Life is a series of mistakes. The wise person learns from them, the fool repeats them.
Author Archives: alibifolio
THIS HAS TO BE SAID
Okay, SOMEBODY’s got to talk about the elephant in the room, so it may as well be me. The elephant to which I refer is, of course, SHOELACES! There! It had to be said, and I said it – and I’m glad I did, because if somebody doesn’t do something about it, they’re going to take over the world!
It began, insidiously, several years ago when I bought a pair of sneakers and, when I tied them up, had enough lace left over to make a fair-sized hammock. ‘Okay’ I thought. ‘Somebody made a mistake at the shoelace factory. Possibly the cutting machine operator ran out of aglets and, when he went to find some, forgot to turn the machine off. Or perhaps he bent over to tie his shoes.’ Who knows? I wasn’t there. But such were the possibilities I entertained at the time.
Then, later in the same year, I bought a pair of boots suitable for inclement weather – specifically mud and snow, these elements representing two of the predominant seasons here in Moldova as they do in my native Maine. When I tried them on in the store, however, deja vu – but in brown rather than white! There was sufficient surplus lace to truss a small cadre of miscreants until their bulging eyes were all that could be seen, hence preventing them from executing their malevolent plans.
As there were no miscreants about, however, all I could do was look down upon the small mountain of excess lace – equivalent in quantity and distribution to leftovers of Italian night at the local bowl-a-rama – sure that I must be on Candid Camera.
Alan Funt was not, to my surprise, forthcoming from behind a nearby aspedistra – probably for the best, since he’d been dead for some years by that time, still…
All of which begs the question: “Huh?”
I mean, people all over the planet are dragging surfeit miles of laces in their train, imperiling themselves and passers-by with braided strings containing enough cotton to clothe the children of several third-world nations!
Why are you laughing?
So: what to do with it? Double-bow? Triple-bow? Quad and Quintuple bow? Tim Tebow?
I’ve tried ’em all (well, not the Tim Tebow…yet), and there’s still enough left over so the residual pile doesn’t begin to unravel until I’ve gone twice ’round the block!
I know I’ve opened a can of worms, but if the general population isn’t allowed to vent on this critical issue, the pressure to do so will become explosive.
Progress is fine, but only to the edge of the canyon; beyond that, it’s disaster.
I spoke with an individual – who shall for the sake of his reputation remain nameless – who labors under the misapprehension that cricket is a sport. I offer the following in evidence that it is not:
1. Participants wear white sweaters (cardigans), neckties, and little white beanies.
2. At certain intervals the ‘players’ break for tea and crumpets.
3. There is no possibility of human contact or any real physical exertion.
4. Chess players sweat more profusely than cricketers. (See #3)
5. The ‘game’ involves knocking a stick off some other sticks – a feat often accomplished by a passing breeze.
6. The bowler (or pitcher) throws the ball at the ground – which is very easy to hit and which makes…
7. The ball very easy to hit.
8. The ball may be hit anywhere, the only foul being when it lands in the teacup of an opposing player.
9. The rules of Cricket cannot be explained to sentient human beings, nor are the most ardent cricketers, cricket supporters, or referees sure of them in the first place. Because of this . . .
10. a game of cricket can, depending on the amount of tea available, last for DAYS.
11. Cricket is named after the insect, the sound of which is the only thing to be heard during most of the ‘game’.
12. Cricket was heavily promoted by the Scots in order to make golf seem exciting.
13. The preceding make it highly likely that Cricket was invented by Horatio Twinings, founder of Twinings Tea, (1706), for the purpose of creating a market for surplus product. Horatio, it must be noted, was eccentric in the extreme in that his two favorite (favourite) pass-times were turtle racing and watching ice melt, and both of these passions are reflected in the game he devised.
There will, of course, be those who contest my appraisal, but the bulk of these misguided individuals attended public schools (which, in the U.K., means private – another fact that goes a long way in explaining the existence of Cricket), and were indoctrinated at an early age so allowances must be made and grace extended.
The world has been observed by many to be going insane. I agree. It cannot be ignored, based upon the preceding, that Cricket is – in whole or in part – culpable for the present state of affairs. We hold this truth to be self-evident.
I thought this response to a comment made by my good friend, Joan – relative to chewing gum losing its flavor on the bedpost overnight – bears repeating. So here it is, and let it be a lesson to you.
A friend of mine took her two-year old to the movies, and, after a while, became aware that the child was happily masticating some sticky substance.
“What are you chewing?” asked mom.
“Gum, I think,” said the child.
“Where did you get it!?” asked mom – I think she may have used multiple exclamation points, but I wasn’t there, so I can’t say for sure.
“Under the seat!” said the child proudly.
I don’t think the issue of how long it had been there arose in the ensuing exchange. Therefore whether and for how long it had retained its flavor – assuming it WAS gum – remained moot.
It is because overly-fastidious mothers intervene in experiments like this that American students have fallen behind in science.
I try to be a positive, optimistic kind of guy – but, however I try to put a positive spin on them – there are words that immediately raise my blood pressure: “Welcome to the NEW INTERFACE we’ve created. Now, we’re better, and more intuitive than ever!” What they fail to mention is that the individual for whom they are ‘more intuitive’ is Rube Goldberg (look it up, I don’t have time to explain…)
I have spent, literally, 90 minutes trying to find a way to do with my ‘convenient new interface’ what I’ve been doing for the last 7 years on the old, apparently inconvenient interface, which had a big button that said: “Click here to post a new banner, stupid!” or words to that effect. So, deducing that the command was directed at me, I’d push the button and ‘BINGO’ it did what I wanted!
Now, there is no “Click this button, Stupid’ button. There’s no button at all. And there are no convenient little balloons that wake up when you hover over them and tell you what to do next. And – there’s no human being on the ‘Support’ page. There’s a list of FAQs (for the uninitiated, that means Frustrating Abstract Qomments) from people who don’t have the same problem you have, and will actually take the time to tell you they don’t have an answer to your problem, and you need to submit a ticket.
This is a convenient 47-step process designed to:
A. Take so long that you: i. forget about it. ii. die B. Take so long for anyone to respond to that your computer will be outdated so they can say, “Oh, our MS (Magnificent Software) doesn’t work on that old system anymore. (Chortle), You need to update your OS – which means Ossified and Superannuated Contraption. (The ‘C’ is silent). C. Drive you completely insane.
Nine years ago, I had a heart attack. By this time, I’m about to have another one. On the bright side, I’ll probably die of old age first.
I scroll to the bottom of the page and there – in print about the size of a Qubit (not Q-Tip, nor a cubit, which are entirely different things. Look ‘it up), is a word that, I think, says Contact. Contact what, exactly, it didn’t say. I remember a movie Jodie Foster was in that was called ‘Contact’, or something like that. It turns out what she was contacting was an alien civilization.
Despite my fear that that’s exactly what would happen if I clicked the button, I clicked it. Jodie Foster would have felt right at home on the resulting screen which – though clearly captioned ‘Contact Us’ in 36-point letters at the top of the page – had nothing on it suggestive of the answer to the question: How?
A block of text said that my “question had already probably been answered, Stupid” (or words to that effect) on their helpful FAQ (Fatuous And Querulous) page, to which they provided a link. I wished to respond that I had already spent the greater part of my allotted three-score and ten there – along with some other observations of which the preceding is but a passing whiff – but there was nowhere to make such a comment.
On the Contact Us page.
I was just about to . . . Hey. Wait a minute! Did you see the movie where the guy was abandoned on Mars? I think I see him over there on the next dune. . . gotta go!
It’s been scientifically proven that there are two elemental forces through which the universe came into being, and without which it could not exist. The first is gravity. The second, of course, chocolate. It is with the first of these properties this monograph has to do (can something be a monograph, if it has more than one paragraph?).
That gravity is a feminine force cannot be contested, in evidence of which I present its capriciousness. To whit (or two wits): It stalks me, as women of the fair sex are wont to do. I’m serious. High concentrations of this substance follow me wherever I go: the bathroom scale, for example. The moment I step on the thing – Zip! – gravity attacks me en masse, and clings to me until I step off. I try subterfuge – stepping gingerly onto the scale quickly and without warning while humming If She Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate nonchalantly – but it’s useless. Gravity is prescient. It is fast. It is crafty. It is invidious, insidious, invisible, and malicious.
It also clusters around me at the dining table, surrounding my chair – at the conclusion of a meal including anything susceptible to its influence – food, for instance – with a sphere of refuse not unlike the 480 million copper needles surrounding the planet courtesy of the great scientific minds that gave us Project West Ford (worth looking up, that), and the dishwasher when I’m handling especially delicate glassware – of which only one remains from a set of six.
Gravity’s permanent residence is places like sidewalk grates or bodies of water into which it siphons precious objects, and keeps them there, in plain sight, but exactly 1/128th of an inch out of reach of any device you have at your disposal that might be applied to its extraction.
I am currently working on special glasses that will enable the wearer to identify these calamitous vortices of gravity and sidestep them. Avoidance may, however, be impossible since, as I have said, gravity is Very Fast. Given that, I am also developing – and this is Top Secret, so don’t tell Mr. Snowdon or Mr. Wikileaks, or Mr. Anonymous, or any major news outlet – a pill or capsule, to be marketed under the name TAKE A LOAD OFF, the chemicals in which, when swallowed, combine with those resident in the stomach to create an explosion of helium, which, briefly, minimizes gravity’s influence. A perfect time to take one of these (NOT with a carbonated beverage!) is when you are told “The doctor will see you now”, which is usually followed by the nurse’s ‘request’ that you step on the scale. I anticipate that TAKE A LOAD OFF will counter the effects of gravity and produce a more accurate reading at least 20 pounds less than that produced when the subject is infested by one of these traveling gravidical nodes (GN).
Test results on laboratory rats and my neighbor’s Pekinese, has been pronounced. I am conducting further experiments, and will keep you apprised. Let me close by saying that TAKE A LOAD OFF is available for pre-order FOR only $649 dollars for a full month’s supply! Order NOW and you get a second month’s supply for EXACTLY THE SAME PRICE! So relax, have a big Swiss-sized chunk of chocolate, and TAKE A LOAD OFF! That’s all.
Here, kitty, kitty…
Here in Moldova I recently engaged in an unplanned scientific experiment to determine whether ice here is the same as ice in America – by which I mean the ice that forms on roads, steps, stairs, and sidewalks – and whether the impact upon it of a fairly large human head falling abruptly and without warning from a height of 6 feet three and a half inches would produce the greatest lasting effect upon a.) the ice, or 2.) the head.
Some years ago in Boston, while walking from place-to-place along the offices that nowadays line the harbor in patent leather shoes (not the offices, my feet) seeking employment, I conducted a similar experiment. It was February and snowing. My shoes were new. They apparently didn’t like the cold and – in tandem – flung themselves toward the sky. I remember looking up at them as I descended and thinking. “Why am I looking up at my shoes?” or thoughts to that effect. Whatever those thoughts, they were promptly superseded by another, even more succinct. “Ow!”
On both occasions – that in Boston and the one, just days ago, in Moldova, the effect upon the ice was exactly the same. Not the least. The effect upon my head was also the same. Painful and pronounced.
In each instance my immediate response, once sight returned and the ringing in my ears abated, was to apply the following litmus test: if I could summon three numbers in sequence, that was a good sign. If I could summon three numbers, but was unclear as to their sequence, that was a bad sign.
I managed to pass the test.
Next, an inventory of my limbs. Hands? Yes. Why shouldn’t they be perfectly fine? Relative to the attack upon my person by the forces of nature, they played the part of citizens not wishing to be involved. “After all”, they decided, “if our feet are in the air, why might we not be as well? The torso must make its own way in the cold, cruel, world.” They reserved themselves, it seems, for the privilege of drawing the ‘X’ that marked the spot where the accident happened.
As the back of my head launched its precipitous and ultimately impotent assault on the ice and the sidewalk, my tailbone absorbed the superfluous energy of the impact, sending electrical shock waves down the legs to those feet that, as they settled gingerly about my head and shoulders, had been the twin Judases abandoning me to the unyielding persistence of gravity and various other physical principles for the discovery of which we have Newton to 1.) blame, or 2.) thank.
I was not feeling thankful to or for Newton at the time.
Physically, the result of my experiment was the same, and I am pleased to report them, (a short paper will be appearing in the pages of Science, Skeptic, and Rosie O’Donnell’s now defunct McCall’s Women’s Weekly in coming months), to wit:
1. Ice, in and of itself, is innocuous.
2. Ice under the influence of the aforementioned physical principles is evil and malicious.
3. Sidewalks, in and of themselves, are innocuous.
4. Sidewalks in association with ice and gravity are evil and malicious.
5. A skull, perhaps not as innocuous in and of itself – owing to the gray matter it contains – is, if my experience is any indication – inevitably the loser in any contest featuring ice, sidewalk, gravity, footwear lacking 3-inch spikes of galvanized steel, and other physical principles, in any combination.
6. The only difference between the spontaneous experiment which I conducted in Boston and that in Moldova is that in Boston, as I lay on my back, writhing in pain, I looked up through blurry eyes at the faces of people who, because my body was impeding their progress, stepped over me and the contents of my briefcase (which were, in memory of my mother’s favorite movie, Gone With the Wind) – with scornful expressions and comments to match, as if I had gone to all that trouble to inconvenience them. In Moldova, well, no one was walking. They’d all taken the trolley bus.
Here begins the last voyage of The Mary, to which a new chapter will be added each week, carrying its crew of geriatric nursing- home escapees deeper and deeper into realms tethered to reality by nothing more substantial than a thread of whispered wishes.
oooo“Do you think he knows she’s gone?”
ooooA lone seagull wheeled and cried over the cove. The fog had been out most of the morning, right up until the service started. Now it was coming in again, crouched low and cold on the hillside, riding where there was no wind. It came to take the soul of the departed.
ooooThe five old men were the last to leave. They could see the rest of the mourners at the bottom of the path, getting into the mini-bus.
ooooEven their footsteps sounded old. Slow and scuffling. Alby’s wheelchair provided counterpoint to the footfalls with squeaks and rattles of its own and the muffled ‘thiggity-thiggity’ of his plastic wrist bracelet in the spokes. Ben pushed him on in silence.
oooo“Ben?” said Raymond again. He was out of breath now, but he’d caught up. “Do you think he knows she’s gone?”
oooo“He don’t know his own name, for godsakes,” said Kilton. With his long legs he had no trouble keeping up with Raymond. Besides, he always clung to his elbow, so he was always right behind him.
oooo“I wasn’t talking to you,” said Raymond on the exhale. Kilton was always like this after a funeral.
oooo“Can’t even tell if he’s conscious half the time,” Kilton said. “Might as well talk to a turd pollack.”
oooo“I wasn’t talking to you,” said Raymond. “Do you think he knows she’s gone, Ben?”
oooo“‘Course he don’t,” said Kilton. “He don’t know anything. We might as well’ve left him up there. Save everybody a trip.”
oooo“They’re going to leave without us, if we don’t get a move on,” said Everett who was stumbling ahead at an elderly jog.
oooo“That’s no way to talk, Kilton,” said Raymond. He rested a hand on one of the wheelchair handles for support. “The man’s wife just died, f’r pity sakes. Least you can do is be respectful.” Raymond knew it was best just to keep quiet when Kilton was being contrary, but he couldn’t help it. His sense of chivalry was offended by Kilton’s carelessness.
oooo“What do you mean, ‘disrespectful’?” said Kilton. “Each time we come up here, there’s one less on the way back, ain’t there? It’s like musical chairs. One gets left. The rest go back . . . and wait for the music to start up again. It’s gettin’ to be a long walk, and I don’t guess the next one’s too far off.” He pointed at Alby.
oooo“I remember musical chairs,” said Alby. It wasn’t often he spoke, but once in a while something would light a spark in the watery once-blue eyes and toss a feeble light upon his reason. “Up at the church vestry . . . remember? There was that song was so popular then . . . remember, Ben?”
oooo“I remember, Cap’n,” said Ben. They’d grown up together; shared eighty years of memories. No doubt the song in question was among them somewhere.
oooo“What was it? Me and Gracie Peterson danced to it at the Harvest Fair. You remember Gracie Peterson, Ben?”
oooo“Remember Gracie,” Kilton snorted. “We just buried her for godsakes. They was married sixty years.”
oooo“Shut up, Kilton,” said Raymond. “He doesn’t know she’s gone.”
oooo“I remember”, said Ben.
ooooEverett was ten yards ahead. He called over his shoulder. “He should take his pill, Ben.”
oooo“Damn pills,” said Alby.
oooo“‘Damn pills’,” said Kilton. “You hear that? ‘Damn pills’, he says. Those pills are keeping you alive, ol’ man.”
ooooAlby raised his eyes and looked out over the bay, the roofs of the town were sheltered beneath the canopy of cloud, the steeple of the Congregational church, Murray’s Boatyard . . . he knew there were a lot of memories down there . . . but he couldn’t remember what they were. The fog was coming in faster now, hiding everything from sight. “Damn pills,” he said.
ooooRaymond was breathing hard. “I’ve got to rest here a minute.”
ooooBen stopped the wheelchair automatically. He leaned on the handles and looked seaward in silence. Everett turned around.
oooo“What are you doing?” he called. “They’re going to leave without us!”
oooo“So what if they do!?” yelled Kilton as he lowered himself, a limb at a time, to the grass beside Raymond. “They’re having three-bean casserole again tonight,” he said. “I hate that stuff. Must have it twelve meals a week. Might as well just sit out here in the fog and die as well as fart myself into oblivion.”
oooo“Just ’cause we’re having three-bean casserole, you’d rather die? You hear that, Ben? Kilton’d rather die than have three-bean casserole.”
ooooBen sighed. “They’re towing the Mary out tomorrow.”
ooooAll eyes turned toward the harbor. It didn’t matter that the fog was too thick to see anything. They all knew the harbor as well as they knew one another’s faces. They saw it clearly . . . even Kilton, who was mostly blind.
oooo“The Mary?” said Alby.
ooooThe Maine coast had been his home since he was fourteen but he still had a trace of Swedish accent. “Towing her, Ben?”
oooo“Guess we all get towed sooner or later, Cap’n,” said Ben.
ooooKilton buttressed himself with his arms. “They do it with explosives these days.”
oooo“Do they, Ben?,” said Raymond. “That’s awful. I think they should just let the ballast do it, don’t you? Just slow and graceful. Open up the scuppers and she’d just float down. Why’ve they gotta blow ‘er up?”
oooo“Sinks faster,” said Ben. “Goes straight down, that way. Right where they want ‘er. Don’t drift out in the sea lane.
ooooEverett puffed back up the hill. “Kilton, you get off that grass in them good trousers.”
oooo“Oh, shut up, Everett. You’d think he was my mother, f’r pity sakes. You’re just like an old woman.”
oooo“Well, he’s right,” said Raymond. “You get grass stains on them good trousers and them women in the laundry’ll have your hide.”
oooo“They’re welcome to it,” Kilton replied with a bitter laugh. “Ain’t doin’ me no good, that’s for sure.”
oooo“Gets you up and down this hill,” said Raymond.
oooo“How many more times, I wonder.”
oooo“They’re towin’ the Mary, Ben?” said Alby.
oooo“They’re makin’ that breakwater they was talking about, Cap’n. Out at the head of the harbor. They’re using old boats to do it. They sink ’em out there.”
oooo“The Mary, though,” said Alby. There was no fog around the Mary. She was clear in his memory. Forty-seven feet of lady-grace that breasted the clamoring waves like a queen. He’d been her Captain. She’d been his livelihood, sanctuary, boast; his mistress. And these men, Kilton, Ben, Raymond, Everett . . . Bookie was drowned, and Tyler went south somewhere, but he was just a seasonal hand anyway . . . they were the crew. All those years. “They shouldn’t do that to ‘er.”
oooo“They’re waving at us, down there,” said Everett, squinting to make out the forms of the women through the fog. He yelled toward the van and waved his arms. “Come on, or they’re going to leave without us.”
oooo“Wish they’d hurry up and do it, then,” said Kilton. He gestured the van away with his arms.
oooo“You’re right, Cap,” said Ben. “They shouldn’t do that to the Mary.”
ooooEverett had expended his reserves of nervous energy. He sat down beside Kilton. “What else’re they gonna do, Ben? She’s just sittin’ there takin’ up dock space. They need that space, you know. It’s worth somethin’ these days.”
oooo“Always was worth something to us,” said Kilton.
oooo“No. I mean it’s worth money. George Bennett’s boy owns that strip’ve shore now. He don’t fish. He wants to sell . . . so . . . ”
oooo“Ain’t shore, anymore,” said Raymond. “It’s ‘ocean frontage’. That’s how you can tell it’s gonna be too expensive for fishermen before long. Soon as they start callin’ your fish house ‘ocean frontage’ . . . that’s all she wrote. What’d you used to rent them pilin’s for, Cap’n? Thirty-dollars a month, wasn’t it?”
oooo“She’s still down to Bennett’s, then?” said Alby.
ooooBen patted his shoulder. ” ‘Til tomorrow, Cap’n.”
oooo“Thirty dollars a month, I think it was,” said Raymond. “Maybe thirty-five.”
oooo“I wonder if she still runs,” said Kilton.
ooooEverett plucked a long piece of sweet grass and stuck it between his front teeth, like he always did. “Sure she does! Bloody Mary’s too damn stubborn to know when to say ‘when’.”
oooo‘Bloody Mary’ was the Mary‘s engine. An 84 horsepower Grey Marine diesel that only rarely had run on more than three cylinders simultaneously. She was a smelly red monstrosity that perpetually rested in six inches of oily bilge water like a fat lady in a hot bath. Everett knew her moods. As the Mary‘s engine man he knew how to coax and cajole her. Flatter her. Lie to her. Make her promises. She’d always brought them home.
oooo“They had to fire ‘er up once a month, or so . . . the insurance said so. She’s leakin’ like a clam hod, though. I know that.”
oooo“She ain’t either,” said Kilton. “She’s just gotta swell up a little.”
oooo“‘Swell up’, he says. You hear that, Cap’n? Kilton says the Mary‘s just got to swell up a little,” said Ben.
ooooAlby smiled. “Swell up,” he said.
oooo‘She’s been in the water forty years, Kilton,” Ben laughed. “I guess if she’s goin’ to swell, she better get around to it.”
ooooEverybody laughed; even Kilton, after a minute or so. Old men’s laughter that climbed on the back of the mist and raced where their bodies couldn’t take them.
oooo“The bilge pumps are always on, anyways,” said Everett. “Bertie said so when he come to see me last week.”
ooooSomeone honked the van horn.
oooo“They’re gonna think one of us died,” said Everett.
oooo“We ought to take her,” said Alby.
ooooSometimes it was hard to tell what world Alby was speaking from. At first, everybody laughed the awkward laughter that accompanies awkward statements. All accept Ben. Raymond smiled half way and tried it on the others to see if they were smiling back. They looked the same as he did.
oooo“What’d you say, Cap?” Kilton said. “You still with us old fella?”
oooo“He said we oughtta take the Mary,” said Raymond.
ooooKilton snapped. “I know what he said! I wanted him to say it. He’s got to say it, or it don’t mean nothin'”
oooo“I did say it,” Alby said. “We oughtta take the Mary.”
oooo“Take her where?!” said Everett, alarmed because no body else was alarmed. “Put ‘er in our rooms? Stop this foolishness . . . they’re waiting for us. I think they’re coming now.”
ooooRaymond looked to see if they were. “I don’t see anything.”
oooo“‘Course you don’t. There’s too much fog. But I hear ’em.”
ooooRaymond listened. “I don’t hear anything. Maybe they really did go. That’s a long walk back. Two-and-half miles. I clocked it last time we was up here.”
oooo“Ben,” said Alby. “We’re gonna take ‘er.”
ooooEverett sat bolt upright like he’d suddenly found himself in a roomful of the criminally insane. “What’s that? What’d you say, Ben?”
oooo“I said we’re takin’ the Mary.”
oooo“That’s what I was afraid you said,” said Everett. “You gone potty all of a sudden? Why’d you say somethin’ like that to the Ol’ Man. He’s gonna get his hopes all up. Why’d you say somethin’ like that, anyway, Ben? You ain’t s’posed to be the crazy one.”
ooooNobody moved but Everett. They all stood or sat staring seaward. “You all crazy? Raymond . . . you gonna just sit there with your face hangin’ out? They said we should steal the Mary.” He stood up.
oooo“Not steal ‘er, Ev’,” Ben said. “Save ‘er.”
oooo“Words,” Everett said sharply. “That’s all them is. She ain’t ours no more. That makes it stealin’.”
oooo“But they’re gonna sink ‘er,” said Raymond. “They don’t want ‘er. That ain’t stealin’.” There was a pause while Everett built up steam. “Don’t seem right, does it, Ev’? She brung us home more times’n I can count. Hell or high water . . . sometimes both. Seems like we owe ‘er somethin’. That ain’t no way for the old girl to go . . . jus’ sunk like that.”
oooo“You know what they’re gonna do?” said Everett. “They’re gonna put you fellas in the rubber room if they hear you talkin’ like this. That’s what. They’re gonna say they don’t want you to go ’round hurtin’ yourself, and they’re gonna put you in the rubber room. That’s how it happens.”
oooo“Not me,” said Alby. “No rubber room. No nursin’ home. I’ll go out there.” He nodded toward eternity. “I’ll hide in the bilges and go down with the Mary ‘fore I’ll die in that place.” He looked up at Ben. “No more trips up this damn hill, Ben.”
oooo“By gorry, I’m with you!” said Kilton, slapping his knees and struggling to his feet. A spark was struck in the milky depths of his nearly-sightless old eyes. “I’m with you, Cap. We ain’t dead yet, are we?”
oooo“Sign up one old blind man to take the helm,” said Everett. “I guess you’ll be dead soon enough at that rate. Save the town the cost of dynamite.”
oooo“We’ll do it, Cap’n,” said Ben solemnly, but his eyes, too, were warmed by the idea.
oooo“He’s right,” said Raymond thoughtfully. “Cap’s right. Wouldn’t that be the best way to do it? Just go down with the Mary. Straight down. Get ‘er over with. Better’n dyin’ by bits and pieces.”
ooooEverett danced a crab-like circle around the others. “Stop it! Now, you stop it! We ain’t dead yet! That’s what Kilton said. Well, he’s right! We ain’t dead yet! Why rush it?”
oooo“Nobody said we gotta die right off,” said Ben. “We can do something first.”
oooo“Go somewheres?” said Everett. “Where you got in mind, Ben . . . the French Riviera?”
ooooBen turned his deep gray eyes to sea. “Didn’t you ever wonder what’d be like jus’ headin’ ‘er out and lettin’ ‘er run? God knows where she’d take you, both tanks full up. You can go a long ways on 600 gallons.”
oooo“She took us out to Georges Bank, that’s the same as the teeth’ve hell, some trips. Far enough for me,” said Everett, for a moment forgetting his fury.
oooo“That’d be the place, wouldn’t it? Back out to Georges Bank. Wouldn’t it?” said Ben. He resumed pushing Alby’s wheelchair down the path, the others followed with Everett limping around the periphery like a wing-singed moth.
oooo“You can’t do it. It’s just the funeral, is all. It’s natural to get depressed at funerals. That’s what they’re for. You’ll see,” said Everett, “once we get back in front’ve that fire. Once we get us some coffee and get out the cribbage board. Then you’ll come ’round.
oooo“Come to think of it, I’m half-way through skunkin’ you, Ben. Is that what all this talk’s about? You tryin’ to get outta that cribbage game?” His nervous laughter was a prayer against silence, but silence ensued. “F’r godsakes, Ben,” he said. “You’re gonna get us all killed.”
oooo“So what?” said Kilton.
oooo“You in, Ev’?” said Ben.
oooo“I always wanted to die in bed, Ben.”
oooo“We’ll bring along a mattress.” The fog embraced the stumbling parade of old men.
oooo“We’ve got to make some plans.”
ooooKilton ate three plates of three-bean casserole at supper. He wrapped several pieces of cornbread in a napkin and stuffed the little bundle into the deep pockets of his old wool pants.
ooooThey all ate well and made little bundles of leftovers; it was part of the plan. They got together all the money they could find, candy dishes full of spare change, Everett ‘s collection of silver coins, Ben had almost a thousand dollars stashed away.
oooo“That much less for the kids to fight about,” he said as he tucked the money in his coat pocket and put the false bottom back in the train case. He gathered his charts, his raingear, a couple of candles, and a flashlight. He made sure they all had warm clothes.
ooooRaymond half-filled his storm lantern with lighter fluid. Everett dragged his tool chest from under the bed. It would take two of them to carry it.
ooooIt was after midnight when they snuck out the front door.
ooooAlby forgot about the plan, but he was excited about going out at night. It was all they could do to keep him from laughing as they pushed him over the artificial cobblestones that stretched to the drive. It tickled. Sometimes he lost control of his bladder. But it was a funny feeling.
oooo“Don’t laugh!’ Kilton cautioned in a harsh whisper. “He’s gonna leave a trail all the way to the harbor if we ain’t careful.” They all laughed. Partly because it was funny. Partly because they felt like schoolboys.
ooooEverett crouched low and hopped gingerly from foot to foot as if treading on landmines. The streetlight at the end of the drive cut old man-shaped sillouettes from the fog and trimmed them with light.
oooo“So far, so good,” said Everett . No sooner were the words out of his mouth than twin shafts of light swept the darkness ahead of them.
ooooThey tripped into the bushes at the side of the road. Ben pulled Alby into a huge forsythia in the middle of the lawn. “Let’s go back on the cobblestones,” Alby complained.
oooo“Just a minute, we will,” said Ben, out of breath. “Shhh.”
ooooThe car plowed though the fog leaving the ringing of loud music and laughter, and the smell of beer, in its wake.
oooo“Teenagers,” said Kilton, holding tightly to Raymond’s elbow.
oooo“Teenagers,” echoed Raymond. One was a curse, the other a benediction.
oooo“Where we goin’, Ben?” said Alby. “I’m cold.”
oooo“Down to the Mary, Cap’n,” said Ben. He wrapped Alby’s lap comforter around his shoulders. “Remember?”
oooo“Sure I remember,” said Alby. He didn’t, but he always said he did. It helped. “Can we get back on them cobblestones?”
ooooThe elderly group rattled to the end of the drive to the tune of Alby’s giggles. “I don’t guess we’ll be too hard to follow come mornin’ if there ain’t a good rain,” said Kilton. The rest of them giggled, too.
oooo“I can hear the pump runnin’.” said Kilton as they approached the boat across the loose gravel.
oooo“She’s listin’, ain’t she?” said Everett . “Don’t she look like she’s listin’, Ben?”
oooo“You’re the one who’s listin’, y’old coot,” said Kilton. “Stand up straight.”
ooooBen had walked up and down the dock, inspecting the boat in the dark. “They shortlined ‘er.”
oooo“That explains it,” said Everett .
ooooKilton felt his way to the bow and plucked the line. It twanged like the string on a bass fiddle. “Cripes! Them line’s tighter’n granmother’s garter!” he said. “When’s the tide turn?”
oooo“Already has,” said Ben as he climbed the two steps down the wooden ladder and stepped onto the boat. “She’ll be afloat in fifteen or twenty minutes. Another hour we’ll be outta here.”
