Category Archives: NaNoWriMo

New(ish) Novel Available

It occurred to me yesterday that I never made a complete, edited version of my 2013 NaNoWriMo novel available on the site.

That story, retitled Right of Salvageis now posted under novels. I have not and probably won’t be making it available through Lulu or Amazon, but may post eReader-friendly versions if there’s any demand for that sort of thing at all.

Thanks and enjoy!

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

 

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.

Flotsam & Jetsam (Part IV, 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.

 

He half-woke, delirious, several times. His dreams had offered no respite, landing him in the gaping, toothed maws of whirlpools, creatures of sailor lore dancing in rings about his doomed ship. As the boards were plucked away by the wind, he saw that the ship was a living thing, a leviathan in wooden armor, and the storm was stripping away its protection, leaving only naked, vulnerable skin, unsullied as the moment of creation. From these nightmares he would sit up, mumble and lay back down, the exhaustion holding him. 

When he finally regained consciousness, the sounds clanging against the hull left him no hope that the storm had finished with the ship. He did not bother to even leave the bunk. His arm and wrist were swollen and red, but if he was careful not to move, they did not disturb him, so he decided to let himself drift back to sleep. 

The next time he rose to his feet and went to the galley to check the view through the ports. Outside remained a static gray, the only feature of the world he could discern was the wavy refraction of water running over the glass. He found a bucket in the back storage closet and relieved himself in it before crawling back to the bunk. 

It was not so easy to force himself to sleep again. He could only listen to the ravages of the storm outside. It was a miracle the glass in the galley had not been smashed, and more fortunate still that the hatch was holding its seal against the water so well. Dimly, he reached for the wall and patted the outer hull, praising the ship quietly for its resilience. He considered his priorities as he lay there. The sail would have to be repaired. He hoped that it had remained coiled around the mast. If not, there was a shabby replacement—the original cloth that had hung from the mast when he had first acquired the ship—in the large storage compartment on deck, buried beneath the tackle, spare oars, and a dozen other tools. Once the sail was restored, he would have to find some kind of bearing. He needed the storm to give him some peace for that. Without a clear night, he would have no hope of ascertaining anything about his whereabouts. Even then, without charts he would be relying on nothing more than memory. Still, with a decent wind and a clear vector it should be enough to find a port. He had enough money then for complete repairs. With decent weather, he could fish enough to stay alive along the way. 

Water, though.

He bolted upright. Heading out again, he retrieved a wide-mouthed container from the galley. As soon as he unlatched it, the door flung backwards violently. The wind belted him about the eyes through the open passage. Water began streaming in over the lip of the hatch. He held up the jug to the rain, and opened his mouth as well. It was a futile gesture, though. More water was entering the cabin than he was collecting, and splashes from the waves risked contaminating what little he was able to gather.

He closed the jug between his knees and pulled the hatch closed with both hands, shutting out the storm and the sea. The icy water, though, was now ankle deep in the cabin, and he had only one day’s worth of an emergency ration in the jug. He sealed it, and shoved it into a secure spot as the ship rocked back and forth. 

He gathered everything edible that remained in the galley and made his way—in short jerks powered by the jostling of the ship—back to the bunk. Untold hours passed by in the dark. There was no way to distinguish day from night, and the storm was a nearly seamless din of wind and crashing water. Then, amidst the monotony, there was a crash.

He hardly looked up. There was nothing for him to do, no point in feeling anything about it, but he knew. The mast had snapped. The ship was dead. 

He lay in the belly of the ship for what felt like days more. He made little effort to conserve his rations, expecting that at any moment the ship would capsize and he would be drowned in the dark cabin. Faces haunted him. Leering voices from times in his past he barely remembered hissed at him. He knew then what madness tasted like, what solitude and terror asked of the soul in the slim hours before dying.

But he did not die.

He opened his eyes and realized that the noise of the storm was gone. He pulled himself off the bunk, wincing at the brief flash of pain from his blackened arm, and waded through the slush on the floor of the cabin. The glass was finally gone from both windows, though he had no idea when they had been shattered. Light streamed in from both so brightly that his scabbed-over eyes could not look at it. He braced his stiff body against the hatch and, once his eyes could see the wall clearly, threw it open. 

The white line of the horizon graduated to rich blues above him. The sun was brilliant, but it hung low on the horizon. 

Only a stump of the mast remained, snapped clean off just below where the boon should have been. There was no sign remaining of any of the rigging now. The force of the storm had wrenched the mast free and had swept away every line connected to it. Walking the perimeter of the deck, he found the hull was sound—once separated, the mast had not collided with it. The rudder was intact and he could steer. He only lacked for propulsion. 

He assembled all the material and tools he could to reconstruct the jib, since there was no hope of propping up the spare sail. As he began to work, though, he realized that the sun was not setting, it was moving in an arc across the bottom quarter of the sky. He had not paid enough attention to the cold air biting around him, but now he realized that he was shivering, even with all the layers he had wrapped himself in. He was north—farther north than he had ever travelled. 

The sun reached its apex as he was finishing his work to restore the foresail. The drag was minimal, but enough to pull the hull over the gentle hills of blue around him. The ship could limp where he wanted it to.

“Where?” he said aloud. He could wait for the sun to set and hope to navigate by the stars, but he knew that, unaided by equipment or references, he would be doing little more than guessing. The most logical course seemed to be due south, toward warmer waters, richer stocks of fish, and hopefully civilization. The wind, though, was against him. His rigging was crude and while he could coax it to propel the ship southward, it would be in fits and starts, bending southwest, then southeast. 

A shadow flickered across the deck before him. 

