The Memory of Place

the memory of place

Another one of my favorites, an older story I thought needed a little brushing up. This was my first take of a sailing story on the Seine, and I think my first attempt at using a personal sailing narrative for the basis of a story. The original shell is still here, intact, the arc cleaned up a bit, the grammar, hopefully, too.

Oh, the aircraft images in this post are mine, made in X-Plane and Painter on the Mac. Peripheral to the central storyline, perhaps.

spitfire

So, here it is, the memory of a memory. Hope you enjoy.

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The Memory of Place 

We have lingered in the chambers of the sea 

By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown 

Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock T S Eliot

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There is a tree I think of from time to time. A tree in winter, it’s limbs bare. Blackened bark, wet with cold rain. I stand and look at it’s limbs fracturing upward into low scudding cloud and I am struck by how these bare shoots reach out like nerves, and I wonder what they feel when winter comes, when all memory is holding fast to a fading summer’s light.

And what can you say about a marriage that dies, not quietly in winter but in the harsh light of day? What could I tell you that you haven’t seen and heard a hundred times before, perhaps experienced in your own darkest hour? And so, what if I could tell you a tale of broken dreams in darkest night, of betrayals so sudden and unexpected they might make the most hardened heart weep in despair? And even if I could, what would be the point? We all seem to plod-on through life with vacant eyes, ignoring life’s lessons until it’s far too late to change the patterns of our acquiescence, and so if history does indeed have lessons to teach us, why is it that we all seem so willfully resolute in our ability to ignore them?

My wife had, once upon a time, been my best friend. We dreamed a little, conspired a lot and had, I thought, been completely in love with one another. We’d managed to build a fairly successful restaurant business over the years – years spent side by side, together – and then an unexpected opportunity had come along one fine September day. A friend wanted to buy our place, and the opportunity looked like one of those ‘once in a lifetime’ shots at breaking away from the grind that you always hear – and dream about.

But was breaking away what we wanted? We were at the top of our game, making good money and enjoying ourselves to boot. Yet I thought we’d both always been vagabonds at heart, and we both loved sailing, and we had been consumed with more than our fair share of wanderlust over the years. We talked about the sailboat we’d bought just a few years before – even then with distant horizons gleaming in our eyes – and we talked through that night about dusty plans of sailing to faraway places and exploring distant beaches – with our bare feet planted firmly in the depths of remembrance.

Remembrance? Why does that word resonate so when I think back on those heady days?

Was the choice really so simple? Was the decision driven by a growing lack of connection we felt to our everyday lives together, and had those weakening bonds pushed us past the memory of place – and into the beckoning grasp of worlds we’d always dreamed to see? If we held on to the present, if we held on to the dying vines of such questionable common ground – and by that I mean a withering lack of connection to our past – how could we hope to hold the future in such high regard? What is the future without the past?

Look at in another way: how could having so much in common lead two people so far astray?

Liz and I read books and magazines on cruising in sailboats for years before we made the leap, but while the journey itself always seemed – through our mind’s eye, anyway – to be idyllic in and of itself, seeing the world had grown secondary to living the journey, yet in the back of my mind I found myself wondering if we hadn’t simply become experience junkies. So yes, I had begun asking myself if the means had grown more important than the ends? So yes, it felt good to think about selling out and moving on; this was heady validation for years of effort, wasn’t it?And our success enabled feelings of empowerment that ruled our outlook.

But perhaps now’s the time to look back at a few key moments along the way…

We had sailed from our home port of Newport Beach, California to Baja more than once over years, in those years before the big break, so we knew the reality behind the dream. And we knew the reality can be both better – and worse than the dream.

Our first trip south, we made the 300 mile crossing to Guadelupe Island, off the west coast of Baja California. We made the trip not to see the herds of elephant seals that winter over on the rocky beaches there, but the Great White sharks that come to feed on the seals. Liz was fascinated by sharks, had been since she was a kid, and while I might have taken this as a warning, at the time I just didn’t pick up on it. There were three dive boats in our anchorage on  the northeast coast, their operators chumming the water and dropping shark cages into the infinitely clear water, and several of the magnificent beasts glided by the side of our boat – their black eyes regarding us cooly as they slipped by – and it seems odd to me all these years later that those eyes stand out clearest in my memory. Being regarded as a meal by a super-predator is a lonely experience.

On our third trip south we went all the way to Manzanillo, on the Mexican mainland, and sheltered at the little marina at Las Hadas.  You’ve seen it, too, at least you have if you’ve seen the movie ‘10’, that is. You remember, that blazing beach with Dudley Moore watching Bo Derek running down the beach in slo-mo? Great place, the hills around the resort are spectacular, too. So spectacular they’re lined with Mediterranean-style villas these days, and this rustic corner of paradise looks like Laguna Beach these days. I guess the houses are cheaper.

So, the point I need to make is both Liz and I came to love sailing, especially the challenges it presented, yet in the end we came to know this dream as a calling, and the call grew louder, more insistent with each passing year. And with each trip taken, our desire to cast off the ties that bind grew with shrill insistence to the drumbeats of a primordial lust. The music crescendo came with the offer to buy out our restaurant.

After talking about our choice over dinner, we decided it was time to cut the cord. Time for a new boat, a bigger one of course, with room for our lives. Our first boat was 34 feet small, and living aboard was one step up from camping. Spartan, in other words, yet uncomplicated, and fun. And isn’t that the way? Most of our friends had started off that way; make a few bucks and discard small and uncomplicated for big and complex, and so we followed in their footsteps. We traded 34 feet for 43, simple for so complicated the boat came with multiple 3-ring binders for each of it’s systems – and then of course we added even more stuff.

We moved aboard our new aquaTarkus after we sold our house, and we actually said we were moving aboard for good, didn’t we? For ever and ever, for better of worse, in sickness and in health – for good. It was our joint decision to not go quietly into that good night, and we would journey hand in hand, together, beyond the threshold of all our dreams. We would walk those faraway shores.

For good.

Faraway shores, indeed. I smile when I think back on that night, and how blind I was to the reality of the situation.

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So we moved onboard, fitted her out, then sailed south down Baja to Cabo San Lucas. We shopped at a Costco (!), tightened a few nuts and bolts, then jumped off to make the ‘coconut run’ to French Polynesia.

I remember most the blue water on that crossing. Lots of blue water, a blue so clear and deep and mysterious no words can describe it.

And no storms. No howling gales. Just an endless expanse of the most startling blue sea you’ve ever seen, day after day of cerulean dreams come true. Maybe what I really remember most was our first big landfall, in the Marquesas. Kaoha Nui: the words mean Welcome. We were kaohi nui, welcome to dream away among the soaring, pearl-like atolls, anchored under volcanic ridge-lines that sheltered us from a world splintering away from us too fast. Time stopped in Nuku Hiva, in the shadow of the cathedral spires of Hatiheu Bay, and we were only too glad to remain in those shadows – hiding from the truth.

And as we lay at anchor, swinging in the current under sheltering skies – and after only a few months – all our choices seemed vindicated, our future assured. We were as happy there as we had ever been, and I didn’t think life could get any better.

After a few months in this paradise we sailed south for Tahiti, and when we arrived at Papeete we weathered not storms on our approach to the island, but cruise ships and tourists flooding Papeete like an errant tide of effluence. So it was in Tahiti that we first perceived the ghastly contours of a world out of sync with itself; so many people in search of perfect harmony, yet all these people were, in their infinite hordes, destroying all they sought to experience. It was like all of us were on a pilgrimage, seeking out the Holy Self in an ever more profane world, and almost overnight the reality of our explorations began to feel more and more like an act of desecration, and over the next year we ran into the same phenomena over and over again. We found the world had built a six lane freeway right over what had once been ‘off the beaten path’; commuter airliners disgorged hundreds of SCUBA divers on atoll after atoll, and in even the most remote anchorages we would always find one or two multi-million dollar mega-yachts at anchor, jet-skis buzzing about and coconut oiled, bikini clad women kicking about on desolate beaches while impoverished natives looked on. We came to believe that we were all in search of something ephemeral out there, all of us seeking some connection to pasts that had grown inaccessible, perhaps. Yet in the end I listened to people, expecting to hear stories of escape from the daily 9 to 5 grind, but what I heard was a desperate humanity, all of us in search of something missing from our lives.

I wasn’t sure what it was then we were looking for, but I had an idea.

I think it has something to do with that tree.

For we were, I think I saw, disillusioned, on a pilgrimage like all the other disillusioned travelers through time, you might say, some in search of salvation, a few even looking for a way out of the endless drudgery of what had become a meaningless existence. And there were people like myself, and to a degree, Liz. We were people who wanted to see this world, all we could, rather than be content to know one town, or one state. We were, we decided, explorers.

Liz and I had both grown up in a world dominated by the aftermath of war, with the shimmering reality of nuclear holocaust seemingly just over the next horizon. Emaciated bodies of Jews rotting in lime-lined pits were nothing new to our experience of history; we had been schooled in the “realities” of genocide on a daily basis for, well, all our lives, so by the time Vietnam became a household name we were fully charged with righteous zeal. Liz and I met at UC Berkeley just as the anti-war movement was winding down, so we came to know one another in the context of war and resistance, a narrow gauge world of Hendrix and Dylan and sandalwood scented head shops full of day-glow peace-sign posters. We lived in fantasy land, where the children of privilege protested over better wages for migrant farm workers.

And we walked to classes – more often than not – with troops on campus, and anti-corporation leaflets fluttered out classroom windows like psychedelic snow. Yeah, I know. Can you believe we actually believed that crap? It’s hard to look back on it now without feeling a little embarrassed about it all. By the time Watergate flushed the system all we could say was something like “See, we told you so…”

Anyway, what’s that old saw? Things fall apart, the center cannot hold? That was the sixties, in a nutshell.

Moving from the heightened sense of the possible we found at rallies and teach-ins to the corporate sensibilities of Orange County was, in retrospect, the beginning of our journey along the hard road to dissolution. More and more, our lives focused on becoming successful, on making money, on buying a house, then a bigger house, that new BMW, a boat, a bigger boat – it was endless, and we knew better. I’m sure we did.

It’s hard to look back on it now – from the perspective of our unravelling – as we, like the world around us – slipped into the quiet dissolution of material excess. It’s easy to say that somewhere along the way Liz and I sold out. We joined the Me Generation and never looked back. And it was so fun, all of it – sorry, but it was. I bet Faust had fun until the bill came due, too.

But, you know? Devils always have the last laugh.

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Somewhere in our fourth year of sailing we decided we’d had enough enlightenment and decided to head back to the States. We knew we wanted to ‘go home,’ we just weren’t exactly sure where home was. We decided against California, however, because everything there seemed to have gone wrong, terribly wrong. Too many bogus lawyers chasing the legal lottery, businesses crushed by the greed, prices out of control. Anyway, that’s what we thought at the time, but a lot of people we knew were leaving, headed north to Seattle, so we considered that area – until we looked at rainfall totals.

I had grown up on a ranch near Durango, Colorado; Liz in Charleston, South Carolina, and there’s not much sailing in Colorado so we decided, after many lively nights under the stars talking about our options, to head for the Gulf of Mexico, maybe New Orleans and open a new restaurant. Of course, we were at anchor in the middle of Milford Sound, on the ass end of New Zealand’s South Island when we said this. Look at a map sometime if you want to get an idea of just how far off the beaten path you can get. Just how far it can be from where you are to where you want to go.

Searching for a metaphor?

And by that point it felt like we were stuck in the middle of a nowhere, dancing on a volcano. We were ready to blow, so we opted for the straightest course home, to buck the trade-winds and head straight for Panama. It was, in retrospect, an interesting choice.

Sailing a small boat hard into the wind across the Pacific Ocean is a treat for the well and truly insane, as both Liz and I could attest when we finally dropped anchor off Balboa, adjacent to Panama City, some forty seven days after leaving Whangarei, on New Zealand’s North Island. We were beat up, bruised, tired to the bone, and thought seriously of selling the boat right then and there. Anyway, we secured the boat and grabbed the next flight on American to DFW, changed planes, and about six hours later were in the heat and humidity of the South Carolina lowlands. I’m sorry, but you haven’t experienced culture shock until you’ve tried something as harebrained as sailing a boat almost five thousand miles into gale-driven mountain-sized swells for damn near seven weeks, then hopping off your boat onto a still-lurching dock and into a twenty year old Fiat taxi, and a few hours later sitting inside a waterfront restaurant in the American South with your alcoholic in-laws.

Take my word for it. You ain’t been there, and you don’t want to, either.

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Let’s get down to basics, right here, right now.

If Liz’s dad was a pistol, her mom was a tiny thermonuclear warhead.

Fritz Strohman had come back from dropping bombs all over Europe in 1945 and within a few years managed a Buick dealership for some of the local rich kids. He made a good name for himself, married the tempestuously wild and beautiful Betsy Cummins, and somewhere along the way managed to have some kids. Betsy was a hard-charging Duke alum, a real ‘alpha, go-getter’ type that went on to Georgetown Law before returning home to go through all the local boys like a hot knife through buttered grits. But Fritz and Betsy were a team – a well-lubed team. Fritz went out on a limb in the early 70s and mortgaged his soul to buy a Japanese car dealership, and, well, the rest is, as they say, History. After two oil embargoes and skyrocketing gasoline prices, by the 80s he bought the Buick dealership out from under the rich kids and never looked back, at least until his right carotid artery got so clogged up from cheese grits and chicken-fried steak that he almost died while banging away on one of his secretaries.

Then he found God. The big time Bible Belt religion kind of God.

Betsy Strohman? Well, the last time I had seen her she didn’t have any use for God, and as far as I could tell she never would. Their marriage had become…interesting.

Betsy was a very impractical woman in an equally impractical world, and Liz was a lot like her in so many ways. As I watched mother and daughter at lunch that first afternoon back in Charleston, the parallel contours of their lives together became very clear, yet where Betsy was rapacious in her lust for power and control, Liz was demure, a little more coarse and manipulative when she wanted something from her daddy, and I felt for the guy. Between the two of them, he’d never had a chance. Of course, you can draw your own conclusions about where that left me.

Charleston isn’t quite New Orleans when it come to high livin’ and haute cuisine, but, to be fair, some of the restaurants in the old part of town come pretty damn close. So of course Fritz wanted to go in with us and open up a restaurant, a world class place to put the city back on the culinary map. Betsy did too, really she did. Wouldn’t we move back, she pleaded, perhaps settle in, have some kids – “before it’s too late?” I swear Betsy looked at the Rolex on her wrist as she said that, while Liz, bless her heart, was licking her lips, almost drooling. There was that biological clock tick-ticking away, and now she wanted to come back to Charleston so badly it was palpable all around the table.

Like I said, Liz was a lot like her mom in many ways. Same line line of attack, just a different approach.

So of course you know we never had a chance.

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We returned to Panama on an American 757 a few days later, got aquaTarkus all ship shape and readied her for her first trip through the canal. We rounded up some gringos at the local yacht club to help with lines in the locks, and as soon as the (required) pilot from the Canal Zone was dropped off we shipped anchor and motored off toward the Miraflores locks.

You know what I remember most about that day? Of course you do…

The look on the Pilot’s face when he saw our boat.

No, no super-tanker for this guy. A forty three foot Hinckley. ‘A fucking sailboat,’ I could hear him muttering under his breath. The poor guy looked so crestfallen it was almost heartbreaking. We motored across Gatun Lake looking over our shoulder as thousand foot long behemoths slipped silently through the water not a hundred yards off our ass. Our Pilot hid his face so the pilots on the bridges of those tankers – on those real ships – wouldn’t see him stuck on this lowly gringo yacht trolling along a five knots.

I felt for the guy. Really I did.

We stopped off in the San Blas Islands after we cleared the canal before heading north across the Caribbean. Once these islands were famous, out of the way places, the native folk turning out molas one at a time. Now? The islands were overrun with tourists from a never ending flow of cruise-ships that plied the Caribbean, and hey, everyone was smiling, making money selling Chinese made molas and having a hell of a time.

Me? I’d bought some local rum in Balboa. It was like 150-proof rocket-fuel, so I was set, happy as a clam. I’d even given the pilot a bottle for his troubles, before he hopped off the boat muttering obscenities in an impolite Creole-Spanish.

I think he was crying as he motored away. Almost. They probably give better rum on the cruise ships. Poor guy.

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Not quite two months later we were sailing past Fort Sumter into Charleston Harbor, bound for a huge marina on the west side of the Battery. I wondered if it was just me, but why did the walls of the fort look like they were coated in old, worn out blood? What memory of place did those walls hold for people who considered the place holy ground? More to the point, would history repeat itself in my little world, the world around these troubled waters? Little histories always seem to, don’t they, when families get involved?

Liz and I followed a subtle progression from happiness, after we arrived in Charleston, to a mild, partly cloudy entropy as time wore on. As we drifted within this entropical paradise, we found we were, more often than not, trying to be polite to one another, trying to avoid conflict at all cost. To not rock the boat. Then one day, out of the blue she was talking about selling the boat and buying a house, setting down roots, having kids. Hell, we were almost forty years old and she was talking about kids, plural, not singular, and the longer we stayed tied up at that dock the more insistent this talk grew. It was frankly upsetting, and she took on a wistful, pouty look when she hinted about moving back to the street she had grown up on as a kid; pretty soon it was like she was telling me it was her societal obligation to bring two or three more souls back into that world, and that world only, and well, when contrasted against the life we’d known the past five years her whole performance struck me as delusional, to the point it was ironic, if not downright comedic.

And I told her so. I think I even used the word delusional – and more than once, too – which is why I never applied for a position at the State Department, if you know what I mean.

Hell, I don’t know, maybe I was looking at Fort Sumter off in the distance while my mouth ran along. Maybe I was the one who fired the first shots of our onrushing little uncivil war. I don’t know anymore, and in the long run I don’t imagine it really matters because after that she looked at me like I’d thrown acid all over her dreams. I’d never seen so much hate on another human being’s face in my life, and I looked at her for a moment – until she turned and looked away, looked at the old spires and buildings along the Battery looming out of the afternoon smog – and I shuddered at the feeling of desolation that swept over me. Had I really ever known her? Had we really been on such a different path? Had I really been so clueless – or had we just ‘changed’ over the years?

Yeah, I know, probably clueless, but I think paths almost have to diverge when ‘middle age crazy’ and that tick-ticking biological clock collide. Like matter and anti-matter, I reckon. Instant annihilation.

I think back on our first day back in Carolina from time to time. I found the marina Liz’s dad had booked for us, and called the dockmaster on the VHF as we sailed up the Ashley River channel, and they said they’d send a boy out to help us into our new slip. We motored around in circles for a while until the kid bounced down to the docks, then I followed his directions and took the boat into the slip he pointed out to us, and Liz and I jumped off to help him get her tied off.

“Where y’all coming from,” the kid asked as he helped us with the lines.

“Whagarei,” said I, ever the seasoned world traveller.

“Oh, that down in Florida?”

“New Zealand,” I tossed back at him in my slowest deadpan. John Wayne didn’t have nothin’ on this white boy!

“Oh, right,” the kid said, “down by Miami, ain’t it. Heard of that place.”

“Yeah.” Me too, kid. Welcome home, sucker.

No one could relate to what Liz and I had just done, let alone what we’d been through emotionally. Funny, but maybe I was the only one who couldn’t see what was coming. Maybe that kid on the dock wasn’t the only dullard out there that day.

It’s funny what sticks out in your mind, isn’t it?

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I gave it my best. I tried to like her dad, I tried to like his country club and his brown Rolls Royce with the tan vinyl top, but the poor guy was always so sauced by noon he never remembered a thing we talked about. And Betsy? Hell, the first time she slipped her hand under the table and tried to pull down my zipper? Well, I don’t know, but things between all of us just seemed to get weird after those first fateful encounters.

Maybe weird isn’t the best word to describe those shenanigans, but it’s damn close. Things got real weird. In a hurry. We opened the new restaurant down by the river, a pretty upscale low country place that soon hit the cool zone and was the place to be seen. Liz and I became local celebrities for a while, while the book we penned about our adventures in the Pacific did a brisk business for a week or two, and things were beginning to shape up as, well, maybe predictable would be stretching the point, but things were at least tolerable between Liz and I. We were making money again, everyone was happy, and…

…she came back from a doctors appointment one day, told me she couldn’t have a baby, that we’d waited too long. ‘You’re off the hook,’ she told me sarcastically, but what got me was that she was the one who looked relieved. She had me to blame, I guess, but that was merely a convenience. I’d made her wait too long, or so the story went, so it was all my doing and that was that.

Yet nobody seemed to give a damn. Not her mom, not her dad, not the brother or sisters who dropped by the restaurant occasionally for a free meal. Surreal. But Liz DID seem to care about not being able to have a baby, in a convoluted way that felt increasingly manipulative. I guessed there were so many conflicting emotions boiling around in her mind that, well, I thought for a time she was simply starting to come unglued.

But no, she was thinking along different lines. She was plotting a new, very different course.

We still lived on the boat; neither one of us could let go of that, but the space there began to feel small. It never had before, not in 12,000 miles and almost five years, but now we just couldn’t get out of one another’s way fast enough. Everything about US was out of balance, everything seemed confined – out of place.

Then I came home very late one night and found a Sheriff’s Deputy waiting for me on the dock by the boat, and he served divorce papers to me right there in the early morning fog, and gave me notice that the boat – my home – was now off limits until the divorce proceedings settled all questions of ownership. He would wait while I got some things off.

True to form, all Liz’s things were gone too. The boat looked like a huge, empty tomb, now impossibly large. Had we really taken her half way around the world – and back? The Deputy came below and looked around, and I talked to him about the journey Liz and I had made. He was impressed. Hell, so was I.

Had we really done so much together? Seen so many new places, made so many new friends?

And after those miles and years had we learned so little about one another?

Anyway, the deputy came by weeks later and asked me to autograph his copy of our book. Yeehah.

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The lawyer I’d found to handle incorporating the restaurant – a cute gal named Lisa Mullins and a real tiger by all accounts (as she was universally loathed by most of the divorced men in town I’d met) who knew more about my life than I did by the time the dust settled. Anyway, I was in sock and Mullins told me not to worry about stuff like this, that she’d take care of me. Within a few days I had rented a small loft near the Battery, and a small circle of friends I’d accumulated at the marina began to rally ‘round the flag. Lots of rum flowed those days, though it was dicey for a while. Things felt alright one day, like I might live, you know? Hell, stranger things have happened, but when your world gets rattled like this it takes a while to figure out which way’s up. Down, on the other hand, is a hell of a lot easier to find.

I kept to a schedule, walked to a Starbuck’s up the street every morning, got to the restaurant by nine to get things up and running, hit the office behind the kitchen to get caught up on all the paperwork, then out on the floor to get ready for the lunchtime onslaught. I hardly ever bumped into Liz, and she was cordial when we did.

Mullins the lawyer called a few weeks later. Liz and her family wanted all interest in the restaurant; I could have the boat and a little cash. Sounded like a good deal for them, not too bad for me, so I gave Mullins the go-ahead. Liz signed off on it a few days later, so the case went to court uncontested, and after a few more weeks it was a done deal. Seventeen years of marriage. Done. Over. Faithful all the way, reasonably happy with each other, we didn’t hit each other, bite each other, tell lies about each other.

We had watched the idealism of our generation take hold and move the world, we had tried to reach out into that world, tried to understand the forces that always seemed to keep people at each other’s throats. No matter. In the end we turned on each other just like everyone else. Maybe like everyone else in our generation, we self-destructed when we realized the enormity of what we’d attempted. It’s hard to fight the tides of human nature…just ask any salmon fighting upstream to spawn.

So, in the end I found myself thinking: was our marriage a mirror of our times? I don’t know. Maybe.

We’d sold out once before, embarked down the path of suburban conformity, but then we dropped out, tried to rekindle the spark that defined those years at Berkeley. We moved out into the world, searching for some kind of hair-brained truth, but ultimately we were lost just like everyone else – and we knew it, too – even if we were afraid to admit it. Like all of us who sold out, we tried to come back to the reality of what we’d lost, only to find that we’d become anachronisms, our dissolution as a couple – and as a generation – complete.

But had we learned anything at all along the way?

Maybe by turning our backs on the choices we made, to the choices that defined a generations need, we repudiated the very meaning and purpose of our lives. In the vacuum that was left, all manner of crazy extremism rushed to fill the void. No running from conformity could take us back to the truth we’d found at Berkeley. No amount of self-deluding existential bullshit could erase the reality of what we’d come to know about ourselves.

We were just like anyone else out there, and now that time was at an end, those days were over. That’s what it means to sell out, I reckon.

It was unnerving, moving back on the boat, putting my shirts back into the same old drawers – drawers that had been Liz’s for so many years – then laying out my navigation instruments again – like I really knew where I was headed. I did, however, have a ton of boxes up on the dock to move back on-board. Anyway, moving boxes gave me time to think about the options.

Money wasn’t a problem, but staying here would be. Charleston’s a small town when you get right down to it, and I wasn’t a local. That’s always a bad mix – more so after a divorce – and there were still lots of places I wanted to sail to. I’d never considered sailing alone before, but it could be done.

I walked up to the car again and brought another box of books down to the boat, and I saw ‘Mullins the man-eating lawyer’ waiting by the boat as I walked back down the ramp.

“Hi,” she said. “Nice day for a sail. Wanna go out?”

I looked at her, standing there dressed like a freshly-minted yachty right out of a Ralph Lauren catalog. Red shorts, new Topsiders, white Polo shirt. Every fucking cliché in the book. She looked kinda cute, though, in a preppy kind of way. Clean, if you know what I mean. Lawyerly and clean.

“Yeah, it looks nice out there. I’d love to but I’ve got stuff all over the place down there, things not stowed yet. Maybe in a week or so . . .”

“Let’s take mine. It’s just over there.” She pointed across the way to little blue-hulled double ender.

“Oh, is she yours? Is she a WestSail?”

“Yup, an old 32. I picked her up a couple years ago, been cleaning her up.”

You know, all of a sudden I felt like going out for a sail. “Yeah, sounds good. Let me get this box out of the way and I’ll be there in a minute.”

“OK,” she said. I heard her walking away down the dock and turned to look at her legs.

“And, Lisa,” I said, not really knowing why, “Thanks.”

“No problem.” Nice smile, too.

◊◊◊◊◊

She came down every Sunday, she said, and took Soliloquy out for a turn on the harbor. No matter; if the weather was foul she came down and sat on her ‘saloon’ and read books; her affair with the boat was a symbiotic one, she said, they both gained from their time together. She’d come down today, saw me loading boxes on board aquaTarkus and decided to ask me to go out for a sail with her. No pre-arranged agenda at work, just a simple gesture. She had a quiet smile on her face, kind of an all-knowing, insider’s joke kind of smile.

