So Long Afloat
Save the gnashing of the thick winds that howl and curl amid the thunderous slaps of the undulating world, and the heavy, constant hammering inside the unrepentant man’s flooded chest, it is suddenly too quiet. The echoes of drowned thunder reverberate through his soul and saturate his fevered dreams of cold and unfathomable depth, and the millions of hard, driven splashes against his dark, weathered skin are heard throughout his body, the raindrops subconsciously audible to him by virtue of his pores. But under and above the constant gurgles and wet thunderclaps of the man’s newfound and roaring existence, the buoying absence of sound is what floats him to the surface, just below the meniscus of consciousness and a sudden, sodden revelation: The child no longer cries.
His eyes drift open and his senses whorl, slowly coalescing as he watches the shimmering drops riffle sporadically down the splintered, curving concavity of the boat, finally trickling past his bent, olive knee and into the span-deep pool that has been slowly gaining on him in his sleep. He smells the musk of the sopping hide pulled over his thick black curls and feels its weight on his body, of which the boat has become a part, no longer merely a buoyant, wooden extension, passed over the fingertips of the eternal ocean. A crumpled pain slithers down his spine, and he stretches his leg out further, further, his sandals and hard, calloused feet slide through the rising water so far they eventually ascend from the pool with the arch of the bow, where she and the child should lay. The raindrops pound flatly on the pelt over the man’s ear, the distant thunder tumbles along the wobbling swells and battles with the slaps and sloshes of the waves, demanding to be heard. The briny droplets on the man’s cracked lips swell his tongue, and aroused by the insatiable desire for a single saltless drop the sudden presence of his conscious and concentrated thought emerges. The memory of a reason for his sudden awakening dances with the presence of the newfound empty space in which lay his outstretched leg, a reason that is so close he can almost taste it through the salty air, a reason which suddenly blends into his stirring recollection of the lack of something. Of the absence of something. Of a sound. He blinks his weary eyes and recoils his leg, flinging the heavy pelt from his body, nearly tossing it over the gunwale, and pulls himself upright. His eyes explode forth from their lids as does what little vigor remaining in his soul as he stares at the opposite end of the boat. The woman and child are gone.
He bolts upright, ignoring the pain screaming down his back, and finds both terror and fury in the fact that his eyes can’t see everywhere at once. He scans the surrounding water, the jolting waves, and sloshes his body across the small, wobbly vessel to where the woman and the child lay for the last six days, feeling the wet air where they were supposed to remain, eyeing every handbreadth of the gunwale for dark and clutching fingertips. He pulls the hide back into the boat, invoking the sympathy of no one in particular to allow there to be fingers underneath, aching and white-knuckled in their desire to remain. But there are none.
The man sits back emptily, too dry for tears amidst his world of water, his mantle soaked and floating about his bluish, bruised shins. He picks up the small wooden pail and battles the rain and brine again, bucketing and sloshing away as much water as necessary to keep himself afloat, and begins the faithful and futile task of searching for a bobbing head or a fluttering hand amidst the world of water, of scanning the infinite breadth of the ocean for a single drowning wave. The rain, for the moment, has calmed to a drizzle.
The father and mother had felt the land growling beneath them for days while the black, viscous clouds crept across the empty sky. They had heard and quietly dismissed stories of the land cracking and opening in distant provinces, swallowing homes and livestock into deep, watery chasms, crumbling villages to the ground with heavy heaves and shrugs like some great beast shooing flies from its head. It had only been the father, however, that noticed the gaze of the sun grow angrier and vengeful as it became dampened by the tarry sky. He had considered and decided against verbalizing his concerns to the mother.
The father decided that they would have to leave the valley where their small farm lay nestled four days before they sat perched on the highest summit in the land. Having nearly gotten used to the grumbling complaints of the earth under his feet, the father had been surprised one morning to find his land, and upon closer inspection the entire floor of the valley, covered in a thin sheen of water, as if the quivering, exhausted ground beneath him had awoke that morning in a cold, deep sweat. His sandals sunk into the moist soil with every step, which sucked at the bottoms of his feet each time he took another. The father watched the small ripples slither over the muddy water as he touched it with his fingertips, the minute waves shimmying the dying sun’s rays across the ground, coddling the shudder of the earth, and smelled the musty, flat scent of wet loam. He noticed that everything more than two digits above the ground was dry. It hadn’t been raining.