A flock of white-bellied terns passed overhead, bearing northward. As he watched them outpacing the ship, they broke their glide in the clear air for a moment to flap their gray wings and gain altitude. He oriented the rudder to follow their course, even though they slipped beyond his view quickly in the glare of afternoon. The birds were going somewhere, perhaps a feeding ground, perhaps to land. With luck, there might be fishermen out there, or if the flock found land, a village or other settlement. 

He needed to find other human beings. Soon.

He locked the bow north, following the terns’ course. He was less than an hour at sea, though, before he heaved to and brought the ship to rest with a series of abrupt maneuvers at the tiller. He stepped to the edge of the deck and stared emotionlessly forward. 

Before him loomed a monolithic span of solid white and blue—a crag-ridden, immense wall of ice towering above the sheen of the undisturbed ocean.

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.

Flotsam & Jetsam (Part IV, first 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.

 

The storm closed in on the ship as surges slapped against the hull and soaked the fabric of the sail.

When the weather had first shifted and he had seen dimly that the clouds would overtake him, the Boatman had cursed himself for the impulsive lurch into a dark night so unprepared. When the first fingers of dawn crept into the distant sky, he pulled open the compartment before the wheel and stared into the empty bin as the wind howled past him. A voice in his mind tried to urge him past the empty space, but for several moments he could not shake loose of the sight.

He shook his head and closed it. He had hoped that he could quickly find his bearings and plot a course back to the coast, huddle in a sheltered cove—maybe the one with the township, maybe another. Without the charts and gear, though, he had only the diffuse light of the sun to steer by.

He checked the cloud mass. Soon he would not even have the sun.

Buffeted by the gales, he reminded himself what idiocy it had been to set off. He had laid in no supplies, taken on no water—though that would hardly be a problem any time in the foreseeable future. Idiocy. And again he thought about the empty compartment. It could only have been the girl. Had there been wet footprints on the deck? Should he have seen some sign of her presence? He knew he was wasting energy on thoughts that did not help him, that only kept him focus on what was already done, what could not be undone.

He could see from the size of the waves that this would easily be the worst storm he had passed through.

And he had never passed through any serious storm alone. He reduced sail and worked the rudder. Billowing white crests rose up and swamped the deck. He felt his feet sliding out from underneath him as he clutched more tightly to the slick, wet wood of the wheel. The ship was being rocked so hard by the violence of the storm that he could barely budge the rudder. The bow dipped as the trough of one of the waves swallowed the ship. His eyes widened with panic; he wrapped his arms around the wheel and held on as a wall of water crashed over him, trying to rip him from the deck. The force spun the wheel and cracked his arm in the spokes.

The world was black as the wave doused him. He coughed furiously to clear his lungs, fought to ignore the pain in his arm. He tried to blink the salt from his eyes. He needed a few seconds—a few seconds without any torrents sweeping over the deck.

The next one was bearing down on the ship. He counted to track its approach.

It hit.

Holding on again, he held his breath and tightened his eyes. His feet came off the deck—he was fully submerged.

It pulled back.

He counted.

He stumbled away from the wheel and dove onto the deck. Quickly he loosened the line holding the tarp over the skiff and pulled it loose. It was shorter than he would have liked, but the count running in his head was almost out.

He slid back toward the helm, frantically securing the rope around his trunk and then roping the other end to the helm. He pulled the last knot just as the next wave broke over the ship.

He had no time to grip on. If the rope had failed him, he would have been washed off the deck.

He slammed into the boards. The pain in his arm intensified with the pressure of his body striking the deck. His head was foggy, stunned. Another wave crashed over and he swallowed a mouthful of seawater.

When it washed over, he looked up to the mast. The boon was being yanked violently against the mainsheet. The sail looked ready to fly off the mast, or fly off with the mast.

He needed a longer tether.

He pulled himself along the slick deck, reaching for more rope from underneath the skiff. As he faced it, the wind took hold of the tarp and ripped it free. The sheet blasted off into the air until it vanished in the gray haze surrounding the ship. The line he had tied on did not reach far enough and he found himself flailing with one arm underneath the lip of the over-turned skiff. He knew he had left the mooring line he used for the skiff coiled underneath the thwart, but he could not find it with his outstretched fingers.

The ship was bashed again, but the wave struck from behind. He looked back over the length of his body to see the wheel spinning toward the port. He scrambled aft again. The blast from behind had flushed the rope he needed forward on the deck. He pulled the length toward him and yanked the knife from its sheath. With no way to reach where it was secured inside the overturned skiff, he began to saw at the line as far away from his as possible to free up enough length.

The ship was rocking fiercely back and forth. He checked the pivot in the mast. If the pendulum swung much further, the keel would rise and the ship would capsize—with him tied to the helm.

He pulled himself to his feet and tied on the new line to the old, knotting it as well as his painfully cold fingers and the shooting sensation in his arm would allow. Another wave crashed over the side, but he managed to clamp his mouth shut and hold on.

When it subsided, he adjusted his lifeline and freed up the span to reach the boon and adjust the mainsheet. He reduced sail again before gripping the wheel and wrestling with the rudder against the storm.

He had control again.

The deck lurched forty-five degrees to starboard and he leaned against his tether to port with his hands working the wheel to keep the keel opposite the advancing waves. It was a delicate balance, if the forces did not counteract one another—which would happen if he did not mind the rudder carefully—the ship would flip end over end, the mast lancing the sea and flinging him into the white water like the crack of a whip.

But she was dashing now. The energy of the storm launched her forward. The bowsprit sliced the water ahead.