She wasn’t a bad seaman either, as it turned out, and I don’t know why that surprised me – other than just pure misogynistic simple-mindedness. Still, after Liz and I published that coffee table book about our voyage, we enjoyed a little celebrity within the local sailing community, and maybe that’s why Mullins was so nervous. So, I kept out of the way as she backed out the slip, stayed out of her way as much as I could while she hoisted sail, then just watched and enjoyed the day as it unfolded, like any other guest on her boat might. It was a cool Spring day, a freshening breeze was coming out of the northwest and whitecaps already dappling the harbor. Lots of other sailboats were out on the bay, and all those full sails stood in bold relief against the blustery sky, and after an hour or so found I was letting go, enjoying myself.

“There are a couple of cinnamon rolls down on the chart table,” she said as she kept an eye out for traffic coming out the Ashley River channel. “Wanna bring ‘em up?”

I dropped down the companionway, picked up the sack and turned to climb back out into the sunshine, but something caught my eye. A little plaque mounted by one of the port-lights; a diploma from an Outward Bound School in Colorado, dated January, 1977. A winter mountaineering program. Now I was impressed; this girl wasn’t pretender.

Lisa sheeted off the genoa and we munched on cinnamon rolls for awhile, as Soliloquy reached across the harbor towards Fort Sumter, and I watched her as she steered with her foot on the tiller, her eye on the sails. She seemed to be communing with the boat, and though I knew the feeling well I t was nice to watch someone else fall into the zone. Or, I soon thought, I used to know that feeling well. Somewhere, somehow, that simple symbiosis had left my life on the sea, probably about the time I started taking all kinds of things for granted. Like our marriage, for instance.

That failure was easy to see out on the water that afternoon, 20-20 hindsight being what it is; instead of reveling in the audacity of our choice to break away, Liz and I had grown complacent, we’d slipped into that other zone lots of married people do. We’d begun to take for granted the many great things about our life together, and in that quiet complacency the meaning of those things grew vague and obscure, then all the goodness was gone.

When you get to that point in a marriage, well, there are no compasses to help you find your way back. There are no obvious courses to steer through the rocks. All you can hope for is that the designer included enough lifeboats…

Lisa Mullins hadn’t lost that sense of purpose. Somehow, she held on to life just as she held on to Soliloquy – firmly, symbiotically, as if her relationship to the boat was a kind of marriage.

“Where are you?” Startled, I heard her voice and looked at Mullins. She was looking ahead, looking at the set of her sails.

“Did you say something?” I asked.

“Yeah, where are you? You look lost.”

There it was. My feelings of loss were so obvious even a lawyer could see them.

“Yes, I suppose I am.”

She turned to look at me.

“Is it Liz?” – Or, ‘Are you really so lost without her?’

“I don’t know. I don’t think it’s that simple, but who knows? Maybe it is…”

“Maybe you just need some sea time,” she laughed as she looked at the genoa.

“Yeah, that’s got a be it.” I looked at her and smiled. “So, where’re we headed, skipper?”

“You up for a little adventure.”

“Always.”

“Let’s head down the ICW a couple of miles, down Stono’s Creek. There’s a good dive down there on the water. Shrimp and grits kinda place.”

“Ah.”

“You like shrimp and grits? Oh, I forgot, you be a California boy, dat ‘bout right?” She gazed at me for a moment, and a thrill passed through me. I hadn’t felt one of those in years. Amazing.

“Is that a Charleston kind of accent?”

“Low country, you poor white boy. You ever read Pat Conroy?”

“Who?”

“Oh, you be a poor, stupid white boy.” She laughed, and her eyes sparkled as she tacked the boat through the wind, heading upriver for the Intra-Coastal Waterway.

“Sorry. Man’s got to know his limitations.”

“Yeah? That must be a guy thing.”

So, she wanted to play dirty, huh. “Where’d you go to school?” This could be fun . . .

“School? You mean like high school?”

“College.”

“Tulane. Then Yale for law. Why?”

“Just wondered,” I said, not wanting to get killed and filing that one away for another day.

“Wondered? You wonderin’ about ‘lil ole me?” she said in a Carolina accent that seemed a little too thick. She was looking right at me, though, with an intensity I found unsettling, if a little amusing. She was doing the alpha-chick thing, and enjoying herself immensely.

“Yeah, well, it’s not everyday I get to go sailing with an Ivy league lawyer who’s into cheese grits, if you know what I mean?”

“Yeah, yo ain’t lived ‘til you et cheese grits wit yo lawya.”

“I hope they have cold beer.”

“Shit, white boy, yo sho dumb, yo knowz it? People breast feed on beer ‘round these parts.” Now she was smiling, truly enjoying the persona she had so easily slipped on. I think she was trying to make me comfortable, me being a foreigner and all, but this really was a world apart from anything I’d ever been around before, but it felt comfortable. She felt comfortable, like an old pair of shoes. But, I thought, nothing felt like home anymore. Colorado was a memory too far to grasp, and California was, well, lost forever the sixties.

“I’ve never been on the ICW before,” I said, changing the subject. “Have you done much of it?”

“Naw, not too much. You have to motor, so what’s the point. I like blue water.”

“Done much of that?”

“Nope. That’s the dream, though.”

“What? Sailing off into the sunset?”

“Yeah, something like that. Got to finish up some things first, then I’m gonna head out, look around for a while.”

“Not your everyday kinda dream, I guess you know.”

“What, for a girl, you mean?” She took a sidelong glance at me, then focused on traffic in the channel ahead.

“I didn’t say that. It’s just that not many people have that dream anymore, you know. It was a sixties kind of thing. Drop out and see the world. ‘Westsail the world’…wasn’t that their ad slogan?”

“That’s bullshit, and you know it. Why is sailing dropping out?”

“It’s turning your back on what society expects of you.”

“So?”

“Well, that’s kinda frowned on, ya know. Hell, you’re a lawyer…I’d think you’d know that better than anyone.”

“So what? Who gives a shit?”

“I don’t know, isn’t that what the law is? I mean, if you think about it.” I looked off at the sky, down into the water, looked back at all the implications of our choice to sell-out and sail away. “That’s what life’s all about, isn’t it? Conformity? Conforming to the will of the group, to the rule of law. It’s pretty off the wall for someone who represents the force of conformity to be a non-conformist. If you think about it, I mean.”

“Hmm. I don’t know that I buy that, but I’ll think about it.” She looked ahead, adjusted her course to scoot behind a trawler crossing ahead of us. “So, is that what it was all about? For you and Liz? Non-conformity?”

“Not exactly, but we met at Berkeley – if you know what I mean. I don’t mean to frame the decision in just those terms. It wasn’t about what other people thought about what we were doing, about why we were doing it. It was the act of doing it – of leaving – that was, I think, a statement of, oh, I don’t know, a rebellion against our choices, maybe. Getting out there and doing it, letting life hang out over the edge for a while. Experiencing the world while everyone else watched it unfold on television. We chose not to live on everyone else’s terms, so I don’t think we cared too much about what other people thought about the trip, about what they thought we were doing.”

“So, what? You and Liz had a monopoly on that dream? No one else can take a shot at it?”

Our eyes met. I laughed; she didn’t.

“You know, we met tons of people out there, but mainly from Europe. A lot of people from France, but a lot of Germans and Swiss, too. Bunch of Brits in the Caribbean, but not in the South Pacific. Most of the people out there, and I hate to generalize about something like this, but here goes, most of the folks out there were tired of conforming to arbitrary rules set out for them by bureaucrats and governments, they just wanted to live their lives without governments and jobs breathing down their necks all the time. So I think all of us were searching for something simpler.”

“Amen to that.”

“So, doesn’t that make you the non-conforming conformist? Or are you a conforming non-conformist?”

“Asshole.”

“Who, me?”

“Yeah, you. Like I said, I’ll have to give that some thought.”

“Take your time.” I said, laughing again. “Let me know if you ever figure it out.”

“You’re bad, you know it?” She was still smiling as she said that, and that was a good thing. I was getting thirsty, and didn’t particularly want to swim back to town.

“Don’t you have any beer on this tub?”

“Tub? Tub!? You callin’ my baby a tub?” She leaned over a rubbed a patch of teak. “There, there, girl,” she cooed to the boat, “don’t let the mean asshole hurt your feelings.” I just shook my head, grinned at her.

“So, you gonna take this girl out on your trip?”

“I don’t know. She’s about as big as I can handle alone, you know. I wouldn’t mind something bigger.” She let that thought hang in the air for a minute. “I don’t know, Tom. I always thought I’d end up doing this . . . I always saw myself doing this alone.”

“No boyfriend?”

“I was married once.”

“Oh? Didn’t take?”

“No. Leukemia. About ten years ago.”

“Oh, God, Lisa. I didn’t…”

“I know, Tom. I know you’re not from around here, don’t know all the local gossip. Don’t worry about it. And,” she said as she looked at me again, “I know you’re not mean.”

We settled on a course down the middle of the waterway and she asked me to take the tiller for a minute. She went down below for what seemed like an hour, then came back up, her face scrubbed, her eyes a little puffy. She’d been crying. She looked around, took in the surroundings.

“Almost there,” she said. “About half mile.” She looked at me while she sat down, didn’t take her eyes from me. “Man, it’s nice to have someone around to take the stick for a while.”

“You really sail around here by yourself all the time?”

She nodded her head, smiled at me a little defiantly. “You betcha.”

“I don’t know, Lisa, but I think I like you.”

“Like me? Oh, boy. That’s not was I was hoping for, Tommy-boy.”

“Oh, what were you hoping for?” Then it hit me: I had smiled as her words hit me.

“Yeah, Tom. I was hoping – I was hoping I’d finally met someone who likes cheese grits as much as I do.”

“Well, like you said. I’ll have to give that one some thought.”

She just looked at me for a minute, then she smiled, pointing. “There it is. Hope you’re ready for this, white boy!”

◊◊◊◊◊

She was right, of course. Sitting outside on a screened-in porch, looking out on the waterway as all manner of small craft puttered by, I felt there was something almost mystical about the South. Everything I’d experienced about the south felt like a proud anachronism, with more than a little irony thrown in for good measure. On one side of this bifurcated terrain you had a fairy-tale land of overt meanness, the sidelong suspicions of in-your-face backwoods rednecks, the really uncool vibes of down-home racism that still bubbled in near-dormant malevolence to the surface from time to time. Perhaps most disconcerting of all, there was throughout the region an easy acceptance of intolerance that was utterly unnerving when you saw it in action. Not exactly ‘Gone With The Wind,’ but not too far removed from Tara and Scarlett when you got right down to it. On the other you had, you had people like Lisa Mullins. Bright, articulate, compassionate, accepting; Lisa was everything the South was not, except she too was the South, and it was this constant in-your-face contradiction that had me baffled.

Whatever it was about these contradictions that fascinated me, it was all soon forgotten as she sat across from me, leaning over the driftwood-planked table pointing out some of the good things on the menu, and hinting that there were some really, really good things for the asking – if you knew who to ask, and what to ask for. She leaned closer to me as she talked about her love of place, this place in particular but the South generally.

And I could feel heat in the air between us just then. I was getting warm. Unsettled. So many contradictions alive in the air, and maybe more than too much irony.

I looked out at the waterway: trawlers of all sorts droned along under the intense afternoon sun – buzzing like insects – while an occasional sailboat drifted by in humid silence. Both these forms of moving across the water embodied contradictions too, didn’t they? Ultimately, they were one and the same, people moving across the water from point A to point B, people looking for some time alone or with friends away from the noise of everyday life, but weren’t there inherent contradictions within the choice to burn gas or play the wind? Something about the purpose of your life? Looking for that place to fit in?

Lisa ordered her low-country favorites, shrimp & grits, some Gulf lump crabmeat sautéed in butter and lemon, with some chopped pecan thrown in for good measure. We ate and talked, talked and ate, the beer so cold it felt good going down even though we were sitting in the shade. The sun arced across the sky as we sat, but time had long since stopped keeping track of us.

So yeah, we were lost within that slow-glowing arc of time, and I was soon lost in her story.

Her parents were evangelicals, adherents of the gospel of prosperity, so of course she grew up hating everything about them. She’d considered herself a hard corp agnostic all through high school, and flirted with being a full time atheist by the time she moved away from home. By the time she finished law school she knew enough about the world to understand you didn’t make those kinds of choices lightly, and seeing how other people’s faiths sustained them had made an indelible impression on her. Speaking of irony, she envied people whose faith seemed pure, unassailable – at least on the surface – but the more she scratched that surface the uglier faith became. Religion, she said, had become the central paradox of her life, one she felt would never be resolved. She said the country was kind of like that, too.

And then the law had become her religion. I could see that plainly as we talked over shrimp and crab that afternoon. When she talked about the law, she would become assertive, almost masculine. She picked up her long-neck beer by the top of the bottle and swung it up to her lips with two-fingered ease, and there was nothing feminine or dainty about the way she did that. No, plainly she just felt so at ease in these surroundings that all pretension melted away.

It was inevitable that as we talked I drew comparisons to Liz.

While Liz had always been open – almost vivacious – in public, she was really quite reserved around the people she cared most about. She cared a lot about what others thought of her too, about the labels inside her clothes, for instance, or if her hair was ‘in style’ or not. She watched television shows but hated movies, hadn’t read a book since college, and loved to invite strangers to the boat for dinner whenever we pulled into a new anchorage. She hated that I listened to the BBC on the boat’s shortwave radio while we sat in some remote anchorage at night, and thought my interest in the stars was pathologically weird. But we cared about social justice, we found common ground when we talked about the disenfranchised and oppressed, and we even argued about things we held in common, challenged our preconceptions about the world. We had always found it easy to talk to one another, even when we knew things between us were turning sour. And there was that history between us, those California afternoons that seemed to linger like her breath on my neck in almost every memory I have of those days. Liz was a fragile, almost willowy blond who nevertheless always seemed ready to ask the hard questions – but then again, I always thought she had embraced life on her own terms, was rarely a follower. Yet another irony; as the tears and years swept by, I realized she had been holding on to me by following my dreams, following in my wake, then resenting the implications of my choices on our lives. She was, I had come to understand, a pretender. And then, I suppose, she grew bitter about having been found out.

As I listened to Lisa, I had the feeling she had had her fill of pretension, her fill of men who sought power for power’s sake, and that she’d also had a belly full of life in the sewers. She made it clear that while almost all legal professionals have to deal with the sewer from time to time, she had embraced criminal law in spite of all that, she knew the implications of her choice but stuck to it despite all her misgivings, and it was amazing to me that she wasn’t more jaded than she appeared to be. Sure, she was rough around the edges, but hell, who isn’t; by that I mean life does that to you, it grinds away at you, exposes all the things you’d rather other people never found out. But she still wanted to go after her dreams, and in my experience not too many people can claim to hang on to those by the time they hit forty. Conforming to expectations chews away at your dreams – until one day they’re gone.

I wasn’t sure that was what killed our marriage; after all, Liz and I did get out there and chase our dreams – even if mine became the prime mover. Anyway, I asked Lisa what she thought of marriage, because surely she’d seen enough marital bliss in family court to have a fair understanding of the terrain.

“You know,” she began, “most marriages fail for one simple reason. People play games with one another. Power games, dominance games. Con games. They get used to conning their partner for what they want, and sooner or later all honestly leaves the relationship. There’s not an honest emotion left in the marriages I see falling apart. Everyone I see says the same thing: ‘I can’t believe I married that son-of-a-bitch’. But is it that? Is it that they didn’t know the truth about each other when they got married, or is it that the truth got lost in all the lies and games?”

“Truth gets lost? That’s an interesting idea.”

“Have you thought much about Liz, and what happened? What happened to you, I mean?”

I looked at her. There was no hesitation in her eyes, no regret for having asked the question. “I don’t guess I’m too different from most other people, Lisa. For a while it’s all I thought about. It hurts. The split seemed so unexpected, yet now, looking back at things, it seems like the split was inevitable. I don’t think we got caught up in lies, I think they caught up in our dreams.”

“That’s a subtle distinction. But you were running? Is that what the boat was all about?”

“We never thought about the trip in those terms, and I’m not sure it’s an accurate way of looking at the decision, either. But I’m willing to think about it.” I think I was smiling as I said that.

“So, what are you going to do now?”

“I’ve been wanting to get a smaller boat, shallower draft. I want to go to Europe, wander through the canals in France, then maybe go to Greece.” Of course Liz and I had always talked about doing that someday, but maybe ‘our dream’ was mine after all.

“When are you going to leave? I mean, any plans firming up?”

I shook my head, but didn’t know where this was going. “No, gonna play it by ear for a while.”

“Well, one thing’s certain,” she said as she looked down at her watch. “We gotta be headin’ back soon or the tide’s gonna turn and smack us right on the nose.”

Life’s like that, you know? If you don’t watch out, you spend your whole life swimming against the tide. If you’re lucky you figure it out before you’re too old to give a damn.

◊◊◊◊◊

The wind faded with the afternoon, and we pushed against the tide the last mile or so back into Charleston. I watched Lisa again as she worked the tiller, her calm self-assurance, the practiced eye she cast on Soliloquy’s course or other traffic crossing ahead. As we got near the marina, I set out dock lines and dropped fenders over the sides to shield against a hard landing, and stood up by the bow-sprit for a while, enjoying the sunset and the history that was all around us as we turned by the Battery. The waterfront was beautiful, quiet and full of history. I looked over toward my boat, and saw the outlines of a woman sitting in the cockpit. I squinted through the fading sunset, and could just make out Liz sitting there.

I turned, looked at Lisa, and saw the expression on her face. She had seen her too, and suddenly, to me at least, she looked hurt, almost betrayed  – like the forces of destiny had just lined up against her.

We docked gently, and I turned to help Lisa sort out the lines, but she stopped me short.

“You better go now, Tom. She’s come back for you, so be careful.”

◊◊◊◊◊

“Well, I see it didn’t take you long to land on your feet.”

I was just stepping onto the boat – ‘our’ boat – when she let go with this first assault.

“Hey, you know what? I didn’t file for a divorce, you did. Tell me what exactly I’m doing wrong here, would you?”

“Oh, Tom, I’m sorry. I didn’t come down here to fight with you. I, well, to tell you the truth, I half expected to find you shacked up down below with some girl.”

“Well, you know, if you’d given me another hour…” I let the nastiness in my voice trail off into the air.

She looked at me for a moment, then shook her head. “I’m sorry, Tom. I really am. I should never have done this to you. To us.”

“Well, breaking news, kiddo. We’re divorced. You said you wanted one, in writing, as I seem to recall, and you got just what you wanted, too.” I was trying to be as obtuse as I could possibly be, and frankly I think I was doing a damn good job, too. “I’m just curious, is this a social call, or was there something you wanted from the boat?”

“No. No Tom, there’s nothing.”

It was almost dark now, and I could barely make her out in the fading light, but suddenly she was crying. I knew that quiver in her voice, I remembered the air of alarm that sound used to imply, how uncomfortable I used to feel when she cried. She was a manipulative crier, cried when she wanted something and didn’t get it, or when she didn’t get her way. Now she was facing the consequences of her actions. Maybe she was sorry, or maybe she was feeling sorry for herself. There was no way to tell, maybe there never had been, and standing there on the boat I realized that I didn’t care anymore one way of the other.

“Yeah, well, mind if I go below? I wanna change clothes.”

“Was that your lawyer, Tom?”

“Uh-huh.”

“She’s kinda pretty – in a frumpy kind of way. Never would have thought of her as your type, though.”

I moved past her through the cockpit, unlocked the companionway and began to lift the boards out, then moved to place them on the seat next to me. Liz reached out and took the first board and placed it gently on the seat, taking care not to scratch the ten coats of varnish she had so lovingly applied to the teak not a year ago. Automatically I handed her the next one, then the last board, and I was caught short by my reaction to the familiar in my mind.

Caught within the memory of place, within the echoes of a heartbeat, I saw Liz as she was twenty years ago on a Saturday morning in San Francisco, when we had gone out sailing on our first date, and within that moment I saw her face as she looked up at mine on our wedding day, her eyes so full of love, and I remembered my love for her on that day as an absolute. As something time could never rip asunder.

I paused before I pushed the companionway hatch open, unsure where I was, unsure if I was still on the boat or caught within the shadows of a never-ending dream. I saw her standing next to me when we first saw our boat taking form at the yard in Southwest Harbor, I saw the pride in her eyes, the will to take this creation to the limits of our imagination.

Were we really so bound together through the life we had shared on this boat? Had we really been such a well oiled machine that we sailed half way around the world – and back – trusting each other so completely, knowing how the other would react in the face of a storm, knowing that if we worked together we could overcome any obstacle, reach any destination?

Oh, the fucking irony of it all.

“Do you want me to leave, Tom?”

I didn’t have an a pithy comeback waiting that time, did I?

“Liz, just tell me what you want.”

“I want us. Us, Tom. We belong together.”

“Yeah, we did once.”

“We can again.”

“Liz? If you don’t mind, this is just a little too weird for me right now. Maybe in a few days?”

“OK, Tom. Could you still help out at the restaurant. We haven’t found a new manager yet, and it would be a big help.”

Ah. So that was it.

“Uh, no Liz. I’ve got other plans.”

“Oh. Right, well, I’ll give you a call.”

I could hear it in her voice. I wouldn’t hear from her again. Not unless she needed me for something, not unless she wanted somebody else’s dreams to call her own again. I made my way down the companionway steps and flipped on the breakers, then turned on the red light over the chart table. I felt the boat move as she hopped off, heard her footsteps recede in the darkness. I’d never felt so utterly alone in all my life.

What was I doing? What had I done?

◊◊◊◊◊

Moving through the boat I just managed to get my clothes off and hopped into the head before I lost it. That thundering realization in the cockpit had been the single most nauseating moment of my life. I flipped on the shower and stood under the water, felt the grief from my soul wash away as the hot water beat down on the back of my neck. Everything seemed to be moving like the boat was at sea in a storm, though I viscerally knew the boat was still tied up to the dock. Everything felt out of place, because my senses weren’t reliable anymore.

I don’t know how long I stood there. The water cooled, then it stopped completely; I’d run the tanks dry. Maybe a hundred and fifty gallons of water, gone. I was shivering, and suddenly thought I was hallucinating. I smelled bacon frying, and coffee brewing.

Walking into the forward cabin, I heard her in the galley, knew she’d come back and was now making me bacon and eggs. I didn’t want to face her, not now, not ever again. I didn’t want to ever see her face again, and as I put on a shirt I grew angry at her audacity, at her contempt for my feelings.

She had what she wanted. Why couldn’t she just leave it at that and go on her merry way.

I knew then that I’d have to leave this place as soon as I could get the boat provisioned, leave and follow my heart over the next horizon. I pulled on some sweatpants and slipped on an old pair of boat shoes, then stood and took a deep breath. I thought of what I needed to say, how I wanted to say it. Turning, I opened the door into the main cabin of the boat, prepared to let the full fury of my anger run its course.

She was in the galley with her back to me, cracking eggs in a bowl when I walked in. She turned and I stumbled, and my world lurched again. It wasn’t Liz, and suddenly it hit me: I’d never been so happy to see a lawyer in all my life.

“You want some rum in your coffee?” Now that was an ice-breaker if I’d ever heard one.

“I, uh…”

“Look, I heard Liz storming up the ramp, cussing under her breath. I came over here and heard you in the shower. You didn’t, well, didn’t sound too good. Anyway. Bacon and eggs usually get me over the rough spots. Thought I’d get some going for you.”

“I’m glad you’re here.” She looked up from the stove, looked at me.

“Yeah? Well, what’s it gonna be? Coffee black, or coffee with a little kick in it?”

◊◊◊◊◊

Over the next week or so I got all my stuff back on board and worked on getting everything stowed away. Not too hard a job when your head’s screwed on tight, but I was still having a time of it. Maybe I was depressed, or maybe just tired, but I was having a hard time making sense of even the smallest things, and everything I tried to do seemed filtered through molasses. I felt like tar on hot pavement – oozing around under the sun, getting stuck on everything, and ultimately just making a mess. And I found that my thought processes weren’t much better. Hot and messy, if that makes any sense at all.

I’d never thought of Liz as the devious type, as a shrew. In almost five years of sailing, she’d never once been as overtly manipulative as she had been that last Sunday night. What was going on? Had we simply lost our way, or had I been missing something vital for almost twenty years? It just didn’t make sense! Anyway, as I worked around down below, thoughts like those kept bouncing around in my head: after a few days of this nonsense I was beginning to question just about every assumption I’d ever made.

Then there was Ms Mullins.

Of course I knew better.

That didn’t make our first night together any less interesting. She turned out to be an imaginative lover. Actually, maybe enthusiastic would be a better descriptive. Just about every time I touched her she launched into blistering wet orgasms, and yes, I’m using the plural here deliberately. I have never seen anyone so ‘multi-orgasmic’ in my life. It wasn’t me, of that I’m fairly certain. I think a light breeze hitting her down there would have sent her over the edge. Anyway, the first time I went down on her it was like spontaneous combustion. She grabbed my face and pulled it into her and started yelling and pulling my hair and carrying on like Linda Blair in The Exorcist. After about a half hour and three hundred orgasms later I think she collapsed. I say ‘I think’ because I had about a two minute reprieve before she went down on me, rallied round the flag, so to speak, then hopped on top of me.

The poor thing.

The first thing that ran through my mind – after she’d mounted the flag – was that she was having an seizure. Her body went rigid – so rigid I thought something might have been terribly wrong – then tremors somewhat akin to shockwaves ripped through her body. She was soon flailing about and yelling so loud I was sure everyone in the marina was going to be dialing 911, and just when I thought she couldn’t possibly get any louder the girl launched into a frenzied orgasm that, well, it still leaves me thunderstruck to even think about it.

You have to keep in mind that I was, well, by that point just laying there, because anything else on my part might have been dangerous. I mean, it wasn’t like she had just dropped by to borrow a cup of sugar – I wasn’t that detached about it, I don’t think – yet in a way I felt superfluous to the proceedings. I don’t think she needed me at all, really, well, other than to make use of my hardware. When all was said and done (at least for me, anyway), the whole episode was kind of a letdown. She seemed kind of embarrassed for a minute, then got real sweet and cuddled up next to me and fell asleep. I guess she just assumed that somewhere in the maelstrom I had managed an orgasm of my own. But how would she have known? She hardly knew I was on the same planet.

Like I said, it was an interesting night. She took off in the morning, sometime around four or so, I think. Never said a word, no kiss on the forehead, nothing.

She came by again that next night, knocked on the side of the boat, called out my name.

I looked around quickly, wondered if there was a back way out of the place (kinda hard to pull that one off on a boat), then I popped up through the companionway hatch.

“Howdy,” said I, ever the suave urbanite.

“How’re y’all doin’ today, big guy?”

OK, lets get this straight right now. I’m not real tall, and I’m not fat, either. Big Guy? Me?

“Fine, Lisa. You have a good day?”