ooooHe climbed back to the top of the ladder. “C’mon, Cap.” He held out his still-strong arms and took Alby under the armpits. “You grab his chair, Ev’. Help ‘im there, Raymond. Kilton, you come up here and grab his other arm. Shh! Don’t let it bang. There. That’s it. There you go, Cap’n.” He put the wheelchair by the pilothouse. “Let’s lock them wheels so you don’t go rollin’ overboard.”
ooooAlby hadn’t seen The Mary in more than three years. But he recognized her, even in the dark. He reached out from his wheelchair and ran his hand across the gunnel, worn smooth as silk by years of use. “The Mary,” he said softly.
oooo“I told you she was listin’, said Everett . “Call me an old coot, will you? I guess I forgot more’n you ever knew.”
ooooKilton finished locking the wheels of Alby’s chair. “Well, if your so wonderful, get down and sweet talk that blackhearted ol’ whore of an engine you got.”
oooo“You talk ’bout ‘er like that and she won’t go nowhere.”
ooooKilton lit the storm lantern and handed it to Everett . “Just shut up and do it. There. Now see if you can get ‘er goin’ without blowin’ us all t’ hell.”
ooooEverett took the light and went below. They handed him his toolbox and in a minute they could hear the distant-sounding tinks of his wrench probing Bloody Mary‘s cast-iron innards. Soon he was whistling.
oooo“Whistling,” said Alby. “That’s Ev’ whistlin’.”
ooooRaymond cocked his head like an old spaniel, turning his good ear toward the tune. “Use to whistle all the time, didn’t he?” he said. “I forgot that.”
oooo“Drove me nuts,” said Kilton. He smiled in the dark and squeezed Raymond’s elbow without knowing it.
ooooWithin fifteen minutes Everett had jury-rigged a power supply to the wheelhouse. “Is the compass light on?” he called.
ooooThe men had been sitting on the bow, watching the water rise, frequently testing the slack on the line. Ben got up, stepped across to the wheelhouse and looked inside. “Sure is, Ev’. You done it, ol’ boy.’
ooooEverett laughed. “Ol’ boy’, he says. I’ll show you ol’ boy.” His oath from the darkness was puntucated by a series of deep-throated rasps and wheezes as Bloody Mary rose from her deathbed to perform a pathetic mechanical bump-and-grind. Everyone stood up and held-their breath in 80-year-old anticipation.
oooo“She ain’t turnin’ over,” said Raymond.
oooo“Shh!” said Kilton.”She is so.”
ooooFinally there was an muffled explosion which the fog sopped up like spilled chowder.
oooo“He done it!” said Kilton, almost dancing. “Listen!”
ooooBloody Mary wasn’t enthusiastic about being awaken. She swore in loud, long, unladylike hisses that ended in farts and belches. But to the eight and a-half good ears they had between them it was a sweet music that Beethoven couldn’t better on a good day.
oooo“He done it!” cried Raymond.
oooo“Shhh!,” Ben alarmed. “Someone’s comin’!”
ooooEven Kilton could see the flashlight through the perpetual fog that clouded his eyes. It swept the empty cradles, the boathouse, the stacks of discarded wooden lobster pots and nets. Every now and then it darted out across the harbor hoping to catch something by surprise.
ooooBen stepped toward the engine room hatch and shouted a hoarse whisper into the greasy darkness. “Shut ‘er down, Ev’!”
oooo“What?!” Everett yelled at the top of his voice.
ooooThe flashlight swooped across the harbor toward the Mary. It split into a hundred feather-edged shafts as it poked through a nearby stack of fish nets and dressed the Mary in shadows of lace. “Hey!” said a voice behind the light. “Who’s over there?”
ooooBen reached for the master control and shut the engine off. Everett appeared at the bottom of the stairs. “What’d you do that for?” he bellowed, forgetting that he didn’t have to yell over the engine. Fortunately the water-sodden, two-inch thick oak hull sucked up most of the sound.
oooo“Shhh!” said Ben. “Somebody’s comin’.”
oooo“What?!” said Everett .
ooooKilton stepped aboard in Hush Puppies and tucked himself below the gunwale. Raymond careened Alby through the pilothouse and out the other side. He put his mouth close to Alby’s ear and whispered.
oooo“Somebody’s comin’, Cap.’
oooo“Them whiskers tickle,” said Alby.
oooo“Somebody’s comin’,” Ben repeated.
oooo“Who?” said Everett .
oooo“Shh!” said Kilton.
oooo“Shh!” said Alby.
ooooFinally everyone understood. Someone was coming.
ooooThe man with the flashlight stood beside the Mary. “Who’s there?” he said, prodding her most intimate places with his light. Only the veil of thick blue-black diesel smoke that draped the breathless air protected her modesty.
ooooThere were some dull thuds from the far side and a whispered curse from the engine room. Ben knew the game was up, he stepped from the shadows of the deckhouse. The man shined the light in his eyes.
oooo“Who’s that?” said the man. “Ben? Ben Dyer?”
oooo“That’s right,” said Ben.
oooo“Ben Dyer?” said the man again. “I thought you was dead,” he said in a wide-eyed voice. He searched Ben with his light as if expecting to find him in grave clothes.
oooo“Well, I ain’t.”
oooo“No. I guess you ain’t,” said the man.
oooo“I been over at the Convalescent Center.”
oooo“You’re Georgy Bickford’s boy, ain’t you?”
oooo“Yup. Walt, remember? Dad’s dead.”
oooo“Pretty,” said Walt with a smile.
oooo“He could be up to the Convalescent Center.”
oooo“I doubt it. I’m pretty sure he’s dead.”
oooo“Same thing,” said Ben.
oooo“Mm. Well, what’re you doin’ down here? It’s awful late you know.”
oooo“I’m old, Walt,” said Ben as he stepped ashore. “I ain’t senile.” Walt reached out and helped him. “You don’t have to tell me it’s dark out.”
ooooWalt trained his flashlight on the ground. “She used to be my boat,” Ben said at last. “Well, Alby’s, anyways. I used to work on ‘er.”
oooo“They’re takin’ ‘er out tomorrow.”
oooo She’s been rigged already.”
oooo“Dynamite. She’s loaded with it. That’s why I come over here to check on ‘er. I wouldn’t light no matches ’round ‘er’f I was you.”
oooo“Dynamite,?” said Ben. For the first time he sounded eighty-three.
oooo“She ain’t likely to go off without the blastin’ caps, they say. Still, you never know with that stuff.”
ooooNo,” Ben responded slowly. “I guess not.”
oooo“Nossah. I don’t trust it far’s I can throw it. So . . . you come down to say ‘good-bye’, then?”
ooooBen nodded “Sorta.”
oooo“What’s all this smoke?”
oooo“Well . . . I fired ‘er up. Ol’ times sake, you know
oooo“You fired ‘er up!?”
oooo“You’re lucky you ain’t blowed clear into next week,” said Walter, wide-eyed again. “Lucky the whole damn town ain’t blowed clear off the map.”
ooooBen smiled. “Prob’ly the only way it’ll ever get on the map.”
ooooWalt smiled. “She started, huh?”
oooo“Old Gray, ain’t it?”
oooo“Yup. Old Gray. Forties, thereabouts.”
oooo“Wonder why they don’t salvage it?”
ooooBen knew why, but he was too much of a gentleman to say. “She’s too big. Go right through anything less than 2″ thick.” He paused. “She’s old, too. Forty’s old.”
oooo“Well. You’re some lucky’s all I can say. All that dynamite. You shouldn’t’ve fired ‘er up anyways, you know.”
oooo“I s’pose not,” said Ben. “I just wanted to hear ‘er one more time?”
ooooWalter was a fisherman. He could understand that. “Good ol’ girl, was she?”
oooo“She was, Walt. She was a good ol’ girl.”
There was a brief silence. The flashlight flickered a couple of times. Walt assumed Ben was praying or reminiscing. Fisherman regard them as pretty much the same thing. When he finally spoke Ben didn’t say “Amen.”
oooo“All stuffed with dynamite?”
oooo“Surprised you didn’t trip over it.”
ooooBen was silent again for a minute. “That’d be a heck of a way to go, wouldn’t it?”
oooo“Go where?” said Walt. He was slapping the flashlight against his palm. “Dern thing. This fog corrodes the terminals, I think. I just put batteries in it this mornin’, so it ain’t them.” The light came on. “That’s more like it. Long walk down here, ain’t it, Ben?”
oooo“Guess so,” said Ben. “Good night for it.”
oooo“Mmm. Well . . . you want a ride back up?”
oooo“No thanks, young fella. I guess I’ll just stay here with the ol’ girl a while. I’ll make it back in time for my senile medication.”
ooooWalt laughed. “Well, you know how it is, you know . . . some older folks . . . they ain’t . . . ” he tapped his temple.
oooo“Don’t seem to be a condition that applies to any particular age group, when you think about it, does it? You read the paper lately?”
oooo“I guess that’s true enough,” said Walt and laughed through his nose.
ooooThey looked out over the harbor a moment in silence. “Well, I guess I’ll get going. You sure you don’t want a ride up the hill?”
“Positive,” said Ben. They had different hills in mind.
ooooWalt had a twinge that something was illegal, but he couldn’t put his finger on it. He couldn’t remember any law against an old man being out late. Maybe there was; he didn’t know. Anyway, Hildy would have hot apple pie and coffee ready after his rounds. He called back over his shoulder; “Don’t go crankin’ ‘er up again, now.”
ooooWalt’s thick leather shoes displaced a few cubic yards of granite chips as he scuffled across the yard and out of sight. “Nossah.” he said to himself. “I thought he was dead.”
oooo“Dynamite!” said Kilton, struggled to reassemble himself in a verticle position. “F’r pity sakes! Ev’rett! You come up outta there now!”
oooo“What in blazes is goin’ on up here?” Everett said as he poked his head out of the oily dungeon. “Who was it?”
oooo“Nevermind that,” said Raymond. “Just don’t turn on that engine again!”
oooo“Who’s gonna turn it on? I’m up here, ain’t I?”
ooooBen stepped back on deck. “They got dynamite aboard, Ev’.”
ooooKilton scoured the deck with the beam of his flashlight. “It ain’t up here.”
oooo“It’d be down below,” said Ben. “Near the waterline.”
oooo“In the engine room,” said Raymond.
ooooEverett moved his mouth several times, like a fish, and his eyes were wide open and unblinking, adding to the impression. “Dynamite?”
ooooBen maneuvered himself into the cabin. “Come on up, Ev’. Let me have a look.”
ooooRaymond seized Ben by the shoulder. “Oh no you don’t, Ben. You can’t go down there with dynamite all over the place . . . ”
oooo“Nothin’s going to happen, Ray. If you’re worried about it, just go stand on the wharf somewheres outta the way.”
ooooThere were times you couldn’t argue with Ben. This was one of them. “Take Cap with you.”
oooo“I ain’t gettin’ off this boat,” Alby protested, gripping the window ledge of the pilot house. “Not in pieces!”
ooooKilton grabbed the handles of Alby’s chair. “Don’t be a damn fool.”
oooo“You let go’ve this chair, Kilton. Or I’ll bite your fingers clean off at the elbow.”
oooo“He’s okay, Kilt,” said Ben. “You fellas get off if you want to. Me ‘n’ Cap’ll be alright.”
ooooRaymond and Everett stepped ashore and separated themselves from Hiroshima redivivus by a few feeble footsteps. Kilton stayed aboard in spite. For a moment he wasn’t a stubborn blind old man standing with his arms crossed on a pile of dynamite . . . far away from the comforting elbow of his closest friend; then he was. His eyes filled with anxious tears, but his pride forebade them.
oooo“I feel like my pacemaker’s gonna overload,” said Ben to himself as he turned at the bulkhead, gripped the red iron rails, and stepped backward into blackness. Suddenly everything was familiar. The smell of diesel, burlap, and just enough fish to make the memory. The feel of the chipped paint under his hands. The creak of the ribs as the slack loosened and the tide rose. “Well, Jesus,” said Ben, “I guess it’s just you ‘n’ me . . . ”
ooooHe took the flashlight out of his pocket, turned it on and prodded the aged shadows for their deadly cargo. It wasn’t a difficult search, even for old eyes. Four neat bread loaves of dynamite were duct-taped to the bulkheads fore and aft, port and starboard.
oooo” . . . amen.”
ooooGripping the ribs with one hand he helped himself toward the stern. It took a lot longer than it used to, the boards were loose underfoot, and slimy with oil and algae. He inspected the port loaf closely.
oooo“Ain’t been wired yet,” he said. “Seven sticks . . . pity sakes! Twenty-eight sticks of dynamite, Mary, you see that? You could sink the Bismark with that much powder.” He ran his fingers across the plastic packing. “They must be planning to make that reef outta sawdust.”
oooo“You okay?” said Raymond from the distance. “Ben? You okay?” Ben heard Kilton telling Raymond to shut-up; that if Ben wasn’t okay, there “wouldn’t be no doubt about it.” True enough.
ooooBen tucked the flashlight under his chin. His mild case of Parkinson’s disease was compounded by anxiety. As he carefully peeled the duct tape from the bulkhead his hands shook so badly he had to stop half-way through the procedure to calm himself. He cursed. “Don’t even run my own hands anymore, f’r pity sakes.” He rubbed his sweaty palms on his overhauls. “Prob’ly wake up one mornin’ and find out I beat myself to death in my sleep.”
ooooA hole had been drilled in the rib and the tape had been looped through it once or twice.
ooooTopside, anxious seconds labored over the birth of anxious minutes. Raymond was uncomfortable with the vacancy at his elbow. “Kilton! I’m gonna come get’chyou and haul you offa that boat!”
oooo“You and who’s army?” said Kilton, desperately wishing he would. “I ain’t movin’ ’til he gets outta there.”
ooooEverett hitched his old wool trousers up around his chest. “I guess if that dynamite goes off we’ll see your stubborn ol’ butt in the air quick enough.”
ooooKilton rummaged through the darkness, his frantic hands finally coming to rest on the handles of Alby’s chair. “Shut up,” he said. The old men, wrapped in cold sweat and silence, listened to the tide rise. After two lifetimes there was a thump and a curse from below as Ben clambored from the blackness; Jonah by moonlight.
oooo“D’you get it?” Raymond asked.
ooooBen held up handfuls of the explosive. “Right here.”
ooooEverett stepped behind a stack of lobster pots. “Don’t shake it around, Ben.”
oooo“It ain’t wired,” said Ben, shaking the bundles briskly for effect. “No caps, either. They was doin’ ‘er up for electric.”
oooo“Well, why don’t you just toss ’em in the water anyways,” Raymond suggested. Ben tossed them. The bundles hit the water like sailor’s corpses. Three neat splashes echoed from nook to cranny around the harbor.
oooo“That’s better,” said Raymond. He climbed down the ladder and back on deck.
ooooKilton felt his way toward the deckhouse. “You sure you got it all?”
oooo“I got it all,” Ben said. “How them lines comin’, Ray?”
ooooRaymond plucked the lines athwartships. The resultant thwang had gone down half an octave. “Another fifteen minutes or so.”
oooo“D’you check the fuel gauges when I had ‘er on?”
oooo“Didn’t get a chance to, Ev,” Ben replied.”You go back down again and turn ‘er on. I’ll have a look at ’em.”
ooooEverett stopped at the top of the steps. “You sure you got it all?”
oooo“What’d I say?”
ooooEverett descended into darkness. Moments later the helm gauges flickered to life.
oooo“Got it, Ev!” Ben yelled. “That’s it, old man!”
oooo“You ain’t gonna get a good read on that fuel guage with ‘er heeled over like this,” said Kilton.
oooo“What’s she read?” said Everett .
ooooBen bent toward the gauge ’til the shadows on his craggy face were deepened by the feeble yellow light. “Not a drop,” he said. He tapped the guages with his knuckles. Neither one budged. “Nothin’.”
ooooEverett ‘s head appeared in the engine room hatch. “Tap it,” he said.
oooo“I did already.”
oooo“Tap it again.”
ooooBen tapped the gauges hard. The needles refused to change their testimony. “How far you figure she’ll get on fumes?”
oooo“What’re we gonna do now?” said Raymond.
oooo“You ain’t gonna get a good read,” said Kilton. “She’s heeled over too far. I can feel it, f’r pity sakes.”
ooooEverett pulled himself up a step. “Which tank’s on . . . port or starboard?”
ooooBen removed the floor boards and searched the greasy compartment for the fuel line levers.
oooo“We’re heeled over to starboard,” Kilton said. “If the port tank’s on, you won’t get no read.”
oooo“Starboard’s on,” said Ben.
oooo“Turn on the starboard,” said Kilton.
ooooEverett ran his crooked hand across his chin.”I don’t think we even got fumes, Ben. You could raise canaries in them tanks.”
oooo“Is the starboard tank on? Turn on the starboard tank,” said Kilton. “That’s where we’re heelin’.”
oooo“It is on! It is on!” Everett snapped. “Shut up a minute and let me think. What do you think, Ben? What do we do?”
oooo“What was that about canaries?” said Raymond.
oooo“They emptied ‘er, I bet,” said Everett . “All that dynamite, I guess they figured they didn’t need to waste a tankful of diesel, too.”
ooooBen sighed deeply. “They musta used sponges.”
oooo“What’s canaries got to do with it?”
oooo“I don’t know,” said Alby. He’d been talking for a while, but nobody paid much attention when he rambled. “I don’t know. You don’t think she went overboard, do you? Here kit, kit.”
ooooIt was a refrain from the foggy past, familiar to them all. “Good lord, Aljernon,” said Everett . “He’s rememberin’ that mangy old cat come aboard over to Stonington that time. Remember?”
oooo“Ate half the catch,” said Kilton.
oooo“You know,” said Everett , “I just remembered who named him that godawful name. It was Mace McKinny.”
ooooThe name elicited a chorus of epithets.
oooo“I’d almost forgot him,” said Ben.
oooo“Forget?!” Kilton exclaimed. “I don’t guess there’s no chance of that. Nossah. Maybe I don’t remember if I put my boxers on this morning, but I got no trouble rememberin’ thirty, forty years ago. Nossah.”
oooo“Here kit, kit,” said Alby. He bent over in his wheelchair and rubbed his finger and thumb together. “Kit, kit.”
oooo“That cat’s been dead about that long. Thirty years, at least.” said Raymond.
oooo“I guess at that rate Cap’ll be about a hundred and six before he remembers Gracie’s gone.”
oooo“Here kit, kit.”
“ooooI wouldn’t be surprised if we dried ‘er out when we fired ‘er up. Them guages always worked before,” said Everett . “What’re we gonna do now?”
ooooThey all felt it at once, the first gentle rise and fall of the Mary as the incoming tide slackened the lines.
oooo“There she goes!” said Everett. “She’s up!”
oooo“She’s still listin'” said Kilton. “Why’s she still listin’?”
ooooThere was no denying the Mary was at a pronounced angle to the horizon.
oooo“Wait and see if she straightens up once she’s off,” said Ben.
ooooThe creaking of the Mary‘s ropes and ribs provided an irregular counterpoint to the body noises of the five old men as they waited in silence. Alby had fallen asleep in his wheelchair and was snoring loudly. Now and then a hearty burp would expand Kilton’s barrel chest, and the cabin would resound with a muffled testimony to three-bean casserole.
ooooThey knew the Mary was up as far as the tide would take her, but the world still came through the deckhouse windows out of kilter. They waited a little longer.
oooo“What time is it, Ev?” Ben said at last.
ooooEverett shined the flashlight on his wristwatch. “’bout midnight and a half.”
“ooooShe ain’t come up to starboard, Ben,” said Raymond. “Something’s wrong.”
oooo“What d’you figure, Ben?” said Everett .
ooooBen was tired. He ran his fingers through his thin silver hair. “Slow leak, maybe. I don’t know. Ev’, check the bilges.”
ooooOnce again Everett was absorbed by the darkness. Kilton dropped the old cushioned bench that was hinged to the cabin wall, extended it’s single wooden leg and sat down.
ooooThe Mary‘s ample belly echoed a series of bumps, clinks, and curses as Everett rummaged through the darkness toward the bilges. His arrival was heralded by a loud splash.
oooo“What was that?” said Kilton. “Did you hear that?”
oooo“What?” Raymond cocked his head like an old basset hound. “I didn’t hear anything. What?”
oooo“You don’t hear anything anyway, you old post,” said Kilton.
oooo“Quiet, both of you!” Ben said as he bent through the hatch, nearly colliding with the cranium of Everett ascendant.
oooo“Watch it!” said Everett.
oooo“I heard water,” said Kilton.
ooooBen gave Everett a hand up the ladder and into the deckhouse. “How bad is it?”
ooooEverett wiped his hands with an old rag. “Well, she’s sprung the (board next to the keel) Them brass screws just pulled right out. Corroded. Midships.”
“Well, I guess that scraps that notion,” Raymond concluded. “Can’t say we never tried.”
ooooBen stepped aside and Everett climbed into the cabin. “How much is she takin’ on?”
oooo“Well, I figure that’s why they shortlined ‘er, so she’d give a good starboard heel at low low,” said Everett ” . . . she’d be mostly up dry, you see? Drain ‘er pretty good. I guess it’s all that pump can do to keep ‘er afloat between tides.”
oooo“If we all give a good boost we can pretty much roll Alby right off . . . ” Raymond suggested.
ooooBen was losing his patience. “Don’t be foolish,” he barked.
oooo“Well, if your tryin’ to tell me we’re s’pose to get him up that ladder the same way we got him down, you’re crazy.”
oooo“We ain’t givin’ up, Ray,” Ben said solemnly. “That’s what I’m sayin’.”
ooooRaymond was stunned. “What do you mean we ain’t givin’ up? We got no fuel . . . an’ she’s leakin’ like mother’s wash tub. We’re gonna look awful funny come morning, hangin’ up short-lined in the harbor. There ain’t nothin’ we can do, Ben.”
ooooBen bridled at the words. “If you want to get off, Ray, you go right ahead. I ain’t gonna stop you. But if you decide to stay, you just shut up about goin’ back. I ain’t goin’ back up there. Neither is Cap.” He turned to Kilton and Everett . “You Kilton? You wanna go back up there?”
ooooKilton shook his head. “No, Ben. But . . . Ray’s right about the Mary. She ain’t a sailboat, you know.”
oooo“Nevermind that, are you in for it, or not, that’s all I want to know.”
oooo“That depends, don’t it?” said Kilton. “What’ve you got in mind?”
oooo“I got in mind not makin’ no more trips up the hill, Kilton,” Ben said. “If that means we drown in four foot of water, that’s all right by me. I ain’t takin’ no more trips up that hill. And neither is Cap. Now . . . are you in for it?”
ooooKilton peeked around the edges of his cataracts, trying to make out Raymond. “It don’t make sense to come this far for nothin’, does it Ray? I mean . . . Ben’s right. That’s what this whole thing’s about, ain’t it? It’s not just the Mary.” He squeezed the ever-present elbow. “Is it?”
ooooEverett was staring at the unrepentant gauges. He tapped them once or twice. “And it ain’t about goin’ back, Ray.”
oooo“We oughtta go to Spain,” said Alby. Nobody knew how long he’d been awake . . . himself least of all . . . but he’d heard the last few sentences.
ooooBen clapped Alby on the back and smiled. “That’s right, Cap. I betchya Spain’s mighty nice this time of year. We’ll see us a senorita or whatever it is they got over there.”
ooooRaymond looked from one to the other of his shipmates. “We couldn’t make it a third of the way . . . even with both tanks topped-off.”
ooooThe heavy silence that greeted the statement was finally broken by Ben. “I got an idea. You think she’ll fire up again, Ev’?”
oooo“Don’t know. We can give ‘er a try . . . ”
oooo“Okay, here’s what we’ll do. You get below while we cast off. We’ll try to push her bow out a bit, then you crank ‘er up and I’ll drop ‘er right into gear, point ‘er toward Calderwood’s and give her all she’s got. They got a few hundred gallons to spare over there, I’ll bet.”
oooo“If we make it that far,” said Everett .
ooooRaymond had appointed himself the Voice of Reason, since Everett had vacated the position. “But what if we push off and she don’t fire up? What if she conks out under full throttle half-way across? We’ll go plowin’ through half the lobster boats in the harbor.”
oooo“That’d be a sight, wouldn’t it?” said Ben with a smile.
oooo“I guess prob’ly it’d be a sight,” Raymond scoffed. “So would the hangin’.”
oooo“Cast off, Ray,” Ben commanded, handing him a machete that hung in the cabin. “This’ll be the quickest way.”
oooo“You want to head out . . . without lines?” said Raymond.
ooooBen looked from Alby to Everett . “They don’t use lines in Spain, do they?”
ooooAlby smiled dumbly. “No lines where we’re goin’.”
ooooEverett lowered himself into the engine room. “Unplug the pump from shore. I’ll run ‘er through the battery.” He raised is ancient eyes to Ben. “Just say when.”
ooooRaymond, with Kilton in tow, went to do as he was told. The lines snapped loudly, one after the other, as the machete came down on them. When the Mary was floating free, Ben joined them at the bow, which they pushed off as far as they could with the help of a gaff.
oooo“You stay here and keep a lookout,” he said. “Be ready to fend off if we need to.”
ooooHe returned to the cabin, stood behind the console and gripped the wheel firmly with both hands. He looked sidelong at Alby. “You ready, Cap?”
oooo“Spain?” said Alby.
oooo“Calderwood’s first,” Ben replied. “Then Spain. Strike ‘er up, Everett !”
ooooAlby smiled sleepily.
ooooBloody Mary abandoned all pretense at ladylikeness when Everett woke her for the second time in one night. Her salty epithets climbed the back of clanks and wheezes and rode them around the harbor, colliding with boats and buildings and doubling on themselves. Nevertheless, she awoke.
oooo“That’s it!” said Kilton. “She must have some left over in the port tank!”
oooo“Drop her in!” Everett yelled from below.
ooooRaymond, in a word or two, requested the intervention of heavenly powers.
ooooBen pushed the gear lever. It didn’t move.
oooo“Drop her!” Everett cried again.
oooo“She won’t budge!”
oooo“What?” said Everett , poking his head up from below.
oooo“She’s froze. Rusted. Kilton, come over here. Raymond, grab onto this.” The crew responded, applying more than two centuries of muscle to the task.
oooo“Should I cut her off?” Everett said.
oooo“No!” Ben snapped. The veins stood out on his forehead and sweat formed at the corners of his eyes. Everett noted the desperate edge to his voice. Suddenly, the Mary yielded, nearly throwing the trio through the windshield as the lever plunged into gear. A timber-splitting clank shuddered through the hull, followed by a constant low grinding. She eased forward.
oooo“She’s in!” Raymond shouted as Kilton’s shivers of excitement shimmied up his elbow, setting his neck hairs up straight. “She’s in!”
oooo“Hold it!” Everett said sharply. “Listen!”
ooooThey listened. They all knew what the grinding meant.
oooo“What is it?” said Raymond. “I don’t hear nothin'”
ooooKilton turned his cataracts toward the ceiling. “She didn’t drop in all the way, Ray. She’s grinding.”
oooo“She down as far as she’ll go?” said Everett .
ooooBen prodded the lever, but it was already flush against the stopper. “That’s all.”
oooo“That ain’t good, Ben,” said Everett. “She’ll strip right out, or overheat.”
oooo“Then where will we be?” said Raymond.
ooooBen turned his head and searched them all with his eyes. “On the way to Spain,” he said. “Ain’t that right, Cap?”
ooooAlby giggled and squeezed a knee with both hands. “Spain.”
oooo“Well,” said Kilton. “We ain’t no closer to Spain sittin’ here.”
ooooBen tapped the throttle ahead. The gears ground faster, but not as loud as the Mary nudged out into the harbor.
oooo“You got two choices,” said Everett . “You can kick ‘er t’the corner and hope we’ll get up enough speed to coast the rest of the way once she runs out . . . or let ‘er go like this and hope she’ll make it. Course, you got no drift at this speed once she dies. It’ll be like going right up on a sandbar.”
oooo“Well,” said Ben. “I say if we ain’t gonna go big, we shoulda stayed home.” With that he pounded the throttle to the stopper. Bloody Mary’s low complaints rose at once to a long whine, punctuated with belches at irregular intervals that obscured the worrisome grinding. Within thirty seconds the Mary was showing her petticoats at the bow and threading her way through the harbor at seventeen knots. Her maximum. The rest of the boats bobbed and nodded in her wake like old ladies, clacking their tongues with the beat of the waves.
oooo“Harbor speed’s three knots,” Kilton chuckled.
ooooRaymond, with Kilton at his elbow, was beside Ben at the helm. Shielding his eyes from the reflection of the console lights in the windshield he peered intently into the darkness, toward the lights of Calderwood’s wharf. “You see that dory there, Ben?”
oooo“I said you see that dory head on there?”
ooooBen squinted through the windshield. “You’re seein’ things, Raymond.”
oooo“I ain’t either, seein’ things,” Raymond blurted. “It’s a big gray dory, f’r pity sakes. I can read the numbers. You see it, Ev’? Alby?”
ooooAlby couldn’t see over the console. “Yessir. Pretty, ain’t it? Good lines.”
ooooEverett , more intent on Bloody Mary with his ears than the harbor with his eyes, was content to trust Ben’s eyes. “Don’t worry about it, Ray.”
ooooRay’s eyes got as big as saucers as the Mary plowed toward the defenseless dory. He pillaged the darkness for the searchlight handle and, finding the switch, clicked it on and turned the beam on the dory at the just as it disappeared under the Mary‘s proud bow.
oooo“Uh-oh!” said Ben. But it was too late. The graceful old dory had been neatly parted. Before the exclamation’s echo had died in the crags of Ben’s dry lips the boat’s remains could be heard scraping down either side of the hull. Everett tugged himself the rest of the way up the engine room ladder and jogged to the stern. Both ends of the dory bowed politely to one another, pointed toward heaven, and slipped silently into the phosphorus of the Mary‘s wake. “He didn’t see it,” he said to himself. “He didn’t see it at all.”
ooooEverett stumbled back to the deckhouse. Even in the faint light he could see the sweat newly formed on Ben’s brow. His hands gripped the wheel and his eyes stood out on stocks. “What’n hell d’you do, Ben?” said Everett . “You plowed right through that old dory. Didn’t you see it?”
oooo“You don’t see many dories these days,” Alby observed.
oooo“Well . . . one less, now,” said Ben, trying to retract his eyes and resume breathing. A weak laugh accompanied the glance of supplication he cast at Everett . Everett dressed all his emotions in a silent stare of reply. “Maybe you best let Ray take ‘er in. He sees real good at night.”
ooooBen’s chin dropped slowly to his chest. Raymond was too eager to take the wheel and, for a moment, Ben resisted.
oooo“Ben,” Everett said softly,”let Ray take ‘er in to Calderwood’s. These boats . . . are men’s livin’s.”
ooooBen didn’t look up. His hands slowly relinquished the wheel. “I’ll go fend ‘er off,” he said, and stepped out on deck.
oooo“We’re gonna make it, Ev”” Raymond shouted, a prophecy for which Bloody Mary demonstrated her contempt by dying abruptly.
oooo“How far’ve we got to go!” said Kilton.
ooooLegions of tiny waves sacrificed themselves against the Mary‘s bow, and not in vain. Her advance was finally halted eighty feet short of the float and the outgoing tide was pulling her with it. “Too far,” said Raymond.
ooooA helpless silence stretched across the moment like a high-tension wire but was broken by a loud splash off the starboard bow.