He was moving and moving as fast as he ever had at sea, but he had no sense of his bearing. There was no suggestion of the sun’s whereabouts in the gray canopy about him. He hoped that this course would take him outside the grip of the storm, but it was hope alone, divorced from the callous reality of the situation.

There was nothing but the furious shaking of each wave against the hull to lend any sense of time to his passage. The wind was no longer gusting, but was a solid roar in his ear. The sky remained an impenetrable wall. His arm throbbed. His side felt pinched by the line as he leaned away from the sail. As the cruise dragged on into monotony, he became aware of his other physical needs. He had eaten nothing—breaking port with no provisions, he had thought in passing about casting a line for breakfast—and his body was fighting extraordinary exhaustion. He had sailed through the night without sleep and taxed every inch of his frame fighting to regain control of the ship. Only as he took an inventory of the situation did he become aware of something else. He could hardly feel his feet beneath him or his fingers clutching the wheel. He looked at his hands through the mist spraying across his field of vision. Though he maintained his grip, his hands were shaking.

The ship was stable now, but he was not.

Flotsam & Jetsam (Part III, eighth entry)

This is the latest entry in my ongoing NaNoWriMo novel. To read the novel in order, view the NaNoWriMo category (link to the left) and scroll down. Or you can go to the first entry here.

 

In the morning, he woke later than her again. This time he saw her shadow pass over the curtain hanging behind the bed and lifted it to find her tending the sheltered garden. With small shears, she pruned the vine-riddled surface of the wall, collecting small shoots in a burlap sack. He watched her for several minutes without her noticing. When she finally turned enough to see him looking out, it startled her into dropping her work.

“Sorry.”

She shook her head, playfully scolding him, and collected the sack and snippings before slipping back inside through the door into the rear of the kitchen. He rose, dressed quickly, and circled around through the house to rendezvous with her.

“What are those for?” he asked.

“They’re medicinal,” she replied.

“I should’ve known.”

“Trade secret.”

“You wouldn’t want your competition to find out.”

“It would be devastating, yes,” she answered. “Hungry?”

“Always, but I should fetch food myself.”

“Why?”

He paused, pressed his lips together and answered, “Well, shouldn’t I?”

“We don’t want for food around here, you know.”

“So I’ve seen. Chicken and pigs abound.”

“The other day some damned fool brought in a brace of mudskippers and everyone had to eat them out of courtesy.”

He laughed and grabbed her by the arm to pull her near. “Those were delicious,” he said. “And they weren’t mudskippers.”

“I saw a vestigial leg, I did!” she shrieked as he wrestled her away from the counter.

“Mama,” the little girl suddenly said from behind them. The Boatman started, and moved back away from the midwife to stand shamefaced against the opposite wall. She gave him a curious glance as he did, but addressed her daughter.

“Good morning, darling,” she chirped. “Did we wake you?”

The girl shook her head and walked sleepily to the table. The Boatman watched her with trepidation, but to his surprise she did not react to his presence at all. “What should we eat?” she asked her mother.

“We were just talking about that,” she replied.

“Fish?” he suggested, only half-joking.

“No, thank you,” her daughter answered softly.

“I’ll whip us up something,” her mother answered and she left the two of them at the table while she warmed some bread in the iron belly of the stove and pulled a jar of fruit preserves off the top shelf.

When they had eaten, the midwife turned to him and said, “Since I’m sure you have no plans to take me out to sea today, what were going to do today?”

He brought his hand to his mouth and wiped the last smudge of the jam from his thumb, looking between her and the girl. He saw again, with them in the same light and so near, the perfect similarity in the shapes of their faces. He shook his head.

The three of them left the house together a while later. He walked apart, allowing the girl to cling to her mother, as the soft, wet ground beyond the paths of the town warmed and expanded in the morning sun—setting creatures free to scuttle about for their sustenance. They passed a few of the residents he recognized from the evening gatherings. Each one greeted them familiarly, as if everyone had known that these three would now be stitched together in this tableau: a morning walk.

As they moved aimlessly to the edge of the cobblestone-laden town square, there was a commotion in the distance, deeper into the settlement and closer to the wetlands where the houses were packed tightly around the walkways. “What’s happening over there?”

“Only one way to find out.”

They discovered a crew of men, shirtless and already sweating profusely, hacking at a broad tree trunk with feeble axe-strokes. The workers took no notice of the onlookers. They continued to chop erratically at the tree.

“What are they doing?”

“Probably a new house.”

“Here?”

“Have to build somewhere. I told you, there’s going to be a new addition in a few days. The happy couple probably wants to start their own home.”

“Is one of them the father?”

“No, but that doesn’t mean anything around here.”

“They’re going about it like damned fools.”

“That’s pretty typical, too.”

“That tree’s going to fall straight into that other house.”

“Somebody should set them straight,” she said with a smile.

“Boys!” he cried out, and all five heads spun around to meet him as he trooped down toward the muck that gripped them up past their ankles. “Listen, what’s your plan here?”

The midwife watched with her characteristic wry smile as he revised their shoddy plan for them, and then she led her daughter back toward their home. With his guidance, the young men left the stump in place and began building the platform for the new house above it, only felling the top sections of the tree—and with a more concerted effort so that it went down away from the nearby structures.

More men came throughout the morning and he organized another detail to cut some proper lumber. He led the original crew in laying down additional posts deep into the ground to anchor the foundation.

Some women brought them bread and dried meat strips for lunch, which they ate in handfuls while moving from task to task. By the end of the day, they sat down together on the platform they had laid out for the new house and imagined the future walls together while relatives came to admire the handiwork and pass around cisterns of foul grain alcohol. This time, with every muscle in his legs and arms aching and wrenched, he gratefully drank down the cup he was handed.

