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The Ploverby Brian Doyle
45° NORTH, 125° WEST
WEST AND THEN WEST for weeks and weeks or months and months sweet Jesus knows how long. A lifetime of lifetimes. On the continent of the sea. A pair of shaggy claws scuttling on the ceiling of the sea. The silent She.
West and then west! says Declan aloud, startling the gull sitting atop the Plovers tiny cabin, her feathers ruffling in the steady wind. Onward twisted soldiers! The gull launches without the slightest effort, sliding into the welcoming air. Declan laughs. Go ahead, bird, assume the position, he says, and as if in obedience to the mans command the gull wheels behind and over the stern and hangs exactly nine feet above the boat without even a shiver of her wings. Sweet Jesus, says Declan, I would ask you how you do that, but you know and I know that there are more things than we know, as you know. Onward whiskered soldiers!
* * *
The Plover, out of Oregon, skippered by O Donnell, Declan, no fixed address or abode. Last registered midcoast, in Depoe Bay. Originally a small trawler, much amended and edited by its owner, who installed a mast and rigged the boat for coastal cruising. Wrecked once near Neawanaka, minor damage, repaired by owner. For some years a fishing boat bringing in regular catches, occasional permits filed for charter fishing, one permit filed for whale-watching cruise, a number of gratuitous permit applications filed in last three years apparently for the amusement of the owner: for flossing the teeth of unsuspecting whales, in search of Robert Dean Frisbie on account of incontrovertible evidence of his faked demise in the South Seas, in pursuit of the magnetic West Pole, in search of the names of god in the languages of the invertebrates west of the Mendocino Fracture Zone and east of the Emperor Seamounts, and etc. in that vein. Flurries and then blizzards of permit applications filed in the last six months, each more fanciful than the last. Last seen heading directly west from Oregon coast. Captain reportedly stated that he was going to “glom on to the 45th parallel and ride that sucker right onto the beach of some godforsaken island being bickered over by the Japanese and the Russians and claim it anew for Saint Mary Magdalene while none of the formerly murderous imperial powers were paying close attention.” Also heard stating that he was going to “turn sharp left at 150 degrees longitude and snatch a Society island, naming it fresh for Saint Catherine of Siena, why should bold imperialism die ignominiously during my brief lifetime, and there were not enough celebrations of and monuments to Catherine of Siena, fine woman, twenty-fourth of twenty-five children, who are we not to sing her praises assiduously with gratuitous acts of theatrical foolery,” and etc. in that vein. Conclusion: no destination known. Coast Guard reports no sightings. U.S. Navy Pacific Command alerted. General marine bulletin posted. To be considered lost at sea pending further information if any. Notice of same sent to next of kin. No estate. Three survivors, a sister of age and two minor brothers. No plans for funeral or memorial at this time.
* * *
Whats on board: two hundred gallons of fuel, stashed in every conceivable nook and cranny. One hundred pounds of rice. Magellan survived on rice and so dammit will we. More onions and heads of garlic than a man can count in an hour, as I well know, having tried. A man is like an onion, is he not, a layered and reeking thing? Fifty boxes of cookies, fifty lemons, fifty limes. An enormous tin of marmalade. Fifty oranges. An enormous tin of olive oil. Fifty small bags of almonds scattered variously throughout the vessel so that a man will constantly be discovering a small bag of almonds no matter where he is on board, good idea, hey? Element of surprise, hey? Not that there is all that much board on board, or surprise neither. Twenty feet long by eight feet wide by seven feet deep. The size of a roomy coffin. But few coffins have fifty limes aboard, hey? Life raft, life jacket, foul-weather gear, medical kit, complete set of spare parts for engine, complete set of tools for fixing the fecking engine, complete set of fishing gear. One, two, six, seven, why do I have seven fishing rods? Radio, charts, graphs, sextant, compass, flashlights, soap, baseball bat (Dick Groat model), set of Edmund Burkes speeches, sails, rigging, backup sails, backup rigging, a trumpet, excellent knives, bow and arrows? Who the hell put a bow and arrows on board? I dont remember putting a bow and arrows on board. Am I losing it already? A bow and arrows … what am I going to do with a bow and arrows, shoot flying fish? Sweet Jesus. Binoculars, backup binoculars, mirrors, sounding lead and string, flares, pencils, batteries for flashlights, sweet Jesus, arrows, I cannot believe I am shipping arrows, is that even legal? Am I considered armed? Can I get pulled over by the fecking Coast Guard and busted for harboring unregistered weapons? What is this, the fecking age of Magellan? Almanac. And, most important of all, boys and girls, your six-volume set of sight reduction tables! Never leave home without it! Because why? Because sight reduction tables are your handy solutions to problems of spherical trigonometry, which is to say problems in observed latitudes, celestial declinations, and computation of your azimuth! Exactly! The azimuth is important! Also do not leave home without Edmund Burkes speeches. Burke is important. Burke is an ocean whose depths are in general unplumbed. Everyone thinks they know what Burke said and wrote and meant and means and no one has the slightest idea what he actually wrote because no one fecking reads old Edmund Burke anymore but I will address and redress this problem. I am going to read old Ed Burke, because I have the time, because I am on a voyage to nowhere, and in no hurry to get there neither.