It took both parents to assist and guide the ass in pulling their few possessions over the wet, sticky earth and up the valley walls, the ass’ snorts and whinnies and the sloshing crunch of its freight the only other sounds amid the complaining cries of the uncomfortable children and the mumbled profanities of the father. By the time they emerged from valley, the sheen of water had become nearly a span deep, the shimmers lengthening and rhythmical along the undulating dale floor, dancing among small though perceptible currents. The mother herself remained steadfast and quiet, trying to help the ass along, righting and guiding behind it the load, which consisted of two bundles that she and the father had gathered the day that he decided they had to leave. Every bit of food they could find was bound together along with flasks of water and wrapped tightly inside several blankets. The father had also insisted on bringing with them a small wooden pail and a bear pelt given to him by his brother, a fisherman and traveler. On his infrequent visits, the brother had always bore gifts for the father and his family, among them the small wooden boat hitched to the ass in which the family’s food and supplies lay, and which the animal was having a increasingly difficult time hauling up and up and up, the genesis of the mumbled profanities of the father.
As they neared the rolling lip of the valley the soil became more accommodating. The stern blade scraped across the dry ground leaving only gritty crumbles among the small line it left carved into the dirt. At the steepest inclinations the daughter would have to carry her young brother, clutching him carefully to her chest as their father and mother pushed and balanced the boat from behind.
Once out of the valley, the father only replied to the mother’s inquiries with a grunt and a weary eye gliding across the countryside before pointing to the highest elevation in sight. The small plateau at the distant end of his answering finger only drew more questions from the mother and also their daughter, in less subtle or submissive form, but were soon dismissed and quieted with a wave of the same calloused hand. Their journey began again once all had had a moment’s rest and a drop to drink, and after both the earth and the daughter had, for the moment, stilled their uneasy grumbling.
They travelled for three days on a straight line toward the plateau. Words among the family were scarce as the infant son was passed from mother to father to daughter and back, each person then taking their turn in helping the tottering mule. The father soon found himself spending the majority of his consciousness silently attempting to distinguish between the distant rolling growl of the sky and the steady rumbling of the earth, but to no avail. By now his pushing and righting and step after step after step had become as automatic and instinctive as his steadily thumping heartbeat and deep, labored breath, as if their every possession had merely become an extension of his hands, feet, heart, and lungs.
At the end of the third day the exhausted family stood at the foot of the plateau, which the father found to be of lower elevation than he had hoped, now that they were there, every eye peering up its steep, rocky face. The sky itself had darkened in lieu of the setting sun, black clouds and blood orange heavens loomed over the edge of the land above, peering down upon them. A final inclination to overcome.
At the top the long stretch of soulless upland surprised the father. He had privately assumed that all men had felt the same unspoken, fearful impetus that would force them away if not upward. Unspoken voices finding unlistening ears, instinctual motivations to save those they loved from nothing they knew, from everything coming, solely in the name of a courageous and primal fear. The empyrean exploded with a mighty clap above them and strode into the distance galloping behind its massive army of screaming, winded steeds, roaring over the clouded tufts and hills of the blackening sky. The mother and daughter emptied the small wooden craft and propped it, overturned, against a young and lonely tree. As they sorted their foodstuffs and clothing beneath the shelter of the boat the father found a rock and began carving away at the rumbling soil, a circle. He picked what little dry grass he could find, scraped shavings of bark from the small tree. His hand displayed before the mother soon had in it a flat piece of flint stone wrapped tightly inside a thatch of crusty, pilose hide. The father bent penitently over the carved earth, unwrapped the rock and set about creating a fire, save the dying and helpless sun, all the family could feebly associate with light, or warmth. The mother and her children sat listening intently to the clicks of the stone and the near subconscious crackles of the kindling, which were soon washed away by the blanketing sound of raindrops on the bottom of the boat.
The thunder and the steady waves babel now lazily in unison, drowning out the pelting sound of the briny mist and the heavy rainfall on the hide draped and pulled tightly over the man’s shivering head. By now he’s used to the swaying, the indolent, indecisive shifts of the infinite fathoms beneath him. He does his best to shelter the majority of the boat’s concavity with the hide, keeping his bailing efforts to merely a few occasions per hour, though his body’s inherent selfishness forces more energy toward curling up, staying warm and unsick. The hide, however, is no warmth or help in allaying the intense, gelid pressure and the black depths of his newfound isolation – its mere existence, as well as that of the pail, the boat, and the casually warring ocean and sky, serves to aggravate his whetted agony in the sense that those few items are the only tangible and wretched notions actual in the man’s life, and the only notions which he hopes, through silent screams into the shrouded night, to anyone and everyone and no one, might soon as well vanish into their created oblivion.