“ooooWhat was that?” said Kilton, and as soon as he said it, he knew. “Ben’s in the water!”
ooooThe crew scrambled to the bow with all the haste they could muster. Raymond knelt over the gunwale and stared holes in the cold black belly of the harbor. “Ben!” he cried, his voice trembling for more reasons than he knew. “Ben!”
oooo“Throw me the line!” Ben’s shout punched aside the silence with both fists.
oooo“Ben?” said Raymond.
ooooKilton grew two inches with tension as he strained to hear what his eyes would not allow. “Where is he? Is he all right?”
oooo“Ben, you get outta that water.” Raymond cried. His voice cracked for the first time in sixty years. “You’ll freeze to death in about two minutes.”
ooooThe solitary streetlight at Calderwood’s tossed handfuls of silver into the water, creating a pulsing path of light to the Mary. In the middle of the path the black silhouette of Ben’s head bobbed like a toggle, breathing steam and spitting diamonds. “Shut up and throw me the blasted rope, Raymond,” he yelled.
ooooEverett was frantically trying to assemble a complete line from the remnants that laced the deck. “Hold on!” he shouted. “Raymond, go see if you can get that kerosene heater fired up.”
ooooRaymond guided Kilton’s hand to the winch pole. “You hold on there, Kilt. I’ll be back in a minute.”
oooo“Throw him a lifejacket,” said Kilton.
oooo“There ain’t none,” said Everett . His breathing was heavy and irregular as he strained at the knots with all his might. “Okay . . . that’ll do ‘er.” He looped the line tightly around his forearm, gathered it into his right hand and threw it at Ben. It missed the outstretched hands by six or eight feet and sank before he could get to it.
ooooEverett, applying half a century of practice, hauled the line sharply aboard, each pull and snap spewing a shower of salt spray in all directions, but mostly down is sleeve. “Gorry, that’s some ol’ cold,” he said under his breath. Meanwhile the Mary was drifting farther out into the harbor. Once again he gripped the coil in his right hand and poised for the throw.
oooo“Got it!” said Ben, his words riding low in the water.
oooo“He’s gonna freeze to death before he can get back here.” Kilton said under his breath.
oooo“What’s he doing?” said Everett .
ooooKilton dropped to his hands and knees and felt his way to the bow and up on the gunnal. “What, Ev’? Can you see him?”
oooo“He’s swimming to the float!”
ooooKilton cocked his head like an old sheepdog. “He wants to pull ‘er in.”
oooo“He wants to pull ‘er in!” Kilton said, his voice rising. “Give ‘er hell, Ben!”
ooooThe Mary was drifting away from shore almost as fast as Ben could swim with the rope in his teeth. Nobody knew that better than Everett . Still, a surge of excitement formed like a balloon in his belly and burst to his lips. “Go, Ben! You can do it!”
ooooRaymond had returned. “Do what? What’s he doing? He’s going the wrong way! Ben! Ben! Come back here!”
oooo“Shut up!” Kilton barked. “He’s gonna pull us in.”
oooo“He can’t do that,” said Raymond, reflexively. Nobody noticed. Kilton and Everett were leaning over the bow yelling for all they were worth.
oooo“I tell you,” said Kilton, “if that three bean casserole kicked in right about now, ol’ Ben’d be high and dry in half-a-second. Blow him clean outta the water. Us too, most likely! Go on, Ben! ‘Les’ you wanna pull us all the way to Spain!”
ooooBen had had triple by-pass surgery eight years ago. They said it was a miracle he’d survived. Afterward the doctor told him not to over-exert himself, advice that was foremost in his mind at the moment. His heartbeat, dog-eared and irregular, rang in his ears as the brutal cold stung his hands and feet to sleep. Yet, despite his most desperate effort, the float seemed to be getting no closer. “Might as well be Spain for me, Kilt,” he said to himself.
oooo“If he gets to the end of the slack . . . he’ll have to pull a lot more than the rope . . . he’ll have to pull the Mary,” said Raymond, spraying them all with the cold water of truth.
oooo“Has he got enough slack to reach?” said Kilton.
ooooEverett was already on his way to the Mary‘s stern. He returned with a fistful of scraps which he immediately began tying to the ship-end of the line.
ooooBen had a choice. He could die quietly, or die splashing. The cries from the Mary echoed around the harbor. Once upon a time those same voices, polished with youth, brassy and shrill, had urged him through the millstream against the tide; a right of passage. Now they were a thousand voices in his ears, aged voices tinged with desperation, prodding him on. He resituated the rope tightly between his teeth, took a deep breath and dove beneath the waves, pulling himself through the icy depths as if death itself was swimming up from behind on shark fins.
ooooThe cheering stopped. Kilton’s entire superstructure had been supported by the expectation of each splash as Ben’s mighty old arms beat the waves. When the next didn’t come, only a last-second lunge at Raymond’s elbow prevented from falling overboard. “Where is he! What happened!”
oooo“He dove, Kilt,” said Raymond, almost in awe.
ooooEverett hadn’t blinked in several minutes. His eyes had got all sandpapery. “That’s good,” he said, blinking rapidly. “That’s good . . . good idea, Ben. He won’t have to fight the waves.” He tied the final fragment to the rope and secured the line to the boat.
ooooBen’s temples throbbed violently, his eyes stung. The air in his lungs, depleted of oxygen, was was turning quickly to poison, forcing itself up his windpipe and his ribs ached with keeping it in.
oooo“He ain’t comin’ up!” said Raymond.
oooo“Lord in heaven,” Kilton added.
ooooEverett could feel the steady tug of the rope through his fingers. “He’s okay,” he said. “He’s okay. I can feel . . . ” Suddenly the tugging stopped. “Wait a second.”
oooo“What!?” Kilton exploded. “What is it?!”
ooooAs they held their breath, night began to knit a thick silence about them, embroidered only by the steady lapping of the tiny waves against the Mary as they pushed her slowly out into the harbor.
ooooBen misjudged how deep he was. At the tether-end of his breath he’d pulled for the surface, but it didn’t come, and it was too late to stop the air erupting from his lungs. His stomach convulsed a few times, his lungs seemed to collapse in tissues of fire. He parted his lips on either side of the rope and the sea rushed in to quench the flames. It was a strange feeling once the initial shock was over. Not painful. Not horrible. Soothing, in a way. Cold. He almost felt as if he could breathe the water. It tasted terrible, though. He wondered how the fish could stand it. No wonder they evolved.
ooooFunny he should think of that.
oooo‘So this is what everyone’s so afraid of?’ he thought. For a moment he was weightless . . . then, slowly, he began to sink. An aged mote in Posidon’s eye.
ooooAs his arm drifted down to his side, it struck something solid. A rope. A chain. The mooring line to the float . . . the float that must be directly overhead.
ooooHe didn’t react immediately. For the space of a heartbeat he was ready to surrender. So what if he died in the harbor? It was better than bed. Brine was a better shroud than linen. If he had enough life left when he hit the bottom, he could fill his shirt with stones. No more trips up that damn hill.
ooooHe wasn’t aware that his eyes were open. Maybe they weren’t. Maybe the woman swimming up at him from the depths was nothing but the ephemera of a wish taking shape in his oxygen-deprived brain. Fine time to get an imagination, he thought. Something told him he should be startled, but drowning had pretty much taken the fight out of him. Besides, he couldn’t go anywhere but up, and that wouldn’t happen ‘til his lifeless body floated to the surface. Damn, he hated the thought of his friends finding him like that. Meantime, this woman was swimming around him in slow circles, her lidless eyes wide with curiosity.
ooooShe was naked from the waist up, and a fish from there down. Mostly cod, as far as he could tell.
ooooNow that’s not something you see every day, he thought as continued to sink to the harbor floor.
ooooHe and the boys had often debated what a mermaid would look like if one ever turned up in their nets. Well, none of ‘em had even been close.
ooooHer breasts were small – there went Kilton’s theory that they’d be pretty much what kept her afloat – slightly scaled on the underside, topped by pointed purple nipples that seemed to secrete a clear, softly glowing mucous which enveloped her like a translucent skin. Her hands were stubby, and her fingers short and thickly webbed. Well, they would be, wouldn’t they? Her lips puckered in a perpetual unconsummated kiss. The gills in her neck opened and closed rhythmically as she distilled oxygen from the oily harbor water. Her hair was some kind of marine cilia, extremely fine, whitish-green and, like the rest of her, generated a kind of luminescence.
ooooInstinctively he raised his hand to touch her. Her body contorted sharply, as he’d seen fish do countless thousands of times, forming an instant apostrophe that propelled her into the depths, out of sight, out of reach. Ben had always figured he’d drown some day but never imagined he’d have so much time to think, or that the process would be so entertaining. Now that would’ve been something to tell the boys, he thought.
ooooSuddenly he was grabbed from behind, and he knew she’d come back. Her hands were under his armpits and he could feel himself being propelled toward the surface. The sensation of her raw, inhuman power pulsed through him with every thrust of her tail and he exploded from the water – clearing it by a good two feet- crashing down halfway on the float. The impact forced a stunted Vesuvius of brine from his lungs and his guts.
ooooFor a moment his billows were too collapsed to inhale. His ragged heart – stitched and re-stitched – which had fallen to the barest flutter, had no more than two or three beats left in it, when all at once every muscle of his being convulsed involuntarily and, with the wide-mouth gasp of a Banshee, he sucked tomorrow, perhaps a few of them, into his lungs.
ooooExhausted, he slipped back into the water.
ooooAboard The Mary a swelling requiem of wheezes and epithets was startled to silence as Ben splintered the surface and their shared senses tried to take in what had happened.
oooo“He’s up!” Kilton bellowed. “He’s up!” For the first time in his life, Kilton cried; bursting out with big, hollow-chested, full-throated sobs and man-sized torrents of tears studded with one word prayers of thanksgiving.
ooooBen had survived, but the worst wasn’t over. The air reignited the fire in his lungs, and his gut heaved in spasms as he began to gag up rest of the brine. His fumbling left hand laid hold of a docking ring, while in his right hand – fused to the rope he’d never let go of – The Mary stretched his ancient sinews to the breaking point, crucifying him between them, choking, spitting and gasping around the torrent that flowed from him for the next precious lung-full of air.
oooo“Is ‘e all right?” said Raymond hoarsely. “Is he all right? Ben!”
ooooEverett squinted to make out the edges of Ben’s silhouette. “He’s just hangin’ there.”
oooo“Is he all right?” Kilton shook Raymond’s elbow in exclamation. “Does he need more line?”
oooo“There ain’t no more line,” said Everett . “Ben! Ben!”
oooo“You brought a lantern didn’t you Kilt?” Alby tossed the comment across the Styx that separated him from reality.
oooo“What’s he goin’ on about?” said Raymond. He’d tucked his hands under his armpits and was doing a frightened old man dance on the deck. “Ben’s overboard, Cap. A lantern ain’t gonna do no good.”
oooo“It will if it’s got some lighter fluid in it.”
ooooRaymond stopped dancing. “But . . . that ain’t more’n half a pint.”
oooo“Half-a-pint poured right in the carburetor’s good for a minute or two,” said Everett . Grabbing the lantern from the pilot house on his way, he was already halfway down the ladder. Moments later the starter motor began grinding its rusty seduction and Bloody Mary – too much the coquette to respond immediately – farted immodestly a few times before succumbing at last to the ancient familiarity.
oooo“She’s up!” Raymond shouted.
ooooAlby gripped the rail. “Drop her into gear, Ray.”
ooooIt was a redundant command, since the Mary was already in gear and grinding pathetically. Nevertheless, she was moving forward.
ooooBen dropped the rope, gripped a cleat with his left hand, and held on, breathing more deeply than he’d ever breathed before. “I guess that’s the Valley of the Shadow of Death you hear so much about,” he said. Or thought. Or thought he said. Odd, that he should feel more alive now than he’d felt in dog’s years. Maybe ever. The cold stung his pulpy flesh with a briny acupuncture and his brain burst with a kaleidoscope of fragmentary thoughts – none of them attached to reality, or to the moment, but joined in a dizzying dance in which rhythm and music seemed first locked in mortal combat, then united in perfect grace.
ooooThe Mary, showing her petticoats, plowed brazenly into the float not three feet away, leaving a ‘V’-shaped imprimatur – her calling card – in the wood and Styrofoam.
oooo“Damn, Ray! I think you run ‘im over!” Kilton bellowed from the starboard side.
ooooThe gears complained angrily as Raymond wrestled the lever out of gear.
ooooKilton dragged himself along the gunwale “Ben! Ben! You there?”
ooooBen looked up into the face that so many fish had seen from the same angle over the years and, like them, opened his mouth to protest, but nothing came out but another eruption of bile and seawater.
oooo“There he is!” said Alby, watching intently with his ears. “No two men puke alike.”
oooo“Ben!” Kilton cried, as if an increase in volume would – perhaps by sudden compression of the atmosphere – expel Neptune’s leftovers from Ben’s lungs. At the same time, his nervous hands mechanically coiled the patchwork rope, which whipped through his ancient fingers like a waterlogged serpent.
ooooAlby wheeled himself to the bow and was surveying the damage. “You may as well leave ‘er here, Ray!” he shouted. “Save us tyin’ ‘er off I guess.”
ooooRay cut the engine and stepped out of the pilot house to ask Alby to repeat himself. Who knew? he might be making sense. “What’d you say, Cap?”
Alby repeated himself.
oooo“What the hell happened?” said Everett . He’d been thrown ass-over-teakettle into the bilge when the Mary hit the float, and collecting his wits and extremities for an assault on the ladder had taken a minute or two.
ooooEveryone was too preoccupied to reply. “I guess we made it,” he said as he stepped carefully across the deck toward the wizened little knot of humanity that had gathered in the bow. He came up beside Raymond and looked over the side. “You see Ben?”
oooo“I’m right here,” said Ben at last, his voice weak and watery. “I don’t s’pose you could come up with a plan to get me outta here, could ya?”
Kilton wanted to laugh, but his throat was still full of his heart. “I could toss you the rope,” he said.
ooooBen wiped the water from his face with his free hand. “An’ what’m I s’pose to do with it?” he said. “Hang myself?”
oooo“Well,” Kilton replied, “we could pull you up.”
oooo“You an’ whose army?” said Ben. “You four couldn’t pull up a haddock between you.”
oooo“Here Ben, take my hand,” said Alby.
Of all the recent shocks to Ben’s system, none surpassed that of seeing Alby, kneeling on his own two knees, leaning over the float with his hand outstretched. Even in the dark, as he looked in amazement, Ben could see the milky stupor – more common than not in the last few months – had left the Captain’s eyes. “Cap?” he said, reaching out tentatively. “You’re walkin’?”
oooo“Kneelin’,” said Alby. “Less you think I’ve shrunk three feet. Come on. Grab a-hold.”
ooooBen did as he was told and was further amazed by the Captain’s grip. Nothing about the ensuing process was easy or graceful, but it was done, and that was enough. At the end, Ben lay on his side, soaking wet and out of breath. Alby was on his knees, punctuating the biggest, stupidest grin Ben had ever seen with fits of wheezing and coughing. Beside them, the Mary loomed awkwardly amidst the debris of her misadventure while the deaf, the halt, and the blind looked down from the bow.
oooo“Look what I caught,” said Alby, as the milk oozed once more over his senses, a phenomenon witnessed by Ben alone.
oooo“How’d he get down there?” said Everett , squeezing the handles of Alby’s wheelchair, as if to wring a confession from it. He searched Raymond with bewildered eyes. “How’d he get down there?”
ooooThere was a time when any one of the men could have single-handedly extracted the Mary from the float, maneuvered her easily alongside, and tied her off properly, but no one watching them would have believed it. Nevertheless, half-an-hour later Ben was dried off, stuffed into dry clothes, and stowed safely in the cabin – occupied otherwise by Alby who had slipped into his customary mindlessness and sat nodding in his wheelchair – and Everett and Raymond, with moral support from Kilton amidships, had committed larceny to the tune of six-hundred gallons of diesel fuel.
oooo“Pretty smooth operation, I call it, don’t you, Cap?” said Ben.
ooooEverett had caught the comment as he and the others returned to the cabin. “Smooth?” he ejaculated – the first time he’d done so in many moons – “Did you say ‘Smooth’? Why, I’m amazed half the town ain’t out here, all the racket we made. Plowin’ through half the boats in the harbor . . . ”
oooo“Just one ol’ dory, Ev’,” Ben corrected.
ooooEverett was not in the mood to be corrected. “Then rammin’ into the float. All this hollerin’ and bellowin’ and drownin’. Put Pearl Harbor right in the shade. An’ Mary, she’s listin’ like…like some drunk whore after a late night…”
oooo“Just run out the starboard tank first,” said Ben. “She’ll come right ‘fore long.”
oooo“If she don’t sink first,” said Everett . “Besides . . . she popped that seam along the keel, and . . . ”
ooooBen sighed. “Ev’, if you want off, now’s your chance. Just untie us once you get on the float, would you?”
oooo“An’ who’s gonna run ‘er for ya?” You gonna do it, Ben? How ‘bout Alby, or Raymond? Maybe you think Kilton could get down there without killin’ himself.”
oooo“You just start ‘er up, Ev’. We’ll just run ‘er ‘till she’s dry.”
oooo“Run ‘er where!?”
ooooBen looked out the windshield. In the near distance, the encircling ring of lights that marked the shore, gave way to a gaping blackness. “Out there, somewhere.”
ooooEverett sank back against the instrument panel and looked from one to the other of his friends. Alby was absent-mindedly playing with himself. Kilton, fastened to Raymond’s elbow, was cocking his head his head from side-to-side, trying to see around his cataracts, Raymond’s gaze bobbed nervously around the cabin, half scared-to-death and half “I can’t believe we’re doin’ this, but we’re doing it, dammit, we’re doin’ it! (Somebody stop us ‘fore we hurt ourselves!)” and Ben – the most able of them all – was several accidents waiting to happen simultaneously.
oooo“That’s the way it’s gonna be?” he said at last.
oooo“For me and Cap it is,” said Ben.
oooo“Me, too,” said Kilton, squeezing Raymond’s elbow voluntarily.
oooo“An’ me,” said Raymond, looking for all the world as if his mouth had just betrayed him.
oooo“Nips had a word for men like you,” said Everett. “’Member? Kamikaze. That’s what you are. Bunch’ve eighty-year-old kamikazes.”
ooooNobody said anything.
oooo“Just as long as you know.” He slapped his knees and pushed himself upright. “Well then, I guess if we got places to go, we best get goin’. He stopped halfway down the hatch and directed a meaningful stare at Ben. “You think you can get outta the harbor without sinkin’ anything?”
ooooBen nodded a little sheepishly. “I’ll be careful.”
oooo“I’ll be right back,” said Ben.
ooooHe made his way to the bow and tossed his little elastic-wrapped bundle of hundred-dollar bills on the float. “That’s all I got, Kev’. Sorry.” He untied the rope and let it drop. The Mary, propelled by the vibrations of its engine, eased almost imperceptibly away from the float. Ben leaned over the port gunwale and stared into the black water. Whatever he hoped – or feared – to see, he didn’t. He went back to the cabin, forced the lever into gear and, barely idling, struck out across the harbor, toward the unknown. Clearing the spindle, the last vestige of civilization before the wide expanse of the fierce Atlantic, he cast one last backward glance at the death he was leaving behind, then turned to face the death that lie ahead. “’Here there be dragons’,” he said softly, easing the throttle forward.
oooo“What’d he say?” Kilton wheeze into Raymond’s ear.
oooo“He was just talkin’ to himself,” said Raymond.
oooo“But what’d he say?”
ooooEveryone but Ben and Raymond was asleep. The smell of fresh coffee filled the deckhouse.
ooooSmells good,” said Ben, taking the cup.
ooooRaymond folded the wooden seat down from the wall, dropped its single leg, and sat. “Black. One sugar,” he said. “Just the way you like it.”
ooooNeither one of them said anything for a long time. They were savoring an experience they’d given up hoping for long ago. The Mary felt good through their shoes and against their flesh—the vibration of the deck, the plow and surge of the hull as it met each wave headlong, the wind renewing its acquaintance with the crack in the windshield where Alby had thrown his pipe at Algernon who, by that time, was safely concealed in some secret cubby hole, making a meal of the stolen hot dog.
ooooThe thought arrived in both minds at the same time.
oooo“You ‘member when Alby…”
oooo“Threw the pipe at that cat….”
oooo“Stole that hot dog right outta the bun!”
oooo“Left the mustard!” they chorused.
ooooAnd they laughed and didn’t worry about waking anybody. When men their age went to sleep, they slept good and hard. It was waking they did gently. Fragile things, mornings. Each one more apt than the last to shatter as another day was poured into it.
ooooSoon the cabin’s rattles and creaks became refamiliar and sifted to the back of their minds, allowing other ancient refrains their brief turn in the feeble spotlight of their collective consciousness. Everett’s snoring provided a fractured counterpoint to the mechanical sturm und drang of the engine. Kilton, who hadn’t seen the midnight side of eight-thirty in over four years, had finally collapsed on one of the cots in the little cuddy behind the deckhouse, and was sawing away to the tune of at least a cord and a half an hour. Alby sat in his chair in the corner, his chin on his chest, drooling happily. Every now and then he inhaled sharply and seemed about to say something profound, then deflated slowly, settling among the folds of himself as if whatever it was had slipped his mind.
oooo“Wonder what they’re gonna think when they find us gone,” said Raymond, draining his cup. He opened the door and shook out the dregs, caffeinating the wind.
oooo“They’ll know just what to think when they see the Mary’s gone.”
ooooRaymond hadn’t thought of that. His heart raced suddenly. “You think they’ll come after us?”
oooo“’Course they will.”
ooooOf course, they would.
oooo“What are we gonna do?”
ooooBen shrugged. “We can make pretty good water in four or five hours. Might take ‘em even longer’n that to put two and two together.”
oooo“And they wouldn’t figure we’d be headin’ east, would they?”
oooo“I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe not.”
oooo“If they do, they’ll think we’re goin’ out to the Banks, won’t they?”
ooooRaymond smiled. “But we’re goin’ to Spain.”
ooooBen leaned over the compass and gave it a tap. “Thereabouts,” he said with a wink. “Thereabouts.”
oooo“Whatchyou gonna do when we get there?” said Raymond, playing the game. “We don’t know no Spanish. They’ll prob’ly toss us right in the hoosegow.”
oooo“I know Spanish.”
oooo“Sure,” said Ben. “Seniorita, marguerita, and siesta. What else you need to know?”
ooooRaymond chortled. “Your age, you’d better pick two outta three, an’ I’ll tell you which one to drop off the list, les’ you don’t mind disappointin’ some poor foreign girl.”
ooooThe stars were out.
oooo“Been quite a day, ain’t it?” Ben said at last.
oooo“That all it’s been? Seems like years ago we was climbin’ that damn hill.”
ooooBen was thoughtful a minute. “You ever seen somethin’ you couldn’t explain, Ray?”
oooo“Like what? Bigfoot or a flyin’ saucer. Somethin’ like that?”
oooo“Distant cousin, I guess.”
oooo“Ain’t sure. You ever seen anything you couldn’t explain?”
oooo“Sure,” said Raymond. “I seen a boatload of old farts with but half a pecker between ‘em stealin’ a leaky ol’ boat an’ headin’ off to Spain.”
ooooBen smiled and it warmed Raymond like a pot-bellied stove.
oooo“No, that’s just insanity,” said Ben. “I mean somethin’, well …out’ve fairy tales. That kinda thing.”
oooo“Been seein’ unicorns, have ya?”
ooooIt suddenly struck Raymond that Ben wasn’t leading up to a joke, as he’d supposed. He was being serious. “What’d you see, Ben?”
ooooBen lowered his eyes, which glowed eerily in the greenish lights of the console, and looked at his hands, firmly gripping the Mary’s wheel. His knuckles were bloodless, his fingers clinging to the wheel as if it was reality and, should he turn it loose, even for an instant, he’d simply fly away, like a balloon with the air let out of it, into the night. “Nevermind,” he said. “I’m just talkin’, is all.”
ooooRaymond knew that wasn’t true. But he also knew enough to change the subject. “What do you think they’re gonna say, when we don’t show up to breakfast?”
oooo“First thought?” said Ben. “They’ll think we all died.”
oooo“All to once?”
ooooA brief, bulbous chuckle erupted in Ben’s throat. “I guess they figure we do everything else together.”
ooooAnother round of musty laughter got tossed into the nautical brew. “Anyway,” said Ben. “They’ll do what anyone would do in that situation. First they’ll look all over the place. Then, when we don’t turn up, they’ll gather by the front desk and ask each other where we could possibly have got to. Then, whether or not they see the trail Alby left, they’ll call Winslow, an’ he’ll deputize half the town and the fire department and they’ll turn the place upside down… then some bright eye will drift out across the harbor—prob’ly expectin’ to see five bodies floatin’ out there—and they’ll think ‘now, that’s odd. Somethin’ ain’t there that oughta be. I know it was there yesterday, but it ain’t today. Now, what was it?’ Then finally somebody else will notice what’s missin’ that was there yesterday is the Mary, then a coupl’ve ‘em will start puttin’ two- and-two together and that’s when they’ll call the Coast Guard. Course, once the fishin’ fleet gets holta the news they’ll go out an’ run into each other for a while.”
ooooBen shrugged. “When we don’t show up where they expect us to be, they’ll prob’ly think we sunk. Still, they’ll send out a plane or two to check out the eastern bay.”
oooo“That’s where we are!”
ooooThere are some comments to which the only practical response is a nod. That was one of them. Ben nodded.
oooo“They’ll find us, Ben. They got radar…an’ they can cover a hell’ve a lot more ocean in them planes than Mary can.”
oooo“They’ll take us back.”
oooo“That’s one thing they won’t,” said Ben, his quiet confidence wrapped tightly around the bundle of explosives that hadn’t gone into the harbor, that now was no more than two feet away, tied under the console. In easy reach. “They won’t be takin’ anybody back if they don’t want to go.”
ooooThe deck was becoming littered with subjects Ray felt compelled to drop. Pretty soon stepping over them would make rough going. “You remember the last time we was out here, Ben?”
oooo“I don’t recollect any light buoy on this course, d’you?”
ooooBen didn’t have to think about it. “No.”
oooo“The White Islands should be comin’ up to port in a few minutes. There’s a bell buoy just ‘fore them, but no light buoy ‘til well inside the Reach.”