Bird! says Declan aloud, startling the gull surfing effortlessly above the stern, are you in this for the long haul? Because if so Ill have to edit the crew manifest, and well have to talk about shares of the proceeds and stuff like that. Hey, can you calculate sight reduction tables?
* * *
The Peaceful Sea, Fernão de Magalhães called the Pacific, when he wandered into it for the first time in 1520, in his ship the Trinidad—a caravel, a two-masted ship. The South Sea, Vasco Núñez de Balboa called it when he saw it for the first time, in 1513 (and promptly asserted ownership of the entire ocean and all lands encroaching upon it). The Panthalassic Ocean, scholars call the Pacifics predecessor, the ocean of the world when the world was young. The Endless, some early and brave travelers called it, people who sailed by the stars. The Mother, other old cultures called it, in their various languages. It is the biggest ocean on earth and perhaps in the universe. It is about half of the wildernesses we call oceans on this planet. It composes about a third of the surface of the earth. Some parts of it are more than six miles deep. On average it is about two miles deep. It weighs about eighty quintillion tons, an idea represented by an eight followed by eighteen zeroes. In the hundred thousand years or so that human beings have been exploring the Endless, we have discovered some two hundred thousand species of animals and plants living and working in it, which some of us believe to be perhaps a tenth of the actual animals and plants in it, the rest of those beings not having revealed themselves to us as yet. If it is true that human beings in our current form rose in Africa, and then ambled briskly into the rest of the world, there must have been a moment when one human being, probably a curious and mischievous child, peeked through a fringe of forest, perhaps on a high hill, and saw the biggest blue thing on earth and perhaps in the universe. Imagine that scene for a moment: the childs gape, the thrumming roar of the ocean, the childs thrill and terror, the shock and allure of encountering a thing far bigger than the imagination had previously stretched. Imagine that childs wide eyes and sizzling brain. Imagine the message imparted to his mother by the fire that night. Imagine that.
* * *
On this voyage, this particular jaunt, this epic adventure, this bedraggled expedition, this foolish flight, this seashamble, this muddled maundering, this aimless amble on the glee of the sea, we will navigate not by whats in the ocean, which is elemental but really incidental if you take the long view, but by the wilderness of the bottom, which is … fundamental, so to speak, says Declan to the floating gull, who appears to be paying close attention. In my view the water of the ocean is essentially fascist, trying to dictate all life and action by weight and violence, whereas what is beneath it, the bones, the skeleton, the actual warm skin of the planet, is generally unremarked, unsung, unknown, but, as a population is the foundation for a government, the bedrock, the necessary and patient mattress for what sprawls upon it, so to speak. So a real journey into the Pacific ought to steer by the mountains below; and wouldnt that show more respect for the planet we are actually on, rather than steering by the light of stars we will never actually see? Are you with me here, bird? Why should water have the last word, you know what I mean? Lets take the long view. Lets forget the past and keep an eye on the horizon. Lets think of this as an expedition of inquiry, during which a man, let us say a former dairyman and sometime fisherman, sails west and then west, curious about seamounts and fracture zones, and vast epic valleys into which light has never penetrated since the dawn of time, and caves and intricate wildernesses in which reside creatures never seen by the eye of man or gull, and soaring mountains on which live ancient eels and squid the size of ships, and he conducts experiments into fauna and flora as such opportunities present themselves, and earns his protein with his longlines, dipping into ships stores only for the occasional lime, doing his best to avoid demon alcohol which has never served him well, and keeping an eye on the shape of his sanity, such as it is, or was, and leery of such things as talking freely to gulls, for example, which may be a sign of incipient something or other. You with me here, bird?
* * *
Neither the Plover nor its master had the slightest initial experience with sails and masts and rigging and wind management, but Declan, having dreamed of a footloose voyage on the ocean since he was the boy who tripped over a ratty rug in the library and fell facefirst into Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific in a Raft, by Thor Heyerdahl (followed in dizzying succession by Robert Gibbingss Over the Reefs and Coconut Island, and James Norman Halls Faery Lands of the South Seas and Under a Thatched Roof, and Jack Londons South Sea Tales, and Robert Louis Stevensons In the South Seas, and Joseph Conrads Typhoon and Youth, and The Journals of Captain James Cook, and Captain David Porters Journal of a Cruise Made to the Pacific Ocean, and Richard Maurys The Saga of Cimba, and Herman Melvilles Typee, and Edward Frederick Knights The Cruise of the Falcon, and The Venturesome Voyages of Captain Voss, and then literally hundreds of books about the islands west and south of his muddy tense pained angry lonely home in the rain), had bought the old trawler when he was seventeen, from an old man who built it half-size because he had half the money he needed half his life ago and only used it half the time now that he was half the man he used to be. Declan then used it for fishing the near coast, generally for salmon and halibut; but always in the back of the back of his mind, tucked away beyond conscious thought, was the irrepressible idea of someday heading west and then west, for no particular reason, just to see what he could see; and so he had edited and amended the boat slowly and idiosyncratically over the years, adding a mast and standing and running rigging so as to use the wind wherever and whenever possible, thus saving gobs of fuel, and becoming familiar with such mysterious and obdurate words as batten and clew, and luff and leech, and toggle and tang, and reaching and running, although the Plover did not do overmuch reaching and running, more like shuffling and shambling, as Declan said, not without a deep affection for the old cedar creature. He built a simple hoist for the engine, and a cedar weather box for the engine to sleep in, for when the Plover had sails on, in winds that looked like they might last; and when razzed by other fishermen, and by the weekend sailors in Newport and Depoe Bay who laughed aloud at the little trawler with its mast like a grade-school flagpole and its sails made of old kitchen towels, as a wit from Waldport sneered, Declan thought happily of all the fuel he was not expending, and gave everyone the cheerful finger; his usual digitous discourse.