They remained under the craft and over the glowing embers for nearly two days. The rain started and stopped, bumping and hitching like some ethereal motor dormant for ages, unchecked and unused for the lack of necessity. The father would wander out across the long plateau in search of anything incendiary for hours at a time, returning soaked and nearly empty handed, save a few twigs and some moss, all of which had to be dried next to the remaining coals before they would ignite. The father had moved his fire closer to the boat, and assembled the few skins and blankets they possessed across and over the craft in a fashion that retained the warmth while allowing the smoke and smolders to escape. They sat and waited, ever conscious of keeping the infant son close to the heat, and watched the tiny flags of flame sparkle and lick up from the bits of bark and dust. The children became increasingly restless over the long hours spent staring into the blackened orange glow. The young boy squirmed and wriggled, fitfully crying at increasingly frequent intervals, and the daughter wanted nothing more than to merely step out from beneath the boat, the slightest mention of which sparked outrage and immediate declination from the father. The ass, tied to the foundation tree, mewed and hawed at the gritty, staccato thunderclaps.
The father awoke late in the morning, startling himself and hitting his head on their wooden shelter, rocking the hull above them, which seesawed, pulling taught then slackening the wet blankets draped over the family, fanning the now barely flickering coals. The realization of his daughter’s absence was interrupted by a phlegmy cough from the recently aroused smoke. Before he could angrily demand to know-
The mother, like the smoke, stopped him without using words. She had permitted the daughter to leave their makeshift sanctuary to play in the rain, and the father should have nothing to say about it, that both she and the children have picked up what little they own and moved across a long and angry land to sit on top of the world under a boat, with little or no question as to why they are being forced to live the peripatetic life of vagrants and nomads on the whim of a farmer. As if in agreement, the earth beneath them heaved and gurgled, the thunder cackled mightily and the rain sped from the sky, the sound like waves crashing unceasingly upon a pebble-strewn shore. The boy began crying against the screeches and whinnies of the mule. The father coughed again and yelled over the wind and the water and the earth and sky that all he could feel in his wet and ragged body was the atavistic drive to protect his family, to flee, and that the unsourced fear in his heart throbbed and ripped through him if ever he felt as if his every physical act wasn’t intently and solely focused on the fulfillment of that instinct. He stood up quickly, cursing the gushes and howls from outside, and the mother for allowing the girl to roam around alone in the infinite and doomed world. His head struck the edge of the boat again as he shoved aside the saturated blankets and pushed out into the morning night.
The grey rain beat on the father’s face and the angry wind whipped and lashed at his tunic, the air around him felt cold and dark and whet, stone in another, more encompassing and ethereal form. He raised his eyes against the cragged, pebbled wind and saw his daughter standing before the edge of the coteau, blazes of white vascular light flashing in the distance past the daughters gaze, over the cliff and beyond the new ocean that was swallowing everything below. Yet without body, the fuming water raced and gurgled out of the yawning fissure along the bottom of the valley, waves clambering over waves, fighting to spill higher and higher, to cover more ground, their white frothy claws bashing and exploding against one another in howling applause, steadily surging up and up and up. The battle was magnificent, and spread to the horizon, trampling everything below the family’s perch at the top of the world. The father saw blasts and spittles of steam escaping through immense and rumbling cracks in what little earth remained above the fighting ocean, clashing skyward against then joining forces with the leaden, pounding rain in bombing the remains of the world. The father screamed out for his daughter as an army of white, vengeful stallions chopped and spat across the lowland toward them, wanting to unify and war with their steadily surging brethren, and she turned her head with dark eyes wide, her black hair whipping across her olive skin, unafraid and awestruck at the wonders of this creation that spread before them, as a gentle frothing finger slipped lithely over the edge of the plateau and playfully squeezed her ankles, sliding her warmly and tenderly over the lip of the land and into the blue breadth of the deepening sea.
The father’s basest earthly concerns screeched and wailed unending deep into his heart as he watched his daughter slip so easily away, without a word, yet nothing, save a final breath as a father passively defending his family, exhaling forever any instinctual limitations that had kept him from aggressively combating the ending earth and sky in the name of saving everything familiar to and worshipped by him, escaped his lips. He turned quickly and ripped the blankets and pelts away, baring the mother and young son to the sky and avalanching rain, and kicked the craft over, stepping into the smoking coals as the boat wobbled port and starboard, now speaking calmly but sternly to the mother to bundle the child in whatever she could find as quickly as she could find it while he untied the ass and removed its lead, coiling the leather in his hands. He tells her to cover the boy’s face as he tossed into the craft the skins and flasks and foodstuffs, and behind them exploded the crashes of the watery claws reaching over the plateau’s edge to break away the crumbling earth, running their caress closer and closer to where the remains of the the father’s lessoned family panicked. He rose and scanned the far edges of the land, telling his wife where to place the child while he searched for the least violent brim of their drowning earth. Her fearful hesitation pulled his eyes away from the encroaching oceans and he gently grabbed the child from her arms, tightened the blanket around the tiny, wailing head, and began lashing his son to the yoke.