“Well, kinda.” She moved around, feigning pelvic discomfort. “Kinda sore down there, you know?”

“Hmm. Wonder why?” I tried not to smile. She, on the other hand, smiled like the Cheshire Cat.

“Up for a encore tonight?” Now for some odd reason that put the fear of God into me, so I just looked at her, indicated at best a passive receptivity. “Ooh, goody!” she said reflexively. “I’ve got some paperwork to do. Could I work here? I really don’t want to go home.” It was then that I noticed she had an overnight bag in her left hand.

You know, I had a decision to make. A big one.

I could send her packing, or by golly, I could take matters in hand and try to fuck her brains out.

For some odd reason, I chose the latter. Call it ego, but I was damned if I was going to let this broad get off again without returning the favor, so as soon as she got to the bottom of the companionway I was on her like Preparation H on hemorrhoids.

I didn’t have a chance.

I think, after about an hour of her riding my face, I might have tried to cry ‘Uncle’, but no way was this woman about to quit. Finally I threw her over and tore into her. At that point I felt like a crazed wolf and wailed into her with the hardest, deepest thrusts I’d ever delivered anytime to anyone, but after a whopping minute or so I hit the short strokes and popped off.

Well, not having had any in a while, I think it fair to say I let loose a gallon and a half of the stuff. She was coaxing me along the whole time, and as I slowed down a bit, spent as I was, Lisa just got foul-mouthed-horny and started in on me again.

I should have known what was coming next.

I lasted a little longer that second time. About two hours, give or take, and the creature underneath me was like a thing possessed. By the time I noticed her fingernails digging in to my back I really didn’t give a damn, and when her not-so-short high-heels started digging into my calves, well, shit, I didn’t care about that, either.

Once I slowed down and she slapped me, hard – yet playfully, and told me to stop now only if I was prepared to die. Ahem. Not exaggerating here, Kemosabe. This chick was into her orgasms, and during my second she started in on me big-time. Do not to quit now or I will combust. That was the message.

Now, give me a break. I’m trying to be modest here, and, well, you know, there was no way I was going for round three. Maybe fifteen, twenty years ago. At 40? Nope. No way.

Anyway, after my stalwart friend deserted me Lisa rolled me over and mounted my face again.

Lawyers!

And you know what? About four hours later she was set up in the salon working away on some depositions, while I wondered how many hours she billed that night, and for what services?

◊◊◊◊◊

And oddly enough Lisa didn’t come to the boat again. In fact, I didn’t see her for a couple of weeks, and then only in passing out on the docks. It was pretty disconcerting. When we did get a chance to talk for a minute or so a month later, she kinda let on that she’d given me a ‘mercy-fuck’ – that she’d sensed I was really down and needed a quick pick-me-up.

Was she for real?

I saw Liz one day during that period, too.

I was working up on the foredeck, tearing down the anchor windlass and lubing the paws, and I looked up to wipe some sweat from my forehead and saw her up in the marina parking lot. She was looking down at me, down when I looked up. I think we looked at each other for a few minutes, then she waved at me before she walked off. I looked at the empty spot where she had been, for, I don’t know, maybe an hour or so. There was a hole in my heart, and I didn’t know how to fix it. I did, however, know how to fix a broken windlass.

A week after that, all my things stowed just so on the boat, I sailed out of Charleston Harbor, alone. I passed Fort Sumter, this time off to starboard, and I thought about civil wars again, and about who fired the first shot in our little war. I thought about that place in my heart Liz used to occupy, yet I was so far removed from the pain now it didn’t matter. Yet still, I felt empty.

Clearing the harbor, I looked to the right, to the south, then north. I didn’t know which way to turn. So I turned around and looked deep into the wake that trailed behind me, looked back past the old Fort, back to the Battery, and thought about my life up to that moment.

I could turn back, I thought. Turn back, chase my past. Live within that memory of place.

Or I could just move on, forge a new course.

I sat behind the wheel, looked at the chart-plotter and it’s readout staring me in the face, almost daring me to dream again. I scrolled out, moved the cursor across the Atlantic until it rested right in the middle of the English Channel, and pressed the Calculate New Course button. A few seconds later the screen flashed a new heading, indicated the new course to steer, and just how far I had to go to get there.

There was a prompt on the screen.

Press ‘Enter’ it said, to start the new route.

Was it really so simple? Turn away from everything I had known for almost twenty years? Hit ‘Enter’ – and start a new life?

Or turn around? Find my way back to the past and live there within all the lies and manipulations.

My finger moved to the screen, hit the ‘Enter’ button. The machine thought for a moment, and a new screen emerged. Me and my little floating world appeared as a small red arrow just off the mid-Atlantic coast of North America, and a new course was projected across the ocean to the waters between England and France. I settled in behind the wheel, put my feet up in the sun, with my eyes looking up at the set of my sails I listened to the water – as it trailed away behind my little boat.

◊◊◊◊◊

So many passages at sea can be terrifying, one long physical ordeal that you wish would be over as soon as possible. My journey across the Atlantic was simply pleasant and uneventful. I had left Charleston, South Carolina a month and a half ahead of the boisterous Atlantic hurricane season, and the abnormally calm passage reflected my state of mind. I felt a release of tension as America drifted away. I puttered about the boat, tended little housekeeping chores like mending a sail or checking tension on shrouds and chainplates – little things that need to be kept on-top-of in order to survive at sea. Well, that – and I read a lot.

Curious about Lisa Mullins’ question – had I read Pat Conroy before? – I had picked up a copy of Beach Music before Charleston became just a memory in my wake, and I passed many an hour reading that book. Conroy’s tale made an impression on me. It was a story, to me at least, about the memory of place, about how place awakens feelings we’ve long since forgotten, and about the interconnectedness of place and emotion across generations. Rome and the Low Country, how far apart those two places stand on earth, and how close they were in his story. His relationship with his daughter made me think of my Dad, something that rarely happened anymore. He had moved on more than ten years before, and I missed his steady hand. I thought, as I sat up at night eying the radar, how much he would have loved making this trip with me. And I think I cried one night thinking how fun it would have been for us to make this journey together.

After a month at sea I closed the coast of France, and began to pick up contours of the Seine River estuary on radar in the middle of the night, and, mindful of the complex shipping environment in the English Channel, I moved in close to the French coastline to avoid the thickest of it. The boat fairly slipped along on a beam reach through the night, and as the sun came up I could make out the marina I was headed for in the distance, just to the left of Le Havre’s city center and docklands. I negotiated a complex maze of breakwaters and turned into the marina a little after nine that morning, and threw my lines to the Gendarme waiting for me on the Customs Quay.

The plan was simple. I’d make arrangements to have aquaTarkus’s mast unstepped and shipped to Marseilles by truck. Thus unencumbered, I would take my boat through the vast canal network that laces across France and emerge on the Mediterranean coast. I planned to move from Le Havre directly to Paris, spend a month or so there, then laze my way through the summer months and arrive in the South in, say, October or November, yet I found I really didn’t care how long it took. In fact, I was of half a mind to get lost somewhere out there in the middle of nowhere, someplace near a village that had a nice bakery, decent cheese, and, yes, a steady supply of rum.

Anyway, I felt that after all I had been through with Liz, and with the confusing epitaph of Lisa Mullin’s little “mercy fuck” routine well behind me, I was a little dead from the neck up. It was time for a change. A real change.

After I cleared customs and had made arrangements to tie up in the marina for a few days, I walked up to the Strand and looked for a coffee. I didn’t have to look hard. I ducked into a little place and ordered a café au lait and a couple croissant, then settled outside on the splendid boardwalk and marveled at a world that wasn’t bouncing and rolling to the beat of maddened Sea-Gods. It’s hard to convey sometimes just how good it feels to walk on solid earth, to feel the warmth of the morning sun on your face as the smells and sounds of life come to you on a quiet breeze that smells of life – real honest to dirt city life.

After a while – it could have been an hour or a day – I walked back to the boat, collected some things in a rucksack and made my way to the train station. I hopped on a local to Paris and spent the next few hours reveling in the smooth motion of rails. Not one wave smacked the bow and washed over me or the boat, even if the motion of the train did feel a little odd to me. I got into Paris in the middle of the afternoon and made my way to the American Express office just in time to collect my mail. I flipped through the handful of bills and unwanted correspondence until I came to a letter from Liz, and – wonder of wonders – two from my humble, mercy-fucking attorney. I wandered if she was going to hit me for services rendered, and if oral sex was an allowable charge.

I planned to scout out a marina in the city – or a place along a quay, perhaps – someplace to bring aquaTarkus and tie her up. I didn’t want to arrive without that much accomplished, so – guidebook in hand – off I went. Letters would remain unopened for now…

I looked at a couple of places upriver from the Isle Saint Louis, and the second one looked perfect. The proprietor told me it would likely take me a week to journey from Le Havre to Paris, what with all the locks. He encouraged me to set aside two weeks: “Enjoy the trip,” he said, “you’ll never pass this way again.” It sounded like good advice, so I made a reservation, left a deposit, and after finding a nice place for dinner, jumped on the metro back to the station and hopped on a midnight express back to the coast.

I think I slept for a day after I got back to the boat, then went out in search of provisions for the boat. The following morning saw the mast removed, and an hour later I was headed upriver, passing under the Pont de Normandie, then the past the limestone cliffs abutting the Pont de Tancarville, and in an instant I was in another world. The industrial sprawl of Le Havre gave way to a series of bucolic vistas as the river turned to the west and entered a land peppered with quaint villages and rolling farmland. Not to mention the occasional refinery. But as the coastline receded, the transformation continued, and soon I felt like I was – home.

I know that sounds odd.

Something about the air, the light, and – I don’t know – suddenly I felt like I was home. And here I need to take a little journey into the past…and talk about the other side of the coin for a while.

My mother’s family still lives in France, and we traveled here many special times during my youth, but I was essentially an American, and I wondered if mother still kept up with them, because I sure hadn’t.

“Maybe I should call Jean Paul?” I said to myself.

I don’t know why I pushed on that first day, but I ended up tied off to a little public quay near Caudebec-en-Caux just as the sun set, and I walked into the village and sat in the first place that looked good and had some wine and cheese, then some oysters and duck. The evening was amazing, and with each passing moment I felt as though I was reaching up out of the darkness, finding my way home. Then the thought hit me: were my roots really so shallow? Wasn’t I an American, weren’t my roots in the American West? I didn’t really have any answers to those questions – as I sat in candlelight staring at the flesh on my hands. Whose skin was this? Mine? Or the expression of genes stretching back to antiquity?

After dinner I walked out into the night and looked up at the night sky, feeling lost and humble once again, then I stood in a phone booth as a cold fog rolled in and called my mother in Colorado. We exchanged cool pleasantries, then I asked her if she still kept in touch with Jean Paul, with her family in France.

Quite often, she said, as it turned out. I listened as she rumbled on about our old house in the shadow of the San Juan mountains – cussing and muttering as she looked out the window at a passing herd of elk – and she rambled on breathlessly about her life. Then she paused, reported what she knew about this good nephew and that good-for-nothing cousin, and I wrote as she dictated names and addresses and telephone numbers of family all over northern France. She offered to call Jean Paul the next day, and I gave her my sat-phone number to pass along. I rarely used the thing, the cost per call was exorbitant at the time, but I thought the situation warranted. I caught her up on my trip across the Atlantic, and she told me Liz had been calling two times a day for the past three weeks.

Then Mom said Liz was upset about something.

That seemed odd, until I remembered the letters.

After I finished talking with Mom I fished out the letters from Liz and Lisa. I hadn’t opened them, and frankly, after all this time I still didn’t want to.

I opened Liz’s letter first. Call me! she wrote, and her words were underlined insistently.

Then I opened Lisa’s first letter.

She loved me, she wrote in two pages of parsed legalese. And then: ‘Oh, by the way, I’m pregnant.’

Then her second letter. ‘Please come back to me!’

◊◊◊◊◊

I didn’t know what to think. Would you, I wonder?

I looked at my watch. Almost midnight here in the chilly coastal fog; that would make it early evening back in Carolina. I could hear cicada buzzing away in pecan trees when the thought of Charleston rolled over me, and soon the brooding, brackish air of the Ashley River filled my senses. I just as quickly thought of Lisa and her pulsing need, and in an instant we were on the boat again, making frenzied love after she had fixed my bacon and eggs that fated night. I could see her face, her inextinguishable need for connection, her fine breasts heaving as she thrashed away in the clutches of abandon.

Pregnant?

I called the restaurant’s number, asked for Liz, and waited impatiently while she came to the phone.

“Tom? Tom, is that you?”

“None other, kiddo. What’s up?”

“Where are you? No one has the slightest idea!?”

“I’m on the French coast, in Normandy. I picked up your letter today, and I’ve just talked to Mom. What’s on your mind?”

“Oh, Tom! I don’t know where to begin! Dad’s got prostrate cancer, it’s advanced, has moved up into his spine.”

“Oh? Sorry to hear that, Liz. Really. How’s your mom taking it?”

“And Tom, that lawyer of yours is pregnant. She’s been telling people you’re the father, and that you skipped town when you found out. Also, I heard from someone who knows her that someone else might be the father. Someone named Drew.”

Well, what can I tell you? That’s life in the big city. Just when you get your hands up to defend yourself, someone kicks you in the nuts.

“OK Liz, thanks for the heads-up. How are you doing?”

“Tom? I miss you terribly. I want us to be together again, and I don’t care what it takes. I love you more than anything in the world.”

What was this? The second act of her never ending drama? I couldn’t think of anything to say, so I remained quiet for a while – while the fog wrapped it’s arms around me. Such was my need to hurt her, I guess you’d say.

“Tom? You still there?”

“I am indeed.”

“Well?”

“Well, what?”

“I see. OK, Tom. I wish you the best.” Her voice was breaking up, I could hear tears welling up, then the line went dead.

I hung up the phone, stood in enveloping fog for quite a while. My eyes were burning from the dingy fluorescent light in the booth, and between the light and the fog I couldn’t make out anything around me. It was like I was floating in milky space – I could hear the river in the distance, but there was no way I could pinpoint the direction.

I thought about Liz for a moment, and her father. I remembered our wedding day, when her father and mine, both more than three sheets to the wind, had danced together while our mothers egged them on. My father. Lung cancer. And now her father, and that link to the past would be gone. Another sentinel gone, another memory to fade away to place. Directionless, lost in the fog.

What Liz said about Lisa seemed simply incredible; something in my gut told me if Lisa was pregnant, it had to be mine. And I couldn’t believe Lisa would spread a rumor so vile – about me, or anyone else, for that matter. I just didn’t think she had that kind of meanness in her.

So, I stood there in the fog wondering if I should call Lisa. I looked at my watch. Again. Ran a couple of fingers through my damp hair, looked at water on my fingers glistening in the light.

I picked up the phone, punched in the interminable string of international calling codes, credit card numbers, and telephone numbers. The first ring caught me off-guard. I thought about hanging up. Second ring. I was about to hang up when someone on the other end picked up the phone.

“Hello?”

“Lisa?”

“Tom?”

“I got your letter.”

Now it was someone else’s turn to be quiet, to keep someone else guessing.

“I’m sorry, Tom. I guess I should have been more careful.”

“Well, it takes two to tango, darlin’. By the way. Who’s Drew?”

A long silence followed that question. Then the line went dead.

◊◊◊◊◊

I called Mom the next morning. Turned out a whole herd of relatives still lived on the coast near Deaville, in the little village of Hennequeville, which is just down the beach a bit from Le Havre. As she talked I remembered once again Mom’s journey from the Norman coast to Southwest Colorado. It was the stuff of legend around these parts.

It’s a long story, but not uninteresting, so let me digress.

Dad’s B-17 got shot up over Germany in early 1944, and he almost managed to get the bird back to the English Channel before it came apart on him. The crew bailed-out all over northern France, and he jumped ship just before fire engulfed the plane. He came down in thick forest just a few hundred yards from the beach, breaking his ankle in a tree as he did. A farmer – and I might add his future father-in-law – pulled him from that tree before a German patrol could find him, and well, the rest is, as they say, History – with a big, fat capital H.

Oh…you couldn’t tell a farmer’s daughter joke around my father without risking a serious pop in the mouth. He worshipped Mom – and her family – and he did so until the day he died.

“You know, Tom,” I heard her saying, “if you’re going to see family, I’d love to come. I haven’t seen Jean and Marie for years, and I’d love to see them again.”

Hmm, this was beginning to take on hues of a major family get together.

“Mom, do you feel up to the trip?”

“Oh, of course I do. How is the weather there now?”

I was sitting in the cockpit, talking on my hideously expensive sat-phone, and I looked around at the lush trees and ancient buildings all around me. It was so beautiful outside it took my breath away.

“Oh, mom, it looks like Hell here. Trees in full bloom, not a cloud in the sky, and the air smells sweet, kind of like heaven, I reckon. I think you should come, in fact, I insist on it! I can book you a flight right now if you’d like me to.”

“Oh, Tommy! It would be so nice to see my family again. Yes! Let’s do it!”

“OK, Mom. I’ll call you in a bit. Start packing, and would you call Jean Paul? Tell him I’m tied up at the quay in Caudebec-en-Caux.”

“I did, Tom. He said you should go see the little cathedral there, up the hill.”

“I will Mom. Talk to you in a little while, so start packing!”

◊◊◊◊◊

Later that afternoon I was working down below, in the galley as I recall, when I heard someone calling my name and a knocking on the side of the boat.

“Tom! Tom! Are you there, Tom!”

I knew that voice, that unmistakably cultured physician’s voice. It had to be Jean-Paul. My cousin, Jean-Paul Dumas. I hadn’t seen him in ten years, since Dad’s funeral; while he had always been a rascal, he was also my idea of a wonderful human being. He was brilliant and commanded attention when he came into a room – he had eyes that seemed to be express pure empathy – and at parties everyone – I mean everyone – seemed to gravitate to him. We had, all of us – Liz included – come over for his wedding in the early nineties. He had married an American woman – irony of ironies – the insufferably intelligent and unbelievably gorgeous Marie-Suzanne Sommers. She was a career diplomat at the U S Embassy in Paris, and a lawyer by training. Of course, she had to be.

I popped up the companionway to see Jean Paul rubbing his hands along the deck’s teak cap-rail.

“Tom. She’s beautiful. I read your book, but I had no idea.”

“You read my book?” Brilliant choice of words, don’t you think?

He stopped rubbing the wood long enough to look up at me, then spoke.

“Yes. Not bad, considering.”

“Uh, well, how are you, JP?”

He shrugged. “Not so good, really. Marie and I are, I think you say, in Splitsville. Getting a divorce.”

I think that was my cue to be empathetic.

“I can’t believe it, Jean Paul. What happened, Jean?” I wonder…is there a dedicated facial expression for irony?

“Oh, all this mess in the Middle East, and all the terrorism. It has caused us much tension here. Here in France, and in our house.”

Yes, I could see that. Being a physician, Jean Paul was about as liberal as one could get, anywhere, whereas Marie had always been more than a bit of a hawk – if you scratched beneath her Radcliffe exterior a little too deeply. Perhaps all this strife been inevitable; politicians sure seemed to be counting on it. But this ISIS mess, as JP called it, had taken it’s toll on relationships in very unpredictable ways.

“Sorry to hear that, Jean Paul. Anything I can do?”

“You? No, dear Tom! But have you been to the chapel yet, up the hill?”

“No, not yet.”

“Well, put some shoes on. Let’s go!”

We walked through the little village for a few minutes, then stood looking up at the entry to a beautiful – though small – gothic church. Jean Paul told me all about the building, its origins and significance, and as we walked inside he crossed himself and said a quiet prayer. I had forgotten this about him, this piety so remote from the America I grew up in, and the simple act startled me with it’s significance, then we walked into a world of shattering light.

The light in this part of the world is so pure, yet so pink; it suffuses the stone buildings of the region with an otherworldly quality that really must be seen to be appreciated, and all this came together in a blinding moment of insight as I took in the beauty of this gothic interior. I was, in a very real way, a part of this land – just as much as I was an American, and in that instant I felt again just what had suddenly intruded only two days ago. This sense of being “home”, of – in the truest sense of the word – a homecoming. This part of France was, unlike so many of the places Liz and I had visited during the last five years of our marriage, a part of me in startlingly intimate ways. My mother was, as I’ve mentioned, from the region, and her family could trace their lives along this coast back at least 800 years. They had lived in the region for as long as records had been kept in the village halls and churches; chapels and cathedrals around the region recorded dates of marriages and baptisms of family members back to the twelfth century, and that history was a part of – me. Jean Paul was a part of – me! These limestone cliffs and the soil from which all life sprang, all were a tangible part of that which had created – me – and the resonance of that insight penetrated my soul as we walked inside that church.

It was a pure moment, to have roamed so far and to realize I had – at least in part – found what I had been searching for, and for so long. All these feeling were a part of the world I had conscientiously ignored almost my entire life.

Jean Paul and I walked back to the quay, and there we looked out on the Seine and the barge traffic that made its way to and from Paris – traffic moving out into and out of the world – just as it had for hundreds of years. We had a coffee, talked about Syria and the Sudan, and of Jean Paul’s recent decision to rejoin Médecins Sans Frontières and return to the world of volunteer medicine in Africa.

“You should come to the house tonight,” he told me. “Some physicians that are just returning from six months in Darfur will be talking with us, sharing insights on new security procedures and facilities. It might be boring, but you might learn something, too. It will only take an hour to make the drive, and I can bring you back later tonight.”

We asked about leaving the boat tied up for the night, and the once surly harbormaster said he would look after the boat. He, of course, knew Jean Paul, and now knowing my relationship to him I was, well, suddenly a member of the family, so to speak, and in more ways than one. I told him when I would be back, and he told me not to worry about the boat. C’est la vie, Paco.

We crossed the Seine in Jean Paul’s little silver Citroen and drove along winding country lanes overgrown with riotously verdant trees until we arrived at my mom’s ancestral home. I wasn’t a huge chateau, but neither was it a farmer’s shack, and there was that mesmerizing view down to the English Channel through trees and gardens that I remembered from childhood visits. We arrived in time for dinner in the village, then walked back to the house. Cars full of chattering physicians began arriving not a half hour later.

I do speak a little French – my mother insisted that I speak at least enough to get by here – but my medical vocabulary was woefully inadequate to the animated discussions that filled the house that night. I was, however, pleasantly surprised to run into a couple Liz and I had encountered in Moorea. Small world, indeed. Luc and Claire Menton were amazing sailors, having ventured from Deauville to Tahiti – via Cape Horn – in an engine-less 28-foot sailboat. We caught up with each other’s progress – including my divorce, to which they expressed sorrow – and they were more than interested in my plans to travel through the canals down to Marseilles.

“We have never done this journey,” Luc told me during one of the breaks in the medical presentations. “Would you mind some company, perhaps, for part of the trip?” I knew the portion on the Rhone – from Lyon south, would be a monotonous river journey, but the segments between Paris and Lyon were arduous, with many locks to be negotiated, and extra hands are always needed negotiating locks. So yes, a couple of extra willing hands would be appreciated, and I told them so. Luc looked at Claire, gave her a knowing nod, and we exchanged phone numbers, then he looked at mine suspiciously.

“Is this an American number, or a satellite number?” he asked.

“Satellite,” I advised.

“You must get a local number. Coverage is excellent and cheap through our organization. I can arrange this for you in Paris.”

I thanked Luc, said I’d take him up on the offer and he smiled, satisfied now that he had returned a favor.

I laid eyes on Madeleine Lebeq for the first time in my life not an hour later.

Actually, Luc introduced me to her, and I suppose fate hinged that evening on my meeting Luc and Claire almost three years earlier in a lagoon in the South Pacific. When I think back on the circumstances, the idea really is breathtaking.

And to be exact, she was introduced to me as Doctor Madeleine Lebeq. She was a physician, a specialist in infectious diseases who had vast experience in tropical medicine accumulated over fifteen years of volunteer work with Médecins Sans Frontières, and I could not have conjured a more opposite number to Liz if I had worked on it for years.

Where Liz was willowy and tall, Madeleine was tiny and looked purpose built to work in small, confined spaces. While Liz was known best for her almost obtuse loquaciousness, Madeleine was studious, quiet to the point of being regarded as snobby, and rarely spoke unless addressed first – unless she was giving a lecture on medicine. Liz, athletic, a great swimmer; Madeleine intellectually dexterous, and had never been swimming in her life, at least not until she met me, and then not under the best of circumstances.

Anyway, Madeleine had made her way over to talk to Claire, and Luc introduced us. I had been talking to Jean Paul when Luc first tried to get my attention; it was Jean Paul who tugged on my elbow and asked me to turn around.

I turned to Luc, caught on that he was trying to make an introduction, but I almost didn’t see Madeleine. She was caught in the ebb and flow of the meeting, and it just has to repeated here that she is not at all tall, and that she does not stand out in a crowd. Indeed, I’d have said when I first laid eyes on her that she had gone out of her way to be as unobtrusive as possible. And I’d have been wrong. Madeleine simply didn’t give a damn what she wore, never had, and probably never would. To this day, when I see her in my mind’s eye she’s in pale green surgical scrubs, her hair tied in a severe bun.

Anyway, that night she was wearing a teal colored turtleneck sweater and taupe gabardine slacks; her hair auburn, a little to the reddish side of auburn, really. No makeup whatsoever. And she had the most stunning eyes I’d ever seen in my life. Penetrating, intelligent eyes, the deepest blue-green I’ve ever seen. I was a good foot taller than she, and I looked down at her while Luc tried to cover for my less than gracious attentiveness. After a minute she moved off to join another conversation, and I watched as she walked away with a lump in my throat.

I rejoined Jean Paul and our conversation about Mom’s arrival two days hence, and we confirmed plans to drive together to De Gaulle to pick her up and take her to lunch at Le Grand Vefour. We continued to talk about Marie and the problem of divorce in general when I felt a tug on my shirt-sleeve and turned to see Madeleine Lebeq.

“I understand that you are a sailor, like Luc. I would like to learn, but have never had the time. Could you teach me?”

“Madeleine! Do you know this is the world famous sailor Thomas Deaton? Of course he can’t teach you – he’s always much too busy!”

“Oh, knock it off, would you, JP?!”

“So, you are a famous sailor, Thomas?”

“No, not in the least. Jean Paul likes to make me look like an idiot sometimes, if you know what I mean.”

“Now, now, Tom. Why would I do that when you are so accomplished at doing that all on your own?” I threw a pointed glance at Jean Paul, then turned to Madeleine.

“What do you have in mind? I’m not really going to be sailing until I get down to Marseilles, perhaps in August or September.”

“What are you doing now. Luc said you were on your boat. I assumed here in Deauville.”

“Not anymore, Doctor. I’m on the Seine now, the mast is down. I’m motoring across France, through the canals. Then I will put the mast back up, in Marseilles, and move on.”

“Where? Where exactly do you plan to move on to?”