It was impossible not to wonder if the compass was working; they and it were of roughly the same vintage. Maybe, like them, it forgot things.
oooo“Somethin’s wrong,” said Raymond. “Either we ain’t where we think we are, or that ain’t where it’s s’posed to be. What side you gonna take it on?”
ooooBen called up his mental map. “Well, if we got inside the Reach somehow in that fog, and that’s number 7, we need to take it to starboard to keep off the ledges on Green’s Island.”
oooo“And if it ain’t that light?”
ooooThen it’s a warning, Ben thought, but he didn’t say so. “We’d best steer clear of it.”
oooo“But which side?”
oooo“You got a coin?”
ooooRaymond dug in his pocket. “Got a penny.”
oooo“Now, that’s typical, you old miser,” Ben chuckled. “Go ahead an’ give ‘er a flip. Head’s we take ‘er to port, tails to starboard.”
ooooThe coin sang briefly in the air, then chattered to the floor in the darkness. Raymond got on his hands and knees and plundered the deep shadows with his parchment fingers. “Rolled over here somewhere, didn’t it?”
ooooIt sounded to Ben like it went the opposite direction, but if he said so, Raymond would just say: “You think so? Sounded to me like it went over here,” and he’d continue groping until, eventually, his search brought him to wherever the coin had come to a rest, usually right where Ben would have said it was. Two minutes later, the cabin resounded with the shout of victory. “Here it is!” said Raymond, picking up the coin and holding it up for Ben to see. “You must’ve kicked it over this way somehow.”
oooo“I s’pose so,” said Ben, too tired to argue. “What side was it on?”
oooo“Heads or tails?”
ooooThe weathered patina of victory on Raymond’s face dissolved. “I forgot to look. Here, I’ll flip it again.”
oooo“By that time, it’ll be too late,” said Ben. He made his decision and nudged the wheel to port, to take the buoy to starboard, on the off-chance it was number 7. He felt the Mary respond, but its relationship to the light didn’t change. He turned more. Again, a slight centrifugal sensation told him the ship was turning, but the buoy seemed to take a complimentary course, and it was getting closer. Alarmed, he spun the wheel to the right, propelling Raymond across the cabin and, but for a last-minute grab at the old-lady’s aid just inside the door, he would have continued over the gunwale and into the night.
ooooKilton slid off his stool and landed in a pile in the corner near the wheels of Alby’s chair, but he didn’t wake up.
oooo“Whatchyou doin’, Ben?” Raymond exclaimed, pulling his mortal remains back into the cabin. “Like to throw me clean overboard!”
ooooAbsolute proof that the zigs and zags were zigs and zags indeed, and not the result of Ben’s imagination. Yet, the buoy remained three points to starboard and closing. “This don’t make sense.”
ooooWithout releasing his grip on the old lady’s aid, Raymond positioned himself behind Ben’s left shoulder and peered through the windshield. “Light’s still there,” he observed.
oooo“You ain’t seen Rod Serlin’ around anywhere, have you?” said Ben, and he half meant it. Reality was getting much too porous for comfort. He eased back on the throttle, if the Mary was going to run into the buoy—which seemed inevitable—best drift than plow into it.
ooooHe pulled the throttle back against the stop and ground the gear into neutral.
oooo“What?” said Everett . Even in sleep, he was sensitive to the change in the Mary’s speed and trajectory. He massaged the sleep from his eyes, and—with the aid of a hold on Raymond’s belt—pulled himself to his feet. “What’s happened?” Once his eyes were able to focus, he followed Ben’s gaze through into the night. oooo“What’s that light?”
oooo“Don’t know,” said Raymond. “It’s followin’ us.”
oooo“Followin’! What do you mean ‘followin’?”
oooo“Well, more like we’re followin’ it.”
oooo“Oh, well, then.”
oooo“What I mean is we can’t get away from it. Ben turns to port, it comes to port.”
oooo“Sounds like you been in the port,” said Everett without expression.
oooo“Ray’s right,” said Ben. “Watch.” He turned gently back to port and, though the Mary was only drifting forward now, they could all feel the hull respond, but the red light stayed in the same relative position, three points off the starboard bow.
oooo“Gotta be a boat,” said Everett .
ooooThe thought had occurred to Ben, but he knew it wasn’t; the motion of boats was distinct from that of buoys; completely different. The light before them swung hypnotically back and forth, as if atop an inverted pendulum. Besides, there was just the red light; no green. “It’s a buoy.”
ooooBy this time Everett could see that’s what it was. “Must’ve broke free of its mooring,” he said, though such a thing, in his experience, was as unlikely as the sun rising in the west.
oooo“It goes left when we go left, and right when we go right,” said Ben. “Couldn’t do that if it was adrift.”
ooooThere was that.
oooo“Hit it with the search light, Ray,” Ben commanded.
ooooRay detached himself from the old lady’s aid and grabbed the searchlight handle. With a little effort, he turned the apparatus in the direction of the buoy and flipped the switch. Four of the light’s six bulbs—having long transcended the barrier between dormancy and death—merely fizzed and guttered in response; the remaining two, little luminescent Frankenstein’s, were stunned briefly to life as the electricity bolted through them then, as unable to marshal the resources to meet the sudden demand placed upon them as aged spinsters to give birth to quintuplets, expired in a dual explosion that sent pulses of light to shock the darkness with alarm.
ooooIn that brief coruscation, a terrifying image was embedded on their brains.
ooooRay was the first to speak. “Did you see that?”
oooo“You saw it, too?” said Ben, greatly relieved.
ooooEverett leaned forward and squinted toward the buoy, as if to summon the image again. “Somebody’s on that buoy!”
ooooFor a moment Ben stood gripping the wheel, staring at the dim, persistent red light; his capacity for the unexplainable overwhelmed by recent events.
oooo“Ben!” said Ray, shaking his shoulder. “There’s somebody on that buoy! We gotta go see if . . .”
oooo“That wasn’t just somebody,” said Ben, as if emerging from a trance.
oooo“You know who it is?” said Ray.
oooo“It’s Bookie Dunn,” Ben snapped after a heartbeat’s silence.
ooooEverett scoffed as if he’d been punched in the gut. “Bookie Dunn! He’s been dead thirty years!”
ooooWhich made the image blazoned on Ben’s retina no less, unmistakably, Bookie Dunn, the threadbare herringbone vest, the unmistakable derby hat. “I know.”
ooooBen had seldom experienced an emotion as pure as the fear that oozed as sweat from his brow, stinging his eyes. Nevertheless, the obligation to a fellow mariner, even one only loosely fitting the description—one long dead—was inviolate and overrode the horror that surged like acid to his throat. “You two go for’d with the gaff and fend us off.”
oooo“Wished I had my lantern,” said Ray. Reluctantly, he and Everett left the cabin; a hundred and sixty years of skepticism stumbling hand-in-hand toward the unbelievable.
ooooBen nudged the wheel directly toward the red light, only then did its position relative to the boat fall into line with the laws of physics. He cut the engine, opening the sluices for a silence that poured into his ears, slowly withdrawing, unveiling layers of sound that Bloody Mary had been shouting down. There was no wind to speak of. Waves slapped the Mary’s cheeks saucily. She, in return, creaked and squeaked from a hundred hidden places.
oooo“Ho, there!” called Raymond from the bow, his voice unsure, crackling like old newspaper.
oooo“Ray?” said a voice from the darkness. “That you, my young son?”
oooo“Bookie!?” said Raymond, a little more boldly, somewhat heartened by the impression that voice seemed to have flesh and blood behind it. “That you?” Of course it had to be Bookie, or his ectoplasm; ‘my young son’ was a euphemism on which he held the exclusive patent, never heard in these parts before or since.
oooo“Yes, it is,” came Bookie’s voice, as soft and balmish as ever.
ooooEverett was not satisfied. “You’re dead,” he said, indicating by his tone an approval of the status quo.
oooo“And you’re Everett,” was Bookie’s reply.
oooo“Here, grab a-holt’ve this gaff,” said Raymond, choosing to ignore the metaphysical implications of this unexpected meeting for the time-being. “Can you see it?”
oooo“I can, yes,” said Bookie.
oooo“Then grab a-holt!”
ooooBookie’s response was casual. “Why, are you in trouble?”
oooo“Us?” said Ben, rounding the corner of the deckhouse. “We’re not in trouble. You are.”
oooo“Ben! You’re here, too?” Bookie—or his voice, at least—seemed genuinely surprised. “Then, this must be the Mary?”
oooo“Well, fancy her still being afloat! And the rest of the crew? Alby? Kilton?”
oooo“Asleep,” said Ben. Despite the evidence of his ears, he was unable to suppress the feeling that he was being taken in, like the weeping widow at a seance, talking to shadows and thumps under the table.
oooo“Well, this is a pleasant surprise,” said Bookie, not making any attempt to grab the gaff. Raymond rested his arm on the gunwale. “You must all be getting on now.”
oooo“What are you doin’ out here, Book?”
oooo“Just thinking, mostly, Ray. Just thinking.”
ooooRaymond wanted to know what drowned suicides thought about. “‘bout what?”
oooo“Oh, this and that, my young son. That coffee I smell?”
oooo“Coffee!” said Everett – whose head and been swiveling like the audience at a tennis match between Raymond and the sound of Bookie’s voice during their brief, fantastic dialogue. His tiny balloon animal of logic had been stretched beyond its limits, its squeaks and squeals of complaint leaking from his throat from time to time throughout the exchange as unformed grunts and groans; sounds without words but pregnant with meaning. “You’re dead!”
oooo“Some law says the dead can’t enjoy a cuppa joe?”
oooo“Ev’s right,” Raymond reminded. “You left a note, remember?”
oooo“Vaguely, yes. Or something that could be taken for one.”
oooo“They had a service for you and everything.”
oooo“Made up a stone,” said Everett, and if his hearers inferred from his tone that he figured a refund might be in order, they wouldn’t be too wide of the mark.
ooooImperceptibly, the fog had withdrawn, revealing a dome of night bespattered with a gem-cutter’s dream of stars, the inverted dome of which was perfectly reflected in the marble-still water. To Ben it suddenly felt as if the Mary was hopelessly adrift in the limitless ocean of space where reality was a distant and fast-receding shore, marked by a billion twinkling false lighthouses inviting shipwreck to the fragile ship of reason.
ooooThe buoy and its unlikely passenger were visible now, silhouettes sufficiently backlit by the Milky Way so Bookie’s distinctive derby was easily distinguished. He was sitting on the edge of his stationary craft, leaning comfortably against its network of diagonal supports, his feet dangling in the water – or where the water should have been – making faint ripples in the liquidy fabric of space and time.
ooooYou’re only aware of as much of reality as your experience will allow. You need a bigger balloon.
oooo“What’d you say, Book?” said Raymond, who was sure someone had said something and felt the need to know who. Since only Bookie would say something like he thought he’d heard, it was logical to ask him first.
oooo“Not a thing, my young son,” said Bookie.
oooo“Nothing ‘bout a balloon?”
ooooBen had heard it too. So had Everett. But not so much heard as felt, a biological sensation rattling through their corpuscles and surging toward meaning in remote and untrodden regions of their consciousness.
oooo“I expect it was just a passing thought,” Bookie reflected. “Lots of them out here. Some slippery as eels, some stick like burdocks. Duck if you see one’ve those coming, they’re worthless. Things you want to forget, but can’t.”
oooo“Like My Boy Lollipop,” said Raymond. “I hate that song worse’n, worse’n . . .”
oooo“Space abhors a vacuum?” Bookie suggested.
oooo“If that means I hate it somethin’ wicked, then it’ll do. If I happen to hear that song, even just a couple notes, it’ll stick in my brain like gum under a church pew. Days, sometimes. Like to drive me crazy.”
oooo“Wouldn’t need much gas for that trip,” said Everett, who couldn’t help himself.
oooo“I’m not sure where they come from,” said Bookie. Then, reading the question aborning in Ben’s eyes, added: “the passing thoughts. Some are familiar, like “unless you have chaos inside you, you cannot give birth to a dancing star.”
ooooEverett looked like he’d just given birth to a dancing star. “What the hell is that s’posed to mean?”
oooo“Nietzsche,” said Bookie. “I didn’t say it made sense, it’s just familiar. Sometimes they seem original – at least unfamiliar – like the one you just heard.” He changed the subject. “However, I did say something about coffee. That was a hint.”
oooo“Oh, sure!” said Ramond. “Sure. How’d you like it? All we got’s powdered creamer . . .Hazelnut.”
oooo“Black’s fine,” said Bookie. “One sugar.”
oooo“Sure! Sure, comin’ right up. Ev’, you might want to tie off to the buoy so we don’t go floatin’ off,” Raymond handed the gaff to Everett and plodded toward the deckhouse. “Wait ‘til Kilton hears this . . .”
ooooBen doubted that tying off would be necessary. He seemed to have stepped outside himself; a semi-detached witness to the train wreck of common sense. He felt some foreign entity probing his thoughts.
oooo“No,” said Bookie, whether in response to Raymond’s comment or Ben’s thoughts it was impossible to tell. “No need to tie off.”
oooo“What’s that supposed to mean?” said Everett, planting the end of the gaff on the deck like the staff of a particularly unhappy Old Testament prophet; something solid to hold on to.
ooooBen interrupted. “Where are we, Book?”
ooooEverett looked at Ben as if he’d grown another head. “Why you askin’ him where we are? We’re out past the White Islands, on our way to Spain. That’s the plan, ain’t it?”
oooo“Look around, Ev’,” said Ben.
ooooEverett’s attention had been so riveted to the offense to logic presented by Bookie’s appearance that he hadn’t perceived the dissolution of the known world. He noticed now. He suddenly gripped the gunwale, as if the Mary had been broadsided by a rogue wave. He swore, but the curse didn’t carry enough weight to return reason to her throne. He swore again, a little louder.
oooo“Here we go, Book,” said Raymond cheerfully, following his extended arm and the proffered cup of coffee across the deck. He tottered toward the railing and handed it across the depthless chasm of stars.
ooooThe Bookie-shaped shadow stretched to receive the cup, put it to his lips and sipped loudly. “Ah! Chock Full O’ Nuts! That’s some good Raymond, my young son. I was hoping it was yours and not Cap’s.”
ooooAlby’s coffee was notoriously strong. ‘Fuses your eyelids open,” was the common critique. Alby considered that a compliment, his logic being that if you were unable to blink you were more like to stay alive while pulling a sixteen to twenty-four hour shift in rough seas on the Grand Banks. Gastronomic appeal wasn’t a consideration in his recipe; survival was. “Shut up and chew your coffee,” had been his axiomatic reply to any complaint.
ooooEverett, his senses punctured by events, withered to his haunches on the deck, his hands still gripping the rail and his eyes, lidless orbs of profound perplexity, peered over the gunwale at the vast unknown. “Where are we?” he rasped, his voice just above a whisper.
oooo“Unsettling, isn’t it?” said Bookie, resting the cup on his knee. “I didn’t have a boat under me when I first got here. Felt like I was weightless, flying and drowning at the same time.
oooo“Speaking of boats, did Morty Dyer ever find that skiff I borrowed?”
oooo“He did,” said Raymond who, as if to plague Everett and Ben intentionally, didn’t seem to be having much difficulty adjusting to developments. He had settled himself on the gunwale just opposite the buoy as casually as if sitting on a piling by the harbor on a soft summer evening, exchanging pleasantries with passersby. “Washed up on that little crescent beach‘ve clam shells out to Isle au Haut, just like you said in that note you left.”
oooo“Well, I was hoping that would be the case. Not much the worse for wear?”
oooo“Gathered some algae, but not much the worse,” said Raymond. “Nope.”
oooo“Morty took it okay, then?”
oooo“Oh, you know Morty,” said Raymond, which seemed to satisfy him as an answer. “He’s dead now, too. I expect you know that.”
oooo“No, I didn’t know that, Raymond.”
ooooRaymond was puzzled. “Really? He didn’t come this way, then?”
ooooBookie’s shook his head.
ooooRay thought about this. “Musta gone to hell then, I guess.”
ooooBookie made a sound something like laughter and running water. “May have.”
oooo“That what this is, then?” Ben asked. “Heaven?”
oooo“Well,” Bookie deliberated. “I’m not sure about that. I guess it depends on your idea of heaven and your opinion of those who’re allowed in. Seems a nice enough place to me.”
oooo“This mean we’re dead?” Everett whimpered, his eyes on stalks, his words muffled below the rail.
ooooBookie’s shade appeared thoughtful. “The question seems to take for granted that you were alive,” said Bookie gently.
ooooA little puff of indignation inflated Everett somewhat. “Funny thing. You always seemed to have an answer for everything back on . . .” he was going to say ‘earth,’ but the suggestion, if voiced aloud, might sever his last threadlike tether to reality, “before.”
oooo“Did I?” said Bookie. “I expect I thought I did. Read a lot, you know – had a great capacity for facts – so I had an answer for everything about which anyone I’d read had ever written one. Like intellectual plumbing.”
ooooEverett felt his ears stretch trying to distill meaning from the barrage of syllables assaulting them.
ooooBookie continued. “Turns out most of that stuff fetches up short here – Siddhartha couldn’t convince his belly of its nonexistence when it came time to drag it into his next incarnation; got a spiritual hernia for his troubles; like the woman pioneer who made her husband load her mamma’s pump organ on their Conestoga wagon before heading off across the plain. It just took up space and slowed things down and made the trip uncomfortable. Finally she realized if they didn’t throw it out, her ancestral baggage was going to kill them all.”
ooooThey all thought about that for a while. By the time they’d each recast the plains – which they’d never seen – as the ocean, and the Conestoga wagon as the Mary they had a metaphor they could drive around the block.
ooooRay took a satisfied sip of coffee, then realized he couldn’t remember having poured himself any. It was just the way he liked it, though, so he sipped again. “Not what you thought it would be then, Book? Bein’ dead?”
oooo“Not at all,” said Bookie. “If that’s what I am, then dead must be just not being aware of the alternatives.”
oooo“Dead,” said Ray.
oooo“Are we dead, Book?” Everett ventured feebly from below the gunwale. He didn’t remember any particularly jarring sense of change from one state to another, but he’d been asleep.
oooo“Epicurus would have said you’ll never live long enough to know you’re dead. Forgive the paraphrase. For myself, I can’t say,” said Bookie.
ooooIt was at this moment that a shooting star bisected Bookie’s shadow; a phenomenon drawing an epithet from Everett that would have been equally familiar in church or the pool hall. He levitated from his knees, as if drawn up by the orbs of his eyeballs. “What in hell was that!”
“ooooWhat was what?”
oooo“That shootin’ star!” said Everett, pointing at the region of Bookie under review. “Went straight through your belly!”
ooooBen had been studying Bookie’s shadow and the appearance of the comet or meteor or whatever it was confirmed his blossoming suspicion that the Bookie they were addressing was not the hummus-eating, AquaVelva-scented, Schopenhauer-quoting Bookie they had known. The voice was the same. The silhouette was unmistakably Bookie’s, but that’s all it was, a silhouette cut from the great felt board of space.
ooooHad it not been for his earlier encounter with the mermaid, Ben’s brain would have reflexively severed the umbilical cord of such a notion and left it writhing and withering beyond the realms of consideration; but he could still feel the powerful grip of the primitive hands that had dragged him back to the world of the air-breathers. His armpits were sore and he knew that, if he looked, they’d be bruised.
ooooThat indelible meeting had infused the previously ossified lump of gray matter in his cranium with enough cognitive gluten that it was softened toward the fantastic. “Touch of indigestion?” he said, with a chuckle in spite of himself.
ooooBookie’s shadow turned toward him and, if such a thing were possible, smiled. “Ben, my young son! I believe you just perpetrated a joke!”
ooooRaymond laughed weakly, not sure that laughing at the dead was the done thing, especially in their presence. “That was a good one, Ben. Indigestion. Ha, ha! That was good, wan’t it Book?”
oooo“Listen!” said Bookie, holding a shadow finger to his shadow mouth and arching his shadow eyebrow chakra attentively.
ooooThe stillness that followed – during which even Everett’s stomach ceased it’s interminable churning – spread a sponge to the edges of the Known, sopping up all that was not silence. At last, bubbling from the profundity of the cosmos within Bookie’s shadow, came a sensation transcending sound, yet embodying both music and laughter.
oooo“What is that?” thought Ray, and his thought became sound and whispered across the universe, telling and re-telling itself like tiny waves breaking on the Mary’s bow.
oooo“Joy, near as I can guess,” said Bookie.
oooo“That’s what I’d call it. Some kind of happy celestial emanation, anyway.”
ooooEverett’s eyes retreated to the safety of their sockets. “Oh, here we go!” he whispered, but he knew that, somewhere, a star was laughing at him. A whole damn star.
ooooRaymond considered this, and took a pull on his pipe – which he couldn’t remember having filled or lit – (in fact, he hadn’t smoked since he took up residence at Happy Acres, and they made him stop). It was good. He let the tendrils of smoke ooze from his nose and mouth and watched them sculpt brief molecular shapes on the air. For no particular reason he thought of Algernon and, as if in response to the thought, one of the smoke sculptures became the cat and jumped into the shadow-arms of Bookie, who tickled it under the chin and made it purr, and the sound that was neither music nor laughter – more feeling than noise – swelled to the borders of each hearer’s hearing.
oooo“Never thought much about joy,” Raymond said thinking thoughtfully about joy and wondered why he hadn’t. It was such a pleasant thing to do. A brief shadow of sadness paused upon his shoulder and whispered in his ear that it was too bad he’d wasted all those hours watching the evening news. He laughed at the shadow and it flew away. “Seems like heaven to me.”
ooooBookie’s shadow, still tickling Aljernon – still purring, looked around, considering. “Not the Paradise part, if it is,” he said. “More like a vestibule – where you take your coat off and hang it up; somewhere well out of the way.”
ooooEverett dodged the metaphor just in time. “You seen God yet?”
oooo“I have, yes,” Bookie replied without hesitation.
oooo“What’s He look like?”
ooooBookie’s shadow-hand swept the universe. “Look around.”
ooooEverett didn’t want to look around. He didn’t want to be reminded that he and his shipmates – to say nothing of that pestilential know-it-all shadow of Bookie Dunn – had slipped their moorings and drifted about as far from both Maine and Spain as it was possible to get. He also didn’t want to trouble the ether with excess ruminations that might, like a bug in a web, awaken the predatory spider of physical principles to the fact that some visitors had just slipped through a rip in the fabric and that those visitors were moving and breathing in the void without the benefit of apparatus designed for the purpose and certified by the appropriate government agency.
ooooBen had been thinking. “So, not much left after you take your coat off, then?’
oooo“Not much,” said Bookie. “Just this Higg’s boson of a hole.” He held his arms out and spread his hands. “Waiting to be filled.”
oooo“Ah! I get the feeling that’s what the waiting’s all about.”
oooo“What in hell is he talkin’ about now?” Everett demanded.
ooooRay wasn’t concerned with Higg’s bosun. “You been in this vestibule – on that buoy – all these years, Book?” he asked with genuine concern.
oooo“Must’ve been,” said Bookie. “I can’t remember having been anywhere else.”
oooo“Just sittin’ and floatin’?”
ooooEverett applied the full theological weight of his four years in Sunday school – where he learned about creation from a woman old enough to remember it first-hand. “I don’t see no Pearly Gates or angels floatin’ on clouds.” He announced, allowing the implication to dangle like a particularly hard-used participle.
oooo“You’re right about that, Ev’, my young son. Not hide nor hair of anything like that thus far. Nor streets of gold.” He raised the shadow of his knee and rested the shadow of his arm upon it, and appeared to be taking in his surroundings. “Which is just as well, as far as I can see. Still, not a bad prospect, is it? Whatever it is.”
oooo“You ain’t seen Jesus, then?”
oooo“Not the way you mean, no.”
oooo“What’s that supposed to mean? Either you seen ‘im or you ain’t.”
oooo“Well, that’s true in a way,” said Bookie. “But . . . well, you know how when it’s low tide, you know the moon’s out there on the other side of the planet, tugging away at the ocean the way Mamie hogs the blankets on a winter night?”
oooo“It’s like that. He’s the gravity of the place, pullin’ everything toward Him.”
oooo “You ain’t seen Gracie out this way, have you Book?”
oooo The addition of another voice to the little chorus was unexpected.
oooo “Cap’n!” said Everett, leaping to his feet and taking hold of the handles of Alby’s wheelchair as if they represented reality. “How’d you get out here?”
oooo Alby ignored him. “You seen Gracie, Bookie?”
oooo “No, Cap,” said Bookie’s silhouette. “Sorry to hear she’s gone. Sorry for you, I mean. But it’s a pretty big place. She could be anywhere.” He and Alby considered one another for a moment. “Good to see you, though. Been a while, I guess.”
oooo Alby’s mental tether hadn’t been firmly fixed to any particular dimension lately – he was a practiced wanderer through unsteady landscapes where impossibilities popped out from behind the bushes at irregular intervals and said “Boo!”- so his reaction to floating aboard the Mary through the bottomless void of space, and carrying on a conversation with a long-dead suicide boat hand fell short of Everett’s requirements.
oooo “That’s Bookie, Cap!” he said, giving the wheelchair a little shake, as if to bring Alby to whatever remained of his senses. “Been dead thirty years or more! That’s him you’re talkin’ to!”
oooo “I’ll have to look for her then, I s’pose,” said Alby.
oooo “Very likely,” said Bookie. “When the time comes.”
oooo Alby nodded. “When the time comes.” He leaned forward in the chair.
oooo “What you doin’, Cap!” said Everett, reflexively tightening his grip on the handles.
oooo Alby had raised himself half way and was peering over the gunwale. “Stillest night I ever saw.” He looked up at Bookie. “Never thought to look down at the stars.”
oooo That, in a nutshell, was Ben’s experience since jumping into the harbor. His mental apple cart had not been merely overturned, the contents had had been ground to cider by bumble-footed Visigoths trampling the orchard of reason with the cudgel of illogic, and allowed to ferment to about a hundred and twenty proof. The metaphor, he realized – aside from being a bit wordy – was not of his own making. “Where the hell did that come from?” he said aloud.
oooo “Prob’ly one’ve those passin’ thoughts Bookie was talkin’ about,” said Ray, as if he’d been tuned in to whatever frequency the echoes in Ben’s head occupied. It was his turn to chuckle. “You didn’t duck.”
oooo “Kind of experience that begs metaphor, ain’t it?” said Alby, still peering over the side, twiddling his fingers in the ether.
oooo “They come pretty fast and thick hereabouts, Cap,” said Bookie. “Those and aphorisms. Some about the size of golf balls. Leave a sizable dent in your psyche you’re not careful.”
oooo Ben refrained from voicing the observation that in the moonscape of Alby’s psyche a fresh crater or two would pass unnoticed.
oooo “It’s the axioms you have to watch out for, else you might learn something. What you were saying about up and down, Cap, there is a kind of Alice in Wonderland feeling to the place when you first get here, but it wears off. Or maybe you just get used to it. Or maybe it just ceases to matter after a while.”
oooo Raymond took a puff of his pipe and chased it with a sip of coffee. “What comes next, Book?”
oooo Bookie’s shadow shrugged. “That could depend on whether you’re all dead or not.”
oooo “How do we find out?” Everett wanted to know. It seemed an important point.
oooo “Now that, my young son,” said Raymond, “is an excellent question.”
oooo Everett had an idea. “We could pinch ourselves and see if we wake up.”
oooo The prescription didn’t sit well with Raymond. “That’s for dreams,” he said. “You need somethin’ stronger for dead.”
oooo “How ‘bout some’ve Cap’s coffee?” Ben suggested with a wink.
oooo “See if we’re dead,” said Everett, “not wish we were.”
oooo Raymond quizzed the nearest authority. “How’d you find out, Bookie?”
oooo Bookie pondered a moment. “Well, as to being dead, like I said, maybe I am, maybe I’m not. I feel alive enough, but I don’t need to eat, or sleep. I don’t make body noises. I don’t get sick. But there was a time when I found it was a challenge keeping myself to three dimensions. You start to feel pretty esoteric after a while; makes you think you spent most of life dead.”
oooo “I think we’d best be pushin’ off, Ben,” said Alby when his eyes had overfed his brain. He stood up from the gunwale.
oooo Everett twas immediately prompted to action. He grabbed the wheelchair and spun it behind Alby. “There you go, Cap. You let me get you into the wheelhouse where it’s warm,” (and there ain’t so much damn fool Bookie Dunn around, cutting holes in the atmosphere, he wanted to add, but didn’t.)
oooo “That’s all right, Ev’,” said Alby. “I won’t be needin’ that contraption no more. Toss it overboard.”
oooo “Toss what?” said Everett. “The wheelchair?” He gripped the worn rubber handles like sanity.
oooo Alby performed a kind of old-man pirouette, his arms outstretched. “Don’t need it. See?”
oooo Everett saw, all right, but he wasn’t about to trust his eyes as far as he could throw them. If logic could implode, then it could explode; that stood to reason. When whatever reality was supporting Alby as he stood there nailed against a host of galaxies like a dancing Christ suddenly ceased to function, Everett would be there with that wheelchair to catch him. Let him fuss.
oooo Still, it was hard to deny that Alby was tottering around on his own pins, no more steady than a one year-old maybe, but on his pins, nonetheless. The straight-jacket of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s that had held him captive so long was showing signs of wear at the elbows, and traces of Cap were bulging through. If he was shaking himself around like a marionette with joint problems, it was because he wanted to, not because he had no choice.
oooo Kilton had been, more or less, awake for some time, but assembling a vertical creature from the heap of humanity on the floor of the wheelhouse to which recent events had reduced him took some effort, hence time. He stood in the door, stretching his earlobes in an effort to distill some sense from all that he was hearing. He gave up pretty shortly.
oooo “Raymond?” he said.
oooo Everyone turned to him. “Kilty!” said Raymond, fairly bounding across the deck. “Look who we found.” He pointed at Bookie. “It’s Bookie.”
oooo “Hey Kilton, my young son,” said Bookie convivially.
oooo Kilton cocked his head as far to the side as he could in order to catch a glimpse of the speaker at the foggy edges of his sight. “Bookie?
oooo “I would say ‘in the flesh,’” said Bookie. “But Ev’ might take exception, so I’ll just say ‘present’.”
oooo “Well now,” said Kilton. “The queerest people turn up in dreams. I don’t think I’ve thought more than two shakes about you since you killed yourself.”
oooo “Ain’t a dream,” said Everett. “It’s real.”
oooo Kilton was able to make out enough of the extraordinary scene to doubt that. “No, Ev’, I hate to pop your balloon, but it ain’t. It’s bad beans. One good fart will blow Bookie back where he belongs and I’ll wake up on the Mary, in the fog, on the way to Spain – which makes reality no easier to swallow than whatever this is.”
oooo Everett took umbrage. “I ain’t the pigment of your imagination! If anyone’s in someone else’s dreams, you’re in mine, and I ought to charge admission for this one ‘cause it’s a doozy.” Umbrage or not, there was comfort in the possibility – quickly becoming a likelihood – that it was all a dream. That would explain a lot, though his personal brain had never coughed up a phantasmagorical hairball like this before. Maybe he was in someone else’s dream. But the thought that someone of his acquaintance might have a dream like this was unnerving.
oooo And if that was the case, the real question was how far back had the dream begun? When they found Bookie? When they stole the Mary? When he went to live at the retirement home? When he and Sarah buried their only son, Dewey? In the back seat of his father’s DeSoto at the junior prom where Dewey had been conceived? At birth?
oooo The net was drawing too many fish.
oooo “A theory is a declaration of ignorance; a patented, copyrighted, stamped, dated and duly witnessed proclamation that we don’t know the how or why of this or that, but propose or imagine that might be thus.”
oooo “What was that?” said Kilton, to whom the thought had coincided with a solar flare or cosmic hiccup in some discernible precinct of the galaxy.
oooo From his seat on the rail, Raymond laughed. He was having a wonderful time. He studied the glowing embers in the bowl of his pipe. The longer he stared, the more they seemed like stars, too; a little well of space seen from God’s point of view. “Smooth,” he thought, as he stuck the stem between his teeth and took a long, satisfying suck. The sudden cataclysm in the pipe bowl reduced the tiny captive universe to ashes.
oooo What if the crew of the Mary – and Bookie, too – were in a pipe bowl? Maybe any minute God would light up and suck them into oblivion. And another god would do the same to him, and another to him. How many layers to the last God? The real God? Come to think of it, how would the last god know he was the last god? What if every god had a bigger god looking over his shoulder from another dimension, just to see how he was doing, not letting on he was there? Each one thinking he was the last God? The way daddy always let him win at checkers; a subtle boost to the self-esteem. That would make sense of god in the edition popularized in Sunday School: anyone requiring eternal praise from his subordinates clearly had self-esteem issues.
oooo Just thinking about that made Raymond’s hat tight. He took it off and turned it over a few times in his hands as he spoke to Bookie. “You gonna come along with us, Book?” If they weren’t dead, he’d be just as happy to be back on the way to Spain; his mental line only had about a twenty-pound test, and the thoughts he was thinking weighed about a ton each.
oooo Dang that tobacco was good, though. And the coffee, too, of which he’d taken several long sips which hadn’t diminished the cup by a drop. And it was still piping hot, just the way he liked it.
oooo “I’m just going to sit here a while longer,” said Bookie. “See what else comes along.”
oooo “Lonely work, ain’t it?”
oooo “No more than a lighthouse keeper, I’d guess,” said Bookie, smiling the kind of smile a shadow makes when it’s not sure if what it’s thinking is right or just comfortable. “Besides, not much time to be lonely, what with one thing and another. Seems I just got here and you and the Mary came along. Who knows what unusualities might drift this way? Hate not being here to wish ‘em welcome.”
oooo “An’ drink their coffee,” said Kilton, who might have been joking. In which case it was the first of those unusualities.
oooo “And pet their cats,” said Bookie, still stroking Algernon who still purred.
oooo “You keep him,” said Ben. “Good company for you.”
oooo “Well, I’ll do that, Ben. I don’t expect he’ll hang around long, but he’s welcome to stay ‘til then.”
oooo Kilton was surprised the burp or fart that would dissipate the ambient freak show hadn’t breeched the appointed orifice. Impossibilities surged in upon him, expanding like the highly compressed gases of three-bean casserole toward the frontiers of his comprehension. Something had to give, and soon.
oooo “We’d best be pushin’ off, Cap,” he said. Real or not, the notion of being accompanied into the unknown by a suicidal, cat-petting apparition had an unsettling effect on him.
oooo Everett wasn’t ready to go. His throat gave birth to the question that had been aborning in the back of it. “Why’d you do it, Book? Why’d you kill yourself like they say you done?”
oooo Hyperactive particles of silence chatted amongst themselves as the anomaly that was Bookie Dunn thought, and the impossibility that was Bookie Dunn pondered.
oooo Long before he responded, Everett had forgotten the question. In fact, had forgotten he’d asked a question. He’d been pinching the Crab Nebula between his thumb and forefinger and squinting at it through the resulting opening and contemplating something he’d read in a magazine in the waiting room of his doctor’s office – or his dentist’s, or optometrist’s, or chiropractor’s, or physical therapist’s, or the VA or the DMV – no, not the DMV, they’d taken away his driver’s license. “Damn ‘em,” he said aloud.
oooo He’d been one of the first on Utah Beach during the D-Day Invasion, hadn’t he? He could still hear the Kraut bullets slamming into the ramp of the LCA as the Louie popped the lynch pins and let it drop into the water, then into little Sammy Fink from New Hampshire who was hunched over to his left, puking his guts out when the bullet tore through his head and dispelled his worries. Mitchy Mitchell was the first one to make it into the water alive, but was nothing but a bloody smear on the waves within seconds.