The whinnies of the ass were drowned while the mother was pulling and pounding at her husbands cloak. He shielded the child with his body, harshly reassuring words mumbling through his lips, swept away. Once the child was secured to the yoke, an infantile and nautical spit roast, and their possessions were thrown hastily into the craft the father grabbed his wife and pulled her close, whispering in her ear while he caressed and smelled her long, sable tresses. Raindrops and tears coalesced on her dark cheeks as she placed herself starboard and stern, touching softly the moving bundle in the middle of the boat, and bending her knees slightly to the ground in preparation to push, as did the father, port side and poised.
Foam and breaker lathed themselves over the brim of the plateau, and the mother and father felt the sodden earth swell and agitate beneath their muddy feet, drinking and gorging itself, hissing and spitting its briny libations back into the air. The father’s sandals and dug-in toes could barely grip the soil when he maneuvered the boat clockwise, aiming the bow at the edge of the land most likely to be gently, the father quietly implored, overtaken by the rising, writhing, and angry sea. He yelled for the mother to push with him, the sound of his words barely roused through the sheets of blanketing rain to find her weary ears, but she pushed, feet sliding from their sandals. Mud and loam slithered between her toes and parted around the bow, which felt as if it wanted nothing more than to slice directly into and through the wet earth, and which the father and mother had to keep upright and moving while they gushed and trundled the craft toward the recently uncliffed and lathered lip of the land.
They approached quickly the edge and slid to a stop, the bow merely cubits from the brink of the earth, and the father grunted and ordered the mother to sit down with the wriggling, infant bundle. His first inclination was to attempt to coordinate a fateful shove and the rising and falling of the waves, hopefully finding one less vengeful and more indifferent than its brethren, in the name of easily plunging the craft into and across the world’s meniscus, and their inevitable place among the oceans, as opposed to being chewed through and swallowed up inside and beneath them. Both the fear behind his wife’s eyes, echoed by the reflections of capillarial flashes inside them, and the meager chance of survival in sliding off the edge of the world, however, gave him pause enough to momentarily quell his instincts of aggression against any and all threatening forces, to deny his atavistic dread the capacity to overrun his newly evolved and almighty sense of obligation by way of love to not only the safety, but the emotional prosperity of the mother of his children, now child, should this be their final moments together, and the family’s somehow inalienable right to die clutching and pleading to no one that they may still be holding and newly discovering the same loves and instinctual forces on the other side of their aqueous fate. He sat down next to the mother and pulled her close to him, over and covering their squirming son, and they both bowed their heads, closed their eyes, and in total devotional silence, save to the timid souls among their embrace, they waited.
It now trickles. The man sits, hunched over, waterlogged, the thin raindrops have become a part of the air, his skin no longer notices their cold or constant patter. His dreary eyes can no longer focus on the blankness of the horizon, not merely a flat, unmoving equidistance without countenance or feature, but an expanse that seems to rise, eye level and above, as if the convexity of the earth had split and popped, leaving a slowly drawing basin for the scouring submersion of all remaining things. He knows he’s gliding and swaying sporadically across the tips of the surges from the shove of the wind and the invariable pull of the confused and settling currents, but the man feels unmoving under the droplets and heavy pressures this existence descends upon him, a helplessly stationary nomad, pail and pelt, inside a concave and splintered island, itinerant and motionless in the load-bearing nadir of the bowl of the world.
The chops and swells have become calmer, now apathetic and indifferent rather than furious and vengeful, relegated to and comfortable with their settled, voluminous body and earthly blanketing form.
The sooty pewter and bulbous, expansive cloud bottom appears to the man like the sways and swirls of the ocean’s skin, as seen from fathoms and trenches below. The rain greys the sky, infinitely saturated and leaking. The man hasn’t seen more than a sliver of dirty yellowed light for days, and his eyes have become accustomed to the new and dripping state of this world, bringing normally nebulous forms into eerie clarity – the trillions of spumy bubbles on the slippery crests of breaking waves, the crystalline drops of rain slicing through claps of spewed mist, the still constant now innate search for fingertips, for any pleading semblance of need or life – and allowing the stark blue grayness of the firmament to shine darkly behind his eyes, his vision now crepuscular in the ceaseless twilight.
Over ripples and waves so frequent and canvasing they appear flat the man sees a infinitesimal chink in the blued blade of the horizon. Darker crinkle upon darkness. His pupils follow up and down, counterbalancing himself against the undulating wavelets, and remain focused on the cleft in the sky’s edge. His head compassine in its fixed and unwavering direction, though its elevation, and his body’s orientation steadily hemmed and hawed. A deep squelch behind and below the now infrequent searing sound of the ocean hissing urges the man’s view, at least, if not his full, fearing, and quizzical attention. As the smoky haze settles among the ocean, the water slides open and parts around an immense, oilblack, and crag-knuckled finger hooking its way through and into the depths, heavy and rounded pinguid bumps down its mammoth glistening back seamlessly meld through and with the dark waves, causing only minimally bubbled disturbance in the ocean’s ripple and flow when the stones on the serpents graveled and sebaceous spine gnash their way below. The monster’s return surges in the man the memories of the woman’s apparent calm at their first encounter with the beast, only yesterday, against his barely subdued dread at the discovery of real and actual miscreation, angry and viscous demons from the depths, horrors unknown to their world wrought upon them along with and inside the incessant water from the sky.
