Very reluctant to touch this one, to mess with it in even the slightest way.
So of course I had to.
A few sentences, more like jambalaya, in need of repair. Sandpaper taken to a few too many rough & florid descriptives, smoothed up a bit here and there. The ending? A little bit there, too, but not much; most of the changes reflect what little style I’ve developed over the years – versus seven years ago, anyway. The pictures of the pass above, and those you’ll find below, are straight from Wikipedia and Panoramio; never scanned my Kodachromes and I think that box was lost in the last move. We were there in the mid-90s, when the big wave of eco-divers hit Polynesia in full force, and what I remember most was sitting in that lagoon as the sun set, watching the stars come out to, what, sing? I also remember reading about the old Polynesian kings who ‘sailed’ the islands using the stars and tidal patterns, even the colors of the water and scents on the wind, and all the while we were listening to He Is Sailing by Jon and Vangelis and really in awe of their accomplishments. I can’t imagine sailing now as we did then, with DR plots and a sextant, sight reduction tables and a hand bearing compass. With GPS and radar/chart plotters, the excitement of landfall must be muted. It’s only a month or so south of Cabo San Lucas – you ought to give it a try someday.
The genesis of this story? A bit of personal experience, equal parts imagination, all in the aftermath of Annie’s passing, with memories of my first cancer thrown in for good measure. Sitting in my physician’s office trying to keep it together, walking about in a daze after. The tangled net? Mass Bay, and I think it was a Pilot whale, a little guy, maybe 20 feet long. Too many encounters with dolphins to catalogue, but if you recall my post last spring about the storm, the waterspouts and the dolphins I think you know where I’m coming from. That is, I feel a very strong connection to the sea – and to the life in it, and being out there with all that was surely the best of times.
A lot of metaphor here too. The circling shark, as we’ve discussed here, a metaphor for death; shadows under the sea as well. Ah yes, metaphor. In the story A Walk by the Sea, posted here a few days ago, I never gave the characters names because I wanted those two people to exist as metaphor only. Archetypes of certain forces at work in society these days, givers and takers if you will, and the cost to all involved in this inward spiral. That’s not the case here, but you could look at things that way.
So, this story seems to continue gathering steam over on Lit, still about a quarter million reads and still by far my most popular posting. Hope you enjoy this revisiting.
Lift On A Wave
It was way past midnight
And she still couldn’t fall asleep
This night the dream was leaving
She tried so hard to keep
The Captain of Her Heart | Double
Off the village of Tiputa, Rangiroa Atoll, French Polynesia
The woman sat in the sailboat’s cockpit, her long legs stretched out in the sun, her eyes fixed on thatched-roof cottages that rimmed the palm-lined shore less than a hundred yards away. The sun had been up for only a few hours, but already the morning air was thick and warm, and despite the steady trade-winds blowing through her sun-streaked hair, she was already uncomfortably warm. She swatted absent-mindedly at an unseen insect, wiped at beads of sweat that ran down her neck, into her shirt. A boat loaded with scuba divers roared past just behind, on its way to the pass that led from the lagoon out into the Pacific. She watched the divers for a moment, envied nothing but their mobility, envied the fact that in a few days all those smiling faces would load back onto the little airliner on which they’d so recently arrived and hop back to Papeete in a half hour or so, and then be on their way to places like Paris or New York. She, on the other hand, would be sailing south with her husband to Papeete, and it would take several hard days and nights to get there.
She was tired, too. Tired of living her husband’s dream, tired of living in a forty-three foot sailboat, tired of living around other people’s idea of paradise. She thought for a moment, sitting in the boat’s shaded cockpit, about what her idea of paradise might be now, now – after a year and a half at sea. First and foremost, Paradise would be air-conditioned, and Paradise would not roll under her with each passing wave. When she heard thunder and saw lightning she would not fear for her life and if the wind stopped blowing she’d not become consumed with visions of dying of thirst, her bloated tongue black and hard, her mouth so dry she couldn’t swallow. Every time she walked across a room she’d not have to worry about being flung sideways into a bulkhead or other hard “furniture”, and if she never had to look at a GPS readout again that would be too soon. And if someone, anyone, ever asked her to start a dead-reckoning plot again… well, she’d be more than happy to acquaint the poor fool with ‘dead,’ alright.
But still, there were times…
Like last night. David had miraculously produced a bottle of ice-cold Riesling to go with the lobster local fishermen had plucked from the lagoon just minutes ago. He’d rubbed chilled aloe on her sun-burnt shoulders and the tops of her ears, then he’d kissed her so gently on the neck that chills had run up and down her spine – and he’d been so gentle and caring with his lovemaking that night. She’d felt once again how the dome of the night, out here millions of miles away from ‘civilization,’ could be so staggeringly bright. The Milky Way looked like thick white steam rising against a backdrop of infinite black velvet, and lying in the cockpit awash in their afterglow she’d never felt so connected to ebb and flow of life, indeed, to the very universe she beheld.
No, she’d never felt more alive in her life. This whole existence was…a paradox.
If she tried to catalogue all she and David seen and done over the past eighteen months she knew she’d need hundreds, if not thousands of pages to document it all: Seattle to San Francisco, fogs and logs – always cold, seeing a Great White in the Farallon Islands take a seal pup; south to Newport Beach, where they’d spent a few weeks provisioning and while David tended to a handful of minor repairs – before that last quick trip to Disneyland. Pirates of the Caribbean had felt like a joke by then, a lie to end all lies, then they’d moved out again, sailing out the Newport jetty and turning left, southbound and down on their way to San Diego and Ensenada and Cabo San Lucas – which had seemed more like LA than the sleepy Mexican village she’d been looking forward to. Then their first real ordeal: a month at sea, twenty seven hundred miles from Cabo to the Marquesas, the doldrums, the brief though indescribably violent line squalls that pushed through with little, or at night, no warning.