oooo “Took my damn license!” said Everett, his mouth responding to his thoughts. What had he been thinking? Something about magazines. Oh, that was it. The Crab Nebula. The magazine had said it was three trillion light years from top to bottom. Three trillion light years. Light travels – well, damn fast. Three trillion light years times damn fast was – well, damn far. And here the whole thing was, pinched between his thumb and finger. Which would mean it was three trillion light years from his thumb to his finger, which would make him – well, right up there with God.
oooo And for a moment, Everett felt very large; which was a new sensation. Everett had never felt himself of any particular size relative to the Universe. It, like tourists and black flies, was something that existed to confound and confuse. But he’d never felt large, even in relation to his own little planet; continent, country, state, county, town, neighborhood, home . . . even bed, come to that.
oooo He’d been a small entity, doing a small job, in the confines of a small space, for a long time. But he did that job well. On the Mary, he was large. No one knew her heartbeat like he did. No one else could sweet-talk her like he could, flatter and stroke her like he could; coax one more mechanical orgasm from her.
oooo These were the thoughts, for lack of a better word, that were sifting through the porous fabric of Everett’s brain when, like an echo of the distant past that somehow got misplaced, Bookie’s reply percolated and bubbled to the surface of his consciousness.
oooo “You know, my young son, I don’t recall such an act. Taking my life. I don’t recall feeling overwhelmed or depressed or any of those things you imagine someone must be thinking who does such a thing.”
oooo “But you done it!” said Kilton, swiveling his head in an effort to capture Bookie’s shadow in that small, spotted space between cataracts. “Everybody says.”
oooo “Well, there,” said Bookie philosophically – and if anyone could express philosophicality in two words, Bookie could.
oooo Some time passed during which Ben was entertained watching Algernon, who was swatting at stars in the fluid of eternity lapping at the base of Bookie’s buoy.
oooo He was beginning to see what Bookie meant about time. In this place, wherever it was, it didn’t seem to matter much. It was a commodity that couldn’t be traded. And since time didn’t matter, there was no rush. And since there was no rush, there was no stress. And since there was no stress, there was – peace.
oooo He wondered if the buoy – like a cosmic rocking chair outside a cosmic pool room – could accommodate another resident to wait patiently, with Bookie, in anticipation of the next unusuality.
oooo Eternity poured a heavy syrup on the silence that followed, so, at first, it was hard to tell how much time was passing. Then it was impossible. Then, it didn’t matter.
oooo Finally, eternity got a little hole in it and Alby peeked through. “We ain’t to Spain yet, boys. Get ready to push off, Ben,” he said. Ben responded to the command as naturally as if ten years hadn’t lapsed since the last time Alby had ordered him to do anything. “Aye, Cap,” he said, moving forward to the place where a line would have been, had it not been cut away back in the harbor.
oooo “You best get down an’ diddle the ol’ lady, Ev,” said Alby, and the strength of his voice, and the quiet authority of his words embraced the little congregation like a Sunday sermon served with mulled wine. And, while it would be too much to say anyone felt sure they’d fight clear of the shoals that awaited, it didn’t matter. Cap was at the helm. “You want to come along, Book, now’s your chance.”
oooo Bookie tickled Aljernon under the chin while the cat softened his lap with her claws. “I appreciate that, Cap. I do. If I’m still here when you come back by, we’ll talk about it.”
oooo Alby studied him for a moment, unsure what face to leave him with, then the Mary sputtered to life and he smiled. “Turn her loose, Ben,” he said, and, with a backward wave, stepped into the deckhouse.
oooo If the evening’s events had taught Ben anything it was that just because there was no rope to cast off, didn’t mean he shouldn’t cast off. So, he went through all the motions of untying and coiling, then called. “Mary’s away!”
oooo “Mary’s away!” Cap echoed from the deckhouse. He punched the throttle with the heel of his palm and the Mary tugged them toward a thick fog bank rolling at them from across the Milky Way.
oooo Everett stuck his head up out of the gangway and, over Mary’s steady churn, shouted out at the void. “Bye, Book!”
oooo “Good-bye, my young son!” said Bookie cheerily as another star tore through his belly. “By the way, since you’re headed for Spain, there’s a word you should know.”
oooo “What’s that?” said Ray from the stern.
oooo “Ayudar,” said Bookie, too softly for them to hear and the fog erased Bookie, and Aljernon, and the Crab nebula.
oooo“I never seen a fog so thick,” said Kilton, who’d seen little else for the better part of seven years but still, at the edges of his sight, could remark this fog as something exceptional.
oooo“Pea soup,” said Ray, because that’s what you said about a fog this thick.
ooooFor Kilton, that would not suffice. “Pea soup? I been in pea-soup fog more’n Carter’s got pills, young fella. And this is more like mud. You could shovel it.”
ooooThere was something to that, Ben thought. He, too, had seen his share of fog, but this was more like a dust storm, but without the grit. It was certainly darker than any fog he could remember, and with Mary just barely in gear, they seemed to be getting sucked into it more than drifting through it.
ooooThe fog drove all but Ray into the deckhouse, which was crowded and smelled like old men, but without the Aqua Velva, and the six plus eyes available to them were trying to poke holes in it, to make out the misty shape of some onrushing bow, or jagged ledge before it clove the Mary from stem to stern.
oooo“Shut ‘er down, Ev,” Alby said finally, when his eyes felt like sandpaper. “I gotta listen.”
ooooEverett dodged out of sight and, not without having the last word, the diesel resolved to contemplate itself in oily silence.
ooooThere was water below them now. Good, honest, fall-in-and-you-drown salt water from the almighty Atlantic Ocean, it’s smell as distinctive as mother’s biscuits, and twice as welcome. Ray leaned over the side and watched the wake, with nowhere left to go, wrap itself around them.
oooo“This fog’s somethin’ else,” he said to Neptune more than anybody.
oooo“You hear anything?” Alby said, having strained his hearing aid beyond its fusing point.
ooooNo one had to ask him what sound he had in mind, that of waves on rocks, fog horns, approaching boats, a lighthouse bell, anything that might be an imminent danger, or tell them where they were.
oooo“No buoys out this far,” said Kilton.
oooo“Out how far?” Alby wanted to know. “Who knows how far we’ve come. Anybody got a watch?”
ooooBen had one, but it had been destroyed during his dunk in the harbor. Kilton had one, but as it was wound by motion, which, in Kilton’s case, was insufficient to keep it in operation, it was more a fashion accessory than a functioning timepiece. There was a clock on the port side of the deckhouse, but the battery had long ago corroded, leaving a rusty, red acid trail down the wall. Everett had lately come not to ‘believe in ‘em,’ whatever that meant, so all eyes turned to Ray as he returned from the railing. The look in their eyes made him wonder if, in his brief absence, they’d drawn lots to see who’d be eaten first once the beans ran out.
oooo“What time you got?” said Alby, eyeing Ray’s watch. Ray glanced at it, then, not seeing what he’d expected to see, blinked a couple of times.
oooo“Well?” said Ben.
oooo“Words,” replied Ray, whose face—if captured at the very moment—could have been used by Webster to illustrate ‘Puzzlement’. He held his wrist toward them.
oooo“Words?” said Alby, grabbing Ray’s wrist and tugging it—together with its appendage—toward him. “What’re you talkin’ about?”
ooooThen he read what he saw. “There be dragons.”
ooooKilton was agitated; turning his head this way and that in an attempt to gather enough images from the fringes of his sight to stitch together a picture of his surroundings. “What’s going on? What are you boys talking about? What dragons?”
oooo“That’s what they used to put on maps in the olden days,” said Everett, “when they didn’t know what was out there. ‘This way there be dragons.’”
oooo“What’s it doin’ on my watch, Cap?” said Ray. “This is a good ol’ Timex. Nothin’ fancy. Ain’t never done nothin’ like that before.” He shook the watch a couple of times and held it to his ear. “Still tickin’.”
ooooHe looked at it again. The first curious words were gone, but had been replaced by one even more enigmatic. “Ask,” he read.
oooo“What?” said Kilton, his agitation growing. “Ask what?”
oooo“That’s what it says,” said Ray, thrusting his wrist toward Ben and Alby. “See?”
ooooThe Captain and First Mate bent over the watch together, twisting it to catch the light and, in the process, twisting Ray a good deal as well. “Ask,” Ben affirmed.
ooooAlby looked from Ray to Ben. “What’s it mean?”
ooooKilton’s patience had reached its limit. Flailing in the darkness, he seized upon Ray’s wrist and yanked it toward him with such force that Ray nearly left his boots. Kilton turned his head to the extreme left, where he was able best to peak around his cataracts to get a glimpse of the phenomenon for himself.
oooo“Ask,” he read. “What the hell?”
oooo“Maybe it means we’re s’posed to ask it something,” Ray ventured. “Like one’ve them Magic 8 Balls.”
ooooEverett’s common-sense had withstood just about all the assaults it could handle in the last few hours. “I think I’m just gonna jump overboard, if nobody objects,” he said, throwing a leg over the gunwale.
oooo“Best not do that,” said Ben. “Place like this, there’s no tellin’ what might reach up an’ haul you in.”
ooooEverett hastily withdrew his leg. “What’s that s’posed to mean?”
oooo“It means,” said Ben, “that the things goin’ on lately don’t happen in Penobscot Bay, Maine.”
oooo“So?” Kilton said. “What’re you sayin’? We ain’t in the Bay anymore? You think we’re in the Twilight Zone?”
ooooBen ruminated a moment, massaging the itchy stubble on his chin with one hand as he steered the Mary with the other, even though it wasn’t going anywhere. “Way I see it,” he said at last, “is there’s three possibilities; either I’m dreamin’, or we’re all dreamin’ or . . .”
oooo“Or?” said Kilton and Ray in tandem.
oooo“Or it’s real.”
ooooAlby sipped at a cup of coffee that had appeared in his hand. “None of ‘em seem most likely, do they?”
oooo“Not most likely, Cap’n,” said Ben. “Nope. But I can’t come up with another possibility. Can you?”
oooo“Bad beans,” Kilton offered stoically. “Like I said all along.”
oooo“Magic beans, maybe,” said Ben. He tapped Ray’s watch. “Ask,” he repeated. “Ask what, do you s’pose?”
oooo“You want me to talk to my watch?” Ray ventured. He clamped his lips together, as if to keep his tongue from saying anything else without his express, written consent.
ooooAlby shrugged. “Can’t be worse than talkin’ to yourself. You done that long as I’ve known ya.”
ooooRay looked at Everett, whose attention was suddenly fixed on the embracing fog, then at Kilton, who sensed eyes upon him. “What’re you lookin’ at me for? Go ahead an’ ask. Can’t hurt, can it? I mean, we spent the last God knows how long talkin’ to a drowned dead man.”
ooooConceding the point, Ray slowly drew his wrist up to chin level. “Hello there,” he said. He looked at the watch, the face of which remained blank.
oooo“Go on,” said Kilton impatiently.
oooo“What’m I s’posed to say?”
ooooAlby had a thought. “Why don’t you ask it where in hell we are.”
oooo“Okay,” said Ray, holding the watch to his mouth once again. “Where in hell are we?”
ooooAgain, he looked at the watch. This time a little, pulsing cluster of lights gathered themselves into words. “I don’t like the sound of that,” said Ray, when he had read them.
oooo“What?” said Kilton, practically quaking. “Can’t you just talk right out straight? What’s it say?”
ooooRay cleared his throat. “It says, ‘you’re not . . . yet.’”
ooooKilton found this enigmatic. “Not what yet?”
oooo“Don’t know,” Ray confessed. “Not in hell yet?”
ooooThe crew exchanged glances. “That don’t sound too promisin’.”
oooo“There’s somethin’ out there,” said Everett from his post outside the pilot house. He stuck his head in the doorway. “There’s somethin’ out there, in the fog.”
ooooBen and Alby hurried to the gunwale. “What is it?”
oooo“Ain’t sure. Can’t see.”
oooo“Then how do you know there’s somethin’ out there?” Ben demanded. He could feel sweat forming on his brow. “What next?” he said under his breath, but Alby heard.
oooo“I feel it,” said Everett.
ooooA land person would have raised a skeptical eyebrow at such a declaration. Not so men who had spent their life on the sea, who knew how a sudden tingle at the back of the neck could mean the approach of a thunderhead, or a pocket of wrinkles in the ocean might mean ledges. And they all knew fog—the damp, feminine beguiler of logic—suddenly birthing solid objects without warning. In such an environment, seamen developed an acute sixth sense, the tendrils of which probed the cloud for whatever presence might be lurking there.
ooooBut even the combined centuries of fishermen’s prescience did nothing to prepare them for the surprises this particular fog held in store.
ooooKilton, his hearing sharpened by the dullness of his sight, heard it first. “Do you hear that?”
ooooAs if made of rubber, four pairs of ears stretched toward the unknown, and the stark realization slapped them all at once. “Rocks!”
ooooThe assertion that rocks speak is not one that would find ready acceptance among habitués of the scientific community. Mariners, however—their fog-heightened senses scintillatingly alert to the deadly aria of the sirens inhabiting the ledges, stony pinnacles, and boulder-strewn promontories—are not so credulous as to disbelieve. They know the tunes Neptune coaxes from crags, whorls, and fissures deep and narrow. The resulting song, distant kin to that sung by the flame to the moth, no hull devised by man can resist. Only a skilled captain and crew can wrangle a ship so beguiled back to the safety of deep water.
ooooBen suddenly found himself engaged in such a contest for, somehow, the Mary had found some strange coast in all the vastness of the sea and now, even with her engine silent, was drifting toward its rapacious clutch as inexorably as a high school ingénue to that of the neighborhood bad boy.
oooo“Kick ‘er on, Ev’!”
ooooEverett, having anticipated the command, was already in the bowels of the Mary, pumping frantically at the artery that fueled her heart and hitting the starter. Overhead, the crew was heartened as the throbbing of the diesel shuddered through the deck.
ooooBen crammed the throttle hard against its worn and cracked rubber stopper and swung the wheel hard to port just as they drifted into a pocket in the fog, in which Ray and Alby caught a glimpse of something quite unlike the shoreline they had expected.
oooo“Ben!” said Ray, grabbing the side of the deckhouse door to steady himself against the ship’s centrifugal force. “Stop ‘er!”
ooooAt once, Ben slapped the throttle back to idle and tugged the gear lever to neutral. “What is it?”
ooooThe question drew Everett ’s head from the womb of the engine room. “What happened? We ain’t run aground, have we?”
ooooThough no more than seconds had elapsed, the fog had once more folded itself closed astern of the Mary. “Back ‘er up, Ben,” said Ray. “Back ‘er up!”
ooooBen was about to protest, but Alby appeared at Ray’s elbow. “Do like he says, Ben. Either come around sharp to port, or back ‘er up fifty yards or so.”
oooo“Why?” said Ben as he obediently slipped the gear lever into reverse and easing the throttle forward. “Do you see somethin’?”
ooooRay and Alby exchanged an inquisitive look. “Somethin’,” Alby said at last. “Yes.”
oooo“What?” Ben demanded.
oooo“Just, back up,” said Alby.
ooooBen bit his tongue, and did as he was told.
ooooOnce again, the Mary punctured the interwoven membrane of mists, this time in reverse, and drifted into the clearing. Ray and Alby returned to the rail, eager to see if they’d seen what they thought they’d seen.
ooooThere are many things in creation that seemed to have been designed solely to defy description. Near the top of any list chronicling such phenomena would be the unheralded appearance of an isolated mountain of ice, drifting in silent, virginal majesty upon an opalescent sea, and the specimen slowly emerging from the mists to loom over them at the moment fulfilled to heart-stopping perfection the requirements of such a designation.
ooooAn immense, hull-crushing contortion of ice—cleft by phantasmagorical fissures in which blinding white, shot through with silver, gave way to deep pockets of translucent blues and greens—breasted the fog in ominous, solemn silence.
oooo“I smell ice,” said Kilton.
ooooThe quivering little bladder of Everett ’s descriptive capacity exploded in a single epithet, the echoes of which—rebounding from all directions—spoke volumes to Kilton. “We’re in a canyon! How’d that happen?”
ooooThe Mary, responding to some mystical attraction, had indeed drifted into the berg’s clutches, emphasized by two behemithic arms of ice that rose slowly to port and starboard.
oooo“Whatchyou wanna do, Cap?” said Everett, his words wrapped in steam for the temperature had fallen with an almost audible thud. Unwittingly, each of the crew huddled in his own embrace and began to massage away the chill. “Cap?” Everett repeated with some urgency.
oooo“I never seen one’ve them things up this close,” said Alby.
oooo“Said the diver to the shark,” said Everett. He cast an appeal to the first mate. “I think this is close enough, don’t you Ben?” Ben’s senses were captive to awe. “Don’t you think this is close enough, Cap?” said Everett. “They say four-fifths of a berg’s below the water.”
ooooAlby leaned over the rail and stared into the depths, his eyes bearing witness to conventional wisdom. “Must be some wicked big then,” he said.
oooo“Yes, Cap, but . . .”
oooo“Bein’ that big,” Alby pre-empted, “it ain’t about to jump up and land on us, is it?”
ooooEverett, in light of recent events, wasn’t so sure about that. He raised watchful eyes toward the overhanging heights and tried not to remember a show he’d seen on the National Geographic Channel in which sheets of ice the size of small European principalities ‘calved’ from glacial landscapes and pummeled their surroundings into a shower of crystalline powder. “Whatchyou wanna do, Cap?”
ooooHis words repeated themselves from the frozen folds of the cliffs, as would Alby’s reply, had one been forthcoming. Instead, it was Ben who spoke. “Too late, Cap,” he said, casting a backward glance. All eyes followed.
ooooThe images of calving ice that had played so vividly in the theater of Everett ’s mind a split-second earlier, were suddenly swept aside to accommodate others: those of a Venus flytrap which, having lured an unsuspecting bug into the sticky puddle of nectar at his petalled heart, prepared to snap shut upon its prey. The image was apt, for that was exactly how the little cluster of ancient mariners found themselves; imperceptibly, the iceberg had risen until the arms of its embrace joined jagged fingers off the Mary’s stern, cupping her in a small, circular harbor: adrift in an icy goblet.
ooooNor had the berg ceased rising, and as it rose, the water in which the Mary floated, began to freeze.
ooooAnother smell mingled with that of the ice. Kilton noticed it first, and sniffed a nose-full. “Tobacco,” he said. “You smell that?”
ooooEveryone sniffed. “Burnt Rag,” said Everett, the distinctive odor punching its way through the coating of engine oil that coated his nostrils. “Harry Coombs.”
ooooThe name woke a chorus of memories in the crew. “How d’you ‘spose that smell got way the hell out here?” said Kilton.
oooo“What was the name of that tobacco?” said Raymond. “High somethin’.”
oooo“I think Burnt Rag says it all,” said Everett. “I remember they burnt a nest of rats up at the Poor Farm once. Worst thing I ever smelt, ‘cept Harry Coombs Burnt Rag.”
oooo“Holiday!” said Raymond. “That was it. Holiday. Cubby kep’ a big ol’ can of it down to the hardware store just for Harry. Used to say he needed one’ve them hazmat suits to handle the stuff. Prob’ly still there.”
oooo“No one else’d go near it,” said Ben.
oooo“Know what I’d say,” said Alby, “if there’s Burnt Rag burnin’ out here, Harry ain’t far behind.”
oooo“Harry’s dead,” said Kilton. “Twenty-five, thirty years now.”
oooo“Dead don’t seem to carry much weight lately,” Ben observed. Kilton had to concede that, in light of recent events, it had lost a good deal of its much-vaunted permanence.
oooo“Harry built the Mary, didn’t he?” said Everett.
oooo“So he did,” said Alby. “Built three-fourths of the fleet back in them days. Helluva boat-builder, ol’ Harry.”
ooooHarry’s boat-building acumen was legend along the coast and his boats were the standard against which all others were measured, and few came up to scratch, the possible exception being those built by his son, Edgar, who had learned his craft at the old man’s elbow before they had parted company over some minor dispute neither could remember, but neither would forget.
ooooIt was common knowledge that Harry never used drawn-out plans. The customer would tell him what kind of boat he wanted, and Harry would lay the keel and, as he often said, listen to the boat tell him “how she wanted to be put together”. The alchemy of flat oak and spruce planks being formed into a vessel fit to brave any sea was, to a mariner, the spiritual equivalent of the Pieta, a thing to be held in awe and reverence and which could, viewed as either the subject or the art that brought it into being, elicit tears.
ooooFishermen, of course, saved their tears for the homeward voyage, where they might be taken for spray.
ooooLeavening the Legend of Harry Coombs was the fact that he had never set foot on one of his boats once it was afloat, nor could any inducement be contrived that would compel him to do so. He’d been asked if this was because he got sea-sick, to which his response had been that he didn’t know, and didn’t intend to find out. “A man don’t have much control in this life,” he philosophized. “When I put my feet on somethin’, I like it to stay put.”
ooooAnd that seemed to express his feelings, whether or not his hearers grasped the point.
ooooThe smell of tobacco grew stronger.
oooo“Well, well,” said a voice from above. “Look what the tide washed in.”
ooooAs if drawn by invisible strings, all chins raised toward the voice in chorus. “Harry?” said Alby, suspecting that only a throat scoured by decades of Burnt Rag could produce so primordial a sound.
ooooHarry apparently felt that his appearance, peering at them from an overhanging balcony of ice, was sufficient affirmation of the query. “If I’d know’d you were comin’, I’da baked a cake.” His eyes wandered from the crew to their vessel. “The Mary,” he said, recognizing an offspring in whose conception and birth he’d played both paternal and maternal roles. “She’s listin’”.
oooo“Ain’t we all,” said Alby.
ooooHarry laughed, then coughed, then spat, then laughed some more. “Right you are, Alby ol’ boy. Right you are.” He pointed his pipe stem at the men of the Mary. “I’m surprised she’s only listin’ and not sunk outright with that sorry crew,” he said.
oooo“They was gonna sink ‘er,” said Ray, who had overcome whatever reticence he might have had about talking to shades. When in Rome, he figured.
oooo“Harbor committee,” said Everett.
oooo“Ev’! Well, well! Look at you. Never could leave that ol’ Gomer, could you?”
ooooThe reference was new to Ray, whose Bible knowledge was, being polite, sketchy, and his face said as much.
oooo“Old Testament whore,” said Ben. He’d taught Sunday school at blank faces of two generations of island youth, and some Scripture had seeped through the chinks in his mental hull by osmosis.
ooooEverett smiled in response, exposing most of the teeth on the left side of his mouth. “I’m the only one she ever really loved,” he said. “Stroke ‘er just right.”
oooo“Well, I give you credit,” said Harry.
“You’re twice the mechanic I ever was. Got that ol’ Gray outta Pervis Thompson’s 34-footer that ran up on the rocks out by Hurricane. ‘Member that?”
ooooThey remembered. Pervis had tried to make it to shore, but the dual ballast of hip boots full of water – without which he’d sooner have been caught naked – and his inability to swim, contrived a personal introduction to Davy Jones.
oooo“Bloody Mary, we call ‘er,” said Everett t. Harry thought that was appropriate, and said as much.
oooo“What was the name of that boat, Pervis’s?”
oooo“Elvira’s Booty,” said Kilton. He had been feeling isolated as the only sane member of the crew and so decided that he might as well abandon reason and join the conversation as well as rail against it.
oooo“That’s it!” said Harry, drawing an acrid cloud of reminiscence into his lungs. “Elvira’s Booty.” He laughed again. “She never forgive him for that, did she?”
oooo“For what?” said Ray. “I’m missin’ somethin’.”
ooooEverett tlaughed, “Elvira run off with one of the Eaton boys from Deer Isle,” he said. “Pervis named his boat after the last thing he saw when she walked out the door.”
oooo“Built for the rocks, that boat was,” said Harry, and no one disagreed. “Well, long as you’re here, you might as well come in and we’ll talk it over.”
oooo“Come in?” said Ben. “In where?”
oooo“Just skate across the ice there due east, ‘til you come to a little round hole. You’ll prob’ly figure out what to do when you get there. I’ll meet you.”
oooo“Meet us . . .?” Kilton never got to ask where, for Harry was gone. Somewhere overhead came the unmistakable sound of a screen door slamming.
oooo“You hear that?” said Kilton.
ooooRay and Alby were leaning over the side, peering at the ice. “You think he means we’re s’posed to get out and walk on that?” said Ray.
oooo“Sounds like,” said Alby.
ooooThey looked at one another. Like the late Pervis Thompson, they were confirmed non-swimmers. The idea of walking on ice that was but newly formed, and beneath which untold fathoms of frigid water beckoned, was not an inviting one.
oooo“I think I’d best just stay here and keep Gomer warm,” Everett tvolunteered.
oooo“We come to drown anyway,” said Ben, throwing a leg over the side. “Might as well get it over.” He raised a meaningful eye. “Right Cap?”
ooooAlby took a deep breath. “Cold’ll prob’ly kill us pretty quick.”
oooo“There you go,” said Ben, and lowered himself into foot-reach of the ice, which – despite the boldness of his words – he tested gingerly.
oooo“How is it, Ben?” said Ray. The rail of the Maryhad been worn silky-smooth by years of use, and his nervous hands – also worn silky-smooth by years of use – alternately caressed and grasped it in agitation.
ooooBen hadn’t walked on ice, on purpose, since he was a kid, but the instant his fingertips separated from The Marythe heady cocktail of impending doom, chased with the madness of what amounted to walking on water, for Pete’s sake, summoned that ancient exhilaration from unvisited vaults and sent it swirling through his system. In response, his left foot slid boldly toward the unknown, his right, though – not a spontaneous appendage – remained fused to the spot. In seconds he was spread-eagle, his boots farther from one another than they had ever been since paired on the assembly line, and the muscles in his crotch shouting “Huh!?”
ooooEverett leaned on the rail. “Reminds me of Dorothy Hamill for some reason. ‘Cept she could do that an’ get up again.”
oooo“Shut up an’ give me your hand,” said Ben, reaching out. Chuckling, Everett did as he was told and, thus anchored, Ben drew his wayward foot back into the gravitational orbit of its less-adventurous brother.
oooo“I give ‘im a 2,” said Ray, joining into the spirit of the thing.
oooo“You shut up twice as much,” said Ben, his feet once more planted squarely under him. He pivoted resolutely east – his arms held wide as counterbalances – and, in stuttering baby steps rather than long, manly strides, scuffled across the ice toward a small opening near a glacial shelf on the opposite side.
ooooBy no measure could it be judged a graceful program, but it got him where he was going; delivering him safely to the lip of an indentation in the ice, into which he stood staring for several seconds.
oooo“What is it Ben?” said Ray from the Mary. “You see somethin’?”
ooooBen saw something, but, as he’d never seen anything like it before, his brain was trying to figure out what it was, and what to do with it. His mouth awaited the results of this deliberation between the congress of his senses.
ooooThe dimple in the ice into which he peered, no more than three feet in diameter, was, he decided, filled with a fluid of some kind, reflective, like mercury, but swirling – no, not swirling, pulsing, like heartbeat. Very subtle, but perceptible. A carnival of images played upon its surface, each giving way to the next before it had formed a simulacrum of anything to which he could attach a description. The nearest thing he could compare it to was the surface of a soap bubble, but that was comparing a rainbow to a rhinoceros, it’s just the nearest thing that came to mind. The effect was mesmerizing.
oooo“I think he’s froze,” said Ray, through the steam of his breath.
ooooEverett almost laughed impulsively, but before he could, his brain tapped him on the shoulder and suggested he examine the evidence a little more closely. Ben hadn’t moved a muscle. The wreathes of steam that had marked his progress across the ice – conjuring the notion of The Little Engine That Couldn’t Quite laboring uphill through strange country – no longer escaped his lips. Not so much as an eyelash moved, any more than the nose hairs of Everett’s father in that horrible painting his mother had executed (‘the perfect word for it’, his father had said, out of her hearing, after she’d presented it too him – the crowning achievement of her two years of art classes at the home). Ever after it had no so much hung as haunted the space between the windows in the parlor, which – not without reason – thereafter became the least used room in the house.
ooooSuch were the diversionary thoughts the web of his memory released now and then, for no apparent reason, while holding tight more pertinent recollections, like whether – stopping halfway – he was going upstairs or down, and what he was supposed to do when he got wherever it was.
ooooBen had become such a portrait: a still life: Old Man Staring Into Hole.
oooo“Ben?” Everett harked tentatively. “You okay, old fella?”
ooooThe ice, feeling the question bore repeating, hastily convened a Greek chorus with instructions to echo the query from the depths of every finger-numbing cranny.
ooooBen did not respond to the interrogatory choir. A warm breeze – laden with the delicate but unmistakable scent of rose hip tea – wafted up from the anomalous puddle at his feet, visiting the crags of his cheeks with the memory of a caress. A distant, dissonant quartet of cries tessellated the fringe of his awareness – somewhere people were calling his name. There was something familiar about the voices – those of old men – but their words were too faint to make out.
oooo“You’re lookin’ pretty metaphorical standin’ there like that.”
ooooThe voice was unmistakable.
oooo“Where are you?”
oooo“Up the hole,” said Harry, as if he’d spent his life telling the odd droppers-by that’s where he was.
oooo“This hole?” said Ben, tapping the edge of the quicksilver convexion, producing ripples that bounced from edge to edge, each bounce producing not a concentric ring but a geometrical shape.
oooo“Platonic solids,” said Harry from somewhere below the troubled little pool.
oooo“Those shapes. They’re Platonic Solids.” Pause. “Except they’re not.”
oooo“Harry?” said Ben again, returning to the theme foremost in his thoughts. “You’re down the hole?”
ooooHarry could be heard sucking on his pipe, despite which the smell of rose-hip tea predominated. “Up the hole.”
ooooBen thought about this for a moment, but the chair of his deliberations rose to shelve the difficulty presented by the statement and called upon the cerebration in the front row whose question was next in queue. “You need help?”
ooooHarry didn’t respond immediately. “Well, now that’s certainly a point of view,” he said at last. “I was about to ask the same thing.”
oooo“Me?” said Ben. “I don’t need help.”
ooooHarry chuckled. “Hmm. Ain’t looked around much, have ya? Well, plenty of time for all that later. Why’n’t you come on in an’ put y’er feet up. I got some tea on.”
oooo“Rose hip,” said Ben, with a deep whiff. “I smell it.”
oooo“Earl Gray, actually,” said Harry. “Rose hip’s woman’s tea. Anyway, come on in.”
ooooBen hesitated. “Down the hole?”
oooo“Let’s just say ‘in’ the hole.”
ooooBen hesitated further. “Is it safe?”
oooo“Safe as life.” Harry sucked his pipe and chortled. “And that’ll kill ya.”
ooooThis is not the encouragement Ben was looking for. “Well then, Harry, I guess I’m havin’ hard enough time stayin’ alive without jumpin’ in any holes, thanks.”
ooooThe silence that followed was just long enough to let Harry shrug. “Suit yourself. I gotta get back to what I was doin’. Thanks for stoppin’ by. Say ‘hi’ to the boys for me.”
oooo“Wait!” said Ben. “This berg’s hollow, huh?”
ooooHarry considered this. “Would you call the sky hollow?”