“I haven’t decided yet. To Greece, perhaps, by way of Corisca and Italy. But I’m undecided, really.”

“That sounds, I don’t know, odd, yet nice. To not know where one is going – to just go. It sounds almost like heaven. You are very lucky. So?” she added, “you wrote a book.”

“Ah, yes, my wife and I did. About a year ago, about sailing through the South Pacific.”

“You are married?”

“No, like all good Americans, I’m divorced.”

“Indeed. Most of the men in this room are from France, and most are divorced. Are all Americans so self-deprecating?”

“Yes, Ma’am. It’s our defining characteristic.”

“I see,” she said. And there it was, the beginnings of a smile. Just a hint, really, the faintest echo of a smile touched the corners of her lips. “So. Perhaps I could join Luc and Claire for a part of your journey? Would that be good for you?”

Frankly, I didn’t know if it would be good or not, but something in those eyes had me by the short hairs. I mean, they were looking right into the depths of my soul and my heart was pounding. I could see that her practiced eye was taking all that in, and that she was not unamused. Docs, by the way, can just look at a few key places and know exactly what’s running through your mind…take my word for it.

“I would be honored to have you come along, Doctor.” So said I, the humble world traveling expert sailor, in my most urbane middle school French.

“Ah. I hope you sail better than you speak our language, Mister Deaton.” And with that she walked away. I think then I remembered to breath again. Jean Paul, bless his heart, didn’t even laugh at me, not even a little bit. I think he was watching the pupils of my eyes, counting respiration rates, all the usual bullshit.

◊◊◊◊◊

JP and I made the quick drive to Paris and picked up Mom on the anointed day, and had our ritual lunch at the Vefour; there’s something inherently intoxicating about eating in a three hundred year old restaurant that used to be one of Napoleon’s favorite hangouts. Anyway, the grub was good and Mom wasn’t too jet-lagged yet, so we ate and reminisced and commiserated on the prevalence of divorce in the post-Tammy Faye Baker era. We drove back to Deauville and put Mom to bed in the middle of the afternoon; jet lag finally hit her and she slept for almost twenty hours. Jean Paul cobbled together a somewhat massive family get-together for the coming weekend – even his soon to be ex, Marie Suzanne, was coming – and Mom wanted to be rested for the affair.

I – for my part – wanted to get to the bottom of this nonsense with Lisa back in Charleston, as it had begun to weigh heavily on my mind. The idea of becoming a parent with Lisa was disconcerting, to say the least, but the somewhat odd twist Liz had tossed out about a possible third party being involved only served to make me terribly ill at ease. I was hoping the matter could be settled over the phone, but was unsure how to proceed after my last attempt to talk to Lisa had ended so – ambiguously? Something smelled fishy about the whole situation.

So, while I was sitting on the patio behind JP’s house, looking out over the garden at the English Channel, I decided to call Liz. Again.

She was at the restaurant, working in the back office when I called that afternoon. I got right to the point: I asked her what she knew about Lisa and this alleged third party – this Drew – whoever he might be.

“Tom, I don’t like all this third-party hearsay stuff any more than you do. I’m just hearing things that worry me, you know?”

“Well, when I called her after I talked with you the other night she sounded fragile, but when I asked “who’s Drew?” she hung up the phone. I think, well, I’m a bit flummoxed, you know what I mean? Bad enough she’s claiming to be pregnant, but to me the situation appears anything but clear. Something’s not right.”

“Yes, I think so too, Tom. He’s supposed to be a guy she’s been seeing off and on for a couple of years. Drew Nicholson’s his name, by the way. They were engaged a while back, too; at least that’s the rumor going ‘round now. Maybe high school sweethearts or something like that, but now I’m hearing that he’s the one who ran off as soon as he heard about the baby. That would’ve made her nervous, you know, but I can’t believe an attorney would try to pull something like this, make a false allegation. It’s just too bizarre.”

“You got that right, kiddo.”

“You know, Tom, I never liked it when you called me ‘kiddo’; you think we could do without that from now on.”

“I’ll try, Liz. Old habits die hard, you know? What do you think I should do, by the way?”

“I don’t know, Tom, really I don’t. Hire a P.I. maybe, or just confront her . . . well, that probably wouldn’t accomplish much over the telephone. But it’s suspicious she hung up on you, that’s for sure. Anything else going on over there?”

“Mom flew over; we’re having a family get together at JPs house this weekend.”

“Oh, that ought to be lovely this time of year. I wish I could make it. How are Jean Paul and Marie doing?”

“Uh, getting a divorce, or at least thinking about it.”

“Oh, no, Tom! That’s so, that’s such bad news. What’s wrong with this world? Is nothing permanent anymore…?”

I actually thought that was an odd comment coming from her. Somewhat ironic, as a matter of fact, but I politely kept my mouth shut. The silence stretched out for a moment longer…

“Well, I wish I could be there. I love those people,” she said.

“Oh, remember Luc and Claire from Moorea?” I shot back, wanting to lighten the mood a bit. “I ran into them at JPs a couple nights ago. Small world, huh?”

“Oh, my, yes. I remember Luc. What a great ass that guy had!”

“LIZ!” Just when you think you understand women they hit you with something like this.

“Oh, Tom, just kidding. How are they doing, anyway?”

I filled her in on the rest, leaving out talk of Luc and Claire joining me on the river this summer, and I didn’t mention Madeleine Lebeq, either. When it’s over, it’s over. No reason to rub salt in that wound any longer. I thanked her for the info and that was that. Cordial. No bullshit, no hysterics. Just like old friends. So goddamn weird!

I sat looking out on the garden as the sun fell closer to the western horizon, and resolved to be nicer to Liz in the future. Then I called Lisa.

◊◊◊◊◊

“Mullins and Associates,” the voice on the other end sang out. Associates? I thought. Who was she trying to fool?

“Lisa?”

“Tom, is that you?”

“It is indeed.”

– silence – then…

“I’m sorry about the other night.”

“Listen, Lisa, I want to get to the point here; I’d like to know what Drew Nicholson has to do with this. Is that asking too much?”

“No, Tom, it’s not. And you have every right to be angry with me.”

“I do? So, this pregnancy is not related to anything you and I – to what we did? The baby isn’t mine?”

“Correct on both counts, Mr Deaton.”

“So, well, excuse me, but why? Why all the calls and letters. And I’ve heard he’s run off. Is that the score?”

“Yes.”

“I’ll be damned.”

“I doubt that, Tom. I might be. But not you. I treated you poorly, and I’m sorry.” The line went dead again.

This was about the weirdest string of conversations I’d ever had in my life, and after the line went dead I wanted to get well and truly drunk. I wondered if JP had any rum in the house, but knowing he was French, I doubted he even knew what rum was.

Boy, was I wrong about that.

◊◊◊◊◊

We drove Mom back to the airport a week later. She was looking frail, and it turned out she had grown terribly lonely without Dad. She mentioned selling the ranch back in Colorado, asked me if I wanted the place when she passed on, and I told her that no, my ways were pretty well set now. I’d live aboard until it was my turn to check out – then she tossed out a bombshell.

“I’m thinking about moving back here, Tom. To be with family.” I could see Jean Paul looking nervously out of the corner of his eye just then; I think he very nearly lost control of his little Citroen.

“Oh?” I recall saying, ever the master of understatement.

“There’s no one, no family in the States for me, Thomas.” Uh-oh. Whenever she uses Thomas I know she’s like a tick – all dug in and ready for a fight.

“You know, Mom, if that’s what you want to do, I’m all for it.” That took the wind out of her sails, and she actually looked disappointed.

“What about you? Where are you going to settle, Thomas?”

“Wherever the anchor drops longest, Mom.” She shook her head at that.

“No children. Such a waste.” Now that I didn’t expect.

“Well, Mom, you never can tell about these things.”

“Oh, that’s a wonderful thought. My grandchildren being born on a sailboat, being raised like gypsies.”

“Ce la guerre, Momma.”

Jean Paul looked as if he was going to explode when he heard that. He was laughing so hard he almost missed his exit for the airport. We’d all been drinking rum the past few nights, and I’ve heard that hangovers from rum are the worst. Maybe that was behind all this nonsense about children, and moving.

◊◊◊◊◊

Two days later, with Mom’s revelation still much on my mind, I slipped lines from the municipal quay in Caudebec-en-Caux and motored upriver against the current, toward Paris. As much as I wanted to stop in Rouen and visit the cathedral there, I resisted the impulse; the docks were a oil-soaked mess, and I really wanted to move on to the big city. Rolling hills rich with trees and fertile farmland gave way to a broad expanse of generic industrial landscape over the next three days, and I struggled to handle working locks on my own. Still, I felt almost like a salmon struggling upriver, and too soon aquaTarkus and I were enfolded in the very fabric of Paris, surrounded by that ancient, gorgeous landscape. And I was early for my reservation at the “marina” too, but the manager found me a temporary spot to tie up near Le Petit Palais, right under the Pont Alexandre, and I had the Eiffel Tower right off the stern for company now, as well as, I think, about two million uncomprehending tourists walking by the boat at all hours. The funny thing about it was I don’t think many of them could believe their eyes.

Because right there on the banks of the Seine – smack-dab in the middle of Paris – was a sailboat flying an American flag, hailing from Newport Beach, California. My bare feet propped up on the cockpit coaming, I sat there munching Reese’s peanut butter cups while I finished rereading Conroy’s Beach Music for the umpteenth time, and all in all, I think I made for a most unusual diversion from the well beaten tourist path they were on.

Ce la guerre, indeed! Je suis comme le Hollandaise Volant, condamnés à errer dans le monde seul…

◊◊◊◊◊

I met Luc the next morning and we walked the block or two from the hospital where he and Claire worked to have lunch. We talked about the proposed journey down the Seine toward the first canal, and the rigorous trip to Lyon that would follow. The more I talked about the journey, the more poor Luc got worked-up about making at least some of the trip. By the time lunch was over he wanted to make the entire trip – all the way to the Med! Clearly I’d have to lay on more rum if that turned out to be the case, but he was fun and enthusiastic about making the journey, and after working just a couple of locks by myself I knew I needed help.

He gave me directions to pick up a cell phone that would work particularly well in rural France, and that would be cheap as hell to boot. And toward the end of lunch, he asked me what I thought of Madeleine Lebeq, and would I mind them coming down to the boat this evening to see it. Madeleine was, or so Luc said, very interested in seeing a sailboat, and in learning to sail generally.

And he was so subtle about Madeleine I could almost feel his elbows digging in to my sides.

So, yes, I told Luc I liked Madeleine just fine, at least she seemed nice after the few minutes I’d spent with her, and that tonight would be fine. I would have drinks ready about seven. I remembered Luc could throw down rum with the best of ‘em, and I hoped Claire would warn Madeleine to be prepared for a seige.

Drunk sailors on the Seine! Who woulda thunk it!

◊◊◊◊◊

Arriving fashionably late, Luc and Claire knocked on the hull about seven fifteen; Madeleine, they advised, would be along shortly. I’d laid on some cheese and crackers and sliced pears, and had mixed up a pitcher of Suffering Bastards for my poor, unsuspecting friends. The drink has a long and storied history, but Trader Vis’s used to describe it as a “forthright blend of rums” mixed in with a tiny bit of fruit, but the simple truth of the matter is two of them will knock most people on their can, so it’s a good ice-breaker (ahem). Anyway, we sat in the cockpit and shook there heads, thinking that the last time we had all been together – almost three years ago to the day – we had been sitting in Cook’s Inlet, Moorea, which is surely one of the most beautiful lagoons in the world. We had been deep in French Polynesia, and now we were in deepest Paris – sitting in the same cockpit. The incongruity of the scene was startling to us, as memory was juxtaposed against the reality of our surroundings, bound together as one in the modest confines of my little cockpit. I know it’s hard to describe, let alone relate the immediacy of the moment, but boats have a way of transporting much more than the physical; our souls’ had been rejoined by the memory of place, and it was as simple as that.

Luc tossed down his drink in the spirit of the moment and asked for another one. Against my better judgement, I demurred and poured. By the by, I hate to dwell on this, but if you’ve never had a Suffering Bastard, head to the nearest Trader Vic’s and be prepared for the unexpected. You’ve been warned. Anyway, Luc finished his second while Claire and I cautiously sipped our first, and I looked on utterly amazed while Luc started in on hers.

Madeleine arrived and I helped her negotiate the jump onto deck. The girl had run out to buy a pair of boat shoes after work, she said, and I complemented her on her choice as I helped her duck into the cockpit. The little teak table attached to the wheel was set up, and she marveled at the varnish on it. I had to bite my tongue; Liz had probably spent a week layering twenty coats of varnish onto that table little more than a year ago. She had taken such pride in her varnish work. So many memories crammed into such an impossibly small space!

I fixed a Bastard for Madeleine and she flinched when she sniffed the drink, then she took a tentative sip at the thing. Her eyes went wide and a little shiver ran through her body. Luc commented that ‘this was a real sailor’s drink’ and the poor girl gamely took a long pull from her glass. One thing about Bastards: they hit hard but get real smooth after about three or four good pulls. And after that – look out! Luc was already three sheets to the wind and going for broke, Claire looked on with a wry eye at her husband, while Madeleine – on learning that a Suffering Bastard was in fact an honest to God sailor’s concoction – gamely tossed her drink down in one fell swoop.

I thought the girl was going to have a seizure right then and there! Nous devons charger les mitrailleuses!

But mon Dieu, she was up for another one!

“Listen, I know we’ve just met and all, but could I get you an Evian, or perhaps some Perrier?”

“Oh no, I’d like another Bastard, please!”

It’s fair to say that I knew where all this rum was going to end up. I mixed the next round with a lot more juice – which led to choruses of derision – and while I remixed the pitcher to a nice healthy octane rating (equal to, perhaps, something akin to jet fuel), I asked them if they’d like to go out to dinner.

“Let’s whip something up here!” Madeleine said. “I can’t believe you can cook on a boat!”

That, ladies and gentlemen, was the wrong thing to say to both Claire and your modest storyteller. Quicker than you could say ‘butter my muffin’ we were down below whipping up all kinds of nonsense, and by midnight we had dispelled any delusional notions of inferiority that poor, demented Madeleine might have harbored about galley facilities on yachts.

I’m not saying that having had four Suffering Bastards clouded the woman’s judgement. No, not at all. On the contrary, I’m sure she was quite sober after diving into the Seine – buck naked, mind you – while a tourist barge motored by, it’s spotlight trained on her bare ass while she sputtered and screamed like a drowning child. Hadn’t she mentioned she didn’t know how to swim?

Thus are our memories made.

◊◊◊◊

In due course, Luc and Claire helped me fish Madeleine from the river, and we dried her body and tears and we consoled her while she ranted about being (almost) forty and not having learned how to swim. It was official, she declared to us all in front of God and three hundred laughing tourists, ‘I am going to take swimming lessons! starting tomorrow – so help me God!’ or words to that effect. I think the fact that she was stark naked on the deck of a sailboat in the middle of Paris had something to do with the solemnity of her oath. But maybe that’s just me.

Ah! We had also cleared up one other item of vital importance. Claire and I could cook a mean Gran Marnier soufflé – even if we were on a goddamned sailboat!

◊◊◊◊◊

I doubt if it would surprise you to learn that within a week Madeleine and I were going out with one another almost every night. She belonged to a tennis club that had a very nice swimming pool, and I cheered her on while she took lessons in the evening. We would follow that on most nights with her beating me at tennis (and by humiliating margins, too), then we would head out and grab a quick bite before returning to the boat for some serious exercise.

It was all very nice.

Paris is like that.

Nice.

Of course, there were riots in the suburbs, almost unbearable heat as June droned along and old people were dropping like flies, and then there was Madeleine’s looming commitment to return to Darfur in September for another three month stint. But, like most people in Europe, Luc, Claire, and Madeleine were scheduled to take their six week vacation in July and early August. Accordingly, I planned to take off from Paris and putter along slowly for a couple of days until they could join me for the rough passage through the canals toward Lyon.

That was, of course, just before Jean Paul called to tell me that Mom had died.

◊◊◊◊◊

Sitting in an Air France 747 flying over the Atlantic, I watched as hundreds of miles of ocean passed underneath in what felt like the blink of an eye; those miles are hard won in a sailboat, of course, and I thought about that for a while. Perhaps that seems out of place, given the circumstance, so perhaps I’d better explain.

Jean Paul was with me that morning, and we sat quietly as the jet arced across the Atlantic towards America, and I suppose we were lost in all manner of thought. I was sitting by a window on the left side of the jet, looking down at the sea as time reeled by slowly, and I was lost in the idea of my mother’s passing – her patient, excitable smile now gone from this world. I’d felt cold and empty since he told me, and the passage of time had seemed to grow slower with each passing minute; I guess that’s what was really on my mind. Not the passage of miles, but the passage of time – time within a family.

We had put her on this very flight not two weeks ago –  only now it felt like just hours ago – and I reached into memory to remember her face as she looked at me that last time, and I remembered her cool cheek on mine as she kissed me. Had she sat looking out this same window, I wondered? What had she thought about on that hideously long flight back to Denver. That she was alone. Moving back to France, to be near the bosom of family. Grandchildren? Probably. In fact, I supposed that was a certainty. I didn’t have to wonder about her feelings about my decision to live aboard: that much she had made abundantly clear over the past few years. She had wanted grandchildren to bounce on her lap, like she had me, once upon a time. I’d really come through for her, hadn’t I?

No, as the jet slipped through time I wondered what she had learned in her life. How she loved my father so fiercely, despite the insane differences in their backgrounds. How had she make the transition from France to Colorado after the war, from farmer’s daughter to pilot’s wife? What had she left undone at the end of her life? What were her regrets, what were the things she’d never done that she wanted to?

Why had I never taken the time to ask her these questions? Why do sons take their mother’s love so pitifully for granted? Which of course made me ask myself if I’d taken Liz’s love for granted…the death of a marriage, then the death of my mother…all these thoughts bouncing along in the turbulence, all my life laid out below on the shimmering blue sea.

◊◊◊◊◊

Mom left directions – explicit directions, really – on what to do with her remains. Her notes were on the kitchen table, along with a note from her attorney to call when we got in. The first thing I did, after JP and I got settled in, was to read her last thoughts.

There was a tree on the estate in Hennequeville. She had drawn a map, as a matter of fact, that revealed in remarkable detail just where to find her tree. It was the tree where her father had found my father, dangling upside down in his parachute harness late one February afternoon in 1944, and it was here that she wanted her body – and my father’s – to intermingle one last time. As stardust, perhaps, but joined in the soil of her France one last time – and for all eternity. I smiled as I read her directions to find the tree, remembering our walks there when I was so small she had to carry me most of the way. Yes, we all knew where the tree was, where the initials Dad carved into the stately old oak were, even the very branch where he had become lodged, and his ankle had snapped. It was a part of our mythology now, a part of our family’s community of memories. A part of our memory of place.

Mom had spelled exactly which verses from which books she wanted read, and what food to serve in the garden later that day. I think she left the wine to our discretion, or perhaps I lost that page in my connivance. I’m not sure anymore. She specified who she wanted to attend, and who should not be invited, and it was then I noticed that she had scribbled these notes down two nights before she passed.

She had known. Known what was coming.

And she was ready, too.

Mom also wanted Liz and Marie to be at the tree-side service, and if Mom had been around as I read that she would have caught an earful. I read this request to myself once, then again – aloud – for my cousins benefit…

“Mon Dieu,” Jean Paul muttered as he listened to me. “I never knew she had it in her to be so, I don’t know, so adroit? Is that the word I search for?”

All I could do was laugh. I think JP thought me a little crazy that evening as he watched me laughing. Laughing until the four walls cried, I guess you might say.

And there wasn’t a drop of rum in the house.

◊◊◊◊◊

And Liz came to the service, bless her heart. I think the audacity of my mother’s last wish wasn’t lost on her, but whatever she felt, she came. We walked the Norman beaches one last time together, Liz and I, and even held hands for a while as we remembered how things had once been, how life had been special once, between us. But she seemed like a different person now, like she was a trespasser on my personal landscape – and I think she felt decidedly out of place. She no longer wanted a reconciliation. I think she sought a redemption through my Mother’s passing, maybe wanted to revisit some of those memories one more time.

Madeleine and Claire were there, as well. Luc was engaged with a lecture and couldn’t make it, but I think he had the presence of mind to tell Madeleine more about Liz and the circumstances of her being there than I had stomach for. And Madeleine was amazing. She laid back, avoided playing the possessive’s hand and gave Liz and I the space we needed to say our last goodbyes.

Family was there, all of our family. And this was my family now, once again, this was where I belonged in that most spiritual sense. If thoughts live in the shadows of our senses, then surely with that realization I had found that peace which had eluded me for so long. I knew I belonged with these people. Simple.

◊◊◊◊◊

Jean Paul and I drove back to Paris after we said our final goodbyes to Mom, and we dropped Liz at de Gaulle for her flight home on our way back to aquaTarkus. I hate to make the point again, but something told me once again that Liz had reached a certain peace with our divorce; still, there was something in her eyes as we said goodbye. Sorrow, regret perhaps, a gentle longing that would remain unfulfilled? For a moment I wanted to hold on to her, never let her go – but the moment passed like a breeze. Watching her walk away, so familiar once, was as impossible as saying goodbye to my mother. I was quiet on the drive into Paris, I had nothing to say, really, to compete with the loneliness I felt. Even Madeleine seemed a distant memory as Jean Paul danced through the midday traffic.

I felt empty inside. Empty in ways I never had before. As bad as it had been when Dad passed, this was worse. I wished then that I had brothers and sisters, and realized that I had always relied on Liz’s family to fill that role. Now all those faces were gone, unavailable, yet in their place I had a mega-family of people I’d met once or twice before, but who, really, were strangers. Well, not Jean Paul – who all of a sudden was my anchor in this storm. The boy could put down rum when it came right down to it, and that made him the best kind of family, in my book, anyway, but now there was something much more important growing between us.

We had grown close the past week, too. Mom was JPs last link to his own parents, and he felt her loss acutely, too. I think we needed each other more now than we felt comfortable talking about.

aquaTarkus was now moored in the narrow, sliver-like marina about three hundred yards south of the Ile Saint-Louis, in a little slip of water that ran from the Seine to the Place de la Bastille. I had never seen or been in any place quite like it before in my life. There she was, my home for so many years now berthed right in the middle of a slender, tree-lined park in the center of Paris. Kids in strollers rolled by – pushed by mothers and nannies, dogs on leashes – walked by the most eclectic people you can imagine – ambled along the walk just above my home – and at all hours of the night and day. With just a few minutes walk I could sit on benches behind Notre Dame Cathedral – or hop a train at the Gare de Lyon for any point in Europe. I could, and did, take in an opera, or walk to any number of world class restaurants. Life there was intoxicating.

Me? How did I manage all this ‘new’ life?

Well, true to form, I ran across an eminently practical old fella who had a rolling crepe stand he kept near the marina entrance, and Gaston made the best crepes I’d ever had in my life. His stand was located out in the open, usually under a broad oak tree about fifty yards from the boat. Within a few days of my return from the coast we were on a first-name basis. A week later we were old friends. Yeah, Paris can be like that. You open up to it’s possibilities, and soon the whole world seems a better place.

Madeleine and I resumed our friendship, as well, but time was breathing down our neck.

We continued to go swimming two or three times a week, only now I joined her with mask, fins and snorkel and was soon teaching her what she’d need to know if and when we hit the Med together; she, on the other hand, continued to whip my ass at tennis, though I was improving. With the change in plans necessitated by Mom’s passing, it now looked as though Madeleine – along with Luc and Claire – would depart Paris with me, and with our narrowing time constraints decided to make a nonstop, mad dash for Marseilles – so we could all experience the entire passage together. Then Jean Paul said he might have enough time to join us for parts of the trip!

And actually, calling this a mad dash is a bit inaccurate. The trip can be made in as little as seventeen to eighteen days; we still had almost five weeks. The only possible bugaboo was the intense heat of summer, and the possibility that drought conditions could lower water levels enough to close some of the routes. I didn’t have air conditioning on aquaTarkus, had never found a need for it, but France was in the death grips of a brutal heatwave. I’d contacted a sailmaker in Le Havre in May and had an awning made that would at least keep the sun off most of the living spaces, and when that simple addition arrived I sat on-deck in the marina – in the middle of Paris, mind you – and rigged-up the most fantastic looking contraption I’d ever seen. My new awning looked like something out of The Arabian Nights. It was huge, it was geometric, it was…

“My God in heaven, Thomas! What is that thing?!”

I turned to look up at Madeleine and Jean Paul standing up on the walkway above my slip. Such is life in a marina; you get used to the conditional privacy or you find you don’t enjoy life so much anymore.

“Just think of it as an umbrella. For the sun.” I looked up at them and smiled, and tried to sound reasonably sure of myself as I did so, but not having seen my new addition from their vantage I now guessed the thing must look like a stupendous monstrosity.

“Ah! Of course!” Jean Paul said. “If you say so, Thomas.”

“Mon Dieu!” said my dearest Madeleine, and I heard her muttering something off color to JP about the thing looking more like a zeppelin than an umbrella, and soon they joined me down below for a nice, refreshing round of Suffering Bastards. Of course I poured them strong.

“Oh, my…” she said after her first sip, and that was all she managed to get out before we broke out laughing. “Refreshing…” Jean Paul coughed after his second tentative sip, then of course he was off to the races. Madeleine set about whipping up dinner while JP and I finished setting up – then taking down the awning, and JP kept popping down Bastards until he looked like he was going to pass out, then he was down for the count. I trundled him down to the guest stateroom and got him laid out, then returned to help Madeleine in the galley.

It was amazing to me how well she had acclimated to life on board, but then I remembered her long stints with MSF in Darfur and Somalia, Chad and Uganda. She wasn’t your run of the mill department store addicted American girl, that’s for sure, but there was something else about her experiences that drove her resilient outlook. I wasn’t sure what it was yet, and wasn’t sure I wanted to know, but by now I knew she was one in a million. As she cooked dinner I looked at her again and again, and realized I couldn’t contemplate life without her now…

I helped carry dinner up into the cockpit and we sat and ate as the sun slipped behind the canyon of buildings that surrounded the marina. A simple omelet, some summer squash, and a nice cold Alsatian wine, and I looked up at all the folks strolling by on their way to dinner or the opera and I wouldn’t have traded anything for that moment.

And I thought about marriage again as I finished my dinner. I don’t know, maybe that’s just what men do . . . feel an overwhelming attraction and act on it. Was I ready to even think about getting married again? I had felt that strong impulse with Lisa Mullins as we sat eating shrimp and grits under the low country sun, yet I knew the feeling was a juvenile reaction, but still, the feeling was there. And it had felt all too real, so unjustifiably real. And now, here it was again, leaving me questioning my maturity – if not  my sanity.