But the boat always did just fine, and so had David – in fact, he’d thrived on the satisfaction felt after each passing challenge, while she’d felt her mood darken with each passing squall. Only as their third week at sea wore on had she begun to feel completely out of place, stripped bare of all she’d once held so dearly – and taken so for granted. Then in due course she’d begun to feel trapped. Trapped in amber, feeling very much like she was caught inside someone else’s dream, like she was just a minor, peripheral element in a vast unfolding drama that, frankly, she didn’t care about in the least. Because, when all was said and done, this wasn’t her drama, not her dream. As his boat drifted through their doldrums she found herself looking at David and wishing she’d never met him, never married him, never borne him his child. Wishing he was dead and gone and somehow someone or something would miraculously appear in the very next instant and take her away from this never-ending nightmare of rolling seas and searing sun. She needed, she told herself, to change course. Her course. Follow her own dreams, while she still had time for them.
After that realization she’d grown skittish and cross every time she looked at him, then she stopped eating and began avoiding David, even as the doldrums fell away and the wind filled-in, even as they began cracking off hundred-seventy mile days. Then one day David caught a small tuna and seared steaks for dinner, a couple of land birds flew over as the sun set that evening – et voila! The next morning – right where David said they would be – the jagged spires of Nuku Hiva lined the horizon and she’d simply broken down. She’d cried for hours and David had simply let her be. He couldn’t possibly understand, or so she told herself.
Because she was sure he couldn’t understand, even if she’d had the courage to tell him feelings. He was just too wrapped up in this voyage, she told herself, to care about anything or anyone beyond the limited horizon of his own goddamned dreams.
“Let’s see, you’re sixty-three years? Can you describe your symptoms?” the physician said, her French accent so thick the man could almost understand something like every third word.
“A dull, diffuse pain, back here,” he said as he pointed to the back of his pelvis. “And now it hurts like crazy to take a pee. Not in that thing,” he said, pointing to his penis, “but deep inside.”
The physician nodded. “When was your last PSA exam?”
The man crossed his arms protectively over his chest. “Oh, hell, I’d say almost two years ago – maybe three.”
The physician bunched her lips and frowned, then walked over to a cabinet and took out a big tube of lubricant and a couple of latex gloves. “You know what comes next, no?”
“Oui, I was afraid you’d say that,” the man said. “And this is only our first date,” he sighed as he stood and pulled down his swim trunks. “Where to, doc?”
“Just lean over the table, monsieur.”
‘Why did this doc have to be a girl, and a cute one at that?’ the man asked as he shuffled around with his trunks around his ankles. He leaned over, rested his forearms on the paper-covered exam table and did his level best to ignore the jelly that fluttered like cold diarrhea down his legs. He felt her gloved hand peeling his cheeks apart, then the cold, hard apex of her finger as it slipped through the goo, seeking guarded entry.
“Take a deep breath, and hold it…” she said – and in it went.
“Ungh-h-h,” was about all the man managed to say, then he felt her probing finger, fire spreading everywhere… “Oh, Jesus Christ on a fucking motorbike; goddamn – that hurts!”
“Has it ever feel dees way before?” the physician asked, yet she kept her finger up there, moved it gently around something hard and remote.
“Jesus, fuck, NO!” he screamed when she hit pay-dirt. “What have you got up there? A goddamn fire truck?”
“Try to relax, monsieur; you are squeezing so hard, you are going to break my finger!”
He tried to ease-off but his legs started shaking, he felt cold sweat break-out on his forehead, then her finger sliding out.
“Yee-hah, coming out of chute number two, it’s Gonzo, the floppy chicken!” the man said in his best rodeo announcer voice. He decided passing out would be the most polite thing he could do about now, but bad form nonetheless.
“Oh, nothing, nothing.” He said, panting now, because the pain wasn’t subsiding.
“Are you alright?” the physician leaned next to him. She had her hand on his shoulder.
“Oh fuck, that’s a bad sign,” he said.
“When the doc starts sounding sympathetic you know you’re up Shit Creek.”
“Ah. Oui, with the paddle. I understand this.”
“Without. Without a paddle. And?”
“Oui, David. I think this is about where we are, up that creek. Sit down, please, we must talk.”
He walked down a smooth, sandy lane, oblivious to the beauty around him for a while, then suddenly aware of nothing but. The tide was flooding in the pass, undulating waves roaring as the sea forced its way through the small break back into the waiting lagoon. All around him people were going about their lives with an easy rhythm that seemed almost in sync with the sea that surrounded there homes: fishermen were coming in and tying off at little piers, shopkeepers and fish-merchants were walking down to inspect the day’s catch while little boys and girls ran down to look at the fish just for the fun of it all. Such a simple thing to do, so he turned with them and walked down to the wharves. Cancer was meaningless out here in the wind and the sun. This was life, while cancer…was anything but.
And Cancer had come calling this morning. Of that much he was certain. He could see it in the girl’s eyes. Feel the truth in her careworn words. The moment they’d shared was a crack in time he felt sure he’d never forget.
So, what to do now?
Maybe he’d pick up another couple of lobsters, another bottle of wine. When the going gets tough, the tough get…what? Drunk? Hide their head in the sand? Spread their wings, perhaps, and fly away on the wind?
Give up? No. She’d offered hope. There were treatments, new ones seemingly released every day. This was not the time to fly away, she’d seemed to offer the pain she felt in his soul.
And as it always had been, since he was a little boy, looking at the rows of fish was a bittersweet symphony. So explosively vibrant in the sea – and for those first few moments out of it – the myriad fish he looked out on the wharf now seemed muted and dull…dead…as indeed they were. What an odd circle of life this was, this being human. Somehow we’d made it out of the food chain, he told himself; or had we? Here he was, standing on a little pier in the middle of an indecipherable ocean, looking at men and women and children sorting through life, laughing and living out their lives under an indifferent sun. And loving, in the moonlight, their way around the circle. But we weren’t on anyone’s meal plan anymore, not like these dead fish, unless we just happened along the wrong place at the wrong time. But sooner or later we always come to the end of the line, if only because that shark is always out there, circling, waiting. Waiting for the moment…
Rangiroa. The word tumbled in his mouth, and even the sound of it was laced with something potent, something like wild magic. He looked across the pale blue lagoon, this atoll like a smoke-ring afloat in a sea of deepest blue, and he could just make out the slender line of treetops miles away, on the far side of the lagoon. Another dive boat full of diving-tourists cast-off to photograph the oceanic silver-tip sharks and eagle-rays that hung around just outside the entrance to the lagoon, waiting for their next meal to come shooting by on the flood. He looked at the smiling faces as they passed, at their happy certitude, the sense of infinite adventure just ahead. All that and more filled their eyes, and feelings of his own rushed-in on their tide. It wasn’t envy he felt, or sorrow for all the adventures he’d never have, but oddly enough a profound gratitude washed over him. “My God,” he said softly as he looked across the lagoon, “what a miracle to have just been what I’ve been…to have done what I’ve done. To have just been…me.”