The man can’t help the boat easily bobbing toward the monster, his legs instinctually draw up to his beaten chest, and seeing a second immense and oiled stalagmitic beast slice through the waves, beseeches the earth and sky that his inevitable encounter with any bestial entity, of this world or below, be painless and releasing, and that the small interstice in the horizon behind him be of its own essence, carry its own paired and different demons, unrelated to the hellion and jagged monsters to which he bears witness below. The chink in the blade’s edge fissures glacially upwards as it moves closer across the steadily wavering leagues.
The father and mother sat across from one another, the child in its mother’s arm, each bobbing and swaying in rhythm with their respective ends of the boat, unspeaking through chapped and gritty lips, the child too tired and weak to cry. As best the father could judge, basing his assumption on the occasional presence of dim yellowed slivers squirming through the grey in contrast to a somehow blacker and starless sky visible through the clouds, they had been floating for almost four days. There was no food. They had been picked up and tossed, eyes still closed, in an unspoken and reciprocated promise to pass through this shattering moment in quiet anticipation and surrender, tightly clutching one another, and anything unsecured to the craft was thrown violently into the sea – food, blankets, pail, mother and father – which wailed and frothed for mere moments after shrouding in itself the last bit of earth, before suddenly and ghostily quieting into a placid and gentle loll, as if, through furious anger a vengeful and imperialistic desire fulfilled, the ocean had resolved now to simply and lazily occupy the world it had conquered. The mother and father had been beaten and battered beneath the waves in those final thrashing moments, spun and wrought and suffocated, each eye remaining closed, though no longer in the other’s embrace, until the pounding currents unexpectedly and abruptly quelled their frothy vitriol, or perhaps simply became insouciant with assuring the deaths of the land’s apparent final family, and swiftly, almost kindly, lifted them both to the surface of the now gentle ripples, each merely half a furlong from the boat, which bobbed upright, in tact, silent, and apparently empty. By the grace of each other, through and motivated by the fear that they had lost another child, both father and mother paddled doggedly to the craft, their robes heavy and resistant, begging and tugging them to join the depths and the rest of the world. The small pail floated behind the craft, and was only acknowledged and removed from the water once the father had pulled himself over the side to discover that it was completely empty of all earthly possessions save two; the lead taken from the ass and the dripping fleece which covered the now squirming and grumpily protesting bundle lashed down to the yoke. The father untied his young son and pulled the sinking pail from the waves before helping the mother up and over the lip of their new home. The rain fell upon them lazily, an infinite number of sparkling, curious eyes.
Fortunately the bear pelt was long enough to stretch from starboard to port, and the father was able to tie off and protect the middle of the boat from the constant rain, where the child remained, save for feeding times, which were becoming fewer and further between as the mother struggled to create enough nutrients from the small amount of water she was able to drink. They could set the pail on top of the taught fleece to catch the rainwater, but it either rained too little, not giving them more than a sip every few hours, or too much, causing the boat to hem and yaw, often tipping the pail on its side. During the feeding times the father would untie the soaked fleece and wring it out over the bucket, allowing father, mother, and son enough for a few sustaining swallows before replacing the shelter over his sons feverish head. He had to coordinate his bailing efforts directly after feeding and drinking sessions, because the amount of saltwater remaining in the buckets after just a few sloshes was enough to overpower any rainwater they might be fortunate enough to capture, forcing the next few hours rain to be used as a cleansing rinse of one of only three tangible objects that bore the heavy burden of keeping the family alive.
The father had quickly dismissed any discussion about what had happened or why, or exactly what was supposed to happen now, not out of malice or some odd sense of stoicism, but deeply out of fear, out of a defensive embarrassment for being so oblivious as to how best to protect his family, or formulate a means for survival. He had to stop himself from physically covering his ears when the mother voiced her distress at being increasingly unreliable in feeding the child. The father yelled in angry terror, charring his throat and waking their fitful son.
They both shivered through the nights, with no source of heat save for the familial bodies, infrequently embraced for fear the thin bow or stern would dip too close to the water under their combined weight, forced into complacency quivering on either end of the craft. At what they assumed was night, the coldest hours of their existence, they huddled as best they could under the fleece, next to the child, quaking in the span deep and frigid collected dribble of sea and sky. The inside-and-around of the father’s stomach growled incessantly.