Why do we yearn for such binding connections? Is marriage the only way to feel so aboriginally bound – one soul to another? Is it simply a herding instinct? The caveman protecting ‘his’ woman from poachers? We’ve all read that stuff, why marriage evolved over time the way it has, yet I wasn’t sure then why the impulse is so physically powerful. Hell, I’m still not sure.

And I took a sip of wine, looked up at Madeleine. She was lost in thought, watching people move in the twilight dance of water and city lights; she looked calm, serene, almost contented as she drank her wine. The light reflected off the water, washing over her face – and the reflections formed quiet nocturnes in my mind.

We made love that night like we were the last human beings on earth who understood the severity of desire. We joined our struggle in the forepeak, and with the hatch above us open to the moon and stars we rode through the night, our joyous cries I’m sure more than entertaining to the couples who strolled by just above. Poor Jean Paul…I remember hoping he was too drunk to hear us, but his grin the next morning told me otherwise.

◊◊◊◊◊

It’s an odd thing, really, to pull out of a marina in the middle of a city and motor off under bridges heavy with trains and cars. Some of the neighbors I’d shared this magic space with waved as the five of us puttered away slowly toward the Seine, and we instinctively ducked when a train rumbled overhead. Too soon it seemed we transited the three overpasses that lay between us and the open river, and only then were we in a sense free of the city. We turned to port as we cleared the last overpass and looked upon a waterscape full of tour boats and barge traffic; I could just make out Notre Dame aft before it slipped behind a row of buildings, and I eased the throttle forward to work our way more fully into the current.

What should I say here, now? Give you a travelogue? A play by play commentary of our world as we slipped from urban cityscape to rolling pastures – where horses grazed on the banks of our watery ribbon as we motored by? I suppose I could, but surely you’d grow bored, for we became, I soon saw, just one more part of a frantic world that seemed to have changed gears, where time was money and every barge we passed seemed in a hurry, and yet each of us on aquaTarkus seemed very much aware that this journey was a transfiguration, that our time was different than theirs…

But aren’t all journeys transformations, in one way or another. Maybe that’s Conrad talking, but the feeling was there…the feeling that we were a changing – or were we being changed? – by the landscape as we reeled by on that cellophane ribbon.

What can I say about motoring into a river’s current for hour after hour, day after day, then into locks that lift you a few feet at a time to higher elevations, into cooler waters and softer airs that seem to hold you in a kinder embrace. We motored along grass-lined waterways, sometimes little wider than the hull, the banks we grazed lined with trees that grew up and over the way ahead. There were times the way ahead looked as if we were floating down the center aisle of a vast cathedral – framed not by stone, but by vast overhanging trees. Farmers walked along ancient, stone-lined pathways atop the canal banks, and we often waved at one another, lost in our contemplations about each other’s lives. And the America flag waving off the stern caused more than a few double takes along the way.

We drifted along like this for days. Watching ancient worlds drift by as if in a waking dream, ramping-up alongside a town quay for lunch or dinner, walking to a farmer’s market or a bakery as we saw fit, holding the bounty of this simple life in open embrace as we crossed through the soul of France.

Time becomes meaningless in places like this; I watched our wake trail away behind us and I saw the strictures of time dissolve with our passing. Luc and Claire were, I saw, were as enchanted as Madeleine and I. Even JP seemed to get caught up in the mystery of this passage.

One night Madeleine and I made love on deck – in the moonlight. We lay together afterwards in the warm breeze, listening to swift waters race by the hull, and we jumped when we heard a noise in the grass on the nearby bank and turned to see a huge white horse standing not five feet away. As we stared at each other it wasn’t hard to imagine that once upon a time he had been a unicorn, or a dragon – so distant had that other reality become.

Days became weeks, and weeks too soon almost a month. We easily made Lyon, and now deep in the wide reaches of the Rhone we tumbled southward at an alarming rate toward the Mediterranean, and Marseilles. We soon arrived, and at a yard the mast was reunited with the hull, and lickety-split, aquaTarkus was a sailboat again! With a bit more than a week left together we burst out into the blue waters of the Med and turned hard left and sailed past Marseilles toward a very special part of the coast…a series of small, steep-walled inlets – called calanques – and to one in particular, the Calanque d’En Vau near the Port of Cassis. Here, though the water was quite deep, it was as clear as any swimming pool I had ever seen, and we slipped like seals from the boat into the water and dove among rocks and pulled ourselves out onto the beach and lay in the blistering sun until it was time to swim back to the boat and do something really strenuous – like eat lunch.

This kind of pleasure comes but a few times in life, and I was sorry to see our time together coming to an end. We all took a bus into Marseilles and I went to the American Express to collect my mail after taking Jean Paul, Luc and Claire to the train station for a painful goodbye. Madeleine and I took a room for the night and I held her to my breast as tightly as I could, fearing tomorrow’s parting more than anything I could remember. I simply didn’t have words for what I felt; my feelings were vast and oceanic – beyond simple knowing.

I recall vividly as we walked along the quay that evening, lost to the world around us, lost to anything and everything but the simple joy we found in the touch of each other’s skin, the warmth and hope we found in each other’s eyes. We ate a small dinner by the harbor and walked back to the hotel where we sat on the front steps as the moon rose overhead. I think we knew we hadn’t finished our music together, but I knew the road ahead without her by my side would be an unpleasant one.

I had no idea, really, how bad things could get.

◊◊◊◊◊

I’ll spare you a description of our parting the next morning. I’m not big on tears, especially when they’re mine.

I made my way back to the boat – empty now for the first time in months – and sailed down to the Calanque de Cassis – where there is a lovely marina – and I had the boat hauled and long postponed maintenance performed. I took a room nearby, as the boat was hard on the ground, and I worked on replacing an old braided fuel line that looked long past it’s prime while workmen puttered away on the ground below.

For some reason the marina had asked for emergency contact information, which soon came in handy. Do we believe in coincidence?

It was a dreadfully hot day, hotter than any other time I could remember that summer, and I was working down below, not drinking enough water and pushing myself way too hard when it came.

A crushing pressure in my chest. Yes. That pressure we all know and love. I just managed to crawl up into the cockpit and get a passing mechanics attention before I passed out.

◊◊◊◊◊

I have no recollection of events as they transpired. A medical team took me to Cassis and thence to Marseilles. Jean Paul was contacted, and he must have called the President of France because overnight I was flown to the best cardiac hospital in Paris where a team of JPs friends went about clearing out my somewhat over-clogged plumbing. Madeleine was soon in attendance, clucking over the freshly minted zipper now right down the middle of my chest, and she chided me once again about not eating enough fruits and vegetables and drinking too much rum. Did she mention my passion for Hollandaise sauce, too?

You know, fruits and vegetables are one thing, but messing with a sailor’s rum? And Hollandaise? Come on! Cut me some slack, wouldya? I me, why bother.

◊◊◊◊◊

Madeleine left for Darfur about a month after my événement cardiaque. I healed nicely, or so JP said anyway, and I used the time to get caught up with business affairs back home. Getting Mom’s final affairs put to bed – the ranch on the market, equities liquidated, etc. – took up most of the time that wasn’t being chewed up by truly sadistic nurses in cardiac rehab. Fortunately, my little hiccup wasn’t a really bad affair – more like a warning shot across the bow, really – but it was a warning that I took to, well, to heart. I know, I know…I’m so sorry.

Madeleine was due to return just in time for Christmas, and we had talked about spending the time down on the boat, so as soon as I could I planned to make my way back to the coast. And so it was that JeanPaul flew down with me in late October, and we found that the workers in the yard had done a nice job on the bottom paint and engine overhaul. The sailmaker who’d made the zeppelin, er, the sun awning, had graciously made me a new main-sail and the yard crew had put that on, too, so with a fresh autumn breeze at our backs JP and I sailed down to the made the short sail to the Calanque d’En Vau again. He handled the anchor and then we slipped our toes into the water.

It was unanimous! Way too cold for mere mortals to swim in, so we made a nice (healthy) salad and sat in the sun, while the steep walls of the canyon kept the blustery air just offshore from working us over too badly.

“What are you going to do about Madeleine?” Jean Paul asked me in his usual, delicate way.

“What am I going to do? What the hell does that mean?” I shot back.

“When she heard about you, dear Thomas, and about your little circulatory problem, she came unglued, you know. I mean totally unglued. Mind you, this is a woman with a heart of steel, pure steel. I’ve never seen her cry before. And the things she’s seen, well, they make me cry to think about.”

“I hear you, Jean Paul. I love her. That’s all there is to say.”

“And?”

“And – what?! Look, the ink on my divorce papers has barely had time to dry, you know what I mean?”

“That’s bullshit and you know it. Love is love. Commitment is commitment, and time is fleeting. You of all people should understand that now.”

“And don’t I just know it, my friend. Thanks for reminding me.”

“And I thank you for that, Thomas. Truly. I am honored to be your friend. And as your friend, I tell you that you are full of bullshit.”

Yeah, there was no doubt about it. He was from my mother’s side of the family alright, with just enough of my mother’s steel-edged irony to cut deepest when least expected.

◊◊◊◊◊

I don’t know much about Darfur; I didn’t then and I still don’t. I don’t keep up with that stuff anymore. I figure that people are going to keep killing people for any and whatever reasons they can come up with. I’ve experienced it personally in Central America, in the southwestern Pacific, and in Ireland. I’ve seen it in South Central L.A., and in Oakland. I’ve nearly been knifed in Mexico City and mugged in New York City. Yeah, it’s usually some kind of religious gripe that sets people off these days, but hell, why blame God for all our nonsense. Assuming he gave us this paradise in the first place, most of the time we’ve pretty much fucked it up all by ourselves and with no help from him. Besides, more often that not it just comes down to somebody else wanting your stuff, and they’re willing to hurt you to take it from you.

So, when it comes to believing in the goodness of man, I’m an agnostic.

That’s why I was such a stoic when I heard that Madeleine and a handful of other physicians had been abducted by Islamist militants from their aid station outside of Nyala, in southwestern Sudan.

As far as I could make out, there wasn’t much reason for this latest war. One group of (well-armed) muslims with – basically – nothing of value to call their own were out killing another group of (somewhat less than well-armed) non-muslims who had – basically – nothing of value to call their own. A few well-intentioned people were trying to stop the murder, but – basically – the general public in the west had had it with the never-ending stream of tribal genocide that had been playing out on television in their living rooms – night after night – for almost thirty years. Throw in a few misadventures playing out in the Middle East at the same time, and – well – Darfur was getting lost in the shuffle.

But then, as these things tend to, all of a sudden Darfur got real personal for me.

◊◊◊◊◊

I flew up to Paris and was met at deGaulle by Luc and Claire; Jean Paul was at MSF headquarters getting caught up with the latest news. Rumors were flying about a French military mission into the area to try to recover the physicians – something the docs at MSF were adamantly against, by the way – when video was released showing one of the doctors being beheaded. A knife-wielding masked militant declared that any attempt to rescue the others would only lead to more beheadings. I watched this bastard tell me he was going to kill the woman I loved right there in the baggage claim area at Orly Airport – on CNN.

You have to believe me when I tell you this. I believed him, I was willing to take him at his word. And I wanted to kill that son of a bitch more than anything else in the world. Maybe that’s what terrorists want – to fill the human heart with hate – and if that’s their aim they have surely succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.

◊◊◊◊◊

Well, it seemed the son of a bitch had used an unsecured connection to send his demands to CNN, and of course our good buddies at the NSA intercepted the transmission and forwarded the coordinates to a group of United States Marines already operating (ahem, covertly) in the area.

I never got the chance to kill that prick. Some kid from Flint, Michigan probably got that honor. One other doctor got wounded in the rescue, but the rest were hustled out of the Sudan on a US Air Force C-17 within a couple of hours of their ‘release’ – at least that’s what the press was told – and Madeleine and her associates her winging their way back to Frankfurt, Germany, where a group of French spooks debriefed them before their return to Paris.

All this Jean Paul related to me over dinner across from the Tuileries; Luc and Claire were simply too devastated to eat – they had known the murdered physician quite well, so JP and I sat quietly by ourselves and ate our dinner. The worst was over, Jean Paul told me, and though relieved this part of Madeleine’s ordeal was now in the past, we both knew there would be trying times ahead as she came to grips with the broader contours of her ordeal.

“Have you thought about our last conversation? On the boat?” he asked.

“Little else, my friend. Little else.”

“And?”

“Don’t you think this would be the most inappropriate time to bring all that up? I mean really, Jean, look what she’s just been through.”

“I see. I see that you are still full of bullshit. Too bad. She deserves better.”

“Pardon me, Jean Paul. But fuck you.”

“No, you spineless coward, fuck you! You love the woman, and she loves you! She is all alone in this world, no family, but a handful of friends, and yet it is you that she loves more than anything else in this world. And what are you going to do? Get on your boat, perhaps, and run away again?”

I think I was stunned, too stunned to say a word. I think everyone else in the restaurant was too stunned as well. But was my dear cousin finished with me just yet?

Oh-no-no, mon ami, he was just getting started: “You have grown disgusting, Thomas. You called yourself a hippy once, a revolutionary, then you opened up a restaurant and served plates of fifty dollar crap to the very same people you once condemned. You got rich off them, off their money. Then off you go in search of everything you turned your back on – in a half-million dollar plaything, and you did this when your country needed people of conscience more than at any time in it’s history. Shit, Thomas, when the world needed people of conscience. And now here you are, faced with the reality of love, love from a true woman of conscience, and you are prepared to run away from her too, aren’t you? Aren’t you!?

I felt like getting up and walking away from the table, but he held me with his eyes. Remember, I think I once mentioned his eyes? Empathetic, all knowing eyes? Jean Paul is a rare bird, and I love him. But he can be such an ass.

So of course I looked at him, and in my best poker face asked: “You gonna eat those snails?” I spoke in my best deadpan, but I gave it away too soon and started to grin.

He looked at me for a moment longer with astonishment registering clearly in those eyes, then he laughed. I’m not talking a little snort of derision, either; we’re talking a major-league blow-out laugh, an eye-watering, side-splitting laugh, and soon he was pounding the table and trying to catch his breath, and then the people around us started to laugh.

That was it.

I laughed so hard the staples in my chest hurt, then everyone in the restaurant was laughing, and our laughter spread to the street, across the city, then a continent. Soon the whole world was laughing at the absurdity of life.

We laughed until we cried. All of us.

◊◊◊◊◊

Late the next rain-soaked afternoon, Madeleine returned to Paris in a little Dassault Falcon 50, and all of us were waiting for her when the little white jet pulled up on the ramp at a private airfield south of Paris. She was the third one off the plane, and I could see she walked now with a limp and a cane, yet when she was still a good distance away she saw me and started to run. I could see her grimaced pain, and I rushed past a security guard to meet her. We met while still out on the wet tarmac, rain falling on our shoulders and faces as we kissed, and I think we both cried, though it was hard to tell – we were both so wet.

We piled into JPs little Citroen and slipped back into Paris and made our way to Madeleine’s little apartment next to the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Pres.

What do you do at times like this? Do you celebrate? Get drunk? Go to church?

Well, yeah, but in what order?

◊◊◊◊◊

I sat beside Madeleine as she kneeled at her pew inside the Abbey, and I listened as she whispered a prayer and crossed herself. After a while she sat beside me and I took her hand; she returned the pressure I felt building in my heart, and with her hand in mine I turned and looked at the overwhelming beauty of her face in the subdued light of the chapel. She tried to smile for me, but the attempt was lost in the grief we felt.

We left the chapel and walked out into the chill air of the late autumn evening and walked the four blocks down to the Seine, and it was as if gravity had pulled us as we walked upstream to the Ile de la Cité and Notre Dame. We continued along the river, her hand in mine, on past the cathedral until we came to the little bridge that cuts across to the Ile Saint-Louis. Still we walked on, on toward the Place de la Bastille and our little marina.

On to our own memory of place.

Gaston, the astute old man running my favorite crepe stand, recognized me from a distance and put on a couple for us as we approached. We asked him to fix us two with Gran Marnier and strawberries, then went to sit on a bench by his stand overlooking the spot where aquaTarkus had been not so long ago, and we sat in the quiet evening and ate our crepes as we looked down at all the boats and relived other times. We sat there for hours, I suppose, wanting to commune with spirits of the past, the memory of place guiding our love tentatively towards some sort of conclusion.

I felt a chill on Madeleine and stood, held my hand out for her, but instead she took mine and pulled me back down to face her.

“Tom, what is to become of us?”

Ah, there it was. Had we come to the most important question of my life – and hers – so soon?

“Madeleine, I…”

“Oh, Tom, I’m so sorry. This must be so strange for you? I should not…”

“Strange? Why would you think it strange for two people in love to ponder their future? Why shouldn’t two people who love each other as much as we do talk about commitment and what we want the future to hold for us?”

Suddenly she was very quiet, and the air took on a preternatural hush.

“So, I don’t know Madeleine, perhaps it would be crass to ask you to marry me tonight. I know you’ve been through so much the past few days, so much violence and sorrow. Why would you want to contemplate spending your life with an old vagabond.”

“Thomas?”

“Yes, my love?”

“Shut up, Thomas. Shut up and kiss me.”

◊◊◊◊◊

“Thomas?”

“Yeah JP, what’s up? You still at the office?”

“Thomas, a woman is here in the clinic. An American. Lisa something. She says she’s here with your daughter, and that she wants to see you right away.”

“My daughter? In Deauville?”

“That’s what she says. My, Thomas, but you have led a complicated life.”

“Last I heard, Jean Paul, she said another fellow was the father, but I haven’t kept up with her too much since I left America. I think she may have a few loose screws, if you know what I mean?”

“Well, she has made an appointment to see me. So. Would you like me to talk with her about this, or would you like me to keep out of the affair?”

“Hell no, Jean Paul. Find out what you can. Just keep in mind that Liz has heard some contradictory things about this woman, and her pregnancy. Do you have Liz’s number?”

“Yes. But it shouldn’t come to that, should it?”

“I don’t know. I doubt it.”

“Can you come up tonight?” he asked.

“Yeah. On my way. I can just make the one thirty to Deauville. Be there about five.”

“Good. I’ll pick you up at the station. Oh, Thomas? Will you come alone?”

◊◊◊◊◊

I didn’t know what to think.

Was this woman a pathological liar? What in God’s name was she up to?

The one thirty was a local, not an express, and the train stopped at every little station between Paris and the coast. The closer we came to Deauville, the more upset I became until, at one point, I was so nauseated I thought I might lose it. I had long thought this incident over and done with, and, well, at least my part in the affair was at an end, so I hadn’t given the problem of Lisa a thought in months.

Oh, so complicated, yet so simple. Some mistakes never leave you; they follow you until they find you at your weakest, then they turn and face you, ready to sprint in for the kill.

I called Madeleine before I left for the station. She had gone to work that morning to do some difficult analyses in her lab, and I simply laid it out on the table for her as best I could. I could hear the strain in her voice when I told her I would get to the bottom of this as fast as I could and call her that evening.

And she wished me good luck.

When the woman you love wishes you good luck, in my experience you ought to start packing your bags – because they surely are.

◊◊◊◊◊

The train arrived a half hour late, but Jean Paul was on the platform, waiting, and I could see a little impatiently. A light drizzle coated the old beige tiles of the station platform as I met him, then we walked out to his Citroen.

“I dropped her off at the house. I thought it better for you to talk in quiet surroundings.”

“What did you find out?” I asked Jean Paul.

“No, Thomas, first I want you to talk to this woman. Listen to what she has to say. Also, forgive me, but I called Madeleine, asked her to come up tonight.”

“You did – what?”

“Again, Thomas, talk with this woman. Listen to what she has to say. But Thomas, understand this. I love you; you are my family. I will support any decision you make, because I know you will make the right choice.”

◊◊◊◊◊

We crunched down the gravel drive, tires popping over the wet pebbles as we pulled up to the front door. It was dark now, and honey colored light shone out the front windows, spilling onto tired grass now long asleep, and I grabbed my overnight case and walked with Jean Paul into the mother’s house. He took my case from me and indicated that I should go to the last bedroom – the old blue one at the end of the hall – and that Lisa was waiting for me there.

I walked down the hall; instinctively I walked as quietly as I could, like I was sneaking up on my past, trying to surprise it.

The door was open and I looked in.

Lisa was asleep on her side, and though a light was on I couldn’t make her out too well. I knocked lightly on the door.

“Tom?” And I could hear the truth in her voice.

“Yes, it’s me.” I walked into the room, and I could smell sickness throughout the room.

“I’m so sorry for all this. I really am.” I could see her emaciated body under the sheets, her bright eyes now lined with dark circles, sunken deeply in her yellow face.

I moved to her, sat on the bed beside her.

“Lisa, what is it? What’s happened to you?”

“Well, turns out I’m a little sick.”

“I can see that. Where’s the baby?”

“She’s with Liz right now, in the kitchen.”

“She’s…Liz is…here, now?”

“Oh, poor Thomas. This must be so impossible…”

“I…uh…”

“Go. Go see her, Tom. Then come back and talk to me.”

I was speechless, frozen in place, felt like I was floating outside my body.

“Will you please tell me what’s going on first?”

“Go, now,” she said, pointing. “Now, Thomas. Go and meet your daughter.”

I stood in a daze and walked to the kitchen. Jean Paul watched as Liz, holding the little girl close, held a bottle to her lips. My ex-wife looked up at me for a moment, the moment I walked into my mother’s kitchen, and she smiled at me as though this was the most natural thing in the world.

Ah, I understood now. I was having a dream! None of this was real! It couldn’t be, could it?

“Was she asleep?” Jean Paul asked me.

Oops. No, not a dream.

“No, she’s…Jean Paul? What the hell’s going on?”

“Sh-h-h!” hissed Liz. “Don’t upset her, Tom. Here, come hold her.”

I walked forward, looked at the little bundle in Liz’s arm.

“No, no. Not quite yet. Jean Paul? How ‘bout a little truth right about now?”

“Lisa has an aggressive cancer, Thomas. A pancreatic cancer. It’s a miracle she carried the baby to term, really.”

“Liz?” I asked. “How long have you known about this?”

“Me? Oh, right after the funeral, Tom. Lisa made me promise not to tell you.”

“And the baby’s mine?”

“Well, the blood test for the other guy, Drew, turned out negative. He insisted, wanted to…wanted proof. So, he was happy, anyway, and moved on. Then Lisa found out she was sick, back in August. That’s when she came to see me.”

“I see.”

“She wants you to raise the baby.”

“I see.”

“Thomas,” JeanPaul said, “look at this baby girl. This new life. It’s yours.”

Thanks, JP, always nice to have a master of understatement in the family.

I walked closer to Liz, looked closely at the little girl bundled up in my ex-wife’s arms, and I gasped when I looked at my little girl.

She looked exactly like pictures of my mother when she had been so little.

I took her from Liz and held her close.

◊◊◊◊◊

We moved down to the coast, my two girls and I, we moved onboard aquaTarkus. Moved on for good. But not before Madeleine and I married on Christmas Eve, in the little chapel by my mother’s house – by my home, really – my home by the sea near Hennequeville. Liz stayed for the wedding, and even Marie came, too. Jean Paul talked about a reconciliation while Luc and Claire played with little Elizabeth in the snow afterwards. Madeleine and I decided to put Lisa’s ashes in the yard by my parent’s tree, so Elizabeth would always have the sanctity of familial love focused intently on the spot that had united us all, once upon a time – when my father fell from the sky.

I wanted Elizabeth to always know the memory of place. Her place in the world.

So, yes, we moved aboard, for good. We resolved to live our lives afloat, to carry Madeleine’s practice to distant lands, where she could bring the miracle of her strength and love to those bereft of hope, to those bereft of peace. And yes, to those bereft of love.

After all, she had given this to me. And my daughter, because you never know where the next memory will come from.

©2007-2016 Adrian Leverkühn | ABW | adrianleverkuhnwrites@yahoo.com

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Again, hope you enjoyed the journey.

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Time, Like a River

So, some passing thoughts now about science fiction, then on to the story.

SciFi is a weird genre floating along the stream of human literature. It’s comparatively new, too, given that modern scientific enquiry is itself kind of new. Discounting Euclid and Aristotle, modern scientific studies really only got underway about the time Mark Twain was writing (and I know, there’s plenty of room to question that assertion), with H.G. Wells and Jules Verne really kicking off the game as we know it.

To my mind, the best science fiction derives from well educated scientists, and of course I would hardly consider myself in that league. I always think of Arthur C Clarke as the best of the best in this genre, and his Childhood’s End remains my favorite. Period. Still, The Mote In God’s Eye, and it’s primary sequel The Gripping Hand  (co-written by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle) are probably my next two favorite scifi novels. And I wonder, just how many people know of The Black Cloud, by Fred Hoyle? A physicist, one of those Manhattan Project gurus, had us read that one for his intro physics class (the man looked like a lizard and worked on predicting how the atomic bomb blasts would affect the B-29’s wings…esoteric, to say the least…). And that’s what’s neat about the genre. There’s room for everything in SciFi – except perhaps mediocrity, but one of the things I’ve noticed over the last couple of decades is that Science has come to dominate the genre, sometimes at the expense of Fiction. Hence, I thought I’d throw my hat into the ring and see what happens…when there’s more fiction and less science. Hopefully, when all is said and done next Fall, you’ll have enjoyed the trip.

Anyway, I’ve read and reread those poor dog-eared books so many times over the years it’s probably impossible for me to separate the themes in those books from the ideas I’ve developed in this latest Driftwood sequence. And speaking of Childhood’s End, I found the 2015 miniseries on DVD last weekend and have watched it more than a few times since; it’s a decent retelling of the story and worth a look. Now, would someone please bring the Moties to life??? JJ Abrams – where are you???

I found, while writing the second chapter of Time, Like a River, that I didn’t want to “give away too much” about the Mr Christian part of the story, and that came into play more directly writing this third part of the story. I knocked off about half of the second chapter, and more than two-thirds of this third part, so the brevity has purpose. If you think it too brief, please, let me know.

SO… I’ve decided to post “all three parts in one” this time out. Yes, Virginia, this post has all three parts of Time, Like a River included, so you may be rereading some material here (and note: the previous posts have disappeared). Midsummer or thereabouts I’ll post the entire Driftwood story as one longish novella, including the original Driftwood and all three parts of the post-Driftwood sequence, with some tweaks here and there, and all to lead the way to An Evening at the Carnival with Mr Christian.

So, without further fanfare, here’s Time, Like a River. Let me know what you think.

+++

Time, Like A River: The Journey From Driftwood III

Part I: They called for the harp – but our blood they shall spill

Byron, By the Waters of Babylon – from The Hebrew Melodies

◊◊◊◊◊

The Air Force C37A turned on base over Maryland’s ‘eastern shore’ – flying towards it’s next waypoint and now 4500 feet over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, and Grover Smithfield looked down at Annapolis as the pilot configured flaps for the extended approach.