He looked at the dozen or so sailboats that swung at anchor a scant hundred yards off the village of Tiputa, he looked for her, for her coppery hair and that defiantly bright white skin. There she was, sitting in the cockpit fanning her face with her floppy straw hat. He looked at her for a very long time, looked back over their journey, and he knew that though he loved her more than mere words could ever say the roughest part of the journey lay just ahead, and he was going to have to put her through it. There was no way around that now…
“But isn’t this what it’s all about?” he said aloud.
And a fisherman turned, looked up at him.
“Ah, the mortal coil?” the fisherman said.
“You contemplate life, and death. The mortal coil.”
“Indeed, I do.”
“They are the same, this thing we call life, and death, but I don’t think there’s much to fear. Just live while you can, because our journey through these stars is a miracle.” He was standing now with his arms wide, like a bird waiting to take flight on the next passing breeze.
He felt a lift in the force of the fisherman’s words, and yet the world seemed to grow cool and dim for a moment, like he’d passed through the shadow of a storm’s passing clouds overhead. He felt winds from other storms fill his sails, and then he felt it: the shark out there. It circled patiently. Watching him, waiting for the moment, and he looked down at the white sand beneath his feet, wondering about that moment. When would his come?
When he looked up the man was gone; only the fisherman’s words lingered in the air.
“C’est la vie,” he heard himself saying to the shadow, but too late. His words had caught the storm’s wind and taken flight.
She turned away from the sun, saw him standing among fishermen and villagers; he seemed so small standing there – yet he had always been so much larger than life. Now, this morning, everything was different. Now, she was at an end – they – were at an end. She couldn’t do this anymore, couldn’t put up with his spray-driven beating to windward, the endless, constant pounding, the relentless fear that stalked her day and night. No, this was it – she was at an end. She’d decided sometime in the night, sometime after that last broken dream. This was the day, the time to stop acting had come.
It wasn’t fair to take his dreams away. No, she wouldn’t do that to him. She would fly to Papeete and then back to Seattle. She would move in with their daughter for awhile, just until she could sort through her life and figure out what to do next. She’d leave David to chase his dreams, somewhere over all his rainbows.
Or were they windmills? If they were, what was she?
She went below and began gathering the few things she’d need to make the trip home: some clothes and her passport, a wad of traveler’s checks and a little cash, and she jammed it all in a little nylon duffel. She looked at the two pair of shoes she still owned – a pair of musty old Tevas and leather boat shoes that had seen better days – about six months ago – and all she felt about these remnants were bitter tears and an empty sense of foreboding.
“I’m abandoning ship,” she said quietly as she looked around the teak cocoon she’d called home these past few years. She felt the wings of betrayal beating the air everywhere she looked: David betraying her, ignoring her own hopes and dreams; yet she was betraying him too, had been for so many years. Hadn’t she always consented to this madness, with her eyes open and not the smallest voice of dissent to be heard.
She’d even been excited about it all – she had to admit – once upon a time.
Not now. No, not after months of living inside a washing machine world of lurching, spinning contusions. Of too many water-rationed tuna sandwiches and the same old waterlogged paperbacks. No, now all her sea dreams were of seasickness and malignant weather reports.
She heard an outboard and looked out the nearest port-light, saw David circling around the stern to tie off at the boarding gate. She tossed her duffel up into the forward berth and walked up to help him aboard, saw he had a little net shopping bag in hand as he stood in the Zodiac. She took the bags he passed up, saw a couple of nice looking tuna filets wrapped in plastic and some more fresh fruit – and another bottle of wine. She smiled, felt his love for her anew and she felt a little ashamed of herself, and in that moment she felt all the anger return. In this sudden conflict she grew full of resolve to head ashore, to run as fast as she possibly could for the airport.
Then she looked in his eyes, saw the pain – and his tears.
The sun had been down an hour yet the western horizon was still pulsing with shimmering bands of orange and purple. Venus hung above the lagoon like a lantern, and fish broke the smooth surface of the lagoon as if trying to take wing and voyage among the stars. To the south, looking past the far side of the lagoon, towering cumulonimbus stood like evenly spaced sentinels; lightning played inside one of the larger columns. To the north, just yards away, a couple of new arrivals swung from just-set anchors, inflatables pumped up and outboards mounted. There were always new acolytes in search of the dream, that endlessly captivating dream to leave it all behind and voyage among tropic isles forever – and here they were! Oil lamps being lit and dinners prepared, couples in all these boats – all these cocoon-like homes – sat mesmerized or engaged, lost in beauty or lost in the mundane details of living in an ocean-bound microcosmic snail’s shell far from home, all engaged with living and life, this shuttling mortal coil that never seemed to stop burning. Everyone everywhere was consumed with what tomorrow might bring, how to deal with it, how to love and laugh amidst all the chaos of stars coming out in the night sky.
And under those stars, the man and the woman leaned against one another, and she held him protectively, fiercely, as if she never, ever wanted to let him go. One arm around his chest, the fingers of her other hand running through his wind-tossed hair. His head, nestled just under her own, the very shape of his head ingrained in her fingertips over too many decades, the smell of his hair now as it was almost forty years ago. She could feel his heartbeat, his every breath through the flesh of her breast. Such simple music, these heart-sounds. How she longed to dance in the light of such steady rhythms – for all time.