* * *
And no thinking on this trip, either, he said to the gull floating over the stern. No recriminations and ruminations. No logs and journals and literary pretensions neither. Thinking can only, like the boat, proceed forward. We can only think west. Sweet blessed Jesus. Four days out and I am already talking to a fecking gull. Why are you here, exactly, bird? Whats in it for you? Because theres not a whole lot of food available here, my friend. This is a working boat. Everyone on or over the boat has to work for a living. Thats why I am fishing for my supper, and no, you cannot have half, although yes, you can have the head and tail and innards. Did you want to be going west and then west? Because that is where we are going until further notice. And what are you doing on behalf of the boat, may I ask? Are you providing some rudderly service that I am as yet not aware of? Are you protecting the boat in some mysterious capacity? And dont give me any of this spiritual crap. And dont get all literary on me either, talismans and metaphors and symbols and crap like that. You are most definitely not a metaphor, my friend. You are a herring gull and this is a boat and I am the guy on the boat. Its that simple. You are no albatross and I am no ancient mariner. I read my classics. In fact I vow that if an albatross ever hangs in exactly the same position you are hanging in right now I will strike myself three times on the breast and intone prayers and imprecations. This I swear. You are welcome to hang there as long as you want but dont steal anything. I cast no aspersions on gull people. I am just laying out the rules. Maybe you are unlike all the other gulls who ever lived and you are the first one who wont steal whatever he or she can at the drop of a fecking hat. In which case we will get along fine. If that is not the case and you steal anything from the boat I will catch your raggedy ass and cut you into filets and savor each and every gullicious bite. Are we clear here? On this boat there are no gray areas. There are no misunderstandings. There are no misapprehensions. There are no infinitesimal gradations of emotions and feelings. No one makes mistakes as regards anyone else. There is no anyone else. Theres no past and theres no future. We are stripping it all down here, my friend. No man is an island, my ass. This is an island and I am that very man. You are a guest nine feet in the air over my island. Are we clear here? You can visit any time you like, but dont expect anything from me. We are all islands, my friend. We are all playing it straight for a change on this island. I expect nothing and you should expect nothing. The rules are simple here, bird. No emotional complications can ensue if we lay it out clear as day in advance. We can crash, sink, burst into flames, get smashed by a huge squid or a whale or a cyclone or pirates, or I can die in any number of interesting ways and the boat goes on by itself skipperless, but thats the sum total of possibility, understand? We are stripping things down to the bones here. No more expectations and illusions. No more analysis and explications. We are going to live a real simple life here, my friend, and deal with what is, rather than what seems to be. We have wind and fuel, we have food and water, and we have the biggest fecking ocean on the planet in which to putter around, and we are damn well going to putter around until further notice, is that clear? Are you with me here, bird? Hey?
* * *
In the first four days alone Declan saw so much stuff bobbing in the ocean that he started keeping a list with a pencil: sneakers, hockey gloves, the top of a coffin, a poem in Japanese carved into a maple plank, half a bottle of wine, a plastic turtle, two dolls heads taped together with a huge tangle of duct tape, lots of seeds of various species, what looked like the keel of a fishing boat, three oars, most of a fishing net, an enormous root ball from what Declan judged to be a Sitka spruce, the tiny skull of a sea lion child, two life buoys, a very old basketball on which every hint of nub had been eroded so that the ball shone like a dark sun when he scooped it up with a net, ropes of every sort of shape and color many of which he salvaged just in case, a ukulele he thought about salvaging but recovered his sanity, every sort of tampon ever made on this blue earth, a cassette tape that he carefully dried and rewound and tried to play in the boom box in the cabin to no avail and the shrill awful screeching of it made the gull launch shocked off the cabin roof, all sorts and shapes of seaweed, seven dead murre chicks, and what certainly looked like a muscular squid tentacle about twenty feet long, although he saw it from a distance at last light, so it could have been a whip of bull kelp, or God knows what else, though probably bull kelp, probably.
Probably bull kelp, he said to the gull, who was staring at it too, looking nervous. Dont you think thats bull kelp? Bull kelp gets to be like a hundred feet long, you know. Grows like a bastard. Grows a hundred feet in three months, thats a foot a day, thats just disturbing. Imagine if you grew a foot a day, pretty soon you would be an albatross, and then where would you be? Albatrosst, albalost. Sure thats bull kelp. It just looks like a tentacle. And tentacles dont travel solo, you know. So it has to be bull kelp. Sure it does. Well, hey, full dark, I am just going to step into the cabin here and buckle up, might be weather coming, better tether the old ball to the old chain, you know what Im saying? If a squid bigger than the boat comes for you just give me a holler. Squawk three times so Ill know its you. Or do that disgusting barf thing I love so much when you do it on the roof of the cabin. A truly endearing habit, barfing up fish guts. Is that what your mama taught you for manners, barfing on other peoples property? Because that is not what my mama taught me. Ah, you ask, what did my mama teach me? And the answer is my mama taught me jack shit, because she wasnt around much longer than it took to pop out four kids and drag the old suitcase down the old driveway and leave the old man and the four ducklings, but she taught me that, bird, yes she did, she taught me theres times to cut and run. Taught me that good, yes she did.