The giant monster slices ominously through the water and rain toward the helplessly awaiting man, not swimming quickly enough to allow him to watch it elongate, broaden, thicken, but moving meticulously, unhurriedly, as if it realizes that everything else in the world is gone, and that the one remaining buoyant entity has no means of mobility, or escape. The man lifts his weary eyes on occasion, marking the beast’s progress, and his own time, watching it develop from a minute chink in the distant horizon to, many hours later, an elongated and girthy dorsal fin immense and dark, to what was, the man fathomed, the largest body of anything living or dead that he had witnessed himself, or caught rumor of, or could imagine. The floating titan moved across the world effortlessly, an alien pelagic giant, itinerant though landlocked, able now to find solace and comfortable mobility on this deep blue, full and empty earth.
The man can’t guess how distant the creature drifts, though it looms much closer now to him than to the horizon from which it swam. He can make out a rounded belly, or back, or head, sitting casually on top of the water, unswayed and indifferent to the waves that lick and slap at its sides. The top is nearly flattened, the forehead or shoulder or crown trenchant and biting. It doesn’t hook and sliver through the water, diving and ascending again through the oceans’ surface, as did the cragged and oily fingers that reached for him from far below, and the man quickly sinks and drowns the possibility that fingers, belly and rounded back could ever be an extension of the same ubiquitous, planetary beast, an earth drowned and resuscitated again as a single thalassic behemoth, the globe which it embraces simultaneously its body, its habitat, its sustenance, and its mate. Encouraging this frightful notion is the mist shrouded over the head, or back, or belly of the beast, although unspuming and undissipating, antithetic of the quickly dispersing droplets that were spouted from the knuckles of the leviathanic fist, possibly, thought the man, a product of the fingers being so far from the beast’s thumping heart. The mist over its head, or belly, or back is dark and swirling through the steady rain, a coronal maelstrom atop bestial nobility. The man hears a distant and unfamiliar sound, steadily and slowly brightening; a Sirenic wail, abrupt and oscillating under and through the rumblings and thunderous nautical applause.
After considering a complete, unbailing resignation and all possibilities of survival, as well as balancing any residual or instinctual desire to survive against the fear of a cold and watery death or, possibly worse, a gnashing and violent mastication, the man quells his justifiable terror and with a heavy huff that causes water droplets to dive from his bristled upper lip, picks up the pail and begins emptying the boat of water, quietly anticipating the mammoth creature’s Charybdian vortex of jaws to bloom from the ocean and slowly open before swallowing himself and half the sea.
Few words were spoken between the father and mother when the rain calmed to a healthy drizzle, after floating for nearly a week in utter silence, afraid or unwilling to discuss any form of ideas for survival, or direction, much less to discuss the hunger gnawing at both their insides. The child was too weak to do anything more than whimper; the mother kept placing a concerned hand on the infants tiny chest to assure herself that breaths were being sucked in and out, the small bundle becoming stiller and stiller with and not unlike time itself. When the mother finally spoke her first word was choked away by her raspy and desiccated throat. She coughed, and sucked the rainwater from her fingertips before starting again.
She could feel something in her chest that she did now know how to explain. She was scared, but not frightened in the sense that she was afraid to die, or drown, or afraid of what was happening, because those fears, she said, were inevitable as a part of being alive, that any living being with a sense of its own living or being would find debilitating terror at the loss of everything around it and the isolation of a new and empty world. She felt in her chest the fear that this world, however, wasn’t empty, which was confusing to her, considering that logic dictates an inherent penchant for mirth and hope at such a prospect, that they were not the last living beings on earth. But she felt a tremor inside herself, the preluded and foreboding rumblings of an imminent disaster. Doom. A little belated, the father thought.
She told him that she’d had a fleeting dream of a sentient island, teeming with fresh water and food, by all accounts what would and could allow them, at least for the time being, to sustain life, but in her dream’s reality was not they’re savior, was not an insular sustenance; her first steps on the island brought her before an immense crystalline globe, blood orange fire engulfing a seething black nucleus, sunk deep into a fleshy and wrinkled stoma in the mildewed soil of the land. She awoke in sodden fright the moment the eye blinked.
She wouldn’t allow the boy to be alone, even and especially should his life drift from his little body, refusing to relinquish such a small and helpless bundle to the watery maw of this world, nor could she ever possibly allow herself, she told the father, to live when both of her children had perished.
She said that she felt like they were ghosts, like the world had moved on without warning or explanation, that maybe they somehow hadn’t lived through the night before the father found the water in the valley. That the water was their passage and signal that what once was is now again, but different, without pleasures or motivations; futility as existence. That this is what they had known only until now as death, anhedonic and numb. That none of it matters now, actions, words, or thoughts. That she has no capacity to begin considering how to begin considering this new and redundant and cold existence. That her considerations don’t matter, either. That the only thing she could feel inside was fear and doom and an inveterate desire to just hold on selfishly to her only remaining child.