ooooBen figured Harry was speaking rhetorically, if that was the right word. “Then, ain’t there some other way in? A door, or somethin’?”oooo“Now that’s just the kind of thing I said once,” said Harry, brightening somewhat – wherever he was. “Yup. There’s plenty of doors and windows, but only on this side.”
oooo“You better stop explainin’ things,” said Ben. “My bucket’s gettin’ more holes than I got fingers.”
oooo“Best put ‘em in your mittens,” said Harry.
ooooNeither spoke for a moment. There was that aural flotsam at the edges of Ben’s consciousness, calling his name, but he was only as aware of it as he was of one of those little points of skin that appeared, from time to time, near his cuticle: an irritant, but not difficult to ignore as long as it didn’t catch on anything.
oooo“What do I need to do?” said Ben at last. Or he thought it. Or thought he said it. Or thought he thought it. Everything seemed just on the edge of becoming something else. This was especially true of whatever he was thinking.
oooo“Just let go,” said Harry from somewhere.
oooo“I ain’t holdin’ onto nothing.”
oooo“Yeah, you are,” said Harry philosophically. “Everyone’s holdin’ on to somethin’.”
oooo“You’re explainin’ things again,” said Ben.
ooooHarry sucked his foul, infernal pipe. “Nope. Just providin’ color commentary. Fills in the gaps during long periods of inaction on the playin’ field.”
oooo“I gotta stop talkin’ to dead people,” Ben said to himself, but Harry, being dead, overheard.
oooo“You’d have to pretty much keep mum from the cradle.”
oooo“Stop talkin’,” Ben commanded, “and just tell me what to do.”
oooo“That’s the spirit!” said Harry. “Ask the impossible! Now you’re half-way there.”
oooo“You know what I mean,” said Ben. “All I need to know is what you want me to let go of.”
oooo“Don’t look at me. I got no idea what you need to let go of.”
oooo“Then how do you know I’ve got to let go of it?”
oooo“’cause you ain’t here yet.”
oooo“What if I just step into that hole?”
oooo“I guess that’d be a good start.”
oooo“What if I drown?”oooo
oooo“What if you do?”
oooo“Well, I’ll be dead.”
oooo“I s’pose there’s that,” said Harry, not as if the thought hadn’t occurred to him before. “Could be just what’s needed. Never saw a boat leave the harbor without slippin’ the mooring.”
ooooHarry was beginning to make sense. Ben found that worrying. “Then what?”
oooo“Then,” said Harry. He seemed to shift on whatever he was sitting on; Ben heard him relight his pipe and once again the light, sweet aroma of rose hip tea drew its train across his nostrils, “Whatever comes next.”
oooo“Dead’s dead,” said Ben, not really believing it. Some of those Sunday school lessons he’d taught all those years had traced osmosical designs on the palimpsest of his brain.
oooo“Maybe so,” said Harry, before Ben could theologize further. “But it ain’t a permanent condition. Think of it like bein’ in an elevator, but without the Muzak.”
ooooBen’s ears and brain simultaneously reached capacity and drowning – to save his logic being subjected to further abuse – gained a certain appeal. He stepped into the hole.
ooooThat’s when things became interesting.
ooooFirst of all, his body stayed behind; it was only everything else that jumped. And everything else – what Brookie Dunn might have called his mind, soul, and spirit – finding itself suddenly freed from the tumbrel of bone, blood, flesh, and sinew in which it had been transported since the womb – panicked, trashing about scratching at nothing in hopes of finding something solid to which to anchor his senses, but – in the chaotic, ectoblastic cloud of sparks and ash he had become – there was nothing. Every molecule tingled as if it had hit its funny bone.
ooooBen had become pixilated and each pixel, breathing deeply the heady air of unexpected liberty, became intoxicated, colliding with one another in submicroscopic explosions.
ooooThis general pandemonium terminated abruptly when a vacuum of indescribable power violently convened the assembly in an upsweeping vortex, its component streams braiding, as they rose, into, around, and through one another.
ooooBen’s mental bucket – by his own admission already over-holed – was unable to convene a quorum to arrive at a consensus about what to do. Things were happening too fast.
ooooMeanwhile, aboard the Mary:
oooo“I think we lost him,” said Ray.
ooooKilton squeezed the railing and cocked his head sideways to see if he could see what he knew he wouldn’t be able to see. “Lost? What’d’you mean? Where’d he go?”
oooo“He’s still there,” said Everett, bobbing just off Kilton’s starboard stern. “Sort of.”
oooo“Sort of?” Kilton was squeezing the rail so hard his knuckle cracked. “What the hell’s that s’posed to mean, ‘sort of?’ Either he’s there or he ain’t.”
ooooRay and Everett looked at one another and shrugged their eyebrows. Kilton had a point. There was no doubt Ben was still there – his body was anyway; standing, staring down at whatever he was staring at – but neither was there any doubt that he had become an inanimate object, betraying not the least sign of life. He might have been an ice-fisherman of whom ice had gotten the better.
oooo“Somethin’s happened to him, Kilt,” said Everett.
oooo“What? What’s happened?”
ooooRay shot a look of appeal at Everett, but it met a corresponding look about half-way with which it imploded on impact.
ooooAlby faced reality. “Looks like he’s dead, boys.”
ooooThat’s exactly what it looked like. But how? He hadn’t been hit on the head by a heavy object. Nothing, as far as they could tell, had penetrated his flesh. He hadn’t clutched at his chest or collapsed or done anything dramatic. It was as if the life force had simply departed.
ooooSince all they produced were answers he didn’t want to hear, Kilton decided to stop asking questions. Trembling, his eyes welling with tears, he pulled himself hand-over-aged-hand along the railing toward the Mary‘s stern.
oooo“What you wanna do, Cap?” Ray asked.
ooooAlby stared at the earthly remains of his first mate for some time, as if by force of will he might activate a kind of telepathic CPR. But the deeper he stared, the more evident it became that whatever it was that made Ben, Ben, wasn’t there.
oooo“Well?” said a voice from above.
ooooAll eyes turned up to Harry.
oooo“Well what?” said Alby.
oooo“You comin’, or you gonna stand there like turkeys in the rain?”
oooo“What’s happened to Ben?” demanded Ray who, Everett had to admit, with a glance, did look did fit that fowl description. “He looks dead.”
ooooHarry seemed to find something interesting in the responsive cloud of smoke that seeped from his nostrils, through which, by degrees, he trained his focus on Ben’s remains. “He couldn’t bring that with him,” he said, matter-of-factly.
oooo“That what?” said Everett. “That’s Ben!” He jabbed an emphatic, oil-stained finger at the immoveable figure.
oooo“That’s the can,” said Harry. “The beans are sittin’ by the fire in my workshop, listenin’ to Bessie Smith on the Victrola.” He tapped the bowl of his pipe into the cup of his palm. The pile of embers, still glowing, offered up a ghost of smoke that took the shape of a young women, which pirouetted twice, slowly and gracefully – as smoke will do when not in a hurry – and bowed demurely.
ooooHarry sniffed the figure up his nose. “Remarkable teeth, that woman.”
ooooAll of this was lost on the crew of the Mary, who were too far away to make anything of the performance.
ooooEverett leaned close to Alby’s ear. “I don’t think Ben’s the only one who ain’t all to home’,” he said, with a meaningful tap at his temple.
ooooMention of beans reminded Kilton that he was hungry. He wiped his eyes with the heel of his hand and worked his way back along the deck to his shipmates. “That’s what I smell. Beans!”
ooooHarry lowered his eyes, which enabled him to take in Kilton without the interference of his spectacles. “Power of suggestion, Kilt ol’ boy. I was speakin’ figuratively.”
ooooKilton huffed. “I must be hungrier’n I thought, if I’m smellin’ words!”
ooooRay was about to protest that there were more pressing items on the agenda at the moment, when Harry spoke. “Beans are Saturday. Tonight it’s pot roast and potatoes.”
ooooAll of a sudden a huge cavern seemed to open in the gut of each crew member, into which all their thoughts were irredeemably drawn. “Pot roast,” Alby echoed.
ooooKilton’s mind painted potatoes on the canvas of his imagination, a mechanism that even an actuarial accountant would be hesitant to describe as vibrant.
oooo“Gravy?” ventured Ray, hoping against hope.
oooo“Dollops,” said Harry. “Carrots, celery, some turnip in the pot, too, I think. ‘Less you’d rather have eggs and bacon, or a good fish chowda like Lonny makes, in which case that’s what we got. Most everything ‘cept beans. They’re Saturday.”
ooooKilton was straddling the rail before he was wedgied by the realization that he couldn’t see where he was going or might be getting himself into. “Ray?” he said, reaching out a grasping, almost desperate hand, which Ray took and placed on his shoulder.
oooo“That’s the idea,” said Harry, pointing at Ben. “Toddle on over there and come on in.”
ooooFaced with final, absolute and unconditional surrender to the impossible, Everett was seized by a deep, inward longing for old-time, nuts-and-bolts reality you could take a hammer to, if all else failed. But the point was beyond quibbling: they were starving, if not to death, exactly, then within hailing distance of it. Without further deliberation, he threw his leg over the side with such energy that the rest of him had no choice but to follow or be sundered.
ooooHe was on the ice, tremulously vertical, and tethered to the Maryby no more than the fingerprints of his right hand. All at once, a spring of memories erupted through the calcification heaped upon them by decades of forgetting, with such immediacy that those decades were pulverized, erasing any distinction between this and the first time he’d stepped on the ice – on double-bladed skates – at the age of three. The feeling was exactly the same. So was the exhilaration when he finally screwed up the courage to release the whorls of his right index finger from the rail, and take a step, then a second, then a third and fourth in rapid succession, placing a good six and a-half to six and five-eighths inches between him and the Mary.
ooooHe cast a backward glance and smiled, then giggled, then laughed, so upsetting the balance of a universe to whom the phenomenon was without precedent, that – notwithstanding the sudden gyroscopic activity of his arms – the next instant found him firmly planted upon his basso profundo, from which stunted podium he continued laughing.
ooooAboard the Mary, Ray and Alby took up the chorus, making it a trio. Kilton, thus assured that no disaster had befallen his shipmate, joined in. Thus the dam of fishermanly decorum constraining two-hundred forty-odd years of pent-up laughter was breeched at the sight (or by imagining) of an old man, flat on his ass, on the ice.
oooo“You okay, Ev’?” Alby asked, wiping a tear from his eye.
ooooEverett slowly ceased laughing and began studying his hands. “Nine fingers left,” he said. “That’s pretty good, all things considered.”
oooo“Eh?” said Kilton, the second to stop laughing.
oooo“Nine fingers,” Everett repeated. He’d never really studied his hands before, at least not since they were much younger. They were old hands; faithful servants that had leapt to obey his every command without a moment’s hesitation: ventured blindly into dark spaces, seized and gripped and bent and pulled and pushed and shoved and whacked and yanked and wiped and punched and hit and stroked and tapped and threw and twisted, and pointed and pinched and poked their way through eighty-odd years in servile obedience to the will of the god that existed somewhere up his sleeve, and on one of those occasions he’d lost a finger.
ooooHis eyes warmed with tears of gratitude. “Thanks,” he said.
oooo“What’s he doin’?” Kilton demanded. “What are you doin’, Ev’?”
oooo“He’s talkin’ to his fingers,” said Ray.
ooooKilton wanted to stamp his foot, and would have if not suddenly reminded that his plantar’s wart would raise pretty firm objections. “Are they talkin’ back?” he asked hesitantly.
ooooAlby, whose brushes with reality in the last few years had only been intermittent, was better equipped than his shipmates to adapt to the widening perforations in the membrane of logic. A residue of mirth tugged at the corners of his mouth and eyes as, leaning over the rail, he reached down and tapped Everett on the shoulder. “Even with nine fingers, you’re the best mechanic on seven seas, Ev.”
ooooEverett urned toward his captain’s voice. “Cap’?” he said. “Where you been?”
oooo“Right here, Ev’,” said Alby, patting his engineer. “How ‘bout you?”
ooooEverett cocked his head. “I must’ve been dreamin’.”
oooo“Dreamin’!” Kilton objected. “You’ve been sittin’ on your ass, talkin’ to your fingers for about thirty seconds.”
oooo“Dreams don’t keep time,” said Alby, who seemed to know. “You can pour a waterfall from a thimble.”
ooooKilton shook his head. “And stuff a monkey up the drainpipe, I s’pose. But what’s that got to do with the price of rice?”
oooo“‘Member when I lost that finger?” said Everett as he struggled unsteadily to his feet. “Cap? ‘Member?”
oooo“I remember,” said Alby.
oooo“Me, too!” said Ray.
oooo“Saved the whole line, that finger did,” said Alby.
ooooThe sacrifice hadn’t been planned, it was spontaneous: the manifestation of a foregone conclusion; the haul’ came first because the welfare of the crew, and their families, depended on it. The waterfront axiom ‘an empty hold’s an empty purse’ was especially true for Alby who, Everett knew, had to scrape every penny he could find to outfit the Maryfor a haul. Always a gamble. Fish just didn’t give a damn.
ooooRasputin, a small trip lever in the winch mechanism that, for reasons even Everett couldn’t determine, would periodically rise in revolt against the dictates of physics and refuse to operate. He had adapted the starter crank from the ’27 Pierce-Arrow that had once served as the island’s ambulance cum hearse for use as an ‘encourager’. The process was simple, hold the crank level with the triangular hole in the flywheel – as if he was making a money shot at the pool hall – make a quick stab through the hole, striking Rasputin at the exact angle to pop it over the next tooth in the gear, then quickly extract the encourager before the flywheel spun into motion – sending the crank spiraling across the deck with sufficient kick behind it to decapitate any unfortunate soul in the path of its trajectory.
ooooIt was an art requiring precision and timing.
ooooOn that particular occasion, Everett’s precision had been perfect. Timing, relative to the timely removal of the crank, however, was not. Realizing this, in an instant, he jabbed his finger into the works. This did not stop the flywheel, but it gave it something to think about which necessitated its slowing down a bit. Long enough for Ben to snatch the crank out of the mechanism, by which time Everett’s finger had ceased friendly relations with his hand.
ooooEverett studied the place formerly occupied by that finger.
oooo“That was a good one,” he reminded the rest of his hand.
oooo“Here ol’ fella,” said Alby, straddling the rail and, holding Ray with one hand, helped Everett o his feet with the other.
ooooEverett fixed his eyes on Ben – or what was left of him – and, extending his arms to either side, stutter-stepped toward him. “Comin’, Ben,” he said. “I’m comin’.” He ignored the fact that Ben didn’t respond.
oooo“Well,” said Alby, rising to detach the fibers on the seat of his woolen pants which had frozen to the ice on the gunwale, “looks like this is what’s gonna happen next.”
ooooA minute later, and not without incident, the Marywas abandoned. The last of its crew, linked to one another by hands and arms, Alby foremost, scuttled gingerly across the ice. “Wait up, Ev’!”
ooooEverett had reached Ben and was regarding him closely. “Ben?” he said, waving a hand in front of his face. “You in there, ol’ fella?”
ooooThere was nothing in the windows of Ben’s eyes to indicate the shop was open for business. They stared blankly at the hole. Everett followed the sightless gaze, to the pulsing, mercurial anomaly therein and the shapes of Platonic solids drifting across its surface like Japanese lanterns on contrary tides.
ooooA child at the edge of such an existential puddle would prod it with his foot. So would an aged engineer. The moment he did, he was sucked out of himself with a violence only Ben, having experienced it himself so recently, could appreciate.
ooooTwo statues stood staring at the edge of the hole.
ooooSeeing this, Alby held up his hand and, as he shuffled to a stop, was rear-ended by his subordinates.
oooo“What?” said Ray, whose eyes had been on his feet.
oooo“What is it?” said Kilton, whose eyes had been closed.
ooooFortunately their forward momentum hadn’t been sufficient to unbalance their leader. “He’s gone,” said Alby. “Just like Ben.”
oooo“Who?” said Kilton. “Everett? Ev’!,” he called desperately. “Ev’! You there?!”
ooooAlby’s gaze was fixed on his engineer. Nothing. “Narnia,” he said, remembering a story he had read to his grandchildren in which something similar had happened.
oooo“Huh?” said Kilton, not one willing to let even the most casual remark to pass without comment.
oooo“He’s just standin’ there,” said Alby. “Just like Ben.”
oooo“What you wanna do, Cap?” Ray asked. He felt Kilton’s grip tighten on his elbow.
ooooGood question. Were Ben and Everett frozen but still alive? Were they dead? If so, what had killed them? If not, well . . . if not where were they? Those waters were too deep even for someone well-travelled in regions attached to reality only by malfunctioning draw bridges.
ooooRay repeated his question and Kilton echoed it.
ooooAlby looked back at the Mary, listing slightly, lifeless, frozen in a cauldron of ice, then at Ben and Everett, lifeless, frozen at the edge of some kind of bubble, or puddle, or hole, staring at it as if they expected it to do something.
ooooCuriosity built up a sufficient head of steam to propel him forward. Ray and Kilton, having no choice, followed behind.
oooo“Reminds me of a cartoon,” said Harry, who had been watching the proceedings with interest. “Can’t quite make out the punchline yet,” he said. “But I’m sure it’s comin’.”
ooooAlby was too focused on his objective to stop and reply. Soon, with Ray and Kilton, he was ring-a-rosy around Ben and Everett.
oooo“Cold,” said Ray, who had touched Ben on the shoulder, then quickly withdrawn his hand. “He’s dead.”
oooo“Cold?” said Kilton. “Can’t be! If he’s dead it’s only been for ten minutes.” He sent a hand out in search of evidence to support his argument. Ben was the first one he came to. He, too, took back his hand. “Ray’s right, Cap. Stone cold.” He raised his near-sightless eyes to Alby. “How can that be?”
ooooThe same was true of Everett, who had been filled with the fire of life not five minutes hence.
oooo“That ain’t possible, Cap,” said Ray. “Stone cold like that,” he snapped his fingers, which were too cold and papery to make a sound. Alby got the idea.
oooo“I think we left impossible somewhere back there,” he jerked a thumb indiscriminately over his shoulder. As had Everett before him, he waved is fingers in front of Ben’s face. He didn’t expect anything to happen, and nothing did.
oooo“What are they looking at, Cap?” said Ray, who had been studying the faces of his frozen companions and the strange orb or indentation or convection or whatever it was at which their attention seemed to have been directed. “What do you s’pose that is?” He nudged the mass with the toe of his boot and, at once, reality – what there was of it – dissolved in a maelstrom of sensations in which all the molecules of his being seemed to celebrate release from their prison of flesh, bone, and Maalox, surging into the town square of his consciousness in general revolt, but with no clear objective beyond a vague desire to burn down the town hall of his senses. He had entered a world which run-on sentences of hyperbole were inadequate to describe.
oooo“Ray!” Kilton cried, squeezing Ray’s elbow even harder. It was suddenly cold and rigid. He gave it a feeble shake, fearful it might break off in his hand. “Ray!”
ooooAlby, connected to Ray by braided arms, felt it, too. He released himself. “He’s gone, Kilt’.”
oooo“Gone how? Gone where?” said Kilton frantically, seizing Ray’s elbow with both hands as if it were reason and reality.
oooo“There’s this kind of puddle in the ice,” said Alby.
oooo“Can’t be a puddle if there’s ice,” Kilton objected. “If there was, it’d be froze.”
ooooThoughtlessly, almost carelessly, Alby did as Ray had done, and tapped the gelatinous mass with the toe of his Hush Puppies, with exactly the same result.
ooooKilton was suddenly alone; he could hear it. “Cap?” he said weakly, not expecting a response. Nor was any forthcoming. “Cap? Where’d you go?”
oooo“They’re sittin’ down to dinner, Kilt’,” said the Man Upstairs which, in this case, was Harry. “Got room for one more, though.”
ooooThe tide was suddenly too high for Kilton. He shuffled across the ice, placing himself more or less under where he perceived Harry to be. Once his feet were firmly fixed, he raised his sightless eyes. “Harry?” he said weakly.
oooo“Could you be more specific?” said Harry, leaning on the railing of his balcony of ice, dividing his attention between the bowl of his pipe and the blind old fisherman fifteen feet below.
oooo“All this,” said Kilton, embracing his surroundings with a wide gesture. “I don’t see so good’s I used to,” he continued, “but enough to know . . .” He hesitated.
oooo“Know what?” Harry prompted.
ooooThat was the question, wasn’t it? “We ain’t in Penobscot Bay, Maine, are we?”
oooo“No, we ain’t in Penobscot Bay, Kilt.”
oooo“And I’m not dreamin’, am I?”
oooo“Can’t say,” said Harry. “If you are, I’ll have some existential issues to deal with.”
ooooKilton didn’t attempt to conceal his frustration. “That’s what I mean! Why’n hell can’t you people say ‘yes’ or ‘no’?”
oooo“You. Dead people. Bookie Dunn! Listenin’ to you’s like tryin’ to make sense of alphabet soup. ‘Existential issues’. What in hell’s that s’posed to mean. I just want to know if I’m dreamin’. Yes or no.”
ooooHarry sighed deeply. “No. I’m pretty sure not.”
oooo“Then Ray an’ Cap and them’s dead?”
oooo“I hate to say this, Kilt, ol’ fella, but no, I don’t think they’re dead.”
oooo“Why should you hate to say that?”
oooo“‘cause,” said Harry, tapping his pipe in the palm of his hand, “I’m not sure I can say the same for you.”
ooooKilton’s eyes tired of trying to convey images to his brain, and closed, liberating the rest of his senses. Suddenly, he could hear his pulse in his ears: feel the blood coursing through his veins, setting up little bonfires in the wilderness of his extremities against the bitter cold that crept through the forest of his senses toward the core of his being. He breathed crystallized air and exhaled clouds of steam that – too lethargic to move either up or down – hung in the air, awaiting inevitable dispersal by a constabulary breeze.
ooooHe couldn’t feel his feet. He wiggled his toes, which were at once attacked by a host of Lilliputian needles.
ooooHe inhaled slowly. The tincture of ice, sea, air, and Harry’s Burnt Rag – was delicately hemmed by the perfume of the Mary’s diesel and the damp, slightly mildewed smell of his own clothes. He became aware of other smells, too. He smelled Ray’s fear, Ben’s curiosity, Cap’s confusion, Ev’s frustration: his own utter lostness.
oooo“They say dogs smell fear”, he said, partly to Harry, partly to God, partly to any passing thread of reason that might dangle within his mental grasp. He sniffed. “Stinks.”
oooo“That’s ‘cause it’s the opposite of faith, I expect,” Harry suggested.
ooooHarry had been refilling his pipe. He now lit it, sucking at the stem – watery with his saliva – until the bowl glowed deep red and orange. “Sweetest smell of all. Figures that the opposite of it would be the worst.”
ooooKilton opened his eyes skeptically and tilted the edges of his sight in Harry’s direction. “Compared to that godawful stuff you’re smokin’, fear smells like ma’s blueberry pancakes.”
ooooHarry ignored the barb. “You comin’ in? Supper’s on an’ it don’t keep hot long in this place.”
ooooHarry made a nodding sound.
oooo“You want me to go inside an iceberg?”
oooo“I’m invitin’ you.”
oooo“And eat pot roast.”
oooo“It’s Tuesday,” said Harry. “Menu’s gonna change if you stand there much longer.”
ooooKilton stood wreathed in the steam that rose from his clothes. His eyes, if not his sight, directed at Harry. “Tuesday?” he said.
ooooKilton lowered his head, shaking it at the same time. “Some hole or somethin’ over there?”
oooo“Somethin’ like that.”
ooooKilton descended slowly to his hands and knees and crawled across a cushion of mutterings toward the abandoned hulks of his shipmates. In the vicinity of Ray’s left foot, his pinky touched the orb.
ooooSuddenly, the statue-garden was complete.
oooo“Oh, Kilt!” said Ray. “I almost forgot ‘bout you. Pass them green beans, will ya?”
ooooKilton’s thoughts – a reef of herring in tumultuous seas – had not congregated behind a particular leader, or settled upon a single destination. The prevailing chaos was exacerbated by the influx of light and images.
ooooHe could see.
ooooReason begged his eyes for blindness.
ooooHe found himself sitting on an irregular swatch of grass atop a granite pinnacle of prodigious height – several hundred feet – his legs dangling over the edge. Between his feet he caught glimpses – through intermittent rips in the intervening veil of clouds – of an angry sea pummeling the bass of his spire, which shuddered and shook beneath him with the breaking waves. So small was his stony perch that it was entirely obscured, if not overwhelmed, by his backside. There was nothing at either hand to which he might cling and any attempt to do so, he felt instinctively, would overbalance him entirely, and send him spiraling down to the deadly surf below, leaving only a Kilton-shaped hole in those clouds as a memorial to his passing.
ooooHe held his arms out to either side yet even so subtle a motion detached a suicidal regiment of pebbles from the spire and sent them cascading, silently, toward the deep.
ooooWhatever Kilton had expected to come of accepting the invitation of a dead boatbuilder to jump through a magic hole and thereby gain entry to an iceberg for pot roast, this was not it.
ooooHe said the first thing that came to mind. “Help.”
ooooGiven that he was far too astonished to gather much breath, it was more a statement of condition than a cry for assistance. His voice shrank in his ears, where wind provided the dominant sound.
ooooIt was Ray’s voice again. Very near.
ooooKilton, screwing his head around to the right as far as judgement allowed and, mimicking a lighthouse, rotated it slowly to the left, taking in nothing but vast, watery horizon in all directions. No iceberg. No Penobscot Bay, Maine. No Mary. Foremost among all that was missing from the prospect was Ray. “Ray?” he said, just above a whisper.
oooo“Pass them beans, will ya? An’ I’ll take another roll, too.”
ooooKilton was troubled by the request. “Ray?”
oooo“Why do you keep sayin’ that?”
oooo“Where are you?”
oooo“Right here, you old coot.”
ooooKilton heard waving sounds. “I can see,” he said.
oooo“What do you mean?”
oooo“I mean . . . I can see. Everything.”
oooo“That’s good, Kilt’. Can’t say I’m much surprised, what with Ida May and all. Them beans are gonna get cold . . . ”
ooooKilton was being upset at levels of his being with which no foreknowledge. His senses, too overwhelmed to sort through the multi-colored yarn-ball of stimuli that assailed them with anything like a plan, eventually settled into a parabolic orbit around an indelible image: Ida May Libby.
oooo“Ida May?” he said.
oooo“Them beans?” said Ray.
oooo“Will you stop talkin’ about beans Ray, wherever you are!”
oooo“What do you mean ‘wherever I are?’ I’m right here in front of you dipstick. I thought you said you could see.”
oooo“I can,” said Kilton, who had closed his eyes because he wished he couldn’t. Oddly enough, he could smell green beans.
ooooHe could also smell Ida May Libby’s lavender perfume, which brought in its train the taste of her neck that night at the Junior Prom. He licked his lips and opened his eyes. Nothing had changed. He and the pinnacle or whatever it was, and the clouds were the only things in a wide world of angry ocean. The sun was out; that was one good thing.
oooo“But I don’t see you.”
oooo“Might help if you opened your eyes,” said Ray, who seemed to be getting impatient.
oooo“They are opened,” said Kilton, opening them wider, just in case – which just revealed more of what he didn’t want to see, namely a storm forming on the horizon to the west.
ooooWas it west? What time was it? Where, exactly, was the sun? Just about overhead. Noon. No way to tell which way was which.
oooo“Ben,” said Ray, “give him a poke.”
ooooKilton was nearly knocked of his perch more by the shock of a finger from nowhere sticking him in the ribs, than the force of the poke itself, which was gentle. His hands, having nothing else to grab at, flew to his bottom – only to find less purchase there than he’d thought he had.
ooooHe teetered atop the spire, which tottered in sympathy. He suddenly found, and put substantial expression behind, a coherent sentence. “Don’t do that again!”
oooo“Then pass the beans.”
oooo“I don’t see any damn beans!”
oooo“Why don’t he open his eyes?” said Everett – somewhere off to his left – with his mouth full of what sounded like boiled potatoes.
oooo“Right there,” said Ray. “Off to port.”
ooooUnable to think of anything else to do, Kilton tentatively stretched his hand to his left. “This way?”
oooo“Just there,” said Ray, who was accustomed to navigating Kilton through the world. “Six more inches.”
oooo“Don’t get your sleeve in the guacamole.”
ooooKilton stopped reaching. “Cap? That you?”
oooo“Them bean’s’re growin’ roots,” said Ray.
ooooKilton reached a little farther and there – in mid-air, more or less, several hundred feet above an unknown ocean – felt something. A bowl. A warm bowl. A big, ceramic bowl which, he knew, contained green beans.
ooooHe hooked a thumb over the edge of the bowl, picked it up and handed it toward Ray’s voice.
oooo“‘Bout time,” said Ray, in lieu of ‘thanks’. “Ain’t you gonna have nothin’?”
ooooNothing was precisely was Kilton was having. He sniffed the air. “That pot roast?”
oooo“Just like ma used to make,” said Everett.
ooooAs Kilton released the bowl of beans – before he cold withdraw his hand – another was thrust into his grasp. His thumb ended up about two inches deep in hot broth, and he almost dropped it. Kilton looked at his hand – hanging out there in space, shaped as if it was holding something, feeling like it was holding something, but there was nothing there. He drew it slowly toward him and, by imperceptible degrees, a bowl appeared in it. And in the bowl, his thumb was surrounded by thick, hot gravy in which carrots, potatoes, turnips, little bite-sized onions decorated a mountain of meat.
ooooHe stared at this for a while.
ooooThen a while longer.
ooooThen he looked down at the sea, and out at the horizon, still packed with the absence of his shipmates. The storm was getting closer, tossing darts of lightning at the ocean’s surface through a thick curtain of rain. It was a tiny, concentrated storm in a vast, empty sky, but he had no idea where it was headed. None at all.
ooooKilton had a gift for seeing bad news coming. This particular bad news was about fifteen minutes off, as far as he could tell. Meantime, he had a bowl of piping hot beef stew that smelled like it was thrown together by heaven’s head chef and his stomach wanted to wrap itself around it, bowl and all. “Got a spoon?” he said, reaching out to the general vicinity in which the bowl had appeared.
ooooThe object with which someone wordlessly slapped his open palm was immediately recognizable. He looked at his hand; there was nothing there. Nothing visible, anyway. He wanted to shake his head but was restrained by the doubt that he could maintain his precarious balance if he did so. He shook his head inside and drew his hand toward himself.
ooooThe ghost of a spoon appeared, which became an actual, solid three-dimensional wooden spoon.
ooooHe looked at it for a minute, over his stomach’s admonitions to just get o with it, then, with a little shrug, stuck it in the broth and began, with slow, sloth-like motions, to eat.
ooooAs he chewed his stew – more substance than broth, and good – he took in his surroundings. He felt very small upon his little tufted needle of ledge in a vast, undulating ocean. And the more he took in, the smaller he felt. The tiny acorn-cap of his comprehension, having tipped some time since and sprinkled his world with its contents – which were meager to begin with – came up empty.
ooooHe had crewed the Mary through strange waters to an iceberg and there, his shipmates having disappeared, was invited inside for stew, it being Tuesday, by a man he knew to have been dead for decades. No alternative presenting itself, he had taken up the invitation, the result being that he now sat – precariously balanced – on a little nest of grass atop an immensely tall spindle of rock that – as he chewed and ruminated – in response to the waves of an endless ocean that crashed against its distant base, quivered beneath him; while his shipmates talked to him as casually from some hidden dimension as if he was across the table from them; and they could see him and hand him stew and ask him to pass the beans as they ate, and laughed, and coughed and creaked . . . in an iceberg.
ooooThey could see him, but not as he saw himself, else they’d have said something about the spire.
ooooNot least remarkable, he could see. Both eyes. Like an osprey. In fact, at that moment, as he wiped a dribble of gravy from the stubble of his beard, his attention was caught by a silvery scintillation in the water, as a shaft of sunlight glanced off a school of herring a league or so away.
ooooWhat followed was instinct.
ooooKilton dropped his bowl and his spoon and fell from the spire. All his web of thoughts and deliberations was, at once, swept away by one pulsing, predomination notion. Fish.
ooooSo sharply focused was his concentration that when his arms became wings and his feet talons, the transition was so fluid, so natural it escaped his notice all together. He didn’t stop to wonder if he might not have been a fish hawk all along. The thrumming of the wind in his ears and the smell of the sea as as air was ram-rodded into his nostrils were familiar. Comfortable. His element. The watery film that formed on his eyes against the cold magnified the fish, burned them on his retinas; he knew exactly where to attack.
ooooFanning his feathers, he came to a near-standstill hundreds of feet over the unsuspecting school then, nosing over, he strapped his wings to his side and became a missile, plummeting downward at breathtaking speed.
ooooHe didn’t feel the impact. He’d expected it. It was part of the cycle of his life. The scope of his awareness, as the sea swirled and bubbled, and roiled around him, embraced only the fish.
ooooMost, of course, escaped. But in seconds he held a score or more in each talon, and an equal number in his beak.
ooooHe floated to the surface, propelled in no small part by the efforts of the fish to escape.
ooooThere would be no escape.
ooooNext thing they knew, they were being beaten to death against the wavetops as the great bird ran and thrashed, and flapped his wings to break free of the ocean’s grip and surge into the freedom of altitude. The grasp of the mighty claws tightened around them and the sharp, sudden pain of their bones cracking was the last they knew; they had achieved the apotheosis of their existence – the transition from life form to food.
ooooThose in his beak had a little longer to enjoy the sight of their world from a great height, but it is doubtful they took advantage of it. They wriggled mightily, but, in great gulps – during which one or two nearly managed to slither free – were consigned in a slimy ichthyological mass to the abyss of Kilton’s belly, where those that had been swallowed whole may have been surprised to find themselves surrounded by lumps of beef and potato, which is not what ingested fish expect.
ooooWhen reason returned to its throne, Kilton was standing on an oaken table, his arms extended to either side, his head tilted back as he attempted to choke down something or other. From that angle, he saw a ceiling of wooden planks and rafters, masterfully joined, bearing the trademarks of its maker, which he knew well. He decided, in that instant, that things were far too big to get his head around, and if he tried to do so his cranium would explode. He chose a pragmatic approach. “Nice work, Harry.”