* * *
Why did I name the Plover the Plover, you ask? says Declan to the gull, who had not asked. Ill tell you. Listen close now, because I have not explained this before and will not again. Far too much repetition in life altogether. We should say things once and let them just shimmer there in the air and fade away or not, as the case may be. The golden plover of the Pacific, the Pacific Golden Plover, is a serious traveler. It wanders, it wends where it will. It is a slight thing, easily overlooked, but it is a heroic migrant, sailing annually from the top of Pacifica to the bottom. It forages, it eats what it can find. It talks while it travels and those who have heard it say it has a mournful yet eager sound. This seems exactly right to me, mournful yet eager. We regret, yet we push on. We chew the past but we hunger for the future. So I developed an affection and respect for the plover. Its a little thing the size of your fist, other than those long pencilly legs for sprinting after grasshoppers and crabs and such, but it can fly ten thousand miles across an ocean itching to eat plovers and reaching for plovers with storms and winds and jaegers and such. You have to admire the pluck of the plover. It doesnt show off and it isnt pretty and you hardly even notice it, but its a tough little bird doing amazing things. Also it really likes berries, which appeals to me. Most of them fly from Siberia or Alaska to Australia and New Guinea and Borneo and such but some of them camp out awhile in Hawaii and just cruise around in the long grass in the sun eating and dozing. This appeals to me. So when it came time to name a little drab boat that wasnt dashing and didnt weigh much and no one notices much, but that gets a lot of work done quietly and could if it wanted to sail off and go as far as it wanted way farther than anyone could ever imagine such a little drab thing could do, that might pause here and there at an island so as to allow a guy to eat and doze in the grass, well, thats why we are the Plover. So now you know. Dont keep badgering me with questions.
* * *
On the seventh day there arose a tempest such as man nor bird had never seen and the Plover was tossed hither and thither as if by a vast and furious hand not unlike an idiot boy in a bathtub slamming the water with his fool flipper because he can, the cretin!, shouts Declan at the gull. The Pacific never being particularly pacific, the storm raged for two days, and was followed by another day of immense uneasy swells; Declan, who had never been seasick in his life, threw up every hour on the hour as if he were a broken alarm clock, and by the time the swell finally eased he was as limp and pale as a rag in the rain. Then the Plover came within yards of being crushed by a vast grim oil tanker at four in the morning, at exactly eight bells, as Declan realized with a shiver, the traditional nautical slang for death; and had he not been clipped onto the boats jackline, the safety rope he rigged before a storm, the savage bucking of the boat would have tossed him into the endless fog. Then it began to rain, not hard but steadily, for days and days; then he discovered that one of the extra fuel tanks aft had broken off and been lost sometime during the last few days; then he hooked, fought, and lost a tremendous bluefin tuna that would have been glorious eating for a week and lovely dried salted savories for a month; then the rudder fouled on what appeared to be the biggest fecking gill net in the history of the universe where no one but a fecking idiot would set a fecking net; and then, on the first dry hint of sunny morning in weeks, Declan realized the gull was gone.
* * *
And flooding in upon him, to his absolute astonishment, was a black sadness and loneliness and despair so sudden and thorough that he sat down heavily on the deck and wept as he had never wept before in all his life. He was overwhelmed, inundated, swept away by it, his usual salty confidence shredded and tattered so that who he had thought himself to be was completely shattered and he was merely a being in a boat, alone and foolish, running away from everything that had ever meant anything to him, a coward and a joke, utterly alone, unloved and unloving. The sun strengthened by the minute and the boat steamed so remarkably than an observer might have mistaken it for smoke; but there was no man or woman or child for hundreds of miles around, and Declan felt the absence of his kind like a new hole in his flinty soul. He sobbed amid the steam, his face in his hands, until he was empty, a shell in the stern; and finally he fell asleep, his arms wrapped over his head like a shroud. There was the faintest of swells in the sea and the Plover rocked gently, carried west and southwest by the current, no sails set, the engine asleep in its little cedar house. Two young humpback whales slid by silently big and blue and black, on their way south, but they did not remark the boat, being intent on each other and their own vast literature, and Declan slept on through the warming morning. Tuna arrowed beneath the boat, and bonito, and marlin, and cod six feet long, headed east to eat a ton or so of the smaller residents of the continental shelf; and a mile below, as Declan slept, the Plover drifted over a vent in the ocean floor around which gathered blind crabs as white as snow, and nameless fish with transparent heads, and creatures never seen yet by the eyes of man; but we have seen them in our deepest dreams, looming out of the dark, with eyes like fire.