The father had not been looking at her. He had been staring out into the abyss and using every bit of tepid strength left in his mind and body to forbid the mother’s words from entering his ears, to avert his eyes so they may not find hers, and to shield her cancerous dread from metastasizing into and infecting his heart.
They both sat quiet, the father for fear that his weakness might intensify her anxiety, the mother because she was simply and utterly finished, now that her fears had been spread out into the ocean from which surged three gigantic black and cragged fingers, beckoning the sky into their grip, their nails a row of long-yellowed vertical slats, and flat flaps of black and oily skin reach out pectorally from each of their tarry and graveled knuckles. The father, frozen from rain, fear, and brine, took a breath unconsciously held, and awaited the splintering and crunching of a giant blubbery palm to split the ocean and capsize their home; but he catches sight of the mother, ghostly and stoic, holding their whimpering son to her chest and calmly beholding the peculiar and mighty creations of death, the denizens of an aquatic and lonesome world.
The thunder of the surging waves is easily drowned out by the screaming cyclone of birds above the colossal ship looming in the closing distance, swirling and diving, vortex inside feathered vortex; an ornithological monsoon replete with gnashing winds and screeching caws. A downpour of feces showers the entire vessel, grey and white cascade down its sides, ending in long vertical streaks before tapering at the ships bloated belly, which gave the whole monstrous entity the impression of an immense and ashen waterskin sat upon the ground, its contents trying to spread out as far as the swollen container will allow. The man can already smell the musky scent of animal and excrement over the brine as the ship drifts closer, newly built and already weathered, and the man sees, atop the great boat, a terrestrial animal, bipedal and intensely grey, only discernible from the hoary coat of waste and feathers because of his slowly repetitive movement. The old man is slowly moving back and forth across the wide deck, pushing a long handle before him, and each time he again reaches the fowl-infested gunwale, he swings his arms angrily and an explosion of feathers and wings spew away from the ship as the birds take flight, and the man makes a final push of his handle toward the ocean, sending out a spray of brown ordure down the sides of the boat and into the water, the birds settling again as he turns away.
The man’s eyes haven’t left the boat in hours; they stare in disbelief and wonder once he had realized what the beast actually was, recalling his brother’s ludicrous tales of an old man in a neighboring region building a giant, immovable boat as some sort of silly idol or homage, blaspheming anyone who came within earshot, whether they were inquiring about his motives or simply satisfying their sheer curiosity; they stare in an unintentional but almost tangible glister of hope, that the small craft beneath him might not be the last place he ever resides, that the freezing, suffocating death below him might not swallow him, that there might be an actual reason that he lost and anguished and fought, that his every action and thought up until now might not have been merely a solipsistic futility, that he might be saved; they stare in sorrow and mourning for his family taken by the sea, that his wife had decided too soon to escape her impotence, that, had she merely had a little more faith in him…; they stare in puzzlement as the huge craft approaches, and the man watches as three more bodies emerge carrying something limp and heavy, and under the old man’s direction, move toward the gunwale and the explosion of birds and dump a lifeless equine body over the edge.
It splashes mightily into the waves.
The men return with more shovels of what looks like muddy soil, which are dumped over the side, and the ship inches closer and looms high overhead, reaching monolithically into the dark sky. The man begins to wonder if the ship’s occupants have yet seen him, and notices that blended with the clear and cool raindrops falling upon him were warm and pungent globules of feces. He looks above, shielding his eyes, and can barely see the ominous clouds for the thousands of black V-bottoms and orange and red feet beneath the billowing, avian gyre. The old man stays on deck, in the steady rain, pushing his handle, yelling and swinging at the birds each time he returns to the edge of his boat.
The man considers as the vessels approach one another, a grain next to a wheat field, the logistics of his rescue; how might he possibly get the old man’s attention, had he not already, and since his voice was hoarse and dry and through the squawks and wails of the birds would sound like a whisper among a cacophony of blood-curdling screams, how might he communicate his situation, should it really need any further communicating, and how might he ever find a way on board the mighty ship, considering its titanic height and obstinate, impenetrable nature. Other questions can’t help but prod sternly on the outskirts of his thoughts; Who was this old man? What made him build the boat? What do they continue to shovel overboard?