“Thanks, babe,” she heard him say.
“Um-m,” she added, the hymn of her love and ode to this evening’s sky. “My pleasure, sweet-cheeks.”
“Sweet-cheeks?” he chuckled. “Oh my, I haven’t heard you call me that in a long time.”
“You remember that cake?” That cake she’d taken to his office on his fortieth birthday. A big flesh colored derrière with ‘Happy Birthday, Sweet Cheeks’ emblazoned across the top and bottom. “Remember how embarrassed you were?”
“Boy, do I!” He reached up and gently stroked her arm as precious memories danced in the starlight. “Wasn’t that the year we chartered that first sailboat, with Bill and Alice?”
“Yes,” she said as she too fell into chance dancing memories. “Tortola.”
“God, that was such a fun trip.”
“When we fell in love with sailing,” she said, “Dreamed of sailing away from it all someday.”
“I know you’ve been miserable, babe. You want to call it quits?”
She felt a tenseness creep into the space between them, an unwelcome, intrusive tremor.
“Dave, let’s not talk about any of that right now. We need to find out what we’re up against.”
She relaxed. She’d half expected him to say something like “We! What do you mean ‘We’? Nobody said anything today about ‘We’ having cancer!”
But he hadn’t said that, had he?
No, that wasn’t his style. He’d always been too much in love with her.
But, did he really feel that way, even now? Was he really still so connected to her, after forty years?
“Do you want to fly home from here?” she asked. “We could leave the boat…”
“No, let’s get her to Tahiti, put her on the hard there if we have to. There’s supposed to be a fine hospital, good doctors there.”
“You don’t want to go home?”
“I don’t know. Maybe. The doc said there are a bunch of tests they need to run to figure out the best kind of treatment. Not all of them involve surgery, yet, especially if it’s not advanced.”
She felt a cold grip on her heart. Her father had died of prostate cancer when he was 67. His physician had missed it and missed it for years, discovered it only after the cancer had spread into his spine. She fought to push away memories of her father wasting away, morphine the only thing that kept the pain from annihilating his very soul. She struggled as an image of David stricken like that filled her mind, and suddenly she felt like crying, like she was already in mourning.
“Don’t give up on me, babe.”
‘God, he said that like he’s reading my mind…’ The thought buffeted her for a moment, leaving her breathless. “I won’t, Sweet-Cheeks. I promise.”
Something bumped along the side of the hull – hard enough to swing the mast.
“What the hell!” David said as he pushed himself up. He leaned out of the cockpit, leaned to look down at the waterline, and she heard him take a sharp breath: “June,” he whispered, “come here. And be quiet about it, too.”
She made her way to his side and leaned out, looked down on a Killer Whale calf not yet free of its umbilical cord. It’s mother was on her side – just a few feet away.
“Something’s wrong,” he said. “See the cord? It’s wrapped around the pectoral fin, holding the little guy under. The placenta must still be attached inside the mother.”
“Dave, should we do something?”
But he was already up, bounding down the companionway – and back up – in seconds; he put a Swiss Army knife in his mouth and without a word slipped overboard.
“Put the ladder down, would you?” she heard him say as soon as he broke surface. She leapt along the lifelines until she came to the boarding-gate, then unlatched the folding ladder and let it flop down into the water.
With one hand on the ladder he grabbed the calf and hoisted its blowhole free of the water, and she thought the creature looked very still – too still. Then she saw its fluke move once, heard it take a small breath, then David took his little knife and opened the blade; he cut the cord with one clean stroke and a little puff of black disappeared into the water, then he slowly unwrapped the cord from the little guy’s body. The mother slipped away into inky blackness, and was gone.
“It’s not moving much,” she said. “Maybe you should slap its ass!”
“Hm-m, not a bad idea. I need to tie-off the cord if she’s not going to…” He rubbed the calf’s body briskly, then slapped in gently a couple times. He saw the calf’s eye then, saw it looking deeply into his own, and as suddenly it twisted free and disappeared beneath the purple surface of the water – and it too was gone.
“Holy shit!” he managed to say, then…
“David! Be still!”
He froze, listened to water break smoothly just behind his head, heard a much bigger blowhole open, the rush of air expelled, and inhaled deeply. The head of a large male Orca slid from the surface right beside his own; the top of the whale’s head was a good two and a half feet above the water, its towering dorsal fin easily seven feet above that. He felt his heart hammering in his chest, yet for some reason he knew the whale by his side was listening to his beating heart. He felt like he was being examined, measured in some vital way, then as suddenly the huge body slid silently away and was gone.
He reached for the boarding ladder and pulled himself up onto deck; only then did he feel his heart slow down. He started shivering as the cold proximity of the encounter slammed through the night – into his soul.
The woman jumped below and grabbed towels, guided the man back into the safe confines of their little home, then she wrapped herself around him and hugged him for a very long time.
Inside Tiputa Pass, Rangiroa Atoll, French Polynesia
Timing was crucial, and their navigation had to be perfect.
To exit the lagoon one had to time the move for precisely slack water; when the tide ebbed or flooded powerful currents wracked the pass, swirling eddies churned the water and breaking pyramid-shaped waves up to ten feet high rose and broke with sudden, incredible ferocity. Small boats could be tossed around or pulled under by a funneling vortex, and had been many times over the years. The simple fact that silver-tipped reef sharks, known man-eaters, cruised these waters made the passage all the more interesting. In order to get out unscathed, one had a twenty minute window between the ebb and the flood – the brief period of so called slack water, when the pass grew still, when the currents subsided – and during this uneasy truce boats completed the transit or risked getting caught within the next maelstrom.
The man stood at the bow, perched high on the pulpit with a steadying hand on the rigging, watched the swirling waters for signs of calming; two other sailboats and an overloaded dive boat waited behind them. The woman remained behind the wheel, ready to pour on the throttle and follow any steering commands that came from the man on the bow.
The man looked at his watch then down into the water.