So many decades had passed, Smithfield thought as he looked down at the campus by the bay, since his class had first formed up on drill fields by the waterfront. JFK was in the autumn of his presidency, and only a few of his teachers glimpsed the great dissolution that would follow Kennedy’s murder. One of his favorite instructors, a Navy captain who just happened to be a well regarded historian, remarked casually on the Monday after Kennedy’s assassination that Lee Harvey Oswald had just accomplished what all the navies and armies of Germany and Japan had failed to do in the second world war: in the span of a few brief seconds he had completely shattered America’s sense of itself. No matter who was ultimately held responsible, he saw Americans from that day forward drifting apart from one another, flying off to their polar extremes. “Belief is a fragile thing,” he said, “a shared set of ideas that can disappear in an instant – even in three seconds.” Smithfield remembered the captain’s office, and a little sign the man had hung on the wall above his desk. “History is the graveyard of tyrannies,” the little placard stated, and even now Smithfield recalled the captain had gone to work for first Nixon, then Ford, eventually ending his non-partisan career in the Carter White House. Smithfield had tried to emulate the man all his life.

But what had happened to that perspective over the years?

He watched the little harbor slide by, then Washington’s eastern suburbs, looking at the captain’s rigid prediction that was even now coming true. Politics had devolved from the soft art of compromise to cold obstructionism. Compromise was considered evil, and thugs on the right and idiots on the left all sounded more and more – like what? Ignorant, or simply arrogant? Unwilling to even consider a thought that didn’t conform to a fixed set of ideas? Now he could see better than ever how communities had grown into ossified extensions of ideology, yet even so, looking down on the Beltway in that moment, for some reason he remembered sitting in Sergey Gorshkov’s office one rainy May afternoon in Moscow, listening to the old admiral expound on the role of Soviet seapower.

“The Soviet Union will collapse soon,” he’d said as their meeting drew to a close, and Smithfield had thought the man insane to speak those words aloud in that office – even if he was the architect of modern Soviet naval doctrine. “But I do not worry so much about that. Your Kennan predicted our collapse, in 1947, and he had it down almost down to the year. And he was correct, his working hypothesis was accurate, the whole Buddenbrooks analogy, how political cultures decay like families decay over time. But, Captain Smithfield, what troubles me most is what happens when your country falls. It will, you know, perhaps in your lifetime. That is the working assumption in the Kremlin, anyway.”

Smithfield’s Gulfstream made it’s last hard left onto final – and a half mile off their left wingtip he saw two F-16s, and he thought again of Israel. That beleaguered nation had been at war since 1947, since it’s modern inception – and keeping a strong military presence in the public eye was a vital fact of public life.

But here? In our skies? My, how times had changed. Was this what Gorshkov had been thinking of?

Now it was routine for airliners approaching New England from Europe, or Alaska from the Orient, to find squadrons of interceptors waiting to ‘escort’ them through the relevant ADIZ. Terror alerts were taken seriously now – by the military, at least – because that was the reality of post-modern ‘neoliberal’ existence. Newton’s Laws, Smithfield sighed, just couldn’t be ignored –  though the political world had tried often enough – only now actions and reactions were coming so fast there was no time to adjust, no time to plan. He’d found himself reacting to events all during his presidency, rarely ever ahead of events.

And now the extreme reaction to the Hyperion Contacts – as the current president called them – with ever more liberties curtailed, and everyone clueless about the facts. Still, almost seven months after Hope Sherman’s ‘disappearance,’ information about the project within the intel community had been rigidly compartmentalized. Of more importance, information had been stopped before reaching the greater political hierarchies within the American congress, let alone the European Union and Russia. As a result, only a handful of people around the world had any idea what had happened last Christmas – in space, between the earth and her moon. So focused had those governments been on the threat of expanding Islamist terror, the idea that the Hyperion Fusion Project had been a ruse and that so-called ‘First Contact’ had already occurred remained a great unknown.

The fact that Russia’s intercontinental missile force had been neutralized in an instant completely altered the role of the military, and an early Cold War hysteria gripped planners in the Pentagon and the Kremlin – “Flying Saucers and Death Rays, oh my!” – yet countering this new threat became the next mission. Planners and designers from Boeing and Grumman and Sukhoi hypothesized and groused – because no one knew what the threat was – not what the threat looked like, or even what “their” capabilities were. These planners and designers just shrugged and shook their heads and wondered how best to spend the billions of dollars suddenly knocking on their doors.

So the race was on: how to assess the threat became the next great game, and the President called Smithfield, or, rather, he had called the Prime Minister of Israel…

…and now here he was…walking down air-stairs on a torrid July afternoon to a convoy of waiting Suburbans. Turning out of Joint Base Andrews onto Pennsylvania Avenue, four black Suburbans and eight motorcycles in line, making the half hour drive through the city to the Big House; once past the Beltway the traffic grew oppressively heavy, the edifice of empire was everywhere he looked, while legions of homeless and the infirm lay in every shadow. The city was, Smithfield thought, still the living embodiment of extreme contradictions, and then, the white Capitol Dome looming just ahead in a thick, brown haze. Perfect, he thought. So few with so much.

The House was unchanged, he saw, but security was oppressive now; not even one tourist on the sidewalk waiting for a tour; those had been suspended for the time being. Snipers not visible either, but he knew they were up there, watching this arrival. Through the White House gates and out of the Suburban, he heard a formation of jets overhead and didn’t even bother looking at them; he saluted the pair of Marines by the entry and saw Paul Kirkland, the President’s National Security Advisor, waiting, and they walked together through the West Wing to The Office.

The President looked much older now, and uncharacteristically tired, his face lined with cares he’d never imagined seven years ago, and Smithfield smiled. He paused, looked at a sword on the president’s desktop, a simple Samurai’s sword, and Smithfield thought it looked ancient, indeed, it’s silvered steel now almost elegant with the patina of age – and use, perhaps – yet the President pointedly didn’t stand, and barely acknowledged his predecessor’s presence in the room.

Smithfield listened as an old clock beat away on a bookshelf, and still the President simply continued looking at the sword, his eyes fixed on the cold steel, while Smithfield remained standing. The old man wasn’t aggravated by this breach of protocol – no, he was simply more interested in the mood he felt in the room. Oppressive curiosity, perhaps? With a lingering sense of despair?

“Japanese Ambassador just left,” the President finally said, slowly looking up at the previous occupant of this office. “Symbolic, don’t you think?”

Smithfield glanced at Kirkland, then back at the President; Kirkland shrugged, rolled his eyes, so Smithfield sat down across from the President. “Why symbolic? Think he wants you to commit seppuku?”

The President shook his head then, and chuckled. “Wouldn’t be surprised, Grover. Not a bit surprised.”

“What can I do for you, sir?”

“Have you been out there yet?”

“Sir?”

“KIC 8462852, the system. Have you been out there yet?”

“No, sir.”

“Really? I’m surprised.” The President was staring at him, as if taking the measure of his predecessor once again.

“Oh? Why’s that, sir.”

The President turned in his chair and looked out the window. “Don’t you want to?”

“No sir, not really.”

The President steepled his hands in front of his face, took a deep breath. “That ship of there’s. The one on the far side. Have you seen it, know it’s capabilities?”

Smithfield shook his head. “No, I haven’t, and I don’t.”

“Well then, that’s going to be a problem.”

“Yessir. I understand.”

“Oh? Do you?. We’re confronting a hostile species that has demonstrated the capability to neutralize all our offensive and defensive weaponry. Doesn’t that concern you?”

“No sir, not really.”

The President turned to face his desk again, yet once again he looked at the sword as he spoke. “Interesting. I never took you for a fool.”

“Was there anything else you wanted to talk about while I’m here?”

“Such as?”

Smithfield shrugged. “Oh, I don’t know. Who goes next, on what ships? How we go about setting up colonies on new worlds? Things like that.”

“You mean, of course, that we tell the people? Let the people know who’s up there, what they’re capable of doing to us?”

Smithfield looked at the man, at the lack of imagination he saw in his eyes. “Why not tell them the truth? What they have to offer us.”

“What’s wrong with you, Grover? Have you gone soft in the head?”

Smithfield smiled, looked him in the eye. “Maybe so.”

“You’re dead, I guess you know?”

“Sir?”

“After all that nonsense out in Santa Monica, the funeral at Arlington. The country thinks you’re dead. Maybe a handful of people in the world know you’re still alive. Have you considered your position?”

“Ah.”

“I have reports you’ve been with them.”

“Sir?”

“Well? Have you met them? The aliens?”

“Yessir. Several of them, as a matter of fact. About all I can add is that, in my opinion, you have no reason to fear them.”

The President snorted derisively. “Do we need to send you down to Cuba? Maybe for a little R&R at a little naval base we still have down there?”

“That’s your prerogative, Mr President. But I’d recommend against that course of action.”

“Would you, now? So you do know a few of their tricks. Well, it occurred to a few of our people across the river you might say something like that; in fact, I think more than a few were kind of hoping you’d imply a threat of one kind or another.”

“Yessir, I imagine they have. That’s understandable.”

“So? No hard feelings?”

Smithfield smiled, and stood…

…And the national security advisor shouted into his handset, screamed for the president’s secret service detail to get to the room – ASAP –

The team entered the room, found Kirkland open-mouthed down on the floor, pointing at the president’s desk, but both presidents were nowhere to be found – they had simply vanished – but why was Kirkland down there on the floor? When the head of detail ran closer, he saw Kirkland was kneeling, his hand out, talking to what he at first thought was a toddler – a blue-skinned girl, perhaps two feet tall, and then she too was gone – leaving a thousand questions hanging in the air – apparent.

◊◊◊◊◊

[Log entry SailingVessel Gemini: 7 July, 0700 hrs GMT, Friday morning. 

COG: at anchor, Ile du riou , calanque des contrebandiers

SOG: 0.0 kts; 

Temp: 83f;

Winds: NW at 15, viz unlimited +10nmi; 

Barometer 29.98 and rising; 

GPS:  43°10’26.16″N | 5°23’11.17″E

We are still anchored inside the calanque des contrebandiers, aka smuggler’s cove, effectively in another world yet only six miles from Marseilles. Liz is turning out to be a decent diver, both she and Carol are spending lots of time down there – two hours yesterday – while Ted remains preoccupied and sullen, for the second day running. We’re warped to limestone walls, some of the pitons we found are still secure, and we’ve been checking the ones we set a couple times a day. A late-season ‘mistral’ blew through yesterday yet we were snug in here, unaffected by wind or waves, while a few hundred yards away the sea looked like a washing machine. I remain wary as we’re roped off in here with zero maneuvering room, but we’re practically invisible, and the mood is magic, esp. at sunset, when the limestone cliffs glow an incredible orange.]

Gemini lay ‘at anchor’ within a narrow finger of water, a hidden treasure Collins had learned about from a local at the marina in Cassis. They’d taken Hyperion over for a haul-out, to get her bottom painted and anodes checked, and to refill the SCUBA tanks once again, so the four of them had decided to spend a few days over on the island until Hyperion was ‘ready to go’ again. He’d just managed to get Ted out into the sun, and now they were taking the Zodiac over to les Empereurs with masks, fins and snorkels, yet their conversation had been brief – though telling.

“You seem down, almost out of it…” Collins asked, setting a little anchor on the sandy bottom near the rocks.

“Yeah. I’ve been thinking about Hope. I worry about her, you know?”

“I know, Spud. I think we all do. What does Carol think about all this?”

“She misses LA, her work. Hell, I do too.”

“No shit? You’d rather be back on the streets – than here?”

Sherman nodded his head, looked away. “I wasn’t really ready to retire, whatever the hell that means. Sitting around doing nothing, drinking fruit punch and watching sunsets.”

“Well hell, why don’t you go back?”

“I’m dead, remember? Buried, at Forest Lawn. My name’s been chiseled on a wall, too.”

“You have a house there, don’t you?”

“I did, yes. A friend is renting it, from – ‘my estate.’” He spit out those last two words angrily, looked back at the island.

Collin’s snorted. “It’s hell being dead, ain’t it, Spud.”

Sherman looked down into the water. “So, what’s down here?”

“Fuck if I know. Looks like it falls off fast. What does it show on the chart?”

“Sharp drop to 110 feet, a shelf on this side, then another steep drop-off. Real deep after that.”

“Well, I can see the bottom. Thirty feet, anyway…looks like some coral, too…”

They both heard it then. The wump-wump-wump of a helicopter, turbine driven and making for the island at high speed.

“There he is,” Collins said, pointing at the MH-60S Knighthawk as it skimmed the surface, heading straight for the cove where Gemini lay tethered to the rock. He turned the outboard’s tiller and rolled the throttle open and the Zodiac began bouncing across the lite chop, back to the cove.

◊◊◊◊◊

“There they are, over there,” the gunner onboard the Knighthawk said, pointing at the inflatable that had just pulled away from a rocky, crown-shaped islet. “Both of them.”

The helicopter wheeled around and bore in on the Zodiac, then arced alongside as it skimmed across the water, it’s two gunners leaning out the door, taking aim at the men in the Zodiac.

◊◊◊◊◊

“They don’t exactly look happy to see us, Spud.”

“I do believe that one in back is going to shoot us, Sumner…”

“Oh well…that’s too bad.”

The rear gunner disappeared, then the man by his side vanished as well.

“Ain’t life a bitch, Spud?”

“I think that Rotorhead just shit his britches.”

Collins could see Gemini’s mast jutting up above the rocks now, and he slowed down to make the sharp turn into the narrow-walled cove. “Wonder what that was all about,” he said, watching the helicopter turn and head back out to sea.

“Someone’s not happy.”

“Uh-huh. Well, this ain’t gonna make ‘em any happier, Spud.”

Sherman looked at the girls standing on the aft deck; Liz and Carol waiting with arms crossed, Charley sitting beside Liz with a grin on her face, and then he saw the one they called Jenny. She was standing there too, her face impassively still, which, he knew, meant absolutely nothing. And he could just see someone sitting in the cockpit…a man…no, two men.

“Uh-oh. Trouble.”

Collins perked up when he heard that, looked at the cockpit. “Damn. It’s Smithfield. And who’s that with him…oh…no…”

“Shit…that explains the helicopter.”

“Yup.” Collins tied-off the Zodiac and they both climbed aboard.

The Presidents, both of them, were sitting the cockpit, deep in shade and both looked dazed.

She was beside them now, the one Collins called Jennie, and the sight of her still unnerved him, left him feeling more than a little dazed. She was sitting on a hatch, looking at Sumner as he crawled over the coaming, and as he sat she ‘spoke’ to him – in her halting, fine-pitched voice.

“The effect is still hard to watch, like sitting on a rattlesnake, Smithfield told me,” she said. “We are sorry.”

“I know just how they feel,” Collins said, looking at her. Perfectly human – aside from the pale, almost translucent blue of her skin. No hair – yet, she said – though maybe in time. She’d let him measure her once: 26 inches tall, 17 pounds, eyes the most piercing green he’d ever seen in his life. Fingers, toes: perfectly human – yet no breasts, absolutely no outward signs of function or gender – no anus, no vagina or penis. Completely asexual, yet even so Jennie was decidedly female –  and ‘she’ self-identified as such.

And the ‘we are sorry’ was still discomforting, too. They had no word for ‘I’, never identified as just one self – always to a collective. Linked, from creation onwards to their local community. No birth referred to, no parents – simply to a creation…

“This man’s group was going to imprison Smithfield. We decided intervention was necessary. Sorry,” this urJennifer said, “but life’s a bitch.”

“I see. This might cause a few problems.”

“We have anticipated. The word Hope used is clusterfuck. Does this mean something to you?”

“Yup, that’s the word. Can you send this one back?” Collins asked, pointing at the current President.

“Many vessels approach now, by both air and sea. Would it not be better to keep him here? Or should we place these vessels into a low earth orbit?”

“Let’s not do that, okay? Ted, would you help me with him; let’s get him into the Zodiac and run him out there.”

Sherman was chewing a fingernail, looking at four Hornets circling the island at about 15,000 feet. “Sounds like a plan,” he said as he and Collins helped the man stand…

“Where am I?” the President mumbled.

Sherman ignored him, helped him into the inflatable, then steadied the boat as Collins stepped aboard. They puttered out of the cove and into the open sea, and immediately saw an aircraft carrier and five frigates steaming their way.

“Put him up front, so they can see him,” Collins suggested as he steered back towards the crown-shaped rocks. Seconds later the F-18s broke off and headed out to sea, while just a few yards away Collins saw a periscope off to his right – then he looked on as the sub’s sail broke surface, it’s huge black hull surfacing alongside his 12 foot long inflatable boat.

“Come alongside,” Collins heard over the sub’s hailing speaker, and he watched as sailors swarmed on deck, dropping a boarding net over the side. Marines followed, their M-16s still slung, and two of them came down the net to secure the Zodiac alongside. Collins looked up the wet black hull, saw the ship’s C.O. heading down the net and groaned.

The Marines secured a line to the President and helped him aboard as the sub’s skipper hopped into the Zodiac.

“Let’s go,” he said.

“Where, sir?”

The man pointed at the little cove. “Smithfield,” was all he said.

Collins turned back to Gemini and they pounded back through wind-driven waves to the island, arriving soaking wet and cold…and he saw Smithfield waiting for them on the aft deck.

“No weapons, Captain,” a still-dazed Smithfield said plainly, and the captain just held out his hands.

“You’re welcome aboard, then.”

The captain hopped across to the aft platform, waited for Collins and Sherman to come up, then they all crawled into the cockpit. Liz popped up through the companionway, passed up a tray of fresh fruit, then carried up a pitcher of margaritas and put them onto the cockpit table.

“Alright, Captain,” Smithfield said slowly, “you called the meeting, so fire away.”

“Yes, Mr President…uh, is that one of them, sir?”

“That’s Jennifer. I’m not sure who she represents, but whatever you need to say, it probably needs to be said in front of her.”

“Was she responsible for this?”

“What? Removing me from the west wing after that son of a bitch threatened to throw my ass in Guantanamo? Yeah, I guess she is.”

“He what, sir?”

“You hard of hearing, skipper?” Collins asked.

The captain turned red. “You’re Collins, aren’t you?”

“That’s a fact.”

The captain looked him over, tried to reconcile the man’s dossier with what he saw now. “Well, the Joint-Chiefs wanted me to pass along a request: don’t do this again, okay?” He turned and looked at Jennifer. “It would be helpful if…”

“Captain,” Jennifer spoke now, and her voice dripped with power, “we are allied with Hyperion. That is all. If your group moves against Hyperion, we move against your group.”

“Our group? You mean…?”

“The United States, captain,” Smithfield said. “As her group has already demonstrated their capabilities in this regard, I think it sound advice.”

“If you seek a change in status, captain,” Jennifer said now, “please relay the request through this group.”

“What?”

Smithfield sighed. “If the President, or the Joint Chiefs – or whoever happens to be running the country right now – wants to negotiate with this group, you’ll need to get in touch with me. We’ll arrange a meeting.”

“So, you’re with them, Mr President?”

“Nope. We just happen to have a coinciding set of interests, captain, and their interests do not conflict with our own.”

“Mr President, are you free to leave here and come with me?”

“Of course, but why the hell would I want to do that. I’m not particularly fond of Cuba, or for that matter, the climate in DC these days.”

The captain reached in his pocket and placed a transmitter on the table, then he switched it off. “I’ll probably be shot for this, but sir, can you tell me what the hell’s going on?”

Smithfield looked at the transmitter, then at the captain – and as he looked up he shook his head, turned to ‘Jennie.’ “I think it’s time to go,” he said, and in the blink of an eye both he and Jennie disappeared.

“That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” the captain said. “Do they keep an eye on you all the time?”

Collins shrugged. “I have no idea,” he replied, not wanting to fall into that trap. “Can I run you back out?”

“No, that’s alright,” he said, smiling now as he pointed to several Navy inflatables roaring towards the cove. “I reckon we’ll just take you four into custody.”

Collins shook his head again. “Y’all better get it together real soon, ‘cause this is getting old, and our friends are going to start thinking you’re just stupid.” He leaned over, looked into the sky above the island, then motioned the sub captain to come out from under the awning and take a look.

The skipper of the USS Montpelier stared open-mouthed at his ship, all 362 feet of her now hovering hundreds of feet above the island, then he nodded at Collins. “I’ll relay the message.”

“They seem to have a pretty good handle on things, captain. Shooting the messenger isn’t going to solve anything.”

“What about my ship?”

“What about it?”

The skipper looked up again – and she was gone. He turned, saw his ship a mile offshore and felt sick to his stomach.

“You know,” Collins said as he looked at the man, “they usually want to park things like that in orbit. They have no idea how or even why we’d spend so much money on something dedicated to defense, and they seem almost annoyed a machine so big does so little, that our ships can’t leap from the sea to space. Frankly, I don’t think they’ve realized yet just how primitive we are, technologically speaking. You might pass that thought along, too.”

“Okay.”

“Oh. Here’s your transmitter. Don’t forget,” Collins said as he tossed it back to the man, “to mention this was unappreciated, too.”

The skipper looked at Collins one last time. “Whose side are you on, Collins? Really?”

“Mine. Humanity’s, even yours, when you get right down to it.”

“So, you’d take sides against us, your country, over the Russians or the Chinese?”

“The Russians and the Chinese aren’t acting in the best interest of humanity, and our allies know that.”

“They do? So, why are they here?”

“I think they’re curious, but really, I have no idea.”

“Curious?”

“When I figure that one out, skipper, I’ll let you know.”

“If they let you,” the captain said under his breath, as he stepped onto one of the Navy inflatables. He looked up at Collins one more time, shook his head then left.

◊◊◊◊◊

Hyperion Five was tumbling now, just barely under control, and Hope Sherman wished her brother – or Sumner, really – was here now to help her. She wasn’t a pilot, had never been a pilot; she counted on the ship’s computers to take control during maneuvers like this…only the computers seemed to get more freaked out by trans-light speed dilation effects than even she did. She re-booted them one by one, and systems chirped back to life one by one, only very slowly now, and she put them through simple routines to check accuracy before turning even basic operations over to them.

She saw poor, doomed Phobos ahead through the single ovoid viewport, then their colony ship – in geosynchronous orbit above the Martian equator – with four space elevators already running huge quantities of material down to the planet’s surface.

Finally, computer links were established and Sherman’s Hyperion began slowing, the ship’s tumbling ceased, and she could just make out a docking platform on the colony ship – almost identical to the platform destroyed last year – with three Hyperion vessels already mated there. Five began it’s autonomous approach now; she heard thrusters popping, watched minor attitude corrections line up on her primary display, then a docking monitor superimposed over the platform – and then, with one last gentle bump, positive contact and seal.

She watched pressures equalize, then the computer cycled the airlock. She saw Sara Green on the monitor, no helmet, no spacesuit, and she flipped the safeties to clear the airlock. Green entered the primary airlock, started the equalization process anew, then entered Five’s cabin.

Sherman could tell something was wrong. The expression on her face, in her eyes was all wrong.

“What’s happened?” Sherman asked as soon as the other woman was inside her pod.

“The Phage. We have more reports ready for you, but they’re headed for this system, still sub-light but speed is picking up.”

“The timeline? Have the Vulcans advanced it yet?”

“Moe is convinced we need to advance the schedule, and he wants another colony ship here, like yesterday. Larry and Curly remain unconvinced, they don’t see any need to worry at this point.”

“I wish we’d named them something else,” Sherman sighed.

Green smiled. “I never saw those programs, so the names meant nothing to me. Then Hayden showed me a couple of episodes. Singularly inappropriate, but I get it now. Are you sure you want to call them Vulcans?”

“People will be able to relate to them better that way, at least before they see them. Once that happens, shit’s going to hit the fan no matter what we call them.”

“Klaatu barada nikto.”

“Exactly. Unreasoning panic, all human paranoia manifest and come to life.”

Green sighed too. “Nothing compared to the Phage. Damn, where’d we be without their help?”

“Extinct.”

◊◊◊◊◊

‘Jennie’ was back on Gemini, sitting on the chart table waiting for Collins, her legs crossed ‘Indian-style’ with her elbows resting on her knees, and Sumner laughed when he came below and found her there…

“Well hello there, Tink!”

“Tink? I thought you wished to call me Jennie, or Jennifer?”

“Right you are, but you remind me of a character in a story. Remind me to tell you about Peter Pan someday.”

“I will. I never get over watching you laugh.”

“Oh?”

“I am simply a communicator, yet even so I have no analogue of laughter when I relay our conversations. Laughter, humor,” she said, shrugging her shoulders with her palms now up, facing the sky, “they’re all Greek to me?”

Collins laughed again. “You’re developing a sense of humor, too, I see.”

“If you spent all your time around Smithfield, I suspect yours might develop as well.”

“Stop it,” Collins laughed as he shook his head.

“You see? Here’s another example of the inherent conflict of expressions in your language. You tell me to stop it, yet you laugh, an expression of pleasure. The complexity of neuronal responses is staggering, and at times the interplay of ideas and language is most upsetting to me.”

“Well, you’re understanding seems to be improving.”

“In English, yes. French is not too bad, but Hebrew? You can not swear in Hebrew, apparently, without using your hands. This causes headaches, nausea, death-wish.”

“Probably has for three thousand years.”

“Collins? May we mate?”

“Excuse me?”

“Not physically, you idiot. May I have some of your genetic material?”

Collins’ laughter was loud enough to cause Liz to poke her head out of the aft cabin. “What are you two talking about now?”

“Sex, mating, procreation, genetic co-mingling,” Jennie said. “I asked Sumner if I could have some of his genetic material.”

“Oh, did you now? And Sumner? How are we going to go about doing that?”

“I haven’t the slightest idea, but maybe you could give us a hand?” He looked at Liz, at the expression of withering contempt in her eyes – then he turned to Jennie and whispered: “Uh, now would be a good time for some humor.”

“Ah yes. I see. Perhaps, Liz, I could get some of your genetic material too?” Jennie looked at Sumner – who was now frowning, his face scrunched up like he’d just eaten a lemon – then at Liz – who was now staring at ‘Jennie’ with an odd smile on her own face.

“Oh no. Far be it for me to come between you two.”

“Liz,” the urJennie said, “they’re going to send you to a punitentiary, for punishment.”

Liz groaned, shook her head and walked back into the cabin.

“So, what’s this all about,” Collins asked.

“We are highly differentiated, genetically manipulated to fulfill specific tasks. Language skills for communicators, size and strength for those who work heavy industrial machines, intellectual capacity for academic theorists and educators…”

“Attractiveness for the procreation class?”

“We do not conceive, or procreate in the manner you do. I think you call it asexual reproduction, but there is no absolute analogue. And Smithfield implies that at his age all his activities are asexual, and this has caused some concern among our scientists.”

“It does me too.”

“Ah.”

“Are you serious? About wanting genetic material?”

