voice of a single pitch, without emphasis on any one syllable. Something in that voice reminded him of the sea.