“Alright, full throttle, and head right for that first buoy!” he called out as he looked back at the range markers. The woman pushed the throttle forward and the boat accelerated into the pass; the other sailboats waited a moment – perhaps to see if they’d missed the timing – then they too poured on the coals and darted into the pass. The dive boat, powered by huge twin outboards, roared by, leaving a fairly massive wake as it passed. The man perched on the bow pulpit grabbed hold of the headstay as the boat rolled under him, but he took the motion in stride while he scanned the water ahead for any unseen coral heads or floating debris that might get caught in their little ship’s propeller. Fifteen minutes later they rounded the last mark and turned to the west to round the huge atoll before turning south towards Tahiti. The man walked back to the cockpit and stood beside the woman, then he put an arm around her waist.
“Good job, darlin’,” the man said as he kissed the top of her head.
“We do make a pretty good team,” the woman beamed as she leaned into him.
“Always have, darlin’. We always have.”
She looked down at the chart-plotter and the moving nautical chart that displayed their position, her eyes settled on the next waypoint to the west, and she watched as their course lined-up with the calculated compass heading.
“Ready for a sandwich?” he asked.
“I’m famished,” she called out as he trundled down the companionway. “Two for me!”
Standing in the galley, he looked back at her and smiled, braced himself as a deep ocean roller passed under the boat. He opened the ‘fridge and pulled out four sandwiches and handed them up to her, then poured some iced-tea into cups before heading up himself.
It was her watch so the next three hours he rested. She’d steer, she’d navigate, if the sails needed trimming she’d ask him to do it or, if she wanted, do it herself. She steered by hand with the breaking reef of the atoll still so close to port, but as they moved farther away she’d more than likely set the autopilot and let the boat steer itself. He unwrapped a sandwich and handed it to her, then watched as she wolfed it down.
He smiled. “Ready for another?” David said wryly.
Another huge roller crossed under the keel and the boat wallowed and yawed as she compensated, then she held out her hand and snapped her fingers. “I can’t believe how hungry I am! Cripes!”
“Neither can I,” he said through a deepening smile. “Kinda exciting, wasn’t it?”
“I’ve never been so crap-happy-scared in my life! And when that dive boat went by!”
“Yeah, I puckered-up pretty good too.”
“Oh, so that was the popping sound I heard!” she said between bites. “Honey, I hate to say it, but I think I’m gonna need another one.”
“Here, have mine. I’m not hungry right now.”
“Sure, yeah, great, whatever…”
He laughed as leaned back, careful to stay out of the sun.
“Where’d all these rollers come from?” she called out as another huge roller lifted the boat.
“That storm the night before, the one to the south. It turned north last night and is chewing things up as it moves north.”
“These suckers must be ten, twelve feet!”
“Feeling seasick?” he asked. Their first long passages at night, that had been an issue.
“Nope! I love it!” He heard her “whoop!” as another big one rolled under the keel; the bow fell into yawning trough and she screamed with joy as the sudden wall of water rained down over the cockpit awning.
“Yee-e-e-haw-w-w!” she yelled. “Are we having fun yet!?”
They both laughed – if only because it was an old joke.
“Need a towel?” he asked.
“No, this feels great!”
And he looked at her, saw her shaking the water from her short hair. “I’m the luckiest man that ever lived,” he said quietly as he watched her smile and wrestle the wheel around to take-on the next roller.
“What’d you say?!” she shouted.
“I said ‘you’re a nut!’”
“And aren’t you glad I am?!”
“Never more than right this very moment!”
She looked at him, smiled, turned to meet the next wave, then she mouthed ‘I love you’ as she threw a kiss his way.
She finished her third sandwich as he made his way through his first; soon she turned a little south and the rollers disappeared in the lee of the atoll. The sky was bluebirds, the sea now endlessly smooth; he let out the big headsail and the boat surged ahead, the circular atoll still off their port beam, then he stretched out in the cockpit facing aft and watched his wife steer for a while. His eyes grew heavy, he suddenly felt very, very tired, so he closed his eyes and drifted off.
She shook him awake early in the afternoon; he looked pale, feverish, and she poured him a chilled Gatorade, put some fresh pineapple chunks in a bowl and handed them up to him. He sipped the juice and nibbled some pineapple, then curled up and went straight back to sleep.
He woke some time later, the sun was still up, but just barely. He needed to pee badly and he stood, walked back to the aft rail and let loose. The sea was now smooth as glass, barely a breath of air stirred. He looked at the headsail – June had already rolled it up, ditto the mainsail, and she’d tied off the boom to keep it from slatting around. He looked at the chartplotter: Makatea was on their port beam about ten miles off, though it wasn’t yet dark enough to see any navigational lights on the west coast.
“You awake up there?”
“Yeah, I think so. What day is it!”
“Ha! You had me worried there for a while! You cracked off a good eight hours!”
“Slept through my watch?”
“You had a fever.”
“You hungry yet?”
“Not really. Actually, I feel kinda queasy.”
“What? You, old Iron Stomach?”
“Well, there you have it, ladies and germs. Film at eleven!”
“Here!” she called out; a cup with Gatorade appeared from down below, followed by a cup of chicken noodle soup.
He ate the soup and it tasted good, then he sipped Gatorade while he regarded the chartplotter for a while. He reached up and put the radar on standby. “What do the batteries look like?” he asked. With any luck the solar panels and wind generator would have topped off the primary bank this afternoon.
“Looks like ninety eight percent full,” he heard from below. With the fridge and chartplotter going all night he might have to fire up the engine to top-off the batteries during the night, depending on how often he used the radar.
“Okay. The bilge dry?”
“Yup.” He heard her cycling through switches on the main panel, then: “Weatherfax is clear. That storm is about four hundred miles northwest. There’s a low below Tahiti.”
“Right,” he said, their routine both familiar – and absolute. He’d not have to ask her to put all that stuff in the logbook; he knew everything would be there, all in her obsessively neat handwriting. He cycled on the radar now that it had ‘warmed-up’ and he set the range circles to sixteen miles. A handful of targets, probably all cruising sailboats, blossomed on the screen. “Go ahead and flip on the lights.”