“It has been done many times,” she said, “on this planet.” She looked at him now, studying his reaction carefully.

“Oh? When?”

“A long time ago. An hour ago.”

He looked at her now, wondered where this was going.

“We have manipulated genomes on this planet.”

He felt pressure closing-in as he heard those words, then he pointed at the two scars under her left eye – and she nodded her head.

“These are not scars,” she said, touching her face. “These are sensory organs, and the spots under the right eye…”

“Sensory…? You have eyes, a nose, and ears…?”

“These are…geospatial might be the most appropriate term. But we can see past time, as well.”

“Past time? I don’t understand.”

Jennie looked at him and sighed. “Some of us, communicators mostly, can see time, almost like you see a river. Some can see up the river, and down.”

“You mean the past? And the future? You can see the future?”

“Me? No, but this is a recent genetic variation. Very few communicators have this ability. It is dangerous, the word is…”

“Paradox.”

“Yes, just so. Exactly.”

“Jenn? Do you know what is going to happen here, on Earth?”

She looked away, then looked to the southern sky. “We are too far north to see the danger, but it comes from what you have termed C99, the Coalsack Nebula.”

“The danger?”

“It, or perhaps they, have been named the Phage, by Ted’s sister. They absorb planets. Planets with sentient species. They remove life, advanced lifeforms. We have observed there activities many times.”

“Many times? Why have they not bothered your civilization?”

“The reason should be obvious. We do not attract their attention.”

“So, they have left you alone? Not attacked your system?”

“Many inhabited worlds are benign. We have observed that those attacked are deemed irrational.”

“Irrational – worlds?”

“The beings. They become irrational, they attempt to spread their irrationality between stars. The Phage react to this threat – and stop it.”

“What do you mean by – irrational?”

“The Will to conflict, to spread conflict. You might call conquest. Also, theological constructs have been considered irrational.”

“Excuse me?”

“Yes, I know. Sherman had difficulty with the idea, but ultimately she found the notion amusing.”

“She would.”

“Ah, another interesting concept. Sarcasm.”

“You don’t lie, do you? Or evade the truth?”

“No. What is the point?” Collins’ scrunched face was all she needed to see to understand the point was lost on him. “Lies are deception, and yet all deceptions fail in the end. Suspicions deepen, even political subterfuge crumbles. Your history is filled with lies.”

“I suppose,” Collins said, and he watched her watching him. Communicators would almost certainly be adept at reading all kinds of language, wouldn’t they? Even body language? And if they could “see” the future, was there anything anyone could do they wouldn’t already know about. “So? How long have you been manipulating genomes?”

She made the jump without batting an eye. “Human? After your last Ice Age. We manipulated the atmosphere, and the waters of the ocean, after several intermediate meteoroid impactors. To preserve…”

“The experiment?”

“No. Our destinies are inextricably linked to another species, so our manipulations with humans have been limited to a few.”

“My dolphin,” Collins said, sitting bolt upright. “She has the same markings. On her face.”

“Yes.”

“What does that mean? Is she…has she been genetically manipulated?”

“Of course. She is not the only one.”

“What has she been manipulated into?”

“A hybrid, a cross between her species and my own. She is a communicator.”

“What?”

“Her kind can maintain an active link to any communicator, anywhere. And it is from her species that we found the ability to see through time.”

“WHAT?”

“Her’s is a unique species, Sumner. When we came to this world, when we first came to study life here, we developed little interest in any other species. We came first to catalogue lifeforms, we continued to come to study – only them. When their true significance became apparent, after the first hybrids were developed, we came to preserve habitat. When the Phage became aware of the inherent irrationality of their ability, we were able to see, through their mind’s eye, that the Phage are coming – here. We have come now, to this system one last time – to save them.”

◊◊◊◊◊

Corrine Duruflé sat in the back of a yellow and black utility company van, an old, beat-up Mercedes ‘Sprinter’ class van – watching an apartment building on the left side of the Rue Albert Einstein, in the town of St Denis. The Parisian suburb had developed a reputation over the last few years as a haven for Islamist terror cells and perhaps, she thought, it was the proximity to the old cathedral, the first true gothic cathedral in Christendom, that made them feel safe and at ease as they drew up plans for their assault on Christian infidels. That might have worked in the beginning, but as pressure grew groups had moved first to the south, to Lyon, and then north, to Brussels, after the attacks the year before. But the Directorate had watched a return to the town of St Denis, that her quiet streets were growing popular again. More attacks would surely follow…

A direct metro line to the heart of Paris might have been one reason, but there had to be a network still in place – and that was obviously of more importance – and two days before drones had sniffed the tell-tale signature of radioactive material in the air near the cathedral. Not medical material, that much was immediately obvious, and no known transits of waste through the area were on the books, so the obvious supposition was that IS had gathered enough material for a dirty bomb – and were assembling the device now.

CCTV cameras throughout the area were now being monitored day and night, more sniffer drones criss-crossed the area through the night, triangulating patterns, narrowing the search perimeter, and now Duruflé was parked outside a pale gray apartment building monitoring live CCTV feeds, while two specialists from ASN, the Autorité de sûreté nucléaire, watched readouts spike and fade…

“Best guess,” one of the techs said, “is this top floor unit – right here – ” pointing at an image on her screen. “The one with the telescope on the balcony. Concentrations are heaviest in the air above this unit.”

Corrine looked at another screen. The apartment was leased to a physics professor, a woman from Grenoble married to a Saudi national. She ran a search, read the dossier then looked at her watch, called the university where the woman was employed and asked to speak to her department chair. She introduced herself as a reporter for Agence France-Presse working on a story, and understood the professor was well regarded in the field, and she wondered if the Chairman could facilitate an interview.

“I would be happy to, madame, but the professor has not been in class for the last week, and has not called in…”

She left her name and number, then rang off. She called headquarters, relayed all she knew.

“Approaching the residence will be next to impossible,” she advised. “Too many known assets are in the area, warning would be instantaneous. Even something as ridiculous as an airstrike would be counter-productive, radiation would be released on an even more massive scale.”

“The decision has been made. A NATO Predator will fire a modified Dart. A biologic agent, a neural-disruptor will be released, death will result in less than two seconds. To soon for anyone to react.”

“The area we can expect to see fatalities?”

“The approximate kill radius could be up to a quarter mile, depending on winds, perhaps a half mile on one lobe.”

“Laser designator?”

“Yes, he is on the way.”

“I see.”

“Clean up your site and leave the area, and do so immediately.”

“Yes, director.”

◊◊◊◊◊

Jennie’s head snapped away from their conversation, a sudden, jarring discontinuity. He was getting used to these interludes – when she was receiving information from…somewhere.

“A nuclear device will detonate. In five minutes, thirty eight seconds.”

“Where?”

“Paris. Just north of Paris.”

“Can you stop it?”

“Of course.”

“Would you do so now, please?”

Jennie jerked away for a moment, then looked back at him. “There was an incoming projectile. This was stopped as well.” She smiled for a moment, then looked away.

◊◊◊◊◊

When the Dart failed to detonate, Duruflé and two assault teams ran up to the fifth floor apartment – and crashed through the door. Tools scattered everywhere, take-out food containers piled on a small table just off the kitchen, the professor’s duct-taped and shackled body hustled quickly from the building, but no terrorists – and no terrorist’s bomb – anywhere in the vicinity. The 20 kiloton warhead – recently acquired from Russian separatists – had simply disappeared. She had no way of knowing the warhead had arrived seconds later inside the Kremlin – in the old Armoury Museum, resting gently inside a large, trough-shaped urinal inside the men’s room near the museum exit. Four of the five terrorists appeared at the First Southern Baptist Church of Topeka Kansas, in the middle of a Gay Conversion Therapy workshop, while the fifth terrorist, and the leader of the group, appeared – naked – on stage at a Klan rally in Tupelo, Mississippi – his mutilated body found later that afternoon in a dumpster behind a nearby Kentucky Fried Chicken take-out restaurant.

◊◊◊◊◊

‘What about the future?’ Hope Sherman wondered. ‘Does the past cast a shadow so deep it reaches into the future?’ She looked at Moe and Larry and grasped for context. ‘And what about the future? Has it cast a shadow back on the present? To the past?’

Moe’s ‘body’ shifted slightly – and she had the impression he was looking at her and tried to come to terms with him once again. Ten meters tall, his body roughly pyramidal in shape and perhaps five meters circumference at his ‘base’ – his scaly ‘body’ did not move, at all. This ship had, in effect, been built around him, and he was physically connected to the ship in almost every conceivable way. And the scales on his body? Those had been hardest for her to get used to.

Translucent blue near the top, then reds and browns beneath, the scales detached frequently and zoomed away on some errand or task. The blues were of course communicators, the reds negotiators, while the browns were somewhat analogous to a security team. All genetic hybrids, all hyper-specialized entities with essentially no free-will of their own, the ‘scales’ resided on Moe’s ‘flesh’, drawing energy, taking sustenance from him. A part of him, in other words, yet somehow not quite.

She still found them disturbing, just as she had the first time she saw one, when she first encountered one of the Masters.

A blue scale detached from Moe and drifted down to her lap – and she recoiled at the sight of this new one. Two feet tall, he was a miniature of her brother Ted, only hairless and translucent blue. His voice even sounded somewhat Ted-like, though diminished by stature, and now he sat cross-legged on her thighs.

“Hey kiddo,” ur-Ted said, his familiar mannerisms completely unnerving her. “We need to talk.”

“Do we?”

“About the Phage. Wanna go grab something to eat?”

She turned her chair, rolled from the chamber – trying to hide her face from him. She knew they were getting better at reading emotions and understood the implications of that mastery, but her emissary was a tenuous one, her grip on Moe’s loyalty conditional. She had to keep this alliance together at all cost, yet the communicator’s presence was jarring – and Moe would know that, instantly.

‘Deliberately so?’ she wondered. Keeping your adversary off-balance was a key tactic in any negotiation. ‘Well, that answers that question…’

She rolled to the living module off the docking platform and cycled the airlock, went inside her private cubicle.

“What would you like?” ur-Ted asked. “Burger and fries again, a chocolate malt?”

“How about eggs Benedict with smoked salmon, from the Place Pigalle at the Pike Place Market?”

“You’re homesick today, aren’t you?”

The plate appeared on her table a second later.

“I need a fork and knife, please.”

And there they were. She picked them up, started on her breakfast.

“The Phage are now at light-speed times times ten to the fourth. At that velocity that will reach this system in twenty years, but they are still under heavy acceleration. We will revise their arrival time when we have more accurate data.”

“Okay. So what’s bothering Moe?”

“There is no work underway on colony ships for your people. What you called political gridlock has stalemated your governments. Threats. Posturing. Attempts have been made on Smithfield, Collins, and your brother. There appears to be no awareness among vast numbers of your population of our existence. Various factions are uniting against our alliance. We think this is pointless, we think a renegotiation of terms is warranted.”

“I do too.”

“Excuse me? Did I hear you correctly? You do too?”

“Yes. And I have an idea…”

◊◊◊◊◊

Part II: ‘Which scarce the shade of coming eve can banish from the sky’

Byron, I See Thee Weep – The Hebrew Melodies

Perhaps controllers under Cheyenne Mountain were the first to spot the object, or maybe those at Baikonur II were first, but within moments NORAD increased it’s defense posture from DEFCON 4 to 2 – and Secretary of Defense Donald Burke notified a still-shaken president that the Hyperion Contact was emerging from behind the moon. Twenty minutes later, NORAD radar sites along the Labrador Sea picked up seven new targets in formation – and all had simply appeared ‘out of nowhere’ – and all were now closing on earth.

“How big are they?” the president asked Paul Kirkland, his National Security Advisor.

“The Dark Side object appears to have a diameter of roughly twenty miles; the seven new targets appear identical in size, but their field displacement is different – heavier mass I’m told.” Kirkland’s encrypted line to NORAD chimed again, and he answered, listened to the general in command as he updated information, then Kirkland cut the connection. “Mr President, a ninth object has appeared. About 5800 miles above Antarctica. Uh, sir, the apparent diameter of this ship exceeds 1500 miles.”

The president turned and looked over the White House lawn. “Did you say 1500 miles?”

“Yessir.”

“Antarctica?”

“Yessir.”

“Stationary?”

“No, sir. Descending, moving north northwest, projected to skirt the Chilean and Peruvian coasts, then continue offshore until it moves up our Pacific coast.”

“Interesting.”

“Mr President?”

“No way we’ll be able to keep a lid on this any longer. My guess is they’ll pull an Independence Day. Position over our major cities, try to scare the shit out of the general population.”

“That’s a possibility, sir.”

“Okay. Shut down the stock exchanges, close the banks. ATM withdrawals only, initiate full DEFCON ONE guidelines.”

“Air traffic, Mr President?”

“I said full DEFCON guidelines, Paul. Air and rail traffic, shut down the interstates, activate the emergency broadcast network. Full emergency food distribution using the National Guard, the whole nine yards.”

“Martial Law, Mr President?”

He leaned back in his chair, looked at the ceiling. “Let’s get the media to contain the story. If a panic starts, give ‘em a half hour then pre-empt them, cut ’em all off. Just replay the policies,” the president said, “give people a few days to habituate, get used to the threat…”

“If we have that long, sir.”

“Oh, we have time. Remember what Smithfield said? What he said we should do? ‘Tell ‘em about building ships. Let the people know,’ he said. Pretty good opening move. Cut off our policy options, incite hysteria, breakdown public confidence in national institutions. Yes…an interesting first move.”

“And? How do you want to counter it?”

“Counter it? Are you kidding me? That’s the goddamn Death Star up there, Paul. I’m not sure there’s anything we can do – that wouldn’t simply piss them off.”

“So? How do we defend against them?”

“We listen. Listen and learn, because that’s about all we can do. If we make a stupid move they’ll shut us down. They’ll begin a disinformation campaign. We’ll lose that one, too.”

“How do you know that, Mr President?”

“Because that’s what I’d do,” he said, pointing at the sky, “if that was me up there with five Aces tucked up my sleeve.”

◊◊◊◊◊

Amanda and her friends were in a funky-festive mood – but finally, it was time to celebrate! After being grounded the first month of summer vacation, this was her first night out, and her mom had just dropped her off for a sleepover at Kiley’s mom’s house. Amanda and Kiley had been best friends all through elementary and middle school – but next year? The really big adventure started: High School! Still, she was pissed – her mom had nearly ruined everything, caught Kiley and all her friends in the pool out back the afternoon school let out – with a bunch of beer – and Justin Landry, with his hands where they weren’t supposed to be. Now, after spending a month at the Westside Pentecostal ‘Vacation Bible School’ – she was…free at last–Gawd-almighty–free at last!

“So, what’d they make you do there?” Kiley asked.

“If I ever see another Charlton Heston movie again, I’ll die…”

“Who?”

“Doesn’t matter…I hear the new Independence Day sequel is pretty good…think we can get your mom to take us? I think it’s playing at the Westside Galleria?”

“Uh-huh…and Justin’s going to be there too, I suppose?”

Kiley’s mom was so-o-o kewl, too. Dropped them off with plenty of money to see the movie – with some leftover for snacks, but Look At That Line! Sheesh! The four thirty showing was sold out, so now they’d have to wait a whole fifteen minutes to get into the four forty-five! And…where was Justin?

Then people were gasping, looking at the sky and pointing, so of course Amanda and Kiley turned and looked too. No boiling, flaming clouds this time, just a really big – spaceship – looking thing. She yawned, looked around – hoping Justin was going to make it in time for the show, then turned back to look at the advertising thingy up there floating by.

“Man,” she heard someone say, “I wonder how much the studio had to pay for that thing?”

“Gets your attention though…” someone else said.

“Wow!” Justin said, and Amanda wheeled around to see him and did her best to appear bored. “That thing’s really big.”

“Just one of those blimp things. No big deal…”

But the mass of the ship was huge, and no measurement protocol was available to quickly calculate a mass this large, let alone distortions to the earth’s ‘gravity well’ it’s passing caused. As the ship closed on the southern California coast, people, cars, cats and dogs – even garbage – anything and everything not firmly affixed to the earth – began to float free – weightless as the ship passed.

And as the ship faded from view, still heading north along the coastline, the temporary distortions in the earth’s ‘gravity well’ dissipated, and everything and everyone simply settled back to the surface…

“Wow, that was SO kewl…” Amanda said. “I hear they’re going to – like – have a ride like that at Magic Mountain this summer! Oh! This is going to be such a – kewl – summer!

And so she and Kiley – and Justin – walked into the theater, all jazzed about seeing a bunch of aliens coming back to earth on the silver screen – “I bet they’re really going to kick ass this time!” she saidall while Justin wondered if he’d be able to slip a finger inside…

◊◊◊◊◊

News outlets were curiously silent about these brief sightings, and what imagery and commentary that did “come out” did so through less conventional ‘online’ channels. Most of this smartphone based imagery was grainy enough to allow experts to debunk the entire affair, and reports of distorted gravity were put down to h-h-hysteria – and nothing more.

The President had called in a lot of favors to get this done, and he was happy with the results.

◊◊◊◊◊

Hope Sherman conferred with her translator, her urTed, or as Sumner liked to call her brother – Spud. The eight remaining transports – Moe’s colony ships – had been given coordinates and times, and Sherman smiled at the allegorical significance of his choices. Moe apparently had a sense of humor…or he was a real gambler.

◊◊◊◊◊

Heavy thunderstorms appeared over the Eurasian landmass, torrential rains began that afternoon, and the largest displays of undulatus asperatus clouds ever recorded followed during the evening. The eerie formations unsettled people from the Russian steppes to the desert regions south of Tehran. The fearful faithful gathered and pointed at the sky, sure that God was about to visit a mighty wrath on them all.

The first ships, completely invisible to radar, appeared over Tehran and Moscow in the deep of night, and not a half hour later over Mecca and Jerusalem. St Peter’s in Rome and All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg followed. One more appeared before sunrise over a forest glade in the foothills of the Himalayas, and later that morning, at noon local time, the last ship drifted into place over a small Shinto shrine not far from Osaka.

The significance of these locations was not lost to our world’s religious leaders, and within hours almost the entire populace of the earth was on their knees, praying to objects in the sky, asking for forgiveness – all wondering what they had done to anger their God – and what might happen next.

And yet the objects remained motionless – and silent – for days, then weeks.

During this period all the earth’s mammalian marine life swam to seven points in the seven seas, and they waited in quiet depths, perhaps not knowing what was coming but completely unconcerned about their future.

◊◊◊◊◊

“The Phage. They approach at velocities we have never seen. It is a matter of weeks now, before they arrive.”

Hope Sherman looked at her Spud as he paced back and forth on the bed, looking for all the world just like Ted now. There was hair on his head now, his genetically derived illusion almost complete.

“So, there is no time?” Sherman said.

“Your leadership is paralyzed. Industries have collapsed, even agricultural productivity has ceased. Your people continue to pray – even as they starve to death. This is the most irrational display we have ever seen, and it may account for the increase in velocity we have noted. The Phage will not let this force spread among the stars.”

“The colony ships?”

“Perhaps, but you know how the Master’s feel about this.”

“I do, but…”

“But you feel responsible. You think that if you’d never built Hyperion, none of this would have happened.”

“Yes.”

“Perhaps. Yet the Phage would have noticed such an intense and irrational discontinuity sooner or later. Perhaps we could have completed our mission without your assistance, yet time distortions from your seas completely altered our plans. Your arrival made our intervention possible. We are grateful.”

“But not enough to…?”

“We will try. That is all we can say now. We will try.”

Hope Sherman looked at ‘her Spud,’ her translator, and wondered what he felt about humanity, yet at times like this she asked herself if he even felt anything. As just one small part of a larger, rapidly evolving being, and with the constant input of hundreds of translators and negotiators passing through his being every waking moment, Sherman was amazed Spud could sort through the incoming data fast enough to form even one coherent sentence – let alone help formulate long term strategies. Yet she had to consider when she was talking to Spud she was also in direct contact with Moe – who was himself linked to Masters across the galaxy. The idea was an impossible point of view to wrap her head around, and even after months among them it still troubled her, yet she found the process oddly comforting. When she spoke with Spud she wasn’t getting one point of view – she was getting hundreds – simultaneously. ‘Spud’ essentially collated data and presented a consensus point of view, with his Master, the one she called Moe, in effect commanding what was relayed, what she heard.

And what she’d heard still troubled her.

Humanity was irrelevant. A sideshow to the main event. There was one ‘extra’ colony ship available to transport humans, as well as space on the large command ship that had off-loaded cargo on Mars. Maybe two million people could be resettled.

But who? Who would go?

And who would choose?

◊◊◊◊◊

urJenn sat on Sumner’s lap, in her way trying to console him. Liz and Carol looked at one another, then Ted stood and walked to the rail, hopped over to Hyperion and disappeared below.

“So? That’s it? These hell raisers, the Phage? They get here in a few weeks, find the remains of the human race and lay waste to the planet? Is that what you’re telling me is going to happen? The human race ends in a few weeks, maybe a month from now?”

“As I said, there may be room for more of you. Perhaps two million humans in total, more if we have less mass to move. A world is being prepared even now, but there is no guarantee the Phage won’t respond to your movement. We must keep the others on a different world, an ocean world well away from your new world. We must protect them at all cost, but you will be on your own – once we’ve helped you re-establish industry and agriculture. What you do with this new world will be your species future, and perhaps it’s legacy.”

Carol stood and walked over to Hyperion, leaving Liz and Sumner to look up into the night sky. He felt her leave then too, his Jennifer, and he wondered where she went, and why – but it didn’t matter now. Nothing really mattered now.

He, his people, even this world – had just been sentenced to death – and now they all sat in their collective twilight, watching the last of the sun fade against the purple mountains majesty of their home.

And their last trip to Cassis had been spooky, almost terrifying, with only a few farmers present selling produce and roving bands pillaging food. For the past several days they had all diving for fish – and finding nothing – and now he understood why…

“Perhaps? Is that what she said?” Liz asked.

“Yup – if things work out, maybe two million.”

“Seems kind of small, when you think about it.”

“Hmm? What’s that,” Sumner said, lost in a passing thought.

“Two million…people. That’s not a lot, is it?”

“It’s better than nothing, I suppose.”

“Who will they choose?”

“I have no idea,” but he knew the ideal candidate would be young enough to propagate the species, and intelligent enough to be valuable to a re-emergent technological society. ‘That leaves me out, too,’ he said to himself.

Liz stood and walked forward to the bow pulpit. She held onto the rail as she looked up into the sky, while Charley came and settled on Sumner’s lap. The pup looked up into his eyes and licked his chin, then the tears that rolled down his face.

He heard Carol running through Hyperion, heard her running up the companionway steps up and into the cockpit…

“He’s gone!” she screamed.

Sumner stood. “Who? Ted?”

“Smithfield was down there, and his sister too, and when I came in they all just disappeared!”

“Well, hell,” Sumner Collins said as he walked aft, grinning. “Ain’t life grand?!”

Then he too turned to the stars – and he laughed at them – while he shook his fist at the night sky.

Then he felt her there, down there in the sea – and he turned and looked at her two scars glowing in the night. He dove off the stern, dove deep – so deep he felt his lungs about to burst – and when he saw her there beside him he knew she would never leave him.

◊◊◊◊◊

Part III: When blood is nipp’d and ways be foul, then nightly sings the staring owl.

Shakespeare, Love’s Labour’s Lost

Departures I

Ted Sherman and his sister, Hope, as well as a startled Grover Smithfield, blinked into existence on the first Hyperion loading platform, the one attached to ‘Moe’s’ command ship while it was still in Mar’s orbit. They made their way into the hastily constructed conference room off Hope’s sleeping cabin and sat around an oxygen polisher – that now performed double duty as a table.

“This is your meeting, Grover. What’s on your mind?” Hope said as she looked at him closely.

“The final figure is 1.2 million people. That’s it. That’s all they’re able to transport. That means seven billion people are now at risk.”

“The terraformed world they’ve chosen for our people,” Hope sighed, “the one that’s immediately habitable, is a quarter the size of our moon. Within decades we’ll reach it’s peak ability to sustain life. Within one hundred years we’ll have to be prepared to send out colonists, or our population growth will cause another implosion.”

“I understand that,” Smithfield sighed. “But do you understand – seven billion people? That many people are going to die if we can’t…?”

“I do,” Hope said. “What would you have me say?”

“We have to find another world. Another Earth, someplace for these people to go.”

She looked at Smithfield, knew what he wanted, but she’d exhausted those possibilities weeks ago. Humanity had exhausted this planet, and even without the Phage it’s time here was limited. Population explosion, resource depletion, climate change…earth really was a paradise lost.

And Ted was looking at his sister just then, just as Hope’s ‘urTed’ translator blinked into the room. Ted had never seen his doppelgänger before, though he had almost gotten used to the ur-Jennifer that always seemed to be somewhere close to Sumner; now, seeing his near self in such close proximity was unsettling – and he instinctively pulled away from ‘it’.

Hope, of course, smiled at his discomfort, at least until the ur-Ted began speaking.

“The human population on the surface has reduced by 3.4 billion. A religious reaction, but starvation, panic, sudden military interventions have been observed. By the end of this week we project more than 5 billion will have perished. We are authorized to tell you that three new colony ships will arrive, room for twenty million people has been found on a system of synthetic moons. These moons orbit in a system where three planets are being terraformed. It is possible these worlds will be ready for human habitation within ten standard years.”

“By Golly,” Smithfield said, “that’s wonderful news. How can we express our gratitude?”

The urTed looked at Smithfield, his eyes sad, full of pain. “There will be a price,” he said, his voice now dull and flat. “We are sorry.”

◊◊◊◊◊

[Log entry SailingVessel Gemini: 7 August, 1430 hrs GMT. 

COG: moored, Marseilles, old port;

SOG: na; 

Temp: 107F;

Winds: SSW at 22kts; 

Barometer 29.55 rising; 

GPS:  43°17’38.04″N   5°22’0.21″E.

Still unseasonably hot. Very dry wind coming off North Africa, last night the low temperature was 97F. Almost no food available in the city, but there is power, and we have been able to fill the diesel tanks.]

Sumner Collins had moved Gemini back to the relative safety of the marina in Marseilles’ old port, a deeply sheltered harbor almost completely surrounded by the oldest part of the city, yet now he was uneasy, felt like he was being watched all the time. Ted had been gone for weeks now; he had simply disappeared, leaving Carol alone on Hyperion for several days – and then she too had simply vanished. Last week he’d heard what he thought was a thunderclap and gone on deck to check the sky – only to find Hyperion was gone. One minute the boat was there, then clap-boom – she was gone. The event had seriously unsettled him.

Liz had grown increasingly despondent after the urJenn’s announcement the Phage were coming much sooner than expected, yet she rallied for a time – after Ted left. She assumed if there was room for older people she might find a way off-world, she might survive the coming of the Phage…and then Carol had vanished. Liz fell back into a downward spiral after that, and was sleeping into mid-afternoon most days now, and rarely eating. She helped when she could but the sense of onrushing doom left her paralyzed more often than not most days.