* * *
Consider, for a moment, the Pacific Ocean not as a vast waterway, not as a capacious basin for liquid salinity and the uncountable beings therein, nor as a scatter of islands still to this day delightfully not fully and accurately counted, but as a country in and of itself, dressed in bluer clothes than the other illusory entities we call countries, that word being mere epithet and label at best, and occasion and excuse for murder at worst; rather consider the Pacific a tidal continent, some ten thousand miles long and ten thousand miles wide, bordered by ice at its head and feet, by steaming Peru and Palau at its waist; on this continent are the deepest caves, the highest mountains, the loneliest prospects, the emptiest aspects, the densest populations, the most unmarked graves, the least imprint of the greedy primary ape; in this continent are dissolved beings beyond count, their shells and ships and fins and grins; so that the continent, ever in motion, drinks the dead as it sprouts new life; the intimacy of this closer and more blunt and naked in Pacifica than anywhere else, by volume; volume being an apt and suitable word to apply to that which is finally neither ocean nor continent but story always in flow, narrative that never pauses, endless ebb and flow, wax and wane, a book with no beginning and no end; from it emerged the first fundament and unto it shall return the shatter of the world that was, the stretch between a page or two of the unimaginable story; but while we are on this page we set forth on journeys, on it and in it, steering by the stars, hoping for something we cannot explain; for thousands of years we said gold and food and land and power and freedom and knowledge and none of those were true even as all were true, as shallow waters; we sail on it and in it because we are starving for story, our greatest hunger, our greatest terror; and we love most what we must have but can never have; and so on we go, west and then west.
* * *
Sweet Jesus, its just a bird, and just a gull at that, the bilge rats of the air, a quarrelsome greedy race that eats their own, said Declan aloud to where the gull used to be. Its not like you were an albatross or some such gentry. Good riddance. No one barfing on my roof anymore. None of your foul and disgusting squirts and pellets raining on the boat from above, none of your toenail scratches in my lovely cedar finish, no having to notice your awful rubber feet like a fecking flying lizard, and that damned red dot on your bill. Out out, damned dot! How does it go, the Scottish play? I remember performing it in the gym, in school, the candles in the dark, the wild wind, the constant rain, all rain all day all night all winter, no one else could remember the lines: I have many nights watched with you, and seen you rise. A great perturbation in nature! Out, damned spot! out, I say! Hell is murky! No more o that, my lord, no more o that. Heaven knows what she has known. Whats done cannot be undone. God forgive us all! I think, but dare not speak.… Exactly so. Thats what Ill do. Ill think but not speak. No family, no friends, no girls, no gulls, no destination, no beer, no talking. Silently scuttling on the ceiling of the sea.
* * *
Consider, for a moment, that the longest chain of mountains and volcanoes and hills and guyots and cliffs and sheering walls on the face of the earth is invisible to the eye, unless you are plunged into the blue realm of Pacifica, which houses the Emperor Seamounts, which stretch nearly four thousand miles across the wild ocean like the longest grin there is; and consider further that only the very tail of this endless ridge, this vast vaulting, peers above the surface, and is christened Hawaii; and consider further that there are more volcanoes along that line of mountains than anyone has yet counted, let alone mountains; and let your mind wander along that line, in and out of ravines, a wilderness beyond the reach of man, a wilderness that thrashed and throbbed for millions of years without a single witness of our kind; how very many stories those mountains and valleys have hosted, battles and loves, heroes and cruelties, beings who changed the ways of their kind, last survivors of their races, ancient kings and queens, blind bards and tiny warriors, creatures beyond counting who left neither fin nor fossil, and are remembered perhaps only by whatever it is that forces fire through volcanic vent, and heats the bottom of the sea; caves and passages beyond number and explorers far beyond that numberless number; literatures and languages, songs and singers, villains and visionaries we can only dimly begin to imagine, even their shapes and sizes and colors endless and mutable; and over all this, for thousands of years, we floated in boats, utterly unaware of what was below, a wilderness beyond all reckoning or robbing; so what was it we were so sure we knew? We do not even know what it is we do not know, and what we do know passeth speedily away, inundated by what we do not know; yet on we go through the ravines, gaping as we go; having come from salted water and all headed home again; leaving behind neither fin nor fossil, but stories and voices, tales and music, shreds of memory, faint wakes of words in the water.
* * *
Late in the afternoon of his twelfth day out Declan saw a ship. He hove to, hungry for talk. The ship was big and rusty and silent. A hail from the railing ten feet above him.
My name is Enrique, said the man at the railing, suddenly expansive. I am this boat. She is mine. We are fishing also. Who says there are no fish? They are liars. Fish jump in our boat. You want beer?
If you try to rob us we will shoot you. Theres no one out here.
I am still American, yes.
You are the Navy?
You have drugs to sell?
Maybe we will shoot you and take your boat.
Not much to take.
No fish to sell?
Still no fish to sell.
Okay, fuck you then, says Enrique cheerfully. Good luck.
Same to you, friend.
As the bigger boat sheered off southeast, Declan noted its name, in red letters three feet high, poorly painted: Tanets. Isnt that a Russian word, tanets? he said aloud to the gull, before realizing that the gull still wasnt floating nine feet above the stern. Why would a Russian trawler have a guy named Enrique running the boat? Fecking Wild West out here, man.