“Is there anything on Makatea?” he heard her ask while he stood and walked the deck.
“Not much. I think about a hundred folks. That movie with Harrison Ford was supposed to have taken place here.”
That got her attention.
“Oh! Which one?”
“Oh, you know, he played some washed up pilot; he and this blond-haired, blue-eyed beauty crash land on a deserted island in a thunderstorm…” he kept his hands on the lifelines as he made his way forward.
“Oh, you mean ‘Indiana Jones goes to Gilligan’s Island’!”
“The very one!” He heard her laughter from somewhere below and smiled. He loved the sound of her laughter; he always had and always would.
He walked forward and checked the nav lights one by one, then walked back to the cockpit. “Lights are good.”
“Okay.” Next he heard her rummaging around in the locker by the chart table, then metal banging on the galley stove; she crawled up from the cabin a moment later holding two safety harnesses. She hooked them up to the ‘jack-lines’ that ran from bow to stern; if either fell overboard they’d remain attached to the ship by these harnesses – presumably long enough to yell and wake the other before drowning – or being eaten by Godzilla. She pressed the ‘battery-test’ button on the attached strobes then handed one to David while she slipped hers on. The rule on-board was simple: the harness stayed on after dark – no matter what, no excuses. It was a pain in the ass to go below while hooked-up, but it was better than drowning.
“You must be exhausted,” he said as she sat beside him; she snuggled under his arm and he felt her smile on his chest.
“Um-hm-m.” She looked up and kissed his chin, felt her dozing off within moments – but she jerked awake, shook herself free and sat up.
“Yeah, bad dream or something. Weird. Mind if I go below? I think I need some solid sleep.”
He kissed her on the top of her head, felt her stand. “Go ahead, doll.”
She dropped below; he heard her unclip from the safety harness and walk forward to their berth, then the sounds of brushing teeth and a flushing head – and then finally, lights out.
He dimmed the chart-plotter to preserve his night vision, watched as the wind gauge registered a puff, then another. Within a few minutes a gentle breeze filled in from the north and he rolled out the headsail; there was just enough wind to fill it and soon the boat was slicing through the water on a gentle three knot breeze. He cycled through screens to the radar, noted the positions of the boats in his mind, then switched back to chart-view. Makatea was now sliding steadily astern; soon it disappeared into the darkness and he scanned the way ahead. Not another vessel in sight, so he dropped below and made a log entry, checked the bilge then climbed back into the cockpit.
And then he had to sit and take stock of the moment, because through all the chatter and the walking around, through dinner and while he watched instruments record their progress, the dull, burning pain grew steadily, more insistently painful. He watched Orion fall down to the western horizon; first Rigel slipping from view, then the cotton-ball shaped nebula in the middle of his sword, and finally, Betelgeuse. More time drifted by, still the pain in his pelvis grated away within, and he knew, just knew, he felt it in his spine now.
“I need a Tylenol,” he said to the stars, if only because he was barely able to concentrate on the instruments anymore. He edged over to the companionway and unclipped his harness, slipped quietly down the steps and took two tablets from the small bottle inside the chart table, got a glass of water and swallowed the pills. He leaned forward, gripped the edges of the table as a deep, piercing pain sliced through his back. Cold sweat formed, began running down his neck and a shiver arced through his body like an electric current, and for a moment he couldn’t remember where he was…then…
The boat lurched sideways, something thudded alongside. A buoy, perhaps?
He scurried up the companionway, flashlight in hand, leaned to port – nothing – then he hopped to the starboard rail.
An Orca – was it the same one? – was there, its body almost vertical, its head jutting high out of the water.
“What the heck are you doing here, buddy?”
The animal shook, water thrashed around it’s pectorals. Agitated, he thought, the thing looks agitated. Not angry. More scared than anything else…
The big male leaned it’s head away from the boat and he heard another animal thrashing not far away; he shined his Mag-lite out into the inky blackness and saw the calf again, its mother trying to support it from below. It was wrapped in pale blue gill-net, thrashing madly and obviously about to drown. Without thinking he darted below and grabbed his knife, then bolted up the steps and in one smooth motion dove overboard; he swam the few yards to the thrashing calf and began frantically slicing away netting. He cut himself once, grateful the salt water didn’t sting too badly, and hacked away at the last strands of the netting. The net fell away and the calf burst free, he watched as it disappeared under the water, and once again he felt the big male by his side and he turned, looked into its eye.
“Oh no,” he said. “Oh my God, no.”
The boat was now several hundred yards away, the freshening breeze filling the headsail, her speed picking up. He sat motionless in the water – motionless now – as he saw the shape of the end of his life taking form in the air before his eyes. He turned, looked to see if the whale was still there, but it too had slipped away into the night.
She got up in the middle of the night and stumbled to the head, heard the sails pulling, the bow-wave gurgling and hissing its way astern, so as she smiled she crawled back into the warm berth. She’d been dreaming of the time he’d first kissed her, and she hoped the dream would still be there, waiting for her in the night.
She felt the sunlight on her face and looked up; the sun was now high overhead.
“David? Why’d you let me go so long?”
She felt a little annoyed, as he’d obviously he’d fallen asleep at the wheel. She slipped out of the berth and padded back to the galley. Nothing, even the stove unused, everything as it had been last night, when she’d gone below.
Then she saw his safety harness, unclipped, laying uselessly astride the companionway.
Cold fear stabbed at her gut as she leapt into the cockpit. She turned, looked forward; a purple wall of thunderstorms lay ahead, lightning rippled through roiling clouds. The island of Tetiaroa was ahead and well to her right; even Tahiti was visible now through low-scudding clouds. She jumped to the wheel and hit the man-overboard button and fired-up the engine, rolled in the headsail and engaged the autopilot, then grabbed the radio and flipped it to the emergency frequency:
“Mayday-mayday-mayday, this is sailing vessel Sirius calling, mayday-mayday-mayday.”
“Sailing vessel calling Tahiti Ocean Rescue, go ahead.”