Then Liz watched as Sumner grew increasingly disenchanted with the idea leaving, of living anywhere but Earth. He said there was no room ‘for people like me’ out among the stars, and when she’d asked him about this, about what exactly he meant by that, he’d grown sullen and withdrawn – and walked away. But he’d fallen into spells like this ever since he’d come back from Israel, and while she didn’t understand – she couldn’t get him to talk about it, either.

By this point, only Charley seemed to exercise any sort of hold on Sumner, and their unique bond only seemed to grow stronger – even as Liz’s hold on Sumner seemed to diminish – after Hyperion vanished. She didn’t truly understand Charley or what the pup meant to Sumner, or how he would – in effect – choose a dog to confide in over her, yet that’s what it felt like to her. She grew more distant and depressed – causing further withdrawal – and the cycle spiraled beyond their ability to control.

Food became harder to find, farmer’s markets were overrun as fuel dependent transportation and distribution networks broke down. Pelagic sea life had all but disappeared, but he soon found shellfish and after that they were feasting on crab and oysters almost every meal – and an occasional lobster could be had with patience – but even that diet grew stale after a week.  On top of it all, he had to run the engine to make water, and as that bit into their fuel reserves it meant they had to find fuel. And this was getting harder to do…

So, the zero-sum end game that the urJenn had laid out for them was slowing rearing it’s ugly head, coming to pass. Collins listened to the world’s death throes on his single side band radio night after night; stories of heroism filled the airwaves – but he saw little evidence of that on the streets. Tens of millions of people on their knees, overwhelming helplessness the order of the day, and yet, of all the nations of the earth, only one seemed to soldier on almost completely unaffected by the peculiar fatalism sweeping through the remaining people of the Earth. America, and to a lesser extent Canada, had proven more resilient to the religious fatalism sweeping the eurasian landmass, but only just.

One day Collins walked along the waterfront until he came to the Cathédral de Major, the city’s main cathedral, and he looked at it’s odd mishmash of styles, then at the hundreds of uncollected bodies on the plaza surrounding the building. He heard singing inside and walked past the dead and the dying until he gained the entry, and at the door he pulled a woman’s bloated body from the door and walked inside.

There were no people inside, no one sitting in the pews – not one soul taking in the music. He walked inward between rows of pews to the transept – where he paused and looked up – then he walked deeper into the building, to the choir. He watched an immaculately dressed choir of men and women singing, saw a string ensemble nearby accompanying the organ, and found a place in the shadows to sit and listen.

He drifted within the music, sat and fell into the arms of that spirit which is ultimately most human, and he found he almost felt like crying as the music washed over his parched soul. He knew the music, music somewhere from his past, a piece the Jennifer had loved, perhaps. It was Duruflé’s Requiem, and the choir was moving into the Paradisium, those final few moments of the piece long regarded as the most intimate ever scored, the composer’s intent to unleash the music of heaven – on those clinging fast to life.

As Sumner Collins drifted, he wondered when he’d lost his faith – indeed – if he’d ever possessed anything resembling faith. He’d spent his entire life hurting people – killing so many, torturing more than a few – and now, listening to this music he wanted to know why he’d done those things. Why he’d turned away from beauty, from love. Why he’d embraced such infinite darkness – in the name of – ? What? A Father? His country? He didn’t feel like a murderer, but he was, and in the worst possible way. He’d never found enjoyment in his actions, only a sort of grim satisfaction when the ends proved the means justified, and he’d marched right along to the anthems of his chosen life like any good soldier.

But that hadn’t always been the case, had it? He thought back to Smithfield’s wife, to her easy capitulation over the Atlantic, and he contrasted that experience with hundreds of others in Iraq and Afghanistan. Each human disintegration had been burned into his soul, each broken body was superimposed over his own, and there were times now when he lost track of himself, when he felt his own decomposing body atop piles of his victims. Was this, he wondered, what it felt like to take another’s life – in the name of some greater good?

The last chords of the requiem washed through the cathedral, broke over his soul, cast him adrift as the voices drifted off into evening aires. He felt all his tears just then, the tears he’d held in check for so many years. First Jennifer, then Charley and Deborah, and now he could feel Liz falling away, falling into his own peculiar darkness – only now he felt completely powerless to watch his life unfolding in the twilight. He’d done everything he could to help Jennifer, everything to save her life, then when that was not enough he’d been content to ease her suffering. Nothing. Nothing he did mattered, and in the end death came for her. And Deborah’s hallucinogenic passing, with something akin to Debussy at her side, with Lennon beckoning from the shadows? What did it mean?

He stood after a while, saw the choir had already left and he wondered how long he’d been sitting in the darkness. He thought of Phoebe, lost up there on the Norman coast with that lip smacking psychiatrist…and he wanted to see her again, hold her when the time came…but no, she’d finally found someone to hold as her own night came. He’d talked to them last week, heard her playing the Orgeron piece once again while he talked to Mann. He knew she couldn’t ever say goodbye. They were too close for such expressions, so thoroughly conjoined words would never suffice.

Why, he wondered as he looked up at the vaulted ceiling, was it irrational to believe in something greater than ourselves? Why had the visitor’s ships descended upon and hovered over humanity’s symbols of mystery, the home of all her irrational imaginations? Had those alien minds known that earth’s people had already reached a tipping point of dissolution, that humanity had arrived at that point where faith doubted so long simply snapped? Had those distant minds known that the human spirit was, in the end, only so strong?

◊◊◊◊◊

And why was it was that not one of their huge ships had settled over an American city?

Was it that the people of the Americas were isolated in other ways – by their oceans, perhaps, or the relative newness of their civilizations. The people of North America, in particular, had seemed to grow ever more resilient when they looked at the ships above Rome and Jerusalem, Mecca and the Himalayan foothills. Their faith, the ‘Vulcans’ sensed, seemed rooted more in themselves, more in the material world than in something so nebulous as God, and the ‘Vulcans’ realized they were looking at perhaps the most utterly human of all the races they’d observed on this planet.

And yet they looked down on these Americans with understanding. They’d been like that too, once, and they knew from their own troubled experience all the outcomes that might have been – had these Americans been allowed to move off into the stars. But they were too much a threat, their unique fusion of the rational and the mystical. Their fatalism was far too dangerous to simply cast loose among the stars, and so only a few would be taken aboard the colony ships.

Because most of all the ‘Vulcans’ remembered a time when the Phage had very nearly found them. When they’d first achieved a level of technological expertise that permitted spaceflight, before the time when population pressure and resource depletion had very nearly caused a complete collapse of their world.

And yet, these ‘Vulcans’ thought, the people of this planet had absolutely no idea what was coming their way. Or why. Now the ‘Vulcans’ wondered what they might have done, once upon a time, if they had been so ignorant of the reality closing in around them. If they’d looked with wonder and awe upon the vast fields of stars around their Homeworld – until it was too late to act.

And then, after weeks of silence, after burning days and nights while the people of the earth stared up at huge, silent spacecraft, each of the eight ships moved away silently – in the light of day – and hours later settled over spots seemingly in the middle of nowhere, far, far away from land and in the middle of the seven seas. The ships settled into the waters of the earth’s oceans – and disappeared. Lost in frantic despair, the remaining people of the earth looked at broadcasts of the ships moving out to sea, watched them sink into the seas – and those still living wondered what it all meant. When the ships did not reappear there was a sudden collapse of the human spirit.

And in the emptiness that followed, the remaining few wondered if there had indeed ever been any meaning to human suffering.

And that night, while most of the earth’s people slept, the television broadcast began. The program simply crushed all other programming, pushed it aside, moved it away, and for the very first time, the people of earth listened to a voice from the stars.

The President of the United States of America was sitting in his office, in the West Wing of the White House, when the broadcast first started playing. He was not amused, and appeared to be in no mood to listen.

◊◊◊◊◊

Departures II

An owl, and a fairy.

That’s what most people thought when the broadcast started. They were looking at an owl, and someone who looked, perhaps, somewhat like the Tinker Bell of their dreams.

But the owl was staring at them. Benevolently, perhaps, but people saw sadness, and perhaps even wisdom in the owl’s eyes.

And then the owl spoke.

“Good evening, my name is Hope,” the owl began, “and I am speaking with you tonight from a ship in orbit above the earth, 4,000 miles above Antarctica. Tonight I have a story to tell you, a most unhappy story, a story with a sad ending – for most of us – ”

And the owl told them of the people in the spaceships, people from another star. She told them of a race of people she’d come to call the Vulcans; because, she said, these beings seemed to be guided by principles of pure logic, and that this race had millennia ago turned away from irrationalism and mysticism. They had become explorers, as once the people of earth had been, and, perhaps, how we might become like them once again.

They were explorers. Seekers. A People willing to reach beyond themselves – into the unknown. As we had been, before we were consumed by fantasy and illusion.

She told the people of earth a little of what she knew about the people who built the ships, the ships that had settled over the earth’s religious centers. They were a race that had moved out into the stars tens of millions of years ago, a people who took worlds and remade them when they expanded outward, into the systems beyond their Homeworld. This race, she told the people of the earth, now counted hundreds of planetary systems as their own, and she spoke of the literally hundreds of planets they now traveled between. She spoke of having visited several of these worlds already, and she tried to convey the majesty of the worlds she beheld, and the people who ruled them.

And then she told them of the Phage:

“There is a force in our galaxy,” she began, “that appears to exist for no other purpose than to eliminate irrationalism, in whatever form it takes.” She paused, let the words sink in. “Religion is one such force,” she said, “but the Vulcan’s seem to have accepted that this form of thought is self-limiting, that religious cultures always collapse as various contradictory and self-destructive impulses overwhelm other cultural institutions, and the Vulcans have accepted for some time our species now approaches such a fate. The Vulcans do not think we will escape our destiny, but they are prepared to offer a refuge of sorts – for some of us. That said, the Vulcans did not come to our earth to rescue us. There is another species on our planet, one even more irrational than humans, but one which possesses – a power – that the Vulcans want to preserve. They are now taking steps to insure the continuity that species.

“One week from today the Vulcan mission on earth will be at an end. One week and one hour from now those humans whom the Vulcans have chosen will be taken from earth. The final number is not known as even now the Vulcans are gathering resources to save as many humans as they can. Some of you will be resettled on planets the Vulcans have already established, some will be housed in temporary facilities around worlds that are being terraformed, but the vast majority of people alive now will – not – be transported. Those people not chosen next week will remain here on earth, and these people will be here – on earth – when the Phage arrive.

“The Phage will arrive soon after the Vulcan’s depart. The exact time of the Phage’s arrival is not known, but it could be as soon as a ten days, perhaps as long as two weeks. The Vulcans have observed, from afar, what the Phage do to the worlds they target – and they have taken steps to do so this time. They have advised that there is no chance of survival, that there is no weaponry powerful enough to defeat this force.

“There remains an outside chance that the Vulcans will be able to relocate more of us before the Phage arrive. If this appears likely, there will be one more broadcast after The Departure.” 

The owl named Hope looked out at the people she addressed, then said “Goodbye to you all,” before the broadcast faded away. Normal broadcasts around the world resumed, and while a curious sense of Hope prevailed, people began to look up into the night sky with more than just curiosity and wonder.

Those people who paused to stare into space now did so with hearts full of darkness – their minds full of something unfettered and wild – something now well beyond fear.

◊◊◊◊◊

Sumner felt the sense of finality everywhere he walked now, and the few people he did run across seemed to waver somewhere along this newly discovered – and vast – razor’s edge between dread and nothingness. And a few of these people passed on reports they’d heard from the few observatories still operating: the Coalsack Nebula had roughly tripled in size, while Doppler and angular velocity measurements indicated that whatever was coming to earth was coming – ‘from right there, in the middle of Caldwell 99’ – and it was coming fast.

Most people on earth had been too far north to observe the looming cloud, but when simulations revealed the Coalsack’s apparent change in magnitude fear turned to panic, panic to hysteria and, finally, hysteria into a sort of resignation that bordered on listlessness.

Then people in the northern hemisphere began to make out the pure blackness of the Coalsack. One night the southern horizon went dark; the next night the blackness filled the half the night sky, well into mid-northern latitudes…

…and three nights later more than two thirds of the northern sky was obscured by the vast, expanding Coalsack, yet the shattered remnants of humanity who stared into the night sky were no longer afraid.

These people had endured too much over the past several weeks to experience fear as anything other than a pale, washed-out emotion, an emotion no longer able to command their attention for very long. Fear, Collins knew all too well, is what people experience when they still have some hope for the future, and that when hope is at long last gone, so too is fear. Nothing remains, nothing but the last grudging acceptance of an imponderable fate, and as earth’s remaining people stood out under the night sky, watching vast fields of stars simply smudged out of existence before the advancing cloud, they could at last see the form death would take in it’s final confrontation with life on earth.

◊◊◊◊◊

The Departure

Exactly one week after the owl spoke people began ‘winking’ out of existence, and within hours a pattern to these disappearances began to emerge. Younger women disappeared at twice the rate men did, yet the physically infirm? None at all had gone. Scientists, physicians, engineers and builders of all sorts vanished immediately, while prisons and shelters for the indigent remained untouched. A literal handful of people over forty vanished, yet even those older people who disappeared were notable for their intellectual ability, while almost a half million academically undistinguished men, almost all involved in the construction trades, vanished immediately. Philosophers by the thousands vanished, yet not one lawyer was unaccounted for after that long day’s journey into night.

And then the owl announced herself again. American and Canadian farmers and ranchers, she said, those few still alive, had 24 hours to tend to their affairs and get ready for transfer, and these men and women were to gather their herds and seed-stocks immediately. After a final farewell, she was gone again.

Librarians went to their libraries the next morning, only to find shelves had been picked over. Laboratories were similarly ransacked, and factories too. The means to pick up where humanity had left off were already aboard the ‘Vulcan’s’ ships, and a day later the last ‘essential’ people were gone.

And those remaining on earth woke to yet another new reality.

There was no escape now. Whatever the Phage were, they were close and getting closer. Food had all but disappeared, and now there was no means to produce more. Cities grew dark when power plants failed, all means of transportation ground to a halt within a few hours and people seemed to retreat further into themselves.

Families and communities gathered in the night. They built fires and told stories, and listened to one another as they never had before. That thing called love was on display now, and at long last people reached out to one another…they reached out while they looked up at the night sky, remembering.

And soon the vast black cape of the Coalsack had swung ‘round and blotted out the night sky; only the Sun and her planets remained visible now, and most people felt the sky had become a metaphor of their future. Still, they took some comfort from Jupiter and Saturn and all our neighbors…

…and then – Neptune disappeared…

◊◊◊◊◊

Goodbyes

[Log entry SailingVessel Gemini: 21 August, 0730 hrs GMT+1. 

COG: 200M, 200 yards off l’île de la Tortue, departing Marseilles;

SOG: 5.3kts; 

Temp: 97F;

Winds: NNW at 12kts; 

Barometer 29.95 rising; 

GPS:   43°12’55.54″N   5°19’17.12″E.

Cooling, though still very warm. Cool, dry wind coming off the Alps, last night the low temperature was 93F. No food available in the city now, anywhere; I would have expected riots under other circumstances, but most people have simply retreated indoors to wait for the inevitable. A neighbor on the boat next to Gemini stood outside and watched with us two nights ago, and we watched the Coalsack for a half hour or so. He’s from the UK and planning to return, to be at home when it happens, but frankly, I don’t think he has time and told him just that. At any rate, he left yesterday morning, and Liz went with him. She said she wanted to be home too. C’est la vie, I suppose. Charley and I sat up last night and we’d been watching the sky for a while when my old friend turned up, my dolphin. I jumped in with her, and I don’t know, but I had the damnedest feeling she was talking to me. Never felt that way before…not like the way it was last night.]

Collins felt Liz’s departure acutely now, and he drifted back to that time north of Bermuda after Charley passed, and the dolphin took her from him – took his friend into the night. He fell into the absolute loneliness that had come for him as he watched her fall away into the depths, crushing all hope from his life as she left. But the dolphin had sensed his despair, and then she’d simply stayed with him, swimming lazily alongside Gemini day after day. He recalled how he’d dropped sail from time to time, how she’d consoled him when he joined her in the water.

And she appeared the night after Liz left –

He was sitting on the aft deck looking at the moon rising over the old city, surprised at how utterly quiet the night was. No cars or buses, no trains leaving the station, and only a very few people out – and those few he saw stopped to stare at the black veil of the night – when he heard a commotion in the water and saw her dorsal fin in the inky blackness.

She was there, only agitated now. He jumped into the water beside her and held her for what felt like hours, and when she leaned against him he heard little moaning sighs coming from deep within – and he could see fear in her eyes. When at last she calmed down he felt her communicating – with him. Definitely a link of some sort, then he felt visions – before he saw them. Swimming one moment – underwater amidst vast schools of fish – and then adrift among stellar nurseries. Tumbling endlessly among vast fiery nebulae, the Coalsack turning to follow as she ran.

And then, in a voice as clear as any he’d ever heard: “We must leave. You must follow.”

He pulled back from her, looked her in the eye.

“We must leave, now?” he repeated back to her.

She became very agitated as he spoke, swam away at an impossible speed – then turned and rocketed back to his side.

“Now? We must leave now?”

And she nodded her head, almost hysterical now – then her body rose out of the water and grew quite still.

Collins turned and followed her eye, and he saw a woman on the dock behind Gemini.

At first he didn’t recognize her, but he could see the woman was terrified – shivering and terrified. She was standing knock-kneed, her arms crossed protectively over her breast, her hands on her shoulders…

He felt the dolphin pushing him, pushing him to the dock; he swam to the aft platform and pulled himself up into the night and jumped across to the dock…

And he found himself face to face with Corrine Duruflé.

She was aghast, trembling uncontrollably, her face awash with tears.

“Corrine?”

Nothing. No response – yet he saw her eyes were almost crossed, yet focused somewhere above, perhaps on the enveloping Coalsack.

He turned and looked up into the night again, and now saw ragged streaks of red headed towards earth.

◊◊◊◊◊

Now he was steering Gemini through the outer harbor, motoring to the southeast under autopilot while he wrapped Corrine in a blanket – and he had yet no see a change in her. He’d carried her over to the cockpit and cast off lines, getting underway as quickly as he could. Once they were clear of the l’île de la Tortue the dolphin turned almost directly east, and Gemini followed.

At one point he saw missiles arcing up into the blackness – but whatever they were, whoever had launched them – they simply disappeared. He saw no detonations, heard no explosions. The red streaks remained, only now there were more of them.

They motored out of Marseilles, sailed towards the Calanque he and Liz had been anchored at just a few months back, and still Corrine seemed lost to this world. By mid-morning the wind had picked up and Gemini was broad-reaching under a full main and 120% genoa, barreling along at an honest eight knots. He went below and fixed sandwiches, poured two Dr Peppers and carried them back up into the cockpit.

He held the sandwich under Corrine’s nose and she sniffed at it, shook her head for a moment then stared at Sumner…

“Who…what are you doing here?” she said at last

“Who…me? What am I doing here?”

“Yes, you.”

“Well, take a look around.”

Corrine looked at him, then around the boat. She turned and looked at the shoreline about five miles off to her left – and seemed stunned.

“Where am I? Am I dead?”

“Not as far as I can tell, but I’ve had my doubts. We’re about a third of the way from Marseilles to Toulon, sailing east, following my friend there,” he said, pointing at his dolphin.

Corrine stood and looked at the dolphin. “Your friend?”

“Yes. She’s my friend. You remember? From Honfleur?”

“So. I am dead. Or I am having a, what is the word…?”

“Nightmare? And no, you’re not dead, and as far as I can tell you’re wide awake now. What’s the last thing you remember?”

She looked around again, as if taking her bearings one more time – just to be sure. “I was home. Things are very bad. Fire…fires everywhere, unimaginable riots. The police and fire brigades finally gave up. I was near the Bastille, near the marina. I went down to see if you might have returned…”

“You know, you’re the only woman I know who’d dress for the end of the world in five inch heels.”

She looked down at her shoes and laughed. “Old habits, Sumner.”

“I remember you saying once you’d like to get away from it all, maybe sail with me to Polynesia.”

“Ah. Is that why I’m here? I think I said we’d end up together, didn’t I?”

He shook his head, looked up at the sky: the red streaks visible now in daylight, and the sky had taken on oddly variegated violet hues, the sea an even more peculiar, purple-gold color that was now oddly streaked.

“Oh, over there,” she said suddenly, pointing off the port quarter. “Another dolphin!”

Collins turned and saw this new one, then turned and looked aft…

Yes, there she was. Hyperion – under full sail, about two hundred yards astern – with Carol at the wheel and Ted cleaning-up lines on the foredeck…and…was that Hopie sitting on the aft rail – looking at him?

◊◊◊◊◊

Coda

Hyperion and Gemini followed the dolphin past the rocks, around the little lighthouse and beyond, into the tiny, protected harbor that revealed itself beyond cliffs of granite and pine. The village of Portofino looked empty, almost deserted, yet Collins could see one sailboat tied bow-to the seawall just ahead. It was an old Hinckley, blue-hulled and elegant, one of the Southwester’ 42s he’d admired along the Maine coast decades ago, and now he looked through his binoculars at the boat. The name on the stern was Springer, and he saw the companionway hatch was open – and a very small brown and white pup sitting under the dodger. When the pup saw him, or rather Gemini and Hyperion, sailing into the harbor it stood and started barking. Even through his field glasses, Collins could see the hair on the back of the pup’s neck standing on end, and he smiled – until Charley saw the pup and ran up to the bow.

Now it was a contest of wills…

Then he saw a man come up from below, binoculars in hand and moving to the aft rail of his boat. Soon they were looking at one another – through their binoculars – sizing up whatever threat that might exist – but among Springer owners? There was a kind of universal bond between such people, wasn’t there? No, the man put his glasses down and moved off to the seawall, presumably to help him secure dock-lines, but well before Gemini pulled into the harbor he saw more dolphins circling in the water behind the other man’s boat. Five, no – six of them – and when ‘his’ dolphin saw the other pod it rocketed off into the harbor for a reunion of infinite joy.

And the man on the stone quay stared at this new dolphin, then back at him – and Collins could see things beginning to fall into place – for them both – and when he saw the man visibly relax he did too. Collins swung the bow around and coasted to a stop in the middle of the harbor, then used the thruster to line up with the quay as he backed-down, dropping an anchor on the way in. He brought Gemini to a stop about a meter off the stone wall, then hopped back to toss his lines over to the man on the quay. After checking the lines and setting the anchor he cut the engine, then looked around the harbor for other people, but apparently the man standing quayside was the only soul still stirring.

“Sumner Collins,” he said after he got up on the quay, and as he held out his hand. “Nice to see someone here.”

“Tom Goodwin,” the man said, taking his hand.

“Is this place as empty as it looks? We haven’t seen another vessel since we left Marseilles.”

“Not many people left,” Goodwin said, shaking his head slowly. “About half the people in town here passed within a week of the arrival. It was like someone flipped a light switch. People stopped eating and drinking. Didn’t take long after that.”

“Same thing in southern France. Folks just stopped caring.”

“Not up north.”

“Oh,” Collins said, “what’s happened?”

“The Russians and Chinese started lobbing nukes last night night, at America and Germany, for the most part. Nobody up there stopped them this time. The US counterstrike is still underway.”

“What?!”

“Shortwave broadcasts this morning said most of the world’s major cities are toast, missile silos too. Bombers should be reaching their targets over the next few hours; that’s the word on the nets, anyway.”

“Damn. It’s not enough we have some sort of galactic plague bearing down on us now. We had to go and do their work for them?”

Goodwin shrugged. “That dolphin with you?” he asked as he turned to the commotion behind their boats.

“Yup. She’s been with me for about a year.”

Goodwin nodded his head. “These guys have been with me for a while. I think they’ve been waiting for your’s to get here.” Collins looked at Goodwin as his eyes followed Hyperion into the turning basin, yet as he recognized Hope Sherman on the aft rail he seemed to stand a little straighter, grow a little more self-conscious. “Is that who I think it is?”

“Probably.”

Goodwin looked from Sherman to the dolphins in the water: they were silent now, staring at the old woman kneeling on the aft swim platform as she talked to the dolphins. Sumner watched as she talked to one like it was an old friend – and he grew cool inside, and light-headed, then he looked up at the sky.

Though it was not quite noon the sky was rapidly turning dark, and everywhere he turned he saw a world bathed in splotchy purple light. The red streaks were more prominent now too, and while they’d not reached earth, for the first time he thought he could hear something new in the air. Almost like static, almost like a someone up there was tearing an infinitely long cardboard box – and the sound was new – like it had just started; Hope Sherman stood and looked at the sky now, the dolphins off Hyperion’s stern were leaning over, looking up, too.

Collins looked at the dolphins now, at these old friends floating in otherworldly color, and he wondered why they hadn’t left with the others. He looked at them and wondered what role they’d come to play in all their deaths, then he helped tie-off Hyperion to the quay.

Soon everyone was on the quay, and Goodwin looked at Hope Sherman like he knew her, like maybe they’d met somewhere before.

“I think we’re running out of time,” Hope Sherman said – as she looked at Tom Goodwin. “Are you ready?”

He nodded his head. “Follow me.”

Collins felt lost when he heard this last exchange, and the group took off to the east, walking along tree-lined paths up the steep hill, then along the spine of the ridge out to the point.

Collins saw rocks down below, close little tidal pools nestled among them, then he saw them – the dolphins – as they rounded the point and came into one of the pools. They looked up expectantly as the group picked their way through the rocky outcroppings down to the pool and as, one by one, the humans took off their clothes…

…then Collins saw two other people were already in the water, waiting for them…

…seven humans, and seven dolphins…

The sky was almost black now, though it was just mid-afternoon, and huge red clots began to take shape in the sky, drifting slowly through clouds to the waiting remnants of humanity. The tearing sound was louder now, and growing more so by the moment; when Collins looked up the red-streaks seems bordered with fire, and clouds seemed to run from the heat. Soon everywhere Collins looked he saw a world on fire…mountains, forests, towns across the bay…all lost in a torrent of lava-like flame, and for a moment he had the impression the earth was being purified, like a cosmic reset button had been punched…

And then they were all together, in the sea, and the dolphins were among them. Circling. Very. Fast.

Sumner Collins was aware of a sudden growing light, and with his passing the earth grew very still.

©2016 | Adrian Leverkühn | abw | This work of fiction concludes ‘The Journey from Driftwood’ trilogy, and closes out Passegiatta, as well. The story will conclude this coming October 31st with ‘An Evening at the Carnival with Mr Christian.’ Again, while this is a conclusion of sorts, little will make sense until you’ve been to the carnival. Bring lots of popcorn.