He stumbled back to the midwife’s home after sunset, stinking of more than just his labor. She helped him strip away his filthy clothes and promised to launder them in the morning. “But you first,” she said, laughing as she pushed him toward a bath at arm’s length.

What followed was unaccustomed for him. He had always lived as a series of carefully meted days, a deliberate calendar of action and reaction—planning not for a future necessarily, but always to at least maintain momentum in a world he knew lived by that principle. His life with the woman, though, settled into an undifferentiated batter from which a moment might be refined, but which, as a whole, had little form. The only constant was the bed he slept in with her, where she would pull closer to him, snaring her feet around his in the night, laying her body into the arch of his, sharing the same breath as hands fumbled around unconsciously, touching hip or arm or chest and slumbering on. Everything else simply manifested, without purpose or direction. One day a neighbor might ask for help with some carpentry. Another morning might see him stomping through the swamp, helping flush out traps in the thrush. Off and on, he visited the build site for the new house and advised on the raising of walls or the slope of a roof. The town gathered some mornings for impromptu banquets, sometimes just to exchange stories in the afternoon, and, of course, sometimes in the evenings. But largely, the people of the community nestled there between smoke and cloud did very little, imagining on some level that their mean idyll was the secret axis of that world beyond them.

At least once a day, the midwife sat down alone with her daughter. Sometimes she pulled her into the couch of cushions in the main room. Others they might sit across from each other at the kitchen table. There was always one moment of quiet communion between them, though. He listened from a distance and only ever heard the mother’s voice, like an empty vessel being filled from a tankard. The only time he was privy to any of the substance of these meetings was when he happened to pass the girl’s doorway before they all went to sleep.

“We always do,” he heard her say. “But you know…maybe not. Maybe not everything has an ending. Maybe beginnings and endings are just a mistake we make in our minds, all of us,” she said. The Boatman peeked around the corner and saw her sitting beside her daughter, who looked to be snugly asleep except for a slender, but clearly conscious smile on her face. “What if there are other living things living time backwards? We wouldn’t know, would we? And they wouldn’t understand us, either.” She leaned in to kiss the girl on the forehead; when she did, her daughter’s small fingers wrapped around her wrist before turning away and pulling the blanket in around her folded legs.

He moved quickly and quietly back to the bedroom and waited for her. She entered, saying nothing, and slipped in beside him in the dark.

On his last day there, they woke more or less simultaneously. She ran her thumb through the hair over his ear before pulling herself out of bed and heading to the kitchen. After scraping together some of his clothing from the pile he had left on the floor, he followed her, tramping barefoot across the think boards of the floor, so cool to the touch in the blue hours before dawn. They sipped from steaming cups as the sun bled in through the windows. He watched the crook of her knuckles while she talked about her ordeal the day before struggling with an infected leg wound in one of the older women.

“She’d used some old remedy involving just covering the damned thing with mud,” she said. “Which might not have been so bad, except that you never know what’s in the mud if you just dig it up at random, you know?”

The girl entered, as she always did in the mornings, with slit-thin eyes and a foot-sliding lethargy. Her mother greeted her first, but then he, too, wished her good morning. She replied in turn, without changing her expression between. He looked at the inscrutable girl as she bit into the biscuit her mother set in front of her. He thought now, after hearing what he mother said to her the night before, that he understood something about her better than before. He imagined her mother crafting the girl’s peculiar mind, filling it with abstractions and paradoxes for eleven years.

A chunk of the biscuit fell away, rolling onto the table beside her.

“Hey,” he said, pointing. “Some of that’s getting away.”

She glanced at the stray crumb and smiled back to him, snatching it up and pushing it into her mouth with the rest.

Just then, someone pounded on the wall by the front door, calling for the midwife. He rushed with her to the entry and found a gray-haired woman panting desperately.

“It’s time,” the woman said. “Oh, come now, please. It’s time.”

The midwife nodded and instructed her daughter to gather her things.

“You need any help this time?”

“Oh no,” she told him. “I just checked in on her daughter yesterday. This should be fairly routine.”

“How long will you be?”

“Hard to say,” she answered. “I doubt her panic is warranted,” she added, gesturing to the figure of the woman hurrying her brittle bones back across the square ahead of them. “It might be several hours yet.”

He nodded and she and the girl slipped around a corner toward the other side of the settlement.

He was left adrift in the empty square. Noticing the door was still ajar, he turned around and shut up the midwife’s home, leaving himself out of doors. He walked up the path toward the water. He passed a few residents along the way and they exchanged a few casual remarks. Even without her at his side, he was no longer a novel presence in their lives.

As he stepped past the shadows of the trees on the edge of the water to the dock, he saw his ship floating serenely on the lip of a slow-rolling wave. He realized that he had not stepped foot on her for several days. A surge of longing gripped him as he watched the water try in vain to shake her loose from her anchorage.

He walked the length of the dock slowly and paused at the end. Suddenly, something struck him. “Where’s the catamaran?” he asked aloud. One of the townspeople was fumbling around in the little boathouse beside the platform and he looked up at the question.

“What’s that?”

“The catamaran? Where did it go?”

“Oh, they set out a few days ago.”

It was only then that he realized he had not seen the young father or his family around the settlement recently. “All of them? The baby, too?”

“Yes, all of them.”

“Where did they go?”

“Who knows. Somewhere out there.”

An unfamiliar feeling clamped onto his chest; he brooded over it for some time and eventually decided it was jealousy. He marveled at their pluck, to take on the sea in that flimsy craft, particularly with such a fierce storm still lingering in the distance.