* * *
On the Tanets Enrique strolled back to the pilot house calculating odds and percentages. Odds were that the American was a thief of some sort—why would a fisherman be so far out in such a small trawler, without a crew? And what kind of trawler was also rigged for sails? Odds were that the American was also a crazy man, in which case boarding him and taking whatever was useful would be ultimately a service to society, teaching the man that foolishness is punishable, especially at sea. But a man alone in a small boat this far out could also be some sort of agent. Probably this was some sort of subtle and complicated trap, best avoided altogether. Odds were also that the little trawler had nothing worth stealing, and violence for its own sake was poor business, usually punished somehow; Enrique was a passionate believer in retribution, not in religious terms but in general universal judicial reckoning. Not to say he was a moral man in any known sense of the term, no; he had done more than his share of illicitry, and the business affairs of the Tanets were complicated beyond the grasp of the most assiduous lawyer or accountant, not to mention customs agent, police officer, or harbormaster; but Enrique, while cheerfully and even eagerly flouting the laws of nations and international entities, measured odds and percentages meticulously, and was as wary as any man alive of arrogance and overconfidence, hubris and carelessly free behavior, especially in the matter of violence; violence was a tool, a means of effecting circumstances, and should be used with great care, he believed; and also simply the possibility of it, the prospect, the aura, the suggestion, he had learned, was better than actual execution, the former almost always serving to achieve the end desired, whereas the latter almost always led to unforeseen consequences and complexities; and the unforeseen was Enriques worst nightmare, the thing he fought most bitterly to avoid. Thus he left the Plover to herself, and the Tanets lumbered southeast, Enrique silently comparing charts with his pilot.
* * *
The problem with the ocean, Declan considered, was that it was so wet; otherwise it might be a sort of lovely billowing playground, a place where you could fall and not be hurt, make a mistake and be forgiven. But no, here nothing was forgiven, you paid thoroughly for the slightest mistake, darkness fell not like a mercy but like a hammer, and this was where moist went to heaven. Everything was moist beyond reclamation, the fish, the birds, the bedraggled garbage floating on the surface, even everything above the surface, like the mist that some days never could haul itself fully up into being a self-respecting cloud. It was inconceivable that anything whatsoever on the boat would ever be dry ever again. Even his tiny bunk below, which he had built meticulously fitting the boards together in endless overlay and overlap, to keep out any hint of spray and fog, now smelled like a sleeping bag left in a dank basement for a long winter, and felt like a cold coffin rather than the cheery redolent cedar study he had envisioned. His books were beginning to swell, his skin itched from moist clothes and grating salt, his crackers wilted, his spirits flagged. Also while we are on the subject of general complaints about the ocean, he thought, the colors are nothing to write home about. The ocean blue, my butt. Mostly its puke gray, when its not evil green or some shade of foul charcoal that gives you the seasick willies if you stare at it too long. Now, if the thing were transparent, that would be cool, you would be fascinated all day and knocked out all night by the light show. Who designed this thing? Where do I file my complaints? Whos in charge here? You can see why so many people who lived out here were nuts and mystics. The things designed to make you crazy. Theres no pattern to it, no organizational principle. Whatever you are sure of is sure to not be at all what you were sure it is. People imagined seeing islands and vast monsters. You can see why the old people thought it was the end of the earth; it is the end of the earth. Its not even really part of the earth. I dont see no earth out here. You see any earth? he asked the gull, out of force of habit, but realized, again with a pang, that not even the gull had stayed with him, and he was inarguably and utterly alone. Darkness having fallen suddenly like a fist, he urinated copiously over the stern and went to bed.
* * *
In the morning he went over his charts carefully and realized that he was approximately at the edge of what he had always thought was the wetter half of Oregon, if you considered Oregon in the larger sense, which is to say not merely the four-hundred-mile-wide dry part with mountains and wolverines and settlements, but also the four-hundred-mile-wide wet part adjacent, also with mountains and major predators and settlements; and this is not even to mention the four-hundred-mile-deep part, which he called Subterroregon, or the four-hundred-mile-high part, which he named Atmosphoregon, although he had sometimes daydreamed of voyaging to the peak of Atmosphoregon, to the physical boundary called the critical level of escape, after which you have essentially left behind planet, air, and time; an idea that appealed greatly to Declan, although he would have to steal a rocket to make the trip, an idea that did not appeal to him. Whereas the wetter half of Oregon, the four hundred miles of impacific ocean adjacent to the four hundred miles of dirt Oregon, appealed deeply; he even had topographic charts of it, labeled Wettern Oregon, which an oceanographer friend of his had drawn in exchange for fifty pounds of fresh halibut. This guy, remembered Declan with a grin, was a kick—he had legally changed his name for a while to an adjective, he played the flügelhorn in a jazz band that deliberately played only such events as weddings between Lutherans and Presbyterians and baptisms of babies named for animals, and he had once flensed a whale by himself, over the course of three weeks, on the beach, living in a tiny blue tent above the high tide line. He was one of those guys who seemed electrified by everyone and everything, the kind of guy who totally lit up when he saw a sparrowhawk helicoptering over a corn shock, the kind of guy who liked every kid he ever met and every kid liked him, the kind of guy that dogs leaned against so as to get their bellies and ears rubbed at the same time as only dog people know how to do properly so that the dog makes that crooning mooing moaning humming thrumming sound of Delighted, the kind of guy who liked all kinds of music and liked finding new music even more than digging the music he already loved, the kind of guy who when he walked down the street in a foreign city the old sour grandmothers shuffled out in the street to pinch his cheek and scold him affectionately for his silver earrings and braided beard like the beard of a goat in a jazz band. But he had been wounded by a storm, this guy, his little daughter hit by a bus driver when she was five years old waiting for the kindergarten bus, and his light was dimmed, and by now no one thought he would ever get it back. Declan had often asked him to come for a long voyage on the Plover, man, lets go fish for salmon in Alaska! lets go surf the Island of All the Saints off Mexico! lets steal a rocket and shoot for Venus! But now his friend was the kind of guy who said quietly nah and went to go give his daughter a bath, which took a long time and was best done with aforethought, so as to get her safely cantilevered in and out of the tub, her huge gray eyes staring hungrily at everything, her close-cropped hair starting to turn white despite her youth.