NOTE: The following was written in response to an article in the Wall Street Journal in which the writer stated, in support of the political football of Climate Change that “50% of Republicans accept climate change”.
Curious: I fail to see how the argument for climate change is somehow ratified by the statement that: ‘over 50% of Republicans accept climate change.’ I should think 100% of any party would accept climate change – because it does. If it didn’t we’d all be dead within months.
First there was the threat of global cooling (late 1950s – mid-1970s), which filled a lot of coffers, but eventually – since no scientific verification could be jinned-up to support the theory – the academic/scientific community had to invent another crisis with which to pick Uncle Sam’s pockets.
I’m sure there was a meeting and equally sure that if someone could dig up the notes of that meeting, the text would reveal that someone said something like – “We need a new crisis; Global Cooling is losing traction. How about Global Warming?” Eureka! Thus were opened the floodgates for a financial windfall that flowed unabated for decades, despite scientific evidence to the contrary – (Consider this) – But finally Chicken Little was called to account for the fact that nature refused to cooperate with computer models and their dire prognostications.
The result: Was there outrage at the scientific/academic community for this monumental ruse – as might be expected of a rational populace? No. Instead, blind, blithering, froth-mouthed hatred is leveled at those who point to the fact that the sky isn’t falling!
The pro-calamatists, however, seeing the writing on the wall – even the most deeply self-deluded climate-warming fundamentalist must, eventually, tumble to the fact that none of the predictions were coming true – performed a brilliant marketing pirouette. That meeting, I imagine, went something like this: “We need a new disaster. Global Warming is losing traction. How about Climate Change?” Everyone at the table smiled evilly – visions of new Teslas dancing in their heads. It was the perfect, perpetual, demonstrable crisis: a license to print money! After all, no one could prove that the climate wasn’t changing! I mean, it changes every day!
Perverse kudos to those who fooled us not once, not twice, but three times!
What does that make us?
To: Billy Ray Cyrus
Subject: The lobotomy didn’t work.
Billy Ray’s daughter, Miley, is a popular girl, with a crazy schedule. I mean, getting her gynecology exam mixed up with her appearance at the MTV Awards is perfectly understandable. It could happen to anyone and I, for one, think it’s reprehensible that there are those who believe she appeared as she did on purpose! I mean! To imagine that any human being, or even a pop star, could be so desperate that they would debase themselves so thoroughly for attention – and in their grandmother’s underwear! – is demeaning in the extreme.
The heartlessness exhibited by those who publicly ridicule this precious child, despite the advanced case of tongingus hyperactimus, (TH) – whose sad victims are unable to constrain the activities of their tongues – with which she is so obviously afflicted, is inhuman.
I, for one, applaud Justin Timberlake for his support of Ms. Cyrus. His energetic contributions to the elevation of moral standards is legendary; had he been there, I have no difficulty imagining him standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Dr. King on that historic march whose 50th anniversary we celebrate, flanked by twelve voluptuaries in various stages of undress twerking their way up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, exemplifying the freedom of expression for which so many fought, bled, and died, to the edifying strains of We Got Booty!
I contend, ladies and gentlemen, that this is our Greatest Generation; the culmination of the Great American Experiment, indeed, of all the progress of the great human pageant of which we are, to greater or lesser degrees, a part. And I am confident that, one day – having reviewed the their video scrapbooks with their wide-eyed children and grandchildren, these offspring and the offspring of their offspring will gaze up at them in wonder, their eyes milky with tears, and say ‘Mimi? Pops?, what the hell were you THINKING?’
Once upon a time, newspapers printed short stories and serializations; a tradition that gave us the writings of Charles Dickens, the adventures of Sherlock Holmes, the acerbic wit of Mark Twain, and the intricate imaginings of O. Henry.
Reviving that tradition, The Free Press of Rockland, Maine, challenged best-selling mystery novelist David Crossman to write an original short story every week for 24 weeks. Here, in book form, is the result: Storyteller (originally titled A Propinquity of Opposites), a novel, a collection of short stories, “a literary tour de force unlike anything you’ve ever read” and worthy of the heritage that brought it into being.
Briefly: A private plane crashes in the south Pacific. The lone survivor, rap star Rat Badger Junkmouth Flash, washes up on a desert island where he is confronted by a most unexpected resident.
The island’s only habitation is a magnificent mansion in which are twenty-two rooms. In each of these he will encounter a dimension of existence – and of himself – that he never imagined.
by David A. Crossman
A Propinquity of Opposites
ooooCummings stood at casual attention on the beach of the desert island and stared out to sea in the direction where he’d seen the plane go down just before dawn.
He was dressed every inch the proper Victorian butler, from his shoes – polished the bottomless sheen of black chrome – to the perfectly starched and pleated collar and cuffs that protruded exactly five-eighths of an inch from the neck and sleeves of his perfectly-tailored Dege and Skinner swallow-tailed coat. The creases in his trousers could have sliced apples and the seven brass buttons on his waistcoat reflected the rising sun with seven tiny lighthouses of welcome to the survivor.
ooooHe stood and waited, a carefully folded white towel draped over the crook of his left arm. His right hand held an ornate silver serving tray, upon which rested a siphon of seltzer, a decanter of hundred and twenty year old scotch whiskey, and a sparkling glass of cut crystal which waited, like Cummings, with expectant, if not discernibly excited equanimity. One glass would suffice. There was never more than one survivor: a regrettable reality of this uncharted corner of creation to which Cummings had long resigned himself.
ooooIf he was warm beneath the wide-eyed stare of the inquisitive sun and his own butlery livery, not so much as a pore bespoke anything but a man perfectly at peace with his world and his place in it. He was a butler and would soon have someone to butle. The best of all worlds.
ooooRat-Badger Junkmouth Flash, nee Harold Erasmus Jackson and still called ‘Little Harry’ by the grandmother who’d raised him, was known simply as Rat to his friends and fans. At the moment he was floating aggressively. That is, his arms and legs had begun moving earnestly as the upward-tilting wing tip of the plane to which he’d walked himself, slipped with a gentle wave into the terrible blue-gray grip of eternity below; a sleek, multi-million dollar coffin for the eighteen souls of his entourage. Perhaps, like the mummies of ancient Egypt, they would be found one day amid the luxury of their burial chamber, leaving their discoverers to ponder the sea-crusted detritus of the funerary objects by which they’d hoped to be accompanied into that Duat-N-Ba of ancient repute.
ooooIf Rat Badger entertained such notions, it was but briefly as he was struggling to keep his head above water. Not a natural swimmer, he was nevertheless sufficiently buoyed by his thrashing to keep adrift.
ooooThe thing about thrashing though, particularly in the South Pacific, is that it attracts the attention of unwelcome marine specimens. One of these, to Rat’s horror, began rubbing against his leg like an over-affectionate puppy dog. The hide of this puppy, though – much the texture of 20-grit sandpaper – was wearing his seven hundred-dollar trousers to shreds.
ooooRat stopped flailing, buoyed briefly by the shocked intake of air that filled his lungs. To his aquatic companion he might have seemed an oversized blowfish, though this is speculation. He stared at the sky with wide, pathetic Buckwheat eyes that would have awaken at least a twinge of conscience in the hungriest shark, were sharks given to sentimental introspection, which this shark, at least, was not. Instead, it seemed to be leisurely removing the wrapper from an afternoon snack.
ooooOne benefit of having his eyes thus widened was that it allowed Rat Badger a broader perspective of his surroundings. At first glance, these had seemed an endless, unbroken expanse of horizon spreading infinitely in all directions. Now, however, he saw that there was in that long, salty sentence – that liquid requiem – one pearl-edged emerald of punctuation. An island not a mile away. So close and yet, as a sandpapery pass at his torso reminded him, so far away.
ooooThe proverbial straight-flying crow would sneeze at such a distance. Many of the creatures in God’s menagerie, in fact, would have closed the interval without raising a blush. Rat Badger was none of these. But when a giant white-gray fin rose menacingly from the water and began surrounding him as if it had all the time in the world, he found that, much to his surprise, he could swim after all, and at a commendable clip. In between strokes he screamed at the top of his lungs, which may or may not have aided in his propulsion.
ooooNevertheless, he must have taken comfort in the display for he performed it with gusto.
ooooGraceful he was not. But apparently the shark was not judging as much on style as overall affect, for it held back a moment in thoughtful deliberation. Were this North Dakota in the bleak midwinter and there very little likelihood of a fresh meal elsewhere in the vicinity, it would undoubtedly have scarfed the rap star whole and, burping a little cloud of residual profanity, sallied off amidst the snowdrifts as contented a shark as ever toured the Badlands. But, as observed, this was the South Pacific and meals much less likely to spoil the digestion were not hard to come by. So the shark, pursuing lethargically for a stroke or two – more out of curiosity than gastronomic intent – eventually called an end to the game and undulated away with only an occasional backward glance. No doubt he considered the experience axiomatic and would, later in his lair, compose an appropriate parable for the edification of his fellow omnivores.
ooooCummings knew the shark – which he’d nicknamed Hodgekins after an old public-school chum with particularly bad teeth – by the peculiar double-vee notch that had been taken from its dorsal fin in some long-distant sub-marine confrontation. The animal, to Cumming’s way of thinking, was possessed of an unpredictable nature, sometimes pursuing his quarry with an almost playful malice, allowing the unfortunate individual to nearly feel the sand under their feet before dispatching them in a few rude gulps. Other times, as now, simply losing interest for no apparent reason. Whatever may be said of the beast, it was not British.
ooooAs Rat Badger windmilled frantically toward the shallows, Cummings adjusted an eyebrow slightly, indicative of mild surprise. He had never attended a gentleman of color. There had been the French Canadian, Gascard Montrose, who, given the swarthiness of his complexion, may have had a Corsican or two among the lower branches of the family tree, but his tastes were capable of anticipation, after a fashion – though running a little more to sauces than Cummings would have liked.
ooooBut he was French.
ooooA Negro though. Cummings had no personal experience of the race, they being conspicuous by their absence among the upper classes whom he’d served in the days, long ago, when he’d been a butler in London. His eyes drifted casually to the siphon and whiskey and a small, skeptical thought fluttered across the placid landscape of his mind.
ooooPerhaps he should have brought gin.
ooooHis gaze returned to the spume-bejeweled figure of Rat Badger as, getting his feet under him a good distance from shore owing to the gradual declination of the sea bed, he began a kind of spastic marionettish lope through the surf toward the beach. Rat Badger, for his part, may be excused for not noticing Cummings until this moment, the bulk of his attention having been otherwise occupied. Emerging victorious from the battle for life and limbs – of which a quick inventory assured him he was still in possession – his eyes clapped on Cummings as on an apparition and he halted suddenly amid a corona of foam. His mouth gaped to accommodate the superfluity of sensation his eyes couldn’t handle. He uttered a word often found spray-painted on subway walls – a thesaurus to which he referred often during his speech and which, if represented by blanks in the narrative would result in a lengthy story of empty pages.
ooooSufficient to say this edition has been abridged to move the story along.
ooooOne might not say it is anthropologically possible for an individual to express formidable hospitality unless one saw Cummings from Rat’s point of view at the moment. Beneath the rap icon’s overt contempt for anything white was a nameless, unexamined fear which manifested itself as suspicion and he knew at a glance he’d never seen anything more white – hence more suspicious – than the butler who stood waiting on the beach.
oooo“What are you lookin’ at?” inquired Rat by way of greeting. He wiped at his eyes with the back of his hands, but the apparition remained.
ooooIf Cummings was asking the same thing of himself, nothing in his demeanor betrayed the fact. With a flip of the wrist the towel unfurled from his arm like a flag of welcome. Rat Badger snapped it up and, eyeing the butler warily, dried himself.
oooo“Your trousers would appear to need mending, sir,” said Cummings.
ooooRat Badger emerged from his towel and looked at his sartorial remains.
oooo“If you would remove them, I shall attend them presently.”
oooo“You want me to take off my pants?”
oooo“Heavens no, sir. Only your trousers.”
ooooThis illustrates how two cultures can be divided by a common language, for in Cumming’s England pants were trousers and underpants were pants. At no time during the exchange that followed, however, did the unflappable butler give the slightest indication of flapping. Discerning from the late arrival’s indignation that there must be some misunderstanding relative to terms, he quickly and quietly got to the core of the problem and an international incident was averted.
ooooAt the conclusion of negotiations, Rat’s trousers had taken the place of the towel on the crook of Cumming’s arm and the rap star was standing in his leopard skin briefs, sipping appreciatively at the scotch and soda.
oooo“How come you ain’t sweatin’?”
oooo“Beg pardon, sir?”
oooo“‘Beg pardon, sir’,” Rat mimicked. “I like that. You keep it up and we’re gonna be friends. Even if you are a mirage.” Which is what he suspected. The scotch, especially, convinced him that at any moment he’d wake up in his plane, surrounded by his comforting coterie of sycophants. It was going to be one King Kong of a hangover, but anything was better than a dubious dreamland inhabited by white butlers up the whazoo. “I asked you how come you ain’t sweatin’ like a barbecued pig, all dressed up like that. It’s hot here. Look at me, I’m smokin’.” True, steam was rising from his ebony flesh in soft, mesmerizing clouds. “And I’m from Alabama.”
oooo“One becomes acclimated, sir.”
oooo“One does, does one?” Rat Badger laughed, finished his drink and put the glass on the salver. “Well, that’s the best mirage scotch I ever tasted. Now, let’s get down to business. Who are you, what are you doin’ here, and where is here anyhow?”
ooooCummings nodded slightly and, clearing his throat, began. “Taking your queries in order, sir, I am Cummings, the butler. I came to this island in nineteen hundred and six. As to the third point, I’m afraid I’ve never been able to ascertain with any degree of geographical accuracy exactly where this island is located. An educated guess (I must qualify my estimate by saying that I am guided by my memories of Captain Cook’s journals, which I read as a schoolboy) is that we are in the South Sea, somewhere between the island’s of Tahiti and New Zealand. The stars confirm, at least, that we are in the southern hemisphere.”
ooooRat was still several sentences behind. “1906 you say?”
oooo“Just so, sir.”
ooooThe skepticism with which Rat Badger had been regarding the butler took on a deep, new dimension. He did some quick math – which meant converting all figures to the common denominator of dollars and cents – and named the resulting figure. “You tellin’ me you’re that old?”
oooo“I was forty-seven at the time of my shipwreck, in 1906. I have not aged perceptibly since. Not externally in any event, though I hope I am not immodest to suggest that my experience in the intervening years has made me a wiser, deeper man. Be that as it may, to all outward appearance I am as I was.”
oooo“You say you shipwrecked.”
oooo“You understand correctly, sir.”
oooo“Then, you must know where we are. I mean, where were you went you went down?”
oooo“Just off the Isle of Man in the Irish Sea. I was attending the master and mistress upon their return from Belfast to Southport.”
oooo“The Irish Sea?” said Rat Badger who, though geographically challenged, was having difficulty reconciling his impression of that body of water with his present surroundings. “That ain’t near here, is it?”
oooo“You swam all the way from there to … wherever we are?”
oooo“Not that I recall, sir. I did swim, for a bit – having determined that the master, mistress, and silver plate were beyond rescue, of course.”
oooo“Of course,” said Rat, as if he’d have done no less.
ooooCummings inclined his large head inscrutably. “Just so. When I emerged from that exercise – which seemed no more than five or ten minutes – I was here.”
ooooRat tucked that enigma away for future reference. “And you haven’t aged since?”
oooo“As I said, not outwardly, sir.”
ooooRat Badger had to get a longer rope for his mental bucket as he dipped even deeper into his well of doubt. “Right. And you’ve been here for …” and he named the number of years his calculations had brought him to.
oooo“As to that, I take your word, sir. It is, together with my own apparent longevity, one of many curious anomalies of this place that it is impossible to measure the passage of time. No mark or device so intended will last a night. My previous visitor, a very spirited Argentinian woman named Ana Maria Consuela Conchita Sanchez de Juarez Ortia, arrived in 1983, so she said. She never gave me reason to doubt the veracity of her assertion.”
oooo“Where is she now?”
ooooCummings demurred. Was it Rat’s imagination, or did the butler whisk away a tear with his gloved finger? “I expect you are desirous of dinner, sir. I regret our menu is limited to those comestibles the topography supplies, but I shall endeavor to see such as we have is prepared to your satisfaction.”
oooo“Are you gonna keep talkin’ like that?”
oooo“The more you talk the less sense you make. You gotta use up the whole dictionary every time you open your mouth?”
oooo“I shall endeavor to be less loquacious, sir. This way, if you please.” So saying, Cummings led the way from the beach up a beautifully groomed path through thick foliage, punctuated at regular intervals by unlit lanterns of conch shells.
oooo“Where’s the nearest phone, Jack? I gotta call my agent.”
oooo“Telephone. Cell phone, e-mail, iPhone, YouPhone, MePhone. I ain’t fussy. Whatever you got.”
oooo“Previous guests have requested similar devices, sir. For communicating with the world outside, I deduce. I’m afraid you must share their disappointment. I have not so much as a telegraph to offer.”
oooo“No phone! You’re jerkin’ me around.”
oooo“I would presume to do no such thing,” said Cummings, concealing his alarm. “In the other instances to which I refer, I have suggested depositing a message in a bottle and casting it into the sea in hopes the current would carry it to some inhabited country.” He lowered his head slightly. “I regret to say response was not forthcoming. However, should you wish to make the attempt . . . ” He cocked an eyebrow at the decanter.
ooooRat studied the butler with one eye closed, as if this would reduce Cumming’s superabundance of whiteness by half. “Maybe later. First things first. Let’s get to the grub. Lead on, Jimbo.”
oooo“Cummings, sir,” Cummings corrected.
oooo“Whatever. I’m right behind you.”
ooooThey walked the upward-winding path in tandem silence for a few steps.
oooo“Say, who’s the chief honcho around here?” Rat asked conversationally.
oooo“You mean the master?” Cummings appreciated the hazards of misunderstanding and wished to diminish them with clarification.
oooo“Master!” Rat’s atavistic corpuscles bridled at the word. “What are you talkin’ about, master?”
oooo“That would be you, sir,” said Cummings.
ooooRat sifted the notion. This was different. “I’m the master?”
oooo“Indubitably, sir. There is no other on the island.”
oooo“I’m the master, you’re the slave?”
ooooCummings cleared his throat into the back of his hand. “Servant, sir. The distinction is an important one.”
oooo“Right. Hey, you don’t have magical powers, do you? You know, like I Dream of Jeannie or Buffy the Vampire Slayer?”
ooooCummings gave some thought to his response. “Not that I have discovered, sir. Not directly, at any rate.”
oooo“Not directly. What’s that supposed to mean?” Rat curvetted around an overreaching oleander.
oooo“Well, things do seem to happen, sir.”
oooo“What kind of things?”
ooooCummings reserved further comment for several steps. “Perhaps the type of phenomena to which I refer will make itself evident presently.”
ooooFurther comment on Rat’s behalf was stifled as, rounding a final corner in the path, the vegetation abruptly gave way to a wide expanse of lawns and gardens – with gently gurgling fountains – sweeping gracefully to a hill in the near distance. Squatting atop the hill was an Edwardian mansion, its broad wings embracing an immense courtyard of crushed stone, sprinkled here and there with Greco-Roman statuary. Rat halted in his tracks and breathed a scatological epithet.
oooo“Sojourner’s Hall,” said the butler, anticipating his companion’s wonder. It was impossible not to detect a trace of pride in his voice.
oooo“Who lives there?” Rat demanded, sensing that things were getting whiter and whiter.
oooo“You do, sir.”
oooo“Me? That’s my crib!”
ooooSo overcome was Rat Badger at this development, that only as they began the long ascent through the verdant parklands toward the mauve brick mansion did he realize he was fully dressed. Faux leopard-skin briefs had been supplanted by the full dinner attire of an Edwardian gentleman, exquisitely cut, and perfectly tailored to conform to his athletic physique. The discovery, while not unpleasant, was nonetheless alarming. He spun in circles several times, as if trying to get beside himself, the better to take in the sight.
oooo“What did you do!”
oooo“Nothing, of which I am aware, sir,” said the butler, not breaking stride. “You have experienced one of the phenomena of which I made note. If I may suggest, it is best to get used to it.”
ooooThe next instant proved Cumming’s suggestion a wise one, for Rat found himself transported to the mansion’s cavernous dining room, of the type in which Queen Victoria could have comfortably swung any of the larger felines in her extensive dominions without imperiling the Royal Dalton. The center of the room was occupied by a table of burled walnut, roughly the length of a regulation basketball court. There was only one chair, however, at the head of the table, and in that chair Rat Badger sat masticating the last bite of a sumptuous meal, the courses of which – like the ephemera of a dream – he couldn’t recall. Nevertheless, he was completely sated, in indication of which he burped as was his wont at the conclusion of a satisfactory repast.
ooooThe percussive echo bounced around the room, doubling, tripling, quadrupling, until it became the relentless, rhythmic thumping of a bass drum, which brought to mind the lyrics of the misogynistic ditty Love ’em and Eat ’em, that had earned his first CD the vociferous (and well-deserved) censure of the Southern Baptist Convention; hence chart-topping success.
ooooThe song had been inspired by a nature program he’d seen on PBS which featured the conjugal habits of the praying mantis. Reversing the role of the sexes and applying the principal to himself, well . . . it was a very big hit among the easily entertained.
oooo“How many bedrooms does this place have?” he asked, sensing Cumming’s presence in the shadows.
oooo“One can never say with any degree of confidence, sir. The configuration changes, you see, according to the . . . needs . . . of the inhabitant.” A table bearing a cigar and a snifter of brandy appeared at Rat’s elbow. “I shall count them, if you like.” Rat ran the cigar beneath his nose and crinkled it by his ear. “Havanah,” he said appreciatively. “Light me, Jeeves.”
oooo“Cummings, sir,” the butler remonstrated gently.
oooo“Then count away, Cummings. And be quick about it.”
oooo“There are twenty-two bedrooms, sir.”
ooooRat Badger started as if he’d fallen into a doze. “What?”
oooo“You directed me to count the bedrooms, sir. There are twenty-two . . . at present.”
ooooRat’s gaze fell to his cigar, which was burned to a nub. He didn’t remember having taken so much as a puff. “I must’ve nodded off. It’s dark in here. Turn on some lights.”
ooooCummings directed his steps toward a gas sconce on the wall. “It is not the first time I have seen this configuration,” he said. “If I deduce correctly, you may be in for an unsettling experience, sir.” He twisted the valve and the jet of burning gas leapt to attention, staking a small principality of illumination at the edges of which misshaped shadows surged toward the darkness.
ooooOnce his eyes were accustomed to the brightness, Rat received the jolt which Cummings had prophesied. The walls, before, behind, and around him – were made of mirrored glass in which the majesty of the room and its accouterments were multiplied in hallways that disappeared into infinity. Likewise, armies of Cummingses were strung out in endless array toward each of the cardinal points.
ooooIt was by none of these optical phenomena that Rat was jolted, however, but by the fact that his own reflection was – in all those infinities of images – absent, and in it’s place was a rodentish-looking gnome with anxious red eyes, ragged grasping claws, and a vile, gaping maw.
oooo“It is as I anticipated,” Cummings said, more to himself than to his master.
ooooRat started from his chair. “What’s that?” He snapped. The timbre of his voice registered a heightened degree of consternation. “Where’s my reflection?”
oooo“Ah,” Cummings sighed knowingly. “As to that, I fear my response may disquiet you, sir. Are you sure you wish to know?”
oooo“Of course I want to know!” Rat protested. “Where’s my reflection?” Impulsively he ran to the nearest wall and waved himself around in front of it, which activity was perfectly mimicked by the creature in the glass. “And what’s that ugly thing?”
oooo“I can only predicate my conjecture upon previous experience.”
oooo“This has happened before?”
ooooCummings inclined his head slightly. I, myself, cannot see what you see, sir, but I am not without certain events from which I may infer. One being the brief residency of a carnival barker named Ignatius Flang, sir. His arrival was much like yours though, as I recollect, the misadventure that brought him to these shores involved the wreck of a ship called the Royal Tar . . . ”
oooo“Skip the specifics,” Rat commanded. “What’s he got to do with this?” He gestured broadly at the mirrors, from which the grotesque figure gestured back. “Well, I hesitate to be so bold as to apply Mr. Flang’s experience in the present instance, sir, but, since you ask, it was demonstrated by bitter evidence that- in his case – these mirrors reflected his soul.”
oooo“Soul?” Rat flashed a panicky glance at the walls. “That is my soul?!”
oooo“Your immortal, incorporeal essence, yes sir. So it would seem.” Cummings regarded the reflections critically. “In Mr. Flang’s case the creature was, I understand, reptilian, with a slight magenta cast about the eyes.”
ooooRat was no theologian, but he inferred that this condition did not bode well from an eternal perspective. “That ain’t good.”
oooo“Philosophers, and theologians may dispute the point, sir, but no. To my way of thinking, it ain’t good.”
oooo“Well, what are you gonna do about it?”
ooooCummings nearly raised an eyebrow. “There’s nothing I can do, I regret to say.”
oooo“What did this Horatio guy do?”
oooo“Ignatius,” Cummings corrected, sighing heavily. “A regimen was prescribed which, I fear, he was not assiduous in performing.”
oooo“Once more, in English,” said Rat, fighting back a wave of desperation.
oooo“It was suggested that if he were to occupy a different bedroom each night for as many nights as there are bedrooms, his soul might somehow be redeemed.” Cummings lowered his chin. “Midway through the second night, he fled the house with his soul, more rapacious and reptilian than ever, in hot pursuit, if you will pardon the vernacular.”
ooooRat didn’t want to know the answer to the question he was compelled to ask. “What happened to him?”
ooooCummings began collecting plates on a large tray. “Only a few bones, an ossified heart and a tin of curiously strong breath mints were recovered for burial.”
ooooRat Badger gazed in horror at the reflection of his soul. “What’s in those rooms?”
oooo“I don’t know, sir.”
oooo“But you’re sayin’ I gotta sleep in all them rooms to get me a half-way decent looking soul?”
oooo“As to sleep, I make no guarantee. Spend the night in each of them, though. Yes. That would be my recommendation.” He was solicitous. “It is my understanding that the task must be completed in concurrent nights. I gather it is a rigorous exercise, sir.” Cummings hesitated but a moment. “‘If t’were done, t’were best t’were done quickly’. Shall I prepare the first, sir?”
ooooRat Badger thought how like his sobriquet was the creature that leered hungrily at him from the mirrors. “Call me Harold,” he said.
ooooWhether he was ready or not the echo of his voice hadn’t died before he found Cummings tucking him beneath the plush duvet of a canopied bed in a grand, heavily rococo room, from the wall of which a gas candelabra glowed warmly. “Things happen fast around here,” he commented. oooo“Some things do indeed transpire with alarming alacrity,” Cummings replied. “Is there anything else you require?”
ooooHarold scanned the room at a glance. “No MTV, I guess?”
oooo“I am not familiar with the acronym, sir.”
oooo“Nevermind. Shove off, then.” Harold wanted nothing more than to ask Cummings to stay in an adjoining room with the door open and, while he was at it, to see if he had a teddy bear lying around anywhere, but the proposal was argued down by pride. “See you in the morning.”
oooo“’tis a consummation devoutly to be wished,” said Cummings, stepping into the hall. “Pleasant dreams, sir.”
ooooThe door closed behind the butler, revealing, on its reverse, a full-length mirror – in the darkened recesses of which Harold perceived something faintly stirring. Battling the urge to plunge beneath the covers, he climbed from his bed and approached the mirror tentatively, only to be confronted by the image of a raggedly dressed young girl, approaching him with equal trepidation. Behind her, the mirror reflected not his room but an African wasteland of charred trees and dust. The girl’s face was so black that her features were not discernible at first.
ooooHow it happened, he couldn’t comprehend, but he knew the reflection was his own. In a manner that is usually confined to dreams, he had fused with the girl’s subconscious. Her world was his. Her experiences – a waxworks of horrors stretching into the deepest recesses of her young memory – were branded on the synapses of his being as were her fears, her sense of loss, of abandonment, of aloneness and the perpetual, gnawing hunger that formed the core of her being.
ooooIn the near background, seemingly guided by the girl, a full-grown elephant loped contentedly, now and then tossing trunkfulls of dirt in the air, as if to test which way the wind was blowing.
ooooHarold Erasmus Jackson had entered upon the first of his twenty-two nights.