For a moment, something about the sea’s churning rhythm embittered him and he walked back toward the settlement and studied it with newly awakened eyes. He saw it again as he had when he first came ashore: a motley collection of ramshackle structures. Some were well made—and he wondered for the first time whose conscientious hands had built the midwife’s house—but most were raised awkwardly and had persevered only through blind luck. The people, who had lately been patting him on the back and passing him cups of their spirits, were too rooted, felt too safe in their liminal settlement. They imagined their homes more permanent, more steady than a ship at sea. But they were fooling themselves, all of them. He turned and looked at the storm still stirring in the distance, then back to the thin streak of smoke across the sky in the opposite direction. If not that tempest, then someday the fire in the distance would find the right winds and blow its way into their marshy sanctuary, scorch everything and everyone. The smart ones would run to the sea.

He moped at the dock throughout the day. He kept expecting the midwife to come up behind him, still wiping her hands clean from her work tending a new mother, and lure him back into her bosom, back into the walls of her home. He could not read the unsettled feeling that stirred in him. Was he anxious for it, or dreading it? He counted the days he had lingered there in the settlement and could not be sure the exact number. Longer than any other stay ashore in his recent memory.

The offshore wind blew in. There were a few squeals as people shuttered their windows and tucked themselves in as the sun dropped away. Again, the dock darkened and he went into the shed to light the lamp on the end of the unsteady pier.

Once its faint glow spread along the water, he saw the outline of his ship catching a little of the orange light. It felt remote, unreachable.

He looked down at his hand and the taper still clasped in his fingers. He sat down without putting it out. He had woken that morning without a direction, living as these people lived. In a long, unstructured moment, subject only to their bellies and the weariness that dragged them to bed at night. They lived by whim—why shouldn’t he? He could fling this light over his shoulder, set the whole of their little village on fire.

He blew and watched a thin band of white smoke rise out of his hand.

There was a flash on the horizon. Looking up he saw storm clouds again, as he had seen throughout his respite on that shore. Yet in the brilliant eruptions of lightning in the distance illuminated the whole of the horizon. There were now two walls of gray, dropping rain in sheets on the far edges of the world. Between them, he saw stars emerging as the last rays of the sun bled out of the sky.

She would come back. She would touch his shoulder and lead him, like a leashed pet, back to her bed, soothe him with her body and wash the grime from him like a beloved child.

With a sudden fury, he leapt down into the skiff, still moored to the dock, and started out toward the ship. Straining his arms past agony, he managed to lift the skiff onto deck and tie it down. He hoisted and unfurled the sail quickly.

The wind took hold of it and once the anchor was up, the ship moved briskly out to sea. The Boatman fixed the bow on the open water between the two storm systems. He shut out thoughts of the settlement save for one moment when he looked behind him over his shoulder and saw an orange glow on the horizon, forcing himself to wonder if he had started the conflagration after all.

He sailed tirelessly through the night to put distance between him and the snare he had slipped through.

It was only in the morning, at first light, that he discovered that the girl had been aboard more recently than he had and had cast his charts and navigational equipment into the sea.

 

Flotsam & Jetsam (Part III, 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.

 

He rowed her to the ship and she climbed up the ladder, wide-eyed with both child-like curiosity and a cutting eye. He could tell as she ran her fingers over the ropes and touched the smooth wood of the wheel that she was studying him through the ship. She turned and nodded approvingly to him when she finished walking the perimeter of the deck. Next he showed her through the hatch and into the galley. He opened the door to the guest stateroom first and she said, “This isn’t your room, is it?”

“No. How can you tell?”

She did not answer, but turned and opened the other door to look inside his room. “This one must be,” she said with a drop in her voice, as if disappointed in what she saw. She did not comment, though, and closed the door to head back topside. “This is a very nice boat,” she declared. “Do we really have to take it anywhere?”

He only grinned at her and prepared the sail. Within a few moments he had lifted the anchor and set them cruising off into the water. Once at sea, he saw that the violent mass of clouds he had observed the day before had only worsened overnight. Though it still seemed kept at bay by the local current, the wind did begin to whip at them, requiring him to make quick adjustments to the sail before he could lock the ship on a steady course, well-removed from, but parallel to, the coast. While he worked, she nestled in near the foresail and watched the undulations of the water, keeping her gaze from the eastern sea roiling with storm surge.

He came up behind her and stood to her right, facing the dark wall of cloud. “That storm out there,” he said, indicating the veinous discharges of lightning in the distance. “What will you do if it comes ashore?”

“Not sure,” she answered, staring over the gunwale into the green water below.

“Something like that…the winds could wipe out your whole town.”

“I know.”

“That doesn’t worry you?”

She was a long time answering. When she looked up, she was pale and replied in clipped phrases, “There’s only so much time…you can spend preparing for a storm.”

“Is that a metaphor too?”

“Isn’t everything?” she managed while stumbling over to the cabin wall.

“Are you alright?”

Her answer was to reverse direction and drop her head over the edge of the ship and heave into the ocean.

He patted her apologetically. “I know you said you didn’t belong on the water,” he said. “But you should have told me you got sea sick. I wouldn’t have insisted.”

“I didn’t know I would.”

“So it’s only my sailing that makes you ill?”

“I wouldn’t know,” she answered.

“You’ve never been on a boat?”

“I have now,” she answered, vomiting again into the sea.