As the questions, water, and waste rain upon him, so too do the birds. Finding more precious surface area on which to rest, what seems like hundreds of fowl drop from their incessant circling and come to rest around as well as on top of the man, if he doesn’t continuously swing and bat at his head and shoulders to clear them of claws and beaks. He sits there waving and batting at himself while looking up hopefully at the old man, his long gray hair and beard slanted and steady in the wind, dripping like a wet and grizzled sheepdog. A rounded grey woman with long, knotted hair whipping through the wind appears by the old man at the edge of their boat and begins flapping her arms about in what appears to be wifely frustration, the birds drifting above and around the elderly couple, flapping their arms about as well, waiting patiently for the return of their seats, and the old man flaps his arms about in what appears to be exasperated husbandly defense. The man watches the old man and the old woman arguing but hears nothing above the clatter of waves and chatter of beaks. He flaps his arms again himself to shoo away the birds.
The old woman leans against the filthy gunwales and follows with her eyes the path of the descending wings, swooping down to the newfound bit of solid space in the tiny boat far below, where a man sits, covered in feathers and excrement, flapping his arms in the air.
The man at last sees the woman grabbing the old man’s shoulder and pointing down at him feverishly. She waves at him and the man does his best to distinguish an acknowledging gesture from a bird-swatting flail. The old man pulls her hand off of his shoulder and points down angrily at the man in the boat, yelling first at the woman and then over the edge, at or to the man below, but no words are heard. The ship’s tsunamic wake violently surges the small vessel up and down as the old man continues his inaudible diatribe and flailing his befecaled broom through the sky. The three men return with full shovels and are apparently instructed, via the incensed pointing and yelling of the old man, to aim for the winged boat below, and soon upon the man rains down loamy mammalian excrement along with the continued and still unheard vitriol, nearly knocking him over and causing the birds to burst away from him for merely long enough for the dung to settle before quickly nestling down again.
The old man yells something at the three men, who gently escort the old lady away from the edge and into the bowels of the ship, and the old man turns around and stands at the edge and stares, arms crossed, at the man floating away, occasionally waving off a bird that attempts to settle in his line of vision. The man in the boat wipes the filth from his eyes and sees the old man gazing down as he surges violently again over the ship’s massive wake. The old man and his giant ship drift slowly into the distance, his gaze never faltering. As it slips further and further away the birds, one by one, take their leave, eventually making the choice to glide over the large ship instead of rest on the small.
The definition and all association with anything resembling hopelessness had been nearly lost along with the mother and the man’s children, and he doesn’t feel any more a sense of complete loss or despair or guilt than he’s felt over the previous few days, but still vestigial is his sense of perplexity. He shakes his robe and sits down, wiping off as much of the feces and feathers as he can, scaring a few more birds into fleeing in the process, and considers all the questions he had recently found himself silently asking. The placid water around the boat is covered in feculent jetsam, to which the man contributes by emptying the pail and pulling off the larger chunks clinging to his robe, plopping them into the salty muck. He doesn’t bother to swat away the dove that stands on his smeared and soiled head. Floating among the fecal flotsam in the water is the large body of a dead and bloated foal, a large gash in its throat chewed open with sharp slices and teeth marks around its neck and the small yellowed and broken horn between its bulging, marbled eyes.
Soon the remaining few birds make their departure, save the dove now sitting on the man’s head. The boat sways up and down and the man feels the dove dig its claws into his skin, and considers this world, weighing his desire to be a part of it or find assistance in it against what else there might possibly be, the latter only intensified in the last few days existing in a place the man thought he had known. He had felt and recognized an indelible change, unknown to him still if it was in time, or if he was the only one that realized that a change had occurred.
He picks up the bucket from between his aching legs, and the dove releases his head and withdraws through the rain without a sound. He places the bucket over the side of the boat and lets it fill with saltwater, rinsing it out and smoothing the grimy sides with his hands, cleaning it as best he can before dipping it back into the ocean and allowing it to fill again, this time letting go as the ripples overtake the rounded lip. The rope handle sits atop the water momentarily before following down the bucket that shrinks and fades and dissipates bluer and bluer and blacker to black. The man stands up, the wretched boat wobbling beneath him, and spreads his legs to stabilize himself, pulling at the rope around his waist until it comes loose, and removes the brown and heavy cloak over his head. The cold rain runs in dirty streaks down his naked brown back and legs. He sits again, and bundles his clothes inside the sopping hide, gently setting the mass of fur and fiber over the side of the boat, and pushes them below while they unravel, wresting and sucking at his wrist. Once the bundle finally begins to sink the man stands again, feet close together, fighting the sway and quiver of the boat. He stands looking over the side and closes his eyes, placing his hands before his face, palms flat against each other and trembling fingers together, pointed toward and parting the grey skies. Exhausted and riddled with futility the man prepares himself to discover new meaning in this world or the next through a fateful plunge into what or when or why or whom he has never known, doesn’t know, and will never know, should he refuse to listen to his own voice, which he uses to whisper a name that he will follow into the darkness and the cold and the depth.
He bends his knees.