The Elephant Walker
The first night
ooooHer name was Bedpinny. That was all of her own story she knew. The perpetual warfare in southern Sudan had consumed her family in savage bites. Of all her relations, she was the only survivor. The bodies of her mother and grandmother had shielded her from the blast that killed them. She had waited for a long time for them to move. But they didn’t. Beyond the acoustic cushion of their flesh the gunfire thudded like blankets being beaten with straw brooms. In time the screams died away. There was no one left to make them. Only Bedpinny. Bathed in the blood of her ancestors, she crawled from beneath the corpses and stood looking at them.
ooooHer mother and grandmother.
ooooMinutes ago they had been singing, and laughing and teasing her about the baseball cap she was wearing. She had found it in a pile of clothes spread out on a table in front of the Presbyterian mission. It had a ‘B’ emblazoned on the front, but she was too young to know a ‘B’ from any other letter. She liked the color. She took it, put in on, and proudly wore it home. Her mother and grandmother were in high spirits. They had caught a rabbit in their snare. “We’ll have meat tonight!” they had told her. “Do you know how long it’s been since we’ve had meat?”
ooooThey skinned the animal and prepared it for the pot. Bedpinny couldn’t remember ever having had meat. She knew beans, both white and red, and rice. And onions. She loved onions. And course bread of sorghum meal. Sometimes cabbage. Sometimes kale. Most of all, she knew hunger: a ravenous, insatiable beast that burrowed in the belly and ate holes as deep as the grave.
ooooShe had only a vague awareness for the purpose of setting the snare, but they’d been doing it all her life, so she didn’t think it strange. It was a tradition; one of those inexplicable rituals in which adults engaged. A primitive lottery.
ooooNow Beepo, her grandmother, was lying face down on the clay floor of the tukl, her long, skinny arms and legs at impossible angles. Mamma was lying on top of her, draped backward, facing the ceiling. Her right arm, hacked away in the mindless orgy of bloodlust, was a foot away, the rabbit’s intestines still grasped in its fingers.
ooooThe rabbit was nowhere to be found. Perhaps, skinned and eviscerated, it had run away.
ooooMama’s eyes, still moist with tears, were open. She was looking up – as if to watch her soul away. Bedpinny’s gaze drifted toward the smoke hole in the thatch. Motes of dust descended leisurely from the straw roof, and floated this way and that as a hot, overweight breeze nudged its way through the oppressive atmosphere.
ooooBedpinny picked up the baseball cap and put it on. She didn’t think about what to do next. Her actions were intuitive. Grabbing fistfuls of dead ash from the edge of the fire, she sprinkled them over her mother and grandmother. The wordless requiem of a three-year old. She left the hut. ooooOutside, the air was hung with languid wreathes of smoke. A group of soldiers sat on their haunches around a hot, low fire, in the coals of which the rabbit was roasting. They didn’t notice her. They were intent on the rabbit. Beyond them, seven young women, bound hand and foot, were tied to trees. Bedpinny knew them, but not why they were tied there. Fifty dollars each. Soon they would be shipped north to the outskirts of Khartoum and distributed throughout the Middle East to serve in the homes and commercial enterprises of Muslims; a commodity with a long tradition. Tribal Africans had been selling each other to the Arabs for a thousand years. And killing one another. Partially dismembered bodies littered the common space between the huts.
ooooBedpinny feared the soldiers. There was something evil about their laughter amid the carnage and destruction from which her spirit shrank. She walked away from them. Not along the road, where troops were still coming and going – their arms draped over the rifles suspended behind their necks – but down the familiar path toward the river.
ooooShe was nearly out of sight when one of the soldiers by the fire spotted her. At first he thought she was a wild pig. His eyes, tinged with the red tracery of malaria and teared with smoke, were blurry. He unslung his gun from his shoulder, aimed through the miasma and fired. The bullet stung the back of her hand like a wasp. She swatted at it reflexively, and looked with detached curiosity at the bulging thread of blood that oozed from the scratch. She didn’t run, though. She stumbled a little, and kept walking.
ooooAn animal would have run. The soldier knew this. As his eyes cleared, he realized he had just shot at a human being. Scrawny. Fleshless. A wasted bullet. Little more than an infant, she would die soon enough without the assistance of an ounce of lead. His comrades laughed at him and resumed poking at the rabbit in the coals. The marksman slung the gun over his shoulder and blushed inwardly.
ooooAs Bedpinny walked away, every step was like the stroke of a brush of forgetfulness, wiping away the memory of all she had seen, all that had gone before – the death of her father and brothers in the wars, the disappearance of her older sisters and aunts to slavers, the disease that claimed her cousins and her uncle. By the time she arrived at the river, she didn’t know what had brought her there, where she was to go, or what to do. But she wasn’t to fetch water. She wasn’t to return home; the sticky blood that caked her flash and matted her hair told her so in whispers.
ooooShe was Bedpinny. That was all she knew. The memories were still there, of course, folded deep in the recesses of her subconscious, but remembering was not. She continued along the river until the path ran out, then she walked through the tall grass, making a path of her own. She walked all day and into the night. The moon was full, and presently she found herself on another path. With nothing to do but follow, she followed.
ooooSoon she was stumbling over her own feet in exhaustion. She never thought to lie down in the tall grass, or climb into the protective arms of a nearby tree and sleep. She walked until she collapsed. And where she collapsed, she slept. She was awakened by a large, gentle nudge against her lower back. Opening her eyes, she found herself staring up an elephant’s trunk. She didn’t startle. She rubbed her eyes with the back of her wrists and looked again. The elephant was staring back, swinging its head slowly, slightly from side to side, fanning the air with large, leathery ears.
ooooBedpinny had never seen an elephant. Like most animals, they had long ago been driven across the border into Uganda and the Central African Republic by constant warfare and the perpetual fires that raged out of control across the landscape, inhaling the nourishing grasses in leaping infernos of waste. She reached out and touched the trunk. The animal didn’t flinch, but returned the touch, brushing the back of her injured hand with cool, healing mucous.
ooooThe elephant seemed to be waiting. Bedpinny stood up, adjusted the hat on her head, and studied the deep brown eyes that returned her gaze. Set in folds of creased and furrowed flesh, they sparkled with moisture as if with laughter. She was reminded of someone she had known, someone old and wise. The memory wouldn’t awaken but left, in its stead, a comfortable feeling. There was nothing Bedpinny could do with the elephant. It was too big to eat, though her hunger was big enough to swallow it whole. Hunger was the engine that drove her. She looked in the direction from which she’d come. She didn’t remember it, but something told her there was nothing for her there. She looked ahead, and followed her eyes with her footsteps. The elephant followed behind, every now and then nudging her playfully at the base of her back. Her heart wanted to smile, but her soul wouldn’t let it. She just walked on, never looking back at her unlikely companion, but confident it was there.
ooooThe first village she came to smoldered in its own ashes. A cloud of vultures and crows feasted on the fat of humanity, a humble meal. Looking neither right or left, Bedpinny followed the path threaded between the charred remains of the tukls, accompanied by the syncopated tamps of the elephant’s feet and the deafening buzz of flies. She walked on. At the end of the day they came to a river. The elephant waded eagerly in among the sweet grasses and, punctuating its meal with trumpet blasts and jubilant explosions of spray from its trunk, made itself comfortable.
ooooBedpinny peeled the husk from a waterlogged cassava root, as she had helped her mother do many times. Rather than boiling it and beating it into a paste, as mamma had done, however, she ate it raw. The plant had as little taste as nutritional value, but the sound of chewing went a long way toward filling her belly. She climbed a hillock of soft grass, lay down and slept. The elephant stood watch.
ooooThe next day, about mid-afternoon, they discovered a secluded field of sugar cane, and ate their fill. Bedpinny peeled, and sucked, and chewed, and spat out chewy wads of fiber and was soon drenched in sweet, sticky juice that made her a magnet for flies. The elephant, too, enjoyed the treat, bundling five or ten stalks at a time in its trunk and feeding the furnace of its mouth which curled at the edges in a perpetual smile. That night they walked as long as the moon allowed. When it gave out, Bedpinny rode the elephant’s trunk to the low, blackened branches of a teak tree that had been half burned for charcoal, and slept. The elephant slept, too.
ooooBefore sunset the following day, they came to the outskirts of an inhabited village and their appearance caused considerable excitement. A lone boy came upon them as they were emerging from the woods and immediately, as if news of the arrival had been communicated telepathically, children from the village swarmed ’round, poking the elephant with sticks and leering and making faces at Bedpinny as if she was something grotesque and unnatural.
ooooThe elephant turned aside the assault on its person without comment, but when the children began threatening Bedpinny with their sticks, it stepped forward, sheltering her between its legs, and trumpeted a warning, instantly widening the perimeter by several yards.
ooooThe general tumult emptied the village and soon the clearing was filled with people. One of the older boys, excited to rash action by the possibility of imminent death, was still taunting the animal, lunging from a safe distance, jabbing, retreating. Upon arrival, with a gesture, his mother put an end to the exercise.
ooooPresently the crowd parted and Cosima, the headman of the village, stepped into the clearing.
oooo“It’s an elephant,” observed Twal, the chief’s right-hand man. Cosima withered him with a glance.
ooooHe stepped toward the intruders, but the elephant sharply warned him away. He stepped back. “Where do you come from?”
ooooBedpinny pointed up the path behind her.
oooo“Where did you get the elephant?”
ooooBedpinny did not respond. She’d done nothing wrong. Somehow, she felt the elephant had always been with her.
oooo“I haven’t seen one in a very long time,” said the chief.
ooooBedpinny wondered when was the last time he’d eaten meat, but she didn’t know where the thought came from.
oooo“Where are you going?” the chief continued. Probably no more than forty-five, he looked seventy. His features were marked by the wrinkled, faded dignity that comes with the realization that one’s authority extends only to the edge of the village, and how large was the world beyond those borders. To Bedpinny, though, he just looked old and imposing. Flesh sagged from his bones in miserly folds, as if there was no adhesive of fat to connect his skin to his sinews.
ooooBedpinny shrugged again. She was going in the direction of her next meal, that was all. Of course she hadn’t thought to hoard sugarcane against the journey. She was only three. She hadn’t eaten all day and her head was light, her knees weak. Familiar sensations.
oooo“Stay with us. We have rice,” said Cosima. Some of the women mumbled protest, but the chief silenced them with a wave of his hand. “Come.”
ooooBedpinny followed the headman, the elephant followed Bedpinny, and the villagers followed the elephant, who seemed unconcerned by the hunger in their eyes.
ooooReturning to his tukl, the chief found an unexpected guest, a British missionary lady of advanced years and kind heart. With the promise that any day now – perhaps tomorrow – he would convert to Christianity, he had been harvesting the resources of this pleasant woman to the tune of a new well, twenty bags of seed, and seventeen chickens. He would play fast and loose with his salvation until he was assured her bag was empty then . . . well, there were many missionaries in the area.
ooooHe was a desperate man, and as far as he knew, his soul was his only marketable commodity.
ooooDespite the missionary’s advanced years and failing eyesight, she noticed the elephant. “What have we here, Dada Cosima?” she said, employing the patriarchal term of respect. “An elephant? Are they returning to Sudan?”
oooo“So it would seem,” Cosima said, a little nervously. He leaned close to her and whispered. “If you stay, we will have meat soon. Praise God.”
oooo“And who’s this?” said the woman, ignoring the implication for the moment. Her name – befitting a missionary – was Mary. “I haven’t seen you here before, have I my love?” She knelt so that she was looking Bedpinny more or less in the eye. “No, I’m sure I haven’t.” She lapsed into Arabic. “Where are you from?”
ooooBedpinny had never seen a white person at close range. She had seen people with diseases that turned patches of their skin this awful, sickly pinkish color, but never a whole person completely consumed by it. She backed away a step, and would have retreated further, but for the elephant’s leg.
oooo“Is that blood?” said Mary, lifting the corner of the t-shirt that constituted Bedpinny’s entire wardrobe. Bedpinny looked down, then up at the lady’s kind, gray eyes.
oooo“The elephant came with her,” said Cosima. “It is a gift from God. Hallelujah!”
oooo“Hallelujah!” said several of the villagers, practicing grace.
oooo“Indeed,” said Mary. She’d been a missionary a long time and knew the hearts and minds of those among whom she labored better than they thought she did. She also knew the hunger that motivated them. Feeling it important that she understand their suffering, she had, early in her ministry, fasted for forty days and forty nights, as exemplified by the founder of her faith. However, the exercise had not lead to heightened spiritual awareness, as she had hoped. All she thought about was food. Indeed, things she had never considered in that light began appearing on her mental menu. She dreamt of it. Wept for it. Ached for it. Still, in her depths, she knew there were those to whom she could appeal for food at any time and in minutes a feast would appear before her.
ooooNot so for the villagers. They woke with the fist of hunger pressing hard on the hollow around which they orbited; lived throughout the day tossing leaves, beans, bugs, any organic matter that came to hand into the massive hole that defined them; slept with dreams of food while the hunger ate away at their lives. Those were the good days. Other times they feasted on memories.
oooo“She’s starving.” The chief looked at the elephant as if to say ‘not for long.’
ooooThe missionary discerned his intent. She had no Bambi complex. If she thought that elephant steaks would save the villagers, she’d have killed it and cut it into bite-sized pieces herself, without a qualm. But, as a nurse, she knew the sudden infusion of elephant meat into their diet would make most of the villagers sick. Some would glut themselves and die. Most of the animal would rot and be wasted. She racked her brain. There had to be a better idea, some way to turn the animal to advantage. She said a quick mental prayer, and received divine inspiration in reply.
oooo“This elephant can earn you money, Dada Cosima,” she said. “The NGOs are clearing the forest for farmland. The stumps and roots are impossible to remove. If this elephant could be trained to do it, and they would pay you every day.”
oooo“Elephants cannot be trained,” said Cosima. He had heard of elephants in India being trained to work, but African elephants were too wild. “It is not possible.”
ooooMary didn’t know anything about elephants, but this one seemed docile enough. She argued her point. The possibility of a daily income was a powerful inducement.
ooooCosima considered. Intellectually the plan had appeal, and he could see its long-term benefits. But it was telling the drowning man that a ship could be expected in a day or two. Mary understood the dilemma, she fished through her pocket and produced a 20,000 schilling note – which she had intended to give him anyway. “I’ll pay you for today. Bring the elephant to the YWAM compound and we’ll put it to work.”
ooooContrary to his impulse, Cosima didn’t lunge for the note, but received it with stern dignity – a jungle god receiving his due offering – and folded it in his palm, where he gripped it like salvation. “It may be a good plan. The animal seems tame, but as to its working on command, I make no promises.”
oooo“Of course not,” Mary replied, hoping that, for its own sake, the animal would perform. “I’ll go tell them to expect you. We’ll have hay for it. In an hour?”
ooooCosima glanced at the sun and nodded gravely. Mary climbed into her road-ravaged Landcruiser and drove away. The rearview mirror reflected a world under control.
ooooIt was not.
ooooNo sooner was the missionary out of sight than Cosima took two decisions. First, he gave the money to his wives and sent them to Yei, four miles distant, for food. Secondly, he appointed Twal to take the elephant to the YWAM compound. What followed would have appeared comedic to an outsider unaware of the villager’s desperation. Twal approached the elephant with the intention of taking it by the ear and leading it away. The elephant flapped its ear, lifting Twal off his feet and depositing him in a pile several feet away. He cast an appealing glance at his chief. Cosima, cloaked with authority, ducked into his tukl. The order had been given.
ooooAn hour later, despite the application of teak switches, shouts, threats, and insults, the elephant hadn’t moved. Twal, dripping sweat, stood outside Cosima’s door and waited for permission to enter. This formality observed, he burst in almost in tears.
oooo“It won’t move! It’s grown roots and started to eat the roof off my house! There is nothing I can do, Dada Cosima. It is a willful and obstinate beast.”
ooooCosima looked past Twal at the still life framed by his door. The elephant, the semicircle of dejected, defeated villagers dropping their sticks and prods to the earth in exhaustion, the strange little girl sitting at the edge of the clearing eating a fistful of cold rice. He began to wish she’d never brought the elephant.
ooooThen it occurred to him. She had brought it!
oooo“It will follow her,” he said aloud, unaware that he was speaking.
oooo“What did you say, Dada?”
ooooCosima stood and raced to the door. “The elephant will follow the little girl. You lead her to the compound, and it will follow.” It sounded too simple as he said it, but sensible all the same.
ooooAnd it worked. Twal took the girl by the hand and led her down the road, and the elephant tagged along.
ooooAnd so from this humble and inauspicious beginning grew the curious career of Bedpinny and the elephant. It happened that whatever task Bedpinny could be made to understand, she could communicate to the elephant with a gesture. Early on, those who hired the elephant’s services from Cosima learned that instructions had to be very specific. A slight misunderstanding on Bedpinny’s part could result in the wrong tree being uprooted, or an entire tukl or fence being trod down before the startled owner could get his tongue back and protest. All in all, though, the arrangement worked well. Cosima’s village became Bedpinny’s home – though she lived apart, beneath a thatched lean-to of her own, always within reach of the elephant – and prospered to a modest extent.
ooooThe village women took good care of her, without grudging, though always a little in awe of her inexplicable control over the elephant that haunted the environs of the village like a spectral mountain, and would allow no one else near. The children left her alone, and she them. This was not the place she belonged, it was simply the place she was.
ooooIn time they ceased to cause a sensation, except among newly arrived relief workers, and became a fixture in the woods and fields around Yei. They worked long, hard hours through both the dry and rainy season, and farmers and NGOs in the area found more than enough for them to do.
ooooAnd so the years tumbled by. The war had become distant and only now and then made itself known when a plane or helicopter would drop a bomb into someone’s backyard or blow a gaping, pointless cavity in the forest. Villagers ducked, dove into ditches and waited, then crawled out, buried the dead, and lived their lives.
ooooBedpinny was nine years old and the people called her the elephant walker.
oooo“What is this? A great beast,” said the old man. He sat beside the road on a stump and inclined his ear rather than his gaze toward Bedpinny and the elephant. “And a child.”
ooooBedpinny stopped in front of him. The elephant stopped behind her. Though she’d often traveled this road, she’d never seen the man before. He was wrinkled, like Cosima, but his eyes were white, like a dog of her acquaintance. “Are you blind?” she asked.
oooo“In my eyes, yes,” said the man. “But not my ears, or my nose. That is an elephant?”
ooooThe man smiled and nodded. She watched the wide, floppy brim of his hat go up and down. “He is very heavy on the ground. And the smell. Only an elephant smells like an elephant. It has been a long time, but it stays in the mind.”
ooooBedpinny didn’t notice the elephant had any particular smell, but she lived in its presence. She was reminded of something Mary had said about sin; “the longer you live with it, the less obvious it is. It even seems homey after a while. As comfortable as home cooking.”
oooo“Where are you going?” asked the man. His light blue cotton shirt was clean with long sleeves that protected against mosquitoes, as did his blue jeans and beige Timberland boots. His hat was of irregular design and cast a shadow that made his black face impenetrable.
oooo“To Miriya,” Bedpinny replied, nodding up the road.
oooo“That is where I am going.”
oooo“Were you resting here?”
oooo“No. I was waiting for someone to guide me. The roads are so bad. If I fell in one of these potholes,” he gestured at the road, “I might never be seen again!”
ooooBedpinny considered. The road was bad? She had nothing to compare it to. The elephant didn’t seem to mind. But the holes were deep. “We will guide you.”
ooooHe put his weathered hand on her shoulder and so began the second magical encounter of Bedpinny’s short life.
ooooAs they walked they talked of this and that, inconsequential things as strangers do, to begin with. But before long, in response to the blind man’s guileless questions, Bedpinny had surrendered all she knew of her life’s story.
oooo“And before the day the elephant found you, you don’t remember anything?”
ooooShe shook her head.
oooo“Nothing at all?” He was insistent on this point.
oooo“I remember eyes in dreams sometimes. But that’s all.”
ooooThe blind man reciprocated briefly with tidbits from his own life he thought the girl might find entertaining. She was a good audience. Very accepting of everything he said, however unlikely. Not that being unlikely made it untrue.
ooooEventually they lapsed into a companionable silence.
oooo“Bedpinny,” the old man said.
ooooShe looked up at him, and he sensed it.
oooo“That’s an unusual name.”
ooooWas that so? Bedpinny had never thought about it. She didn’t know anyone else called Bedpinny, that was true.
oooo“I knew a woman once, and a man in a village far from here who had a child called Bedpinny,” said the blind man.
ooooBedpinny accepted this. “Where was the village?”
oooo“Oh, very far away,” said the man. “It’s not there anymore. Everyone is gone. Dead. Sold.” The statement could be made of countless villages in the region. “Gone.”
oooo“Gone,” Bedpinny echoed. “Even Bedpinny?”
ooooThe man shrugged. “No one knows what became of her. Too bad. Her family came from kings.”
oooo“From kings, like Cosima?” She had told him about Cosima.
oooo“Cosima? A king?” the blind man laughed. “Cosima is only a village headman. No. Bedpinny came from kings who ruled the world!”
ooooThere are no words a storyteller loves more. The blind man, like Homer, rose to the occasion, dipping into a past no one could recall . . . or challenge. He spoke of ancient days when Nubian kings held mighty Egypt in their grip, of the battles in which his Bedpinny’s royal lineage was forged, of alliances poorly formed and revenge hopelessly plotted; of the collapse of kingdoms; of heinous treachery and selfless fidelity; of love and betrayal. The magic of his language brought generations of the girl’s colorful ancestor’s – men, women, boys, and girls, dancing and surging to life, spinning and swirling until the air was choked with them and Bedpinny could hardly breathe. The next instant, they were swept away by the onslaught of a new generation. Even greater warriors, even lovelier princesses, even more star-crossed lovers, as the blind man fell under the spell of his telling.
ooooAdventurers, too, leapt and bounded across the telling, weaving wondrous, frightening strands that struggled against the pattern of the whole; white explorers from Europe – a continent of eccentrics, with their strange ways, mighty deeds, and pointless wanderings. Arab traders and slavers from the north, and from Zanzibar, that bloodthirsty island where souls were bought and sold and the devil gleefully totted up the score. Of gods and goddesses, lusting for blood and fear, that warred ruthlessly for the soul of the continent. The stroke of the blind man’s brush swept through history in broad, daring strokes, making of the blank canvas of his Bedpinny’s past a grand, tumbling tapestry of human endeavor, peopled with human beings whose love, and hurt, and joy, and pain, and hope, and fear, and loss was enlarged in the throes of their battle with destiny – sanctified, baptized, and made noble.
ooooBedpinny didn’t know the emotion that seized her when the blind man came to the end of his telling with the very parents and grandparents of the little girl. She had never been envious before. Oh, to be the blind man’s Bedpinny. To have a place not only in the present, but in the past! A strong foothold for the future. Where was this fortunate girl? The blind man must find her. She must be told. She must know. It was impossible to think she might be going through life unaware of the greatness that coursed in her blood!
oooo“Ah, there,” said the old man as they reached their destination and prepared to part ways, “how can she be found? As I said, everyone is gone. All I know is that, before he died, her father the last king of his line, gave her a cloth hat, with the first letter of his name sewn on it.”
oooo“A ‘B’!” said Bedpinny breathlessly. “Was it a ‘B'”?
oooo“Why, yes, it was,” said the blind man, seeming surprised. “His name was Bebijay. How could you know?”
ooooBedpinny began rummaging madly through the bag she carried on her back. She pulled out the baseball cap. “Here,” she said, thrusting the cap into the blind man’s hands and forcing his fingers over the embroidered letter. “It’s a ‘B’. It’s a ‘B’!” Mary had taught her letters.
oooo“Why, so it is,” said the blind man, his smile deeper and happier than any she had ever seen. “Then, you are my Bedpinny,” he said, his enthusiasm hushed with reverence.
ooooShe hugged the elephant’s trunk, as she often did for comfort. “I am,” she whispered softly for fear of shattering the moment.
oooo“And the people I’ve been telling you about … they are your people.”
ooooThe awareness oozed magically into her bones; seeped into her spirit. “My people.”
ooooThe blind man placed a hand on her head and stroked her hair gently. “How proud they would be of you, Bedpinny.
oooo“Thank you for being my guide.”
ooooBedpinny almost didn’t hear. As she and the elephant padded down the dusty road, the voices of all those generations were shouting, singing, and rejoicing in her ears. They had found her!
ooooThe blind man inclined his head in the direction of their departure and waited. When he could hear their footsteps no longer, he smiled. He had learned the story of the elephant walker from the elderly missionary lady on her last day in Yei. Even as he spun Bedpinny’s tale, he wondered how he could weave the baseball cap into the telling. It had all come together nicely.
oooo“It could have happened that way,” he said. “Why not?”
ooooAs the mists cleared from his sight and Bedpinny’s consciousness slipped slowly from his brain, Rat Badger found himself staring at the mirror on the back of the bedroom door. He had no idea how long he’d been there. He became aware that he’d been holding his breath. Something was tugging at him, something so deep inside it was beyond himself. In the mirror, the room was reflected in all its particulars, except for him. There was at first no discernible change in the wretched gargoyle that occupied his place among the images. The anxious red eyes were the same. The ragged grasping claws were the same. Then its lips parted in a stupid, inscrutable grin, revealing a brand new tooth.
oooo“You slept well, sir?” said Cummings, who had sifted into the room as unobtrusively as that quality of mercy which falleth as a gentle dew from heaven, and materialized at Rat’s bedside. The golden rays of the sun, sliced into neat oblongs, inquired through the large French window at a respectful angle, creating a shadow-laden still life of the silver salver in the butler’s left hand and the lightly frosted glass of papaya juice it held. It was morning, the first day.
ooooCummings placed the glass on the bedside table.
ooooRat Badger, rap icon, hadn’t slept a wink, as far as he knew. Nor, if the crust that coated his eyes was any indication, had he blinked in a very long time. Draped awkwardly over the mahogany footboard, his feet tangled in the sheets, he had been staring at the mirror on the back of the bedroom door.
ooooThe images that haunted its depths the previous night had dissipated when Cummings interspersed himself, but a disturbing effluvium remained. Rat breathed a blasphemy – as was his wont when at a loss for words to express deep emotion – blinked a few times, and massaged his sandy eyes with trembling fingers.
ooooHe was about to commend himself, somewhat shakily, on having survived the night, when he awoke to the fact that he was in another bedroom — this one rustic and humble — and that Cummings was, once again, tucking him in. It was night. A soft, cool breeze, scented delicately with sea rose and salt, brushed the white curtains aside and waltzed about the room with the haughty command of a corpulent duchess.
oooo“It’s time already?” he said.
oooo“I missed the whole day?”
oooo“On the contrary, sir. You had a very active day — the events of which I shall be happy to recapitulate at some future date, should you so desire. It is another of the peculiarities of this island that the days are often no sooner completed than forgotten. Night and day trade places; are juxtaposed, as it were, with the events of the night branding themselves upon the brain while those of the daylight hours dissolve like a dream – forgotten – ” Cummings added with a politic clearing of the throat into the back of the white glove on his right hand, “except by me. Thank you for the daisy chain, by the way.”
oooo“It’s of no consequence. Is there anything you require, sir, before you sleep?”
ooooRat considered. “Shouldn’t I be hungry?”
oooo“No, sir. You ate most heartily at luncheon.”
ooooWell, he wasn’t hungry. He was tired, though, and said as much.
oooo“It is to be expected, sir. You have been greatly exercised.”
ooooRat’s head, suddenly the density of overcooked oatmeal, sank into the abyss of his pillow — which smelled of mothballs. It was then he noticed the mirror on the ceiling. The room began to roll slightly as his sleep-besotted numen drifted upward. Seagulls cried in the distance and he was aware of the taste of stale tobacco and Budweiser on his tongue and an alcoholic fogginess that taunted the suburbs of his brain. Nevertheless, he untied the sheepshank with practiced, work-worn hands — white hands, he was surprised to see — and, stumbling only slightly, pulled his way to the middlemost seat of the rowboat, little suspecting that he was about to partake of . . .
An Omelet of Fishermen
The second night
ooooThe first thing tourists observe as they cross Penobscot Bay in the ferry to the islands is the lobster buoys. Recreational boaters also remark on them in Anglo-Saxon terms. In fact, the bay is so carpeted by these multicolored impediments to navigation that it’s almost possible to walk upon them like stepping stones from Rockland to the islands without getting your feet wet.
ooooThere is an exception, however, an area of about one mile in radius that the fishermen call, simply, the Deep. Ancient experience has told them that this particular quarter is bottomless, and many a fisherman’s gear has been lost in the attempt to prove otherwise.
ooooPartly Smith — who earned his nickname by virtue of the fact that his mother was a Smith, but his father was unknown — had spent the day at the Lobster Festival and was going back to the island as night descended.
ooooDespite being drunk he had managed to make it to the end of the pier, find his skiff — or at least one that looked enough like it to make stealing it excusable — row to his lobster boat (which must have been his because the key worked), undo the mooring without falling overboard, and crank ’er up.
ooooEmboldened by these successes — and wanting to be home before Maggie, his wife of thirty-odd years, got home from the crab factory — he chose to fly in the face of local wisdom and take a short cut across the Deep, which commercial fishermen, wisely it turned out, had come to avoid.
ooooBacchus had few surprises in his bag of tricks for Partly, who had come to regard hallucinations as an acceptable side-affect of his liquid lifestyle. Thus, when an island or two turned up in the wrong place, or mermaids frolicked in the phosphorescence of the wake on his evening forays across the bay, he winked and, laying a finger knowingly aside his nose, plowed on.
ooooAs the bow of the Vengeful Maggie cleaved the placid waters of the Deep, however, he was met with a novel apparition: a configuration of lights that floated just below the surface. His first thought — describing the random firing of the synapses in his brain in liberal terms — was that he was looking at the reflection of stars. He looked up. Clouds blanketed the sky.
ooooThere were no stars, or anything else that could account for the lights. He looked down. There they were. He closed his eyes and shook his head in a manner that had long ago proven useful in dispelling vagrant islands and wandering mermaids, and opened them again. Still there.
ooooPartly pulled the throttle all the way back and in a moment the boat gathered in her foaming skirts and squatted down in the water like a somnolent duck. He shut off the engine — as if silence would help him see better — and leaned over the rail for a closer look.
ooooThe lights were of a soft aquamarine hue — what an interior designer, had there been one aboard, might have described as a dusty seafoam green — and about the size of a baseball. They pulsed subtly, hypnotically, and those nearest the surface were no more than three or four feet deep. So it seemed.
ooooAfter a brief monosyllabic soliloquy, Partly decided he’d grab one and take it home to show the boys down at the lobster co-op next morning and see what they made of it. He took the gaff from under the gunwale and, leaning over as far as his gut would allow, plunged it into the water. His first swipe passed below the nearest object. He tried again. This time the hook connected, telegraphing a tantalizing gelatinous sensation up the pole. At the same time, the orb sank a few inches. He leaned over a little further and took another stab, and the process repeated itself. Another touch. Another slight retreat.
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