“Tahiti, my position is 16 degrees 51 minutes south, 149 degrees zero four minutes west, and we’ve had a man-overboard during the night!”
“Sailing vessel Sirius, are you onboard, uh, alone?”
“Affirmative, Rescue. We were southbound from Rangiroa…standby one…” She jumped down and grabbed the logbook… looked at David’s scrawled entry on the page and her heart filled with a mixture of pride and fear…then she jumped back up to the radio…
“Ah, rescue, his last log entry was at 2200 hours, at 16 21 27 south by 148 46 17 west.”
“Ah, Sirius,” came a strong voice rich with a clipped English accent, “this is sailing vessel Achilles, we copy and are ten point three miles behind you. We’ll analyze your track and commence our search.”
“Rescue, this is the sailing vessel Jumpin’ Jack Flash, I have us about five miles east of Achilles. Can we help?”
“Tahiti Ocean Rescue to all search vessels, be advised a strong line of storms with high winds and lightning is passing the island at this time; all aircraft are grounded. We anticipate clearing in about two hours; dispatching cutter to assist at this time. Achilles, can you search north and west of that track?”
“Achilles, roger north and west.”
“Ocean Rescue to Jumpin’ Jack Flash, can you search west and south?”
“Yeah man, that’s cool, south then west.”
“Ocean Rescue to Sirius, advise you reverse course at this time and search east of track, repeat east of your earlier track, due to east setting currents overnight.”
The woman listened to the chatter, scrawled notes in pencil on the logbook beneath her husband’s last entry. “Sirius, received, my course is zero four four magnetic…”
He lay on his back for a while, kept his lungs full of air to keep his body as buoyant as possible, his legs tucked up to preserve what warmth was left in his body. The waves had been, so far, mercifully small; now he could see dark storm clouds swallowing jagged Tahitian mountains, spitting lightning out like angry, fractured bones – and he knew, just knew this storm would be his undoing. He held the flashlight in his right hand, the Swiss Army knife in his left. He was getting thirsty and his gut burned with an insistent glow.
He felt a rolling swell move through the water, felt his body lift on a wave; he raised his head and looked around from the crest – then took another deep breath and lay flat again as he fell into the passing trough. Nothing. No one. He felt his hair flowing in the current, felt water sloshing against his ear-drums; every now and then a wave found him dozing and stinging brine burned his eyes.
“Don’t give up!” he heard her voice clearly. “I love you, and I’m coming.”
“I won’t. I’ll always love you.”
Time passed. Slowly. The sun overhead began to burn the flesh on his face. And he was thirsty. Alone on an endless sea…and he was thirsty.
“Ocean Rescue to all search vessels, be advised we have an aircraft en route. Sirius, we advise you begin a zig-zag course at this time.”
“Ah, Achilles here, reporting a large pod of Killer Whales in this vicinity, appear to be south bound.”
“Rescue received and understood.”
‘Now what the fuck does that mean?’ she said to herself. ‘What? Do they think the goddamn whales are going to eat him?’ She brought the binoculars that hung from her neck up to her eyes and scanned the horizon for dorsal fins.
Lightning cracked overhead – and she winced. She resisted the urge to disconnect the GPS and radio – to spare them in a strike – but she knew she’d have to chance it, knew that without them she’d be hopelessly disconnected from the world. Another blistering crack rent the air, the shattering noise now right on top of her head, her hair standing on end now, the air full of ozone – yet still there was no rain, and now very little wind. Sirius rose on a wave and she saw something, turned towards whatever it was – then saw whitecaps forming – as a new front approached and the wind filled in. Her hair flew in the first ragged gusts, but within a heartbeat the wind began moaning in the rigging and she watched as the wind gauge leapt to thirty five knots, then forty knots. Sirius heeled ponderously as a heavy gust slammed home, and the wind gauge leapt yet again, this time to seventy knots and the woman struggled to right the little ship, to keep them on course. Blinding rain came suddenly in horizontal sheets, visibility dropped to a few yards.
Moments later the wind fell to almost zero, the seas – rather than building, as she’d feared – apparently blown flat by the passing squall; now fat raindrops fell slowly on an almost mirror-smooth sea. Lightning cracked again – but it seemed to have moved away and she sighed. She looked down at the compass, saw her course was almost due west and she cursed, turned the wheel to correct, looked at the chart-plotter and compared her present track to their earlier one…
“Good,” she said, “still tracking a little east.”
She wiped rain – or was it sweat? – from her eyes and brought the binoculars up to her eyes and swept the now flat sea with her eyes. Nothing.
“Don’t worry, honey, I’m coming. I’m coming, I promise. Don’t give up!”
She didn’t know she was crying, and had been for several minutes.
He’d worried about the little cut on his hand for a while, worried the blood – even as little as it was – might draw in sharks, and he’d tried to keep that hand out of the water as much as he could; now he knew his efforts hadn’t been enough. He saw the rounded, white-tipped fin slice through the water and his heart lurched in his chest; now all would be reduced to a contest of wills. Of course it had to be a oceanic white-tip, he said to himself, and not some pussy nurse shark. Why not a man-eater? Why the fuck not?
“Bring it on, mother-fucker!” he said softly, quietly.
He’d watched the rounded, white-tipped fin turn his way and ducked his head under water, made eye contact with the bastard and watched as it slipped by slowly, cautiously, for a first look. When it turned suddenly, got too close, he brought the Mag-Lite down on the shark’s broad snout; it was, all things considered, a thunderous blow – a real grand-slam homer. The shark thrashed and moved off for a moment, then began circling slowly well out of range, waiting, and he knew the animal was simply biding it’s time.
She heard the droning turbo-prop engines long before she made out the plane; within seconds the four-engined beast roared overhead just yards, she thought, from the top of the mast.
“Sirius, this is Rescue One on station; we’re heading up your previous estimated track.”
“Sirius received.” She didn’t know quite what to say to these men braving this storm-filled sky, but she wanted to thank them.
“Hang on, David. We’re coming!”
