Posts Tagged ‘ fiction ’

Transfigurations (Murakami IV)

The lights came up and she sauntered onto the stage.

“Josephine!” someone wailed from the dark recesses of the room. She knew the voice, but not his name. He was there at every show and never failed to make some violently passionate outburst.

Anticipation, it would seem, had driven him to his climax early tonight.

“Thank you, thank you,” she cooed into the mic. “I’m glad ya’ll could come out and join us.” Her sequined gown swept the floor about her as she glided in small, interlocked circles before the band. “I think tonight we’re going to start with a number that a certain other Josephine once sang,” she said. “This came off her album, Siren of the Tropics.” A hoot of ascent from the darkness. “Let’s see if we can do it justice.”

So she began.

The band swung up its tinny rhythm and the horns laid in the foundation. Invisible beneath the long hem of her dress, she tapped her foot, waiting for the moment to pick her up and carry her away.

It came and she opened her mouth.

She knew—on some level—that the notes were now coming out of her, but she was never actually conscious of the song, or of the sounds she was making. When she bent back her neck and her eyes slipped closed, she was always somewhere else—something else.

It varied, but she always saw herself suddenly as some kind of animal. Usually something ungainly and mammalian, something that would smell. Most importantly, it was always a creature with a noxious bleating as a call.

Never a song bird.

Once, through an entire Ella Fitzgerald revival she had seen herself as a yak. Gargantuan, with mottled and knotted hair. Lips like writhing snake bodies and eyes as dull as unused coal.

Tonight, she was something more slender, like an alpaca or a llama.

She saw herself from the outside in exquisite detail as the ecstasy of her own singing was lost to her. She was just hooves and a long, pink tongue.

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To Annabelle

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The thing I don’t think you realize is that I’m only your father when you’re around.

It was that way with your mother, too. I was her husband. Felt like her husband, believed in the fact of my husbandhood–but only when we were together.

When she’d bundle you up in those thick, puffy jackets and wrap your little face in scarves so she could drive you to her mother’s house for the day, and I was left alone in the house, left walking up and down the creaking stairs, left sitting on the sofa by myself, I’d sometimes look up at that photo from JC Penney of the three of us and kind of marvel at it, be stunned that, yes, that was me in a picture with a woman and her daughter.

It would take me a minute to remember.

You’ll understand someday. Someday when you’re all grown up and you have a marriage and a family and a life that technically you chose through the inertia of little things you did, but which, in a larger sense, you never really chose in that way that people hold other people responsible for their “choices,” you’ll sit down somewhere and just be shocked that the world thinks you’re who you are.

Because inside, you’re not that person. Or you are, but you’re other people, too. You’re all your younger selves, too, I guess. And those kids living inside you, they can’t freakin’ believe in this other you.

That’s how it is when you’re gone, when I’m alone in the house. I can’t believe you exist. Can’t believe in this father-person that you believe in.

You’ll see, you’ll understand. It’ll all make sense to you–eventually.

An Affliction

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Of course, when the night of the recital came, there was no thought of him actually attending–at least, not for his parents.

For the last six weeks whenever his scheduled session with his instructor had come near, he had buckled over with sharp, piercing pain in his abdomen. The first night they’d been sympathetic. It had been so sudden that they had had no time to call off the lesson. They politely met his tutor–a matronly crone with an unmoving face and a sterling reputation on the Upper East Side–at the door with her requisite fee in hand and a mouthful of apologies. “Too ill to practice?” she had said dubiously, but they assured her that they would make sure he did practice on his own as soon as he was better.

But the second time this occurred, they forced him to endure the lesson anyway, with disastrous results. “Now, Michael,” they said–and actually failed to finish the sentence. They simply set up his sheets on the piano and poured his tutor the glass of water with no ice that she always expected waiting for her.

Michael marched up to the ivories with a grimace and sat down for his lesson. They left the room, convinced they’d done the right thing.

Fifteen minutes later, however, the tutor summoned them. With the same didactic tone they heard echo through the hall while she instructed the boy, she told them to tuck him into bed and to monitor his temperature carefully and not to let him drink for at least an hour and which name-brand soda to give him when he finally was ready. Then she left, the lesson incomplete. To her credit, she did not insist on payment that time. She did though say, “Not to force the boy to endure something like this again.”

So when the next week came and Michael once again complained about his stomach, they placed a hasty phone call to the tutor and, with quick glances at one another, said they would take him to the doctor and let her know when he could resume his lessons.

The doctor, though, seemed unnecessary. By the morning, he was spritely and game for adventures in the tiny garden behind their brownstone or a romp over to the park. They thought they had his number pretty squarely down at this point and decided that, admitting defeat, they might as well just pay out the rest of the contract with the tutor and not renew for the next year. The piano, after all, had been mostly a decorative item before they’d thought to have him instructed on it; it could be simply that again.

But on the night of the big recital, Michael dressed himself and came downstair two hours before, nervously flexing his fingers and bobbing his head to an inaudible melody.

“What are you doing?”

“It’s the recital.”

“But Michael, you haven’t practiced in weeks. You’re not ready for the recital?”

“You didn’t tell Mrs. Gerbacher to take me off the program, did you?”

“No, but we…”

So they dressed and caught a cab to the recital hall.

And he played beautifully, growing greener with every strike of the keys, and just before the end of the second movement, he vomited upstage and finished the piece with an orange smudge on his shoulder.

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.