He plotted the smoothest course back to the dock he could while she clung to the edge of the gunwale. He considered beaching the ship again so she could step directly from the deck onto the stable footing of the dock. It seemed too foolish a gesture for what he knew was only a passing nausea. His companion had suffered through similar trials while he got his sea legs over a year earlier, but he did not mention this to the midwife, only ferried her homeward.

She muttered some kind of apology as he rowed her back to the settlement, but he only shook his head and smiled. He walked her back to her home, where she asked him to give her some time to rest alone.

He whittled away time on the dock, unwilling to row back out to the ship. A few of the locals stopped for a few minutes at a time to talk to him. They chatted about the day’s catch, or related an amusing episode from down in the swamps when someone gathering mushrooms had fallen in muck, or asked what he knew about seasonal birds. The conversations were fleeting and the other party always excused himself with a warm slap on the back and a promise to speak again later.

Dusk came and there was no sign in the empty square behind him that there would be any gathering that night. Lights went on behind the shutters of the various houses in the settlement, but no one came out to light the lamp at the end of the dock, so he hunted through the shambles of the boathouse for the means to do it himself.

Once he had it set, the orange glow revealed a frail figure at the land’s end of the dock.

The midwife’s daughter approached him quietly. He greeted her and took up his seat at the end of the dock again, letting his feet dangle over the bobbing skiff.

“My mother’s being a fool. They all are,” she said. “They act like you’re not a stranger.”

“Most places I go have rules about being good to strangers. The world relies on hospitality.”

“You could want to take advantage of that.”

“You are a strange little thing, aren’t you?”

“They’re making you whatever they want you to be in their heads,” she went on, ignoring him. “They think you can be whatever they need. They want to sit down to dinner with you and be amazed by stories about the sea. But that’s just naïve of them. They don’t know who you are. You could be anything. You could be the type of person who would drag me over into the shallows, rape and murder me—and they’d never see it.”

He stared at the girl, but he did not look or feel startled.

After a long moment of just watching one another, the Boatman replied, “The way you talk…You’re missing something important. See, you grow up here and you think, people are just one thing. Each person is just one thing. So you think that if I’m a, what a rapist, then I’m nothing else. If I did drag you over into those shallows to rape and murder you, you think that would define me. But that definition would only be true for you. I would still be the storyteller at your mother’s table, too. I’d still be the sailor who saved that family out on the water. We’re nothing by ourselves. We only have faces when we mix with others. That’s why a man at sea alone will go mad. He has nothing to fix him—to make him one thing or another. That’s why we always come ashore. To talk, to rape, to kill.  It makes something of us for a moment, and it’s only the moments we have,” he said, and then, with no extra malice in his voice, he added, “Besides, maybe I am going to drag you into the bushes and rape you, so maybe being here alone with me, telling me how rotten I might be isn’t the smartest thing you could do.”

He saw that her small hands clenched into fists.

He tried smiling, wagering on her precocious sense of irony, but she only turned and ran away, buoyed into the night by her wobbly knees and stick-thin legs.

Imagining the girl reporting their conversation to her mother put him on his feet and he headed, making a conscious show of not being concerned for absolutely no one’s benefit, back toward the midwife’s little house, feeling a sudden, and unprecedented, sinking sensation of dread at the idea of losing this woman’s affection.

He knocked on the outer door, but heard nothing. Stepping inside he poked his head in the kitchen, but it was empty. Next he peeked into the girl’s room, but it was the same as that morning, except that the rat’s nest of blankets had been smoothed on on her bed. So he walked cautiously down the hall to the back bedroom and knocked softly against the door.

Looking in, he found the midwife’s face—rosy once more—staring back from the bed.

“You must think I’m very silly,” she said to him. He shook his head and came further in. “You spend half your life out there on the waves, probably in rough waters that would make me turn white, and I spend half an hour off dry land and stain the side of your boat.”

“It happens,” he said.

“Thanks for letting me clean up and get my color back,” she said.

“Of course.”

“Now that I’ve rested so much, though,” she said with a wry grin. “I’m going to have a hard time falling asleep tonight.” She reached out an arm to him and he took her hand, fitting her curled fingers like a hook around his thumb. He let her pull him into the folds of the bed and lose himself.

Flotsam & Jetsam (Part III, 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.

 

She took him by the hand and led him inside.

The room was dim, with only the stray light slipping through a single plane of glass illuminating the shapes within. She brushed aside the curtain hanging between the front room and the adjoining section he had never seen. He could not discern much in the narrow hallway, but it seemed to lead further back behind the tree line than he had thought. He had assumed there was only one other room in the house, but now he saw there was an open space to the left, where he could hear the slow wheezing breath of the sleeping child and another doorway at the end of the hall. She tugged him along, helping him dodge stray cabinets and other unidentifiable objects arranged along the walls in the passage.

Once inside the last room, she closed an actual door behind them—the first he had seen in the house—and pulled him toward her. They descended onto the wide bed that filled most of the room. Their hands moved over each other in the dark, removing clothing and tossing it aside. He felt a bloom of heat against his body as he pressed into her, and she made a shushing sound while touching the tender flesh of his ear with the tips of her teeth. As he grasped at her, she enveloped his with her arms and closed the soft flesh of her thighs around him. They grappled together until immobile, until paralyzed together in near silence, only the soft sibilance of her voice in his ear.

He woke alone in her bed, bathed in light. He sat up and studied the room he had not seen in the night. There was a large open window behind them that apparently led to some kind of garden flush with flowers. The dawn cast the over-sized amaryllis shapes onto the walls through the wide curtain. The flowering stars danced slowly as the wind tickled the sheet between him and the morning air. The bedding was a chaos of patterns and materials. Pillows of odd shapes and sizes. Patches of silk and fur mated together. All arranged with a sort of symphonic sense of pastiche, like brushstrokes that, if viewed from a distance, would reveal a moving shape, a living pattern.