About midday the lurking mist finally burned off completely and it became the single most beautiful day he had ever spent at sea, and Declan had spent a thousand days afloat; this day, though—this day was ridiculously beautiful, embarrassingly beautiful, egregiously beautiful, as if the ocean were preening, or apologizing, or waking slowly, naked in the perfect light, and stretching luxuriously, showing off its glorious parts, giving the spotless sky a half-hooded come-hither smile; the water grew bluer than the bluest blue, bluer than Oregons Crater Lake ever even imagined, a glittering translucent limpid lucid pristine generous blue that gave you the happy willies just staring at it, my God what a world, to dream up a color like that!
The quietest and steadiest of breezes aft; sea ducks in meticulous geometric triangles and rhombi; flying fish fully a foot long sailing glittering for fifty yards and more; the first storm petrels he had seen, flying so low over the placid sea that they seemed to be running on it; the first shearwaters he had seen, sailing effortlessly along and suddenly slicing down for fish, and once for a bright orange squid, wriggling wildly for an instant before it was shredded, what in heavens name was a squid doing at the surface, did squid rise to savor such days also? And whales, taking turns as if their pods were on parade or procession; a raft of sperm whales and calves, sighing through the extraordinary water as big as buses; two humpback whales who slid along the sides of the Plover to port and starboard, lifting it inches higher for a moment, perhaps a quiet cetacean joke; and by far the biggest sunfish he had ever seen, easily seven feet long and a thousand pounds, dozing on the surface, and looking uncommonly like a small dance floor, or the wall of a cabin. The fisherman in Declan, which was a lot of him after long years of plowing the sea for meat, stared hungrily at all that placid toothless food, so easily caught as it basked; but something else rose in him to trump the hunter, and he hove to for a while alongside the creature, to simply gaze in wonder at the thing, until finally it woke with a start, snapping awake just like a child in the last row of math class first period on a muggy hot day, and slid effortlessly away into the deep.
* * *
If an ocean, thought Declan, is the sum of all the rivers pouring into it, then we are on various braided rivers, really, rather than the sea, and this thought occupied him for quite a while. He dug his charts out and counted the fattest rivers surrendering themselves to Pacifica—the Columbia, the mighty river of the West, the Father of Rivers; the Stickeen, the great Canadian river cloudy with the sperm of salmon in the old days; the roaring Fraser and Yukon and Skeena, all ice and silted melt from mountains so remote no one knew some of them; the poor Colorado, with so many names over the years, the River Red, the River of Embers, the River of Good Hope, draining the vast American desert, giving itself away to everyone, and finishing as an exhausted trickle; the Mekong, the Xi Jiang, the San Joaquin, the Shinano, the Rio Grande de Santiago, all diving headlong finally into the greatest of waters, losing their names as they joined their brothers and sisters in their mother and father, from which they would again rise into mist and cloud and be reborn as rain and river; and then there were the even larger rivers called seas bellying into Pacifica, noted Declan, checking them off with his nubbed pencil: the Sulu and the Coral, the Celebes and the Tasman, the Seas of Japan and China; not seas at all, really, but only fists and fingers of the mother of seas, poking and lapping and dissolving the placid land. Everything was in motion all the time, he thought, the water dissolving the land, the land rising and falling, the sky slurping the sea, the seas trading places, the rivers sprinting as fast as they could go to their wild dissolution; tall mountains were slowly melting as others were thrusting up to be born, and beings beyond count or calculation also arose and melted, were born and dissolved, their shells and husks sliding finally back into the ocean; so that everyone and everything was a boat, he thought; but none of them as dashing as the Plover, with its deep green paint the color of shadowed cedar groves, and its bright red sailcloth the color of salmon on their way to sex and death.