Tentatively he left the room and crept down the golden hallway, testing each inch of the floor with his bare toes to avoid any creaking boards. He peeked into the girl’s chamber and saw that she was still curled in a web of blankets in her own bedroom.

When he reentered the main room, he smelled something cooking in the kitchen. Then he saw the silhouette of the midwife pass behind the curtain separating the two rooms. She greeted him with exactly the same expression she might have if she had passed by him in the open square outside, and invited him to sit down.

“You have only begun to enjoy my talents as a chef,” she told him.

Wordlessly he took a chair at a roughly hewn wooden table that dominated the other side of the kitchen space. He watched her move at the stove, relishing memories of the same body pressed near him in the dark.

When her daughter entered, bleary-eyed and stumbling out of slumber, she kissed the girl on the crown and sent her over to sit across from the Boatman. The girl seemed unsurprised by his presence and, in fact, did not make any particular acknowledgement of his presence. He was unsure whether to interpret the indifference as an improvement over the antipathetic glower from the day before.

The midwife came to the table with two platters and set them before the diners. He thanked her and the girl did too, though in a sleepy mumble. As they both began to eat the hash of eggs and vegetables, she studied the two of them with the bearing of a collector wondering whether two vases belong in the same cabinet before pulling up a seat and joining them.

When the girl had finished her meal, her mother told her to gather some ointment and take it down to the other end of town where a client was apparently expecting its delivery.

“Yes, mama,” the girl said and she started off to dress for the day.

“We’ll have another birth soon,” the midwife told him, taking another bite afterward.

“How soon?”

“Should be a few days,” she answered. “And what, if you don’t mind me asking you, were you planning for yourself for today?” She waited for his reply with an expression that seemed braced for anything, even for him to say that he intended to sail into the distance with no hope of return.

“Actually,” he told her. “I thought I might take you out for a sail.”

She chuckled. “I thought I told you, that is not me.”

“Don’t worry,” he assured her. “I’ll take care of you.”

She shook her head and stabbed at a pepper lost in the yellow mass of cooked egg on her plate, but he saw her smile, saw her being disarmed by the rattling echo of the idea in her mind. He helped her tidy up the kitchen and then walked with her out to the pier. He asked about her daughter, “Would she like to come on the sail?”

“Let’s not push her too quickly,” she answered.

He nodded. “What happened to her father?” he asked tentatively.

“Gone.”

“Dead?”

“Possibly,” she said without grief. “But from our point of view, just gone.”

“That must have been…painful? Difficult?”

“It was what it was,” she answered. “It wasn’t in him to stay.”

“You never thought he would?”

“It would have surprised me.”

“Pleasantly surprised?”

“Who can say. I’m not one to read the future,” she answered while looking away. Then, with her lilting sardonic tone, “Though we do have someone in a hut down the road who will pretend to for you—If that’s your interest.”

He offered her a little laughter as a token of his appreciation and she accepted, wearing her usual warm grin as they walked along the length of the dock. “So, is this your way of telling me that you don’t expect much from me?”

“I expect from you exactly what you expect from yourself,” she answered. “But then, I think we both know you’re a man at a crossroads.”

“I’m not a man for any kind of road,” he corrected.

“It’s a metaphor,” she replied, turning to climb down the ladder into the skiff. “Now take me out and drown me in your ocean.”

Flotsam & Jetsam (Part III, 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.

 

She did not drift away again after that. She teased him by eating two of the remaining oysters herself, but then let him enjoy the rest. They spoke together in low voices, just loud enough to hear above the undertones of the ongoing party. He watched her mannerisms and continued his inventory and though her daughter’s appearance distracted her from their conversation, he noticed that her face was warmest then, her spine most erect. She rubbed the girl’s back and listened as she whispered in her ear—he assumed some trepidations about him—before kissing her on the cheek and patting her behind to send her off to bed.

The girl slunk away, disappointed the same way she had been the night before. Her mother spoke about her after she had gone, praising her quick wits, explaining her natural talent for the arts they practiced together, her intuition. He let her spool out the long wire of a mother’s pride, and as she did he saw her own vivacity diminish. She was seeing the girl alone in her mind’s eye and it drew her spirit back to her home.

Soon after she began to excuse herself, and he offered to escort her back down the short path. He expected her to reject the empty chivalry—her home was actually visible from the edge of the square—but instead she thanked him. It took her several minutes to disentangle herself from her neighbors. At least a dozen insisted on exchanging goodbyes for the evening, even though they would certainly see each other at daybreak. As they walked slowly away from the promenade their steps brought them close together and he felt her hips and arm brushing up against him as they moved.

At her door, they both resisted the temptation toward extended farewells that would have officially graduated their conversation to a courtship and simply wished each other a good evening.

He rowed himself back to the ship and left the skiff moored off her port side, climbing back aboard for another long sleep.

In the morning he woke and fed himself listlessly. From the deck he saw the population of the marshlands going about their business. A few little boats headed off up the coast, fishing or shucking for mollusks. Some people sat idle in the square. He knew he was watching for the midwife, but he could not concoct any excuse to row himself ashore and seek her out.

He walked the edge of the ship and stared off at the distant plane, knowing that something was amiss if he felt no urge to pull in the anchor and sail away.

Even though there did not look to be much stirring in the cloudy waters around the settlement, he propped himself up on the stool and spent the morning fishing. As he watched the line drift purposelessly in the water, a wall of clouds stacked in great, bulging rows covered the far end of the sky. Through the early hours of the day, the formations shifted from white billows to dark, rain-heavy titans, but they always marched northward along a track that spared the coastline and protected the wildfires inland.

Something splashed on the other side of the ship.

He wedged his rod in between the stool’s legs and went to investigate. He found the midwife’s daughter flapping her arms to stay afloat on the opposite side. Through the murky water it was not clear whether she was wearing anything at all, but he wondered if some clothing might be weighing her down or if she was simply an awkward swimmer.

“Hello there,” he called to her..

She regarded him with the same skittish gaze as before. “You were with my mother last night,” she said. It was, of course, an accusation, not a statement of fact, but what struck him most about it was the similarity of the girl’s voice to her mother’s.

“Yes,” he answered. “She brought me some food. It was very nice of her,” he rolled out his words in a clipped staccato.

“You’re talking to me like I’m stupid,” she said.

His head recoiled a bit and he answered, “Sorry. I didn’t mean to.”

“Where did you come from?” she asked, still treading water.

“You know, you’re the first person here to ask me that,” he replied. “Would you like to come up and rest. There’s a ladder right over here.”

“No,” she answered curtly. “Have been around the whole world?”

“No,” he answered. “Not even half, I’d guess.”

“How do you know?”

“Excuse me?”

“How do you know where you’re going?”

He stepped back and opened the compartment by the helm that held his charts. “I have maps and navigational equipment,” he explained, holding up some of the contents of the bin. The girl craned her neck to see over the side of the ship.

“Are you always alone on the ship?”

“No, not always.”

“When you take someone away,” she added. “You’d know how to bring them back?”

“Of course.”

For a second, her face softened and then she splashed backwards and sprinted towards the shore. The bare bottoms of her feet broke the water behind her and her arms reached forward in flashes. He had been wrong. She was more than capable in the water; she might best him in a race on open water. Shrugging, he returned to his fishing.

Later in the afternoon, someone called him from the dock. He rose and crossed again to face the shore. The young father was waving him over from the edge of the pier.

He needed no further encouragement. He loaded the four fish he had managed to rope in throughout the day and took the skiff in. The gathering that night was more subdued and only a third as many people attended. The townsfolk formed three loose rings, with the youngsters clumped a little away from the other two groups so that they could snicker at one another and throw pebbles back and forth. The paper lanterns had been taken down that morning and no one had brought any other light sources, so one of the young men lit a few torches that were spaced around the perimeter of the square. Each puffed a cough of thick, black smoke and then formed a small orange tear of fire above the wick. The midwife and her daughter joined them all just as the discussion was turning to dinner. The fish the Boatman had brought in were gathered with some onions and other stray root vegetables in a large pot and stewed. The matronly old woman who supervised the soup goaded him, insisting he had never tasted anything like it. From his bowl, he spooned out a bit of meat and remembered the village with the thatched roofs.

He told the cook that it did remind him of something he had tasted elsewhere, but acknowledged—to her delight—that hers was better. A small lie out of courtesy.

Then, he told them more. Before he was even aware of it, he was relating the story of his journey upriver into the village below the dark hills. When he came to his captivity, the whole crowd fell silent. At last he told the story of the boy’s death in simple, factual statements while they listened on, horror stricken. At each bend of the river, at the muddy bank, their eyes grew wider and their bodies leaned in closer, both to each other for comfort and to the storyteller so as not to miss a detail.

After it was done, the people remained dumbstruck. The older folks rose and made their ways home, pausing beside him and touching his shoulder before leaving. A few children asked piqued questions, but their parents discouraged their pestering the Boatman and shuffled them off to bed. The midwife sent her daughter home as well, but this time she did not seem distracted once the girl was gone. She sat snugly beside the Boatman. One of the older men returned, carrying a jug of beer. Though there was not much, they shared it around the remaining circle, taking careful sips of what was apparently a beverage reserved for special occasions.

One by one, as the moon passed above them, the gathering dwindled. Finally, the midwife wrapped her fingers around his knee and looked to him. He helped her to her feet and they said goodnight to the last few neighbors in the square.

“It must haunt you,” the midwife suggested as they walked the path to her home.

“It’s the life we signed up for,” he answered. “He knew. I knew it.” He realized that her hand was around the small of his back, but he had not been aware of it until then. “But I wish I knew where his family was. So at least they would know that he won’t ever be returning with his pockets full of money to share with them. I with I knew where they were so I could tell them that much. But I don’t. He signed on with me in port. I never knew where he came from.”

“And you,” she suggested. “Maybe you should leave us directions, in case something ever happened to you—so you won’t suffer that same fate. So we could get word to your family.”

He laughed, scoffing at the idea. “Is that your way of asking where I came from?”

“I suppose that’s your way of saying ‘no.’ Isn’t it?”

“Your daughter asked me the same question today.”

“She did?”

“She waded out to the ship in the morning.”

Her face sprang back in alarm. “She did?”

“Yes. She’s a strong swimmer.”

“Is she?”

“Didn’t you teach her?”

“Hardly,” she replied. “I’d drown.”

“How so?”

“I’m not like you. No boats. No ocean. I stay right here.”

“And is that because of some traumatic event in your childhood?”

“Now you want to know my secrets,” she exclaimed.

“I just told the whole town mine,” he quipped.

“I don’t have any stories quite as riveting as that.”

“I’m just glad I wasn’t flogged,” he said. “I was beginning to think it was forbidden to talk about the past here. None of them ever does.”

“Oh no,” she said. “You misunderstood. It’s not that they’re afraid to talk about the past; it’s that they don’t have any.”