* * *
Declans buddy, the guy with the daughter who got hit by the kindergarten bus, had lots of names. People called him all sorts of things. People kept giving him new names, for reasons they couldnt articulate. The easy explanation was the urge to nicknamery, especially from men, who use names as handles and jokes and forms of glancing affection and respect; but women did it too, and more than the pet names lovers give each other. Something about him invited christening, perhaps, in the way that people have the irrepressible urge to name mountains and pets; perhaps naming is a grappling to understand, or a way to assert control, or an attempt to manage mystery; if something has a label, a name, a category, a definition, the beginning of an explanation, its not so wild and inchoate anymore, even if the name applied is a total misnomer, like the Pacific Ocean, which isnt. So Paco, Peco, Polo, Pavel, Placido, Pomo, and Piko he was variously labeled, the only nomenclatural consistency being that initial pop—which is what his daughter had called him, before she stopped speaking, after the bus stop. Popa and Pipa, they had called each other when she was little, and the way she had told the story to her friends in kindergarten, with the absolute conviction of someone who had spent five whole years on this planet and knew the score, was that they gave each other those names when she was little, she used to produce spit-bubbles to make her dad laugh, and he would do the same, the two of them sprawled in the warm country of the quilt, bubbling and snorting and giggling and slobbering, until her mother his wife their hero came in pretending to be annoyed but sometimes brandishing the spit-slurping mop in their faces which only made them laugh all the harder, which was the best time of all because then we would all be tangled up like a big vine on the bed, she would say, those were the best times ever, better than any other times anyone ever had, even times that you would think would be the best times ever couldnt be even half as good as the times we were all laughing and tangled up like a big knot in the big bed in the little house. Those were the best times ever. If you were a brand-new time, she would say, and you wanted to be a great time when you grew up to be an older time, those would be the times you would try to be like. Those were the best times ever.
* * *
Just after the sun melted into the sea and dusk slid into the boat there was a silence so absolute and profound that Declan sat in the stern to listen. Is it listening if theres no sound, does that make sense? A great silence is an enormous thing, a positive negative, the full null, he thought. You could actually hear a really deep silence; it was like a held note on a musical scale so big some of the notes didnt have names yet. The sea was glass, so there was none of the usual lapping and yammering and slapping of water on wood; not a being to be seen, no splish of fish or whir of wing; the engine at rest in its tiny wooden house; even the boat, usually a mansion of creaks and groans and thumps and clanks, of tools falling and freight jostling, of weights shifting with a sigh, of the mast making squeaking love to the cabin, was as silent as an empty crib. He remembered a line from watery old Herman Melville: all profound things and emotions of things are preceded and attended by Silence, and Silence is the general consecration of the universe. Hmmm. A melvillacious line, that. So very many silences, and kinds of silence: chapels and churches and confessionals, glades and gorges, pregnant pauses and searing lovemaking; the stifling stifled brooding silence just before a thunderstorm unleashes itself wild on the world; the silence of space, the vast of vista; the crucial silences between notes, without which there could be no music; no yes without no. Perhaps silence was the ocean and sounds be boats upon the deep, he thought. Perhaps silence was the mother and sounds her yearning children. Do we not yearn for silence at the deepest level, and merely distract ourselves with stammer and yammer? Isnt that why I am out in the middle of nowhere? The ceiling of the silent sea. The silent She.
* * *
But after midnight the weather grew worse and the ocean swelled and roiled so furiously that Declan finally made his way up to the cabin, clipped onto the jackline, and went over his charts with a flicker of fear. The Plover was roughly at 45 degrees north and 140 degrees west, and if he stayed on the 45th parallel, as had been his vague disgruntled plan, he would be driving right into the belly of the North Pacifics winter storm season, which no sane man would do unless he had a much bigger ship and the smell of serious money in his nose. He could turn south, and ride down the 140-degree-longitude line along California and Mexico, but coasting meant Coast Guard and traffic and pirates and drug smugglers and harbormasters asking questions. He could turn north, and ride along the much wilder emptier coasts of British Columbia and Alaska, where the fishing was better but the weather, lets face it, was horrendous, and somehow the last thing he wanted right now was the prospect of ice; his soul felt like ice as it was, and even the thought of a long black cold winter in some dank dark inlet crammed to the gills with dripping spruce and cedar and pale moist silent people smelling like fish and last nights lurching drunk made him shiver. He went over the charts carefully again as the boat bucked and shimmied. Ill be good and damned, he finally said aloud, to where the gull used to be. Ill be damned good and fine. We have to go fecking south. Damn my eyes. I dont believe this. The fecking South Seas. This is a joke. What is this, an eighteenth-century novel? Is this some weakass movie where we sail into a lagoon and are greeted with flowers and songs? Fecking fecking feck. I dont believe this. I just want to get lost, is all. The fecking islands of the South Seas. God help me. Cant a guy just sail west without issues and problems? What have I ever done to deserve this? Hey, Ocean, I killed some of your fish, all right? But they would have died eventually anyway, you know that, I just borrowed the ends of their lives, is all. Is that so bad that you have to drown me? I didnt add any garbage to your fecking pristine waters. I just tried to eke out a living, is all, and feck all a living it was. I thought we had an agreement. I thought we were silent partners. I never took more than I needed. I didnt shoot your seals or flay your whales. I didnt catch that fecking sunfish the other day you showed me. I was respectful. I returned fish parts I didnt need to your cleaning crews. We had a deal. You didnt kill me and I didnt foul you. And now this. Jesus fecking Christmas. Youre forcing this decision on me. I dont want to make decisions. That was the whole point. No decisions, no thinking, just go. But no. Now I have to make a fecking decision. The whole point of the thing is shot. Fecking fine. South and west. Unbelievable. Fecking feck.
He wrenched the wheel 45 degrees to the left. Instantly the storm abated so noticeably that he stopped cursing and listened intently; and after a few minutes he locked the wheel in position and went back to bed, sleeping far past dawn.
Copyright © 2014 by Brian Doyle
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