The shark came in again, faster this time, but this time it ignored the flashlight; the man pushed himself away from the side of its head, then kicked off from the shark’s side. He backstroked through the water, kept his eyes on the shark, watched as it’s back arched, then as it rolled sharply back and sprinted in for the kill. He had his Swiss Army knife in his hand now, thought he’d try for an eye, and he assumed a crouched ‘street-fighter’ posture and held the knife out, at the ready; the shark veered away and circled warily, apparently not quite sure what to make of this new adversary.
Then the man heard the sweet roar of turboprops and he lifted his head from the sea…
“Rescue One, we have a man in the water, repeat man in the water! Dropping canister – now!”
“Ocean rescue to all searching vessels, stand by to copy coordinates…”
“Rescue One, Rescue One, there’s a shark! The man is fighting a… Holy Mother of God! Rescue One – stand by…”
With one eye he watched the life-raft canister fall from the loading platform in the rear of the C-130; with his other he watched the white tip circling just yards away. He watched the dorsal fin turn his way, turn and ready for it’s final sprint. With his eyes under the water, he watched it gain speed as the animal approached, and he slashed at the shark’s face, only this time with the little knife; again he pushed off and kicked away from slashing rows of teeth and the shark suddenly, the man thought, seemed to be getting a little pissed off. He shook as exhaustion and cold rippled through his body, mingling with the fear that burned in his chest.
“Where’s the fucking canister?” He looked up, saw the Hercules in a steep banking turn, then got his head underwater in time to see the shark…and suddenly he knew it had him now, and he knew this was the end. He was just too tired, running out of steam, and he knew the shark had been waiting, waiting for – the right moment.
And it had decided that moment was now…
The shark turned, it’s black eye never leaving the man; this final sprint seemed an impossible speed, its mouth opening as it grew near…the protective lids shutting to protect it’s eyes during this attack. The opening maw approached, and the man readied himself for the blow as best he could. He held the flashlight and the knife out ready for one more counterattack, watched the shark close the gap rapidly, remorselessly, yet he saw no pity, no feeling at all in the animal’s black eyes.
“Fuck you!” the man screamed underwater as death came for him. “I’m not giving up…”
Then his world is lost in shadow, the universe turns dark and furious, and there follows an explosion of starlight; the man lifts his head from the water – and yet – the shark’s body is hurtling upward through the air, somersaulting, its fractured guts spilling from a huge gaping wound that has opened its belly.
He turns in time to see the huge male Orca crashing back into the water, and he is too stunned to understand what has just happened. He feels something move past his legs, feels hot skin on his hands and slides his head back into the sea. The calf is there, swimming easily now, and so is its mother. When he lifts his head the male Orca is by his side, the creature’s deep black eye looking steadily into his own.
The whale drifts closer, rolls as if offering its dorsal fin; the man grabs the leading edge and the whale swims slowly toward a drifting cloud of bright, lime-green smoke. A life-raft floats under the smoke, its bright orange canopy visible through the haze. The whale descends momentarily as it closes on the raft and while the man it tempted to let go and float up to the raft – he doesn’t, he can’t – he wants to stay here forever.
The whale makes a long looping turn then rises vertically, surfacing next to the raft; the man reaches out, grabs shiny orange webbing that hangs from the side of the raft, down into the sea. The whale watches as the man climbs into the raft, then slips beneath the surface of the sea and is suddenly, quietly gone.
On the waterfront, two weeks later
The man and the woman are sitting under an umbrella outside a sidewalk café, sitting beside a crowded street full of passing life. Another couple sits with them, along with a younger woman, perhaps in her twenties. They are eating within the umbrella’s cool shade, oblivious to the sun above, not quite alone now – a part of life coursing through the veins of this smug little city.
“So, what’s the verdict, man?” asks Jack Hawkins, the skipper of Achilles. His little ship had been the first to reach David in the raft, and over the past two weeks the two men had become fast friends. But so had Susan Hawkins, his wife. Call it a maternal instinct on her part, for she had nursed him back from that dark place. They sat together as close friends now, so if you must call them anything at all, call them that and be done with it.
“Not a cure, that’s what the docs said, but they think it’ll buy me some time. Maybe five years, but who knows?”
“I still can’t believe how tiny the incisions are, Dad,” the young woman sitting by David’s side says.
“I say,” Susan says, “let’s have a look.”
The man looks at these women; he shakes his head and grins, then his wife looks at him and sighs.
“You’re such a show-off!” she says, her eyes alive, full of the kind of love most people only dream about.
He stands and pulls his pants down a bit, revealing just his lower abdomen and the crack between his cheeks; there are three incisions on his smooth, white skin, each a half inch long. Everyone in the restaurant is looking at the man now, though most know who he is. For a week or so he has been a minor celebrity in the news, a sailing sensation: the ‘Man Rescued by Killer Whales!’ And so they know his story – everyone does. His celebrity is their’s, for some reason no one understands – but everyone accepts. His life is their’s now, and everyone looks at his scars. Everyone smiles, too, because they understand where he was and how impossible his being here really is.
“So, what did they do to you? Implant radioactive pellets, in the tumor itself?”
“Yep. And that’s tumors, by the way. Plural. Supposed to keep ‘em in check. And some new drug – something new that might help knock ‘em back for a while.”
“So what are you going to do now?” Susan asks, looking a little too carefully at the man and his wounds.
“I don’t know,” David says with a grin, “I’m just the First Mate here. You’d better ask the skipper.”
Everyone laughs at that, even people at nearby tables, and the man takes a long pull from his glass.
“Well? Mom? Dad? What are you going to do? Sell the boat?”
“Heavens no,” June says seriously, possessively. “Your father’s not dead, and neither am I. And just look at those peaks,” she says, pointing to Moorea. “We didn’t come this far to turn away now.”
“Here, here,” Hawkins proclaims to one and all while he pounds the table. “Too bloody right!”
“We set out to see New Zealand,” she adds, “so we’ll do just that. There’s a lot to see and do between here and what might be. The day after that? I don’t know; we’ll see which way the wind blows.”
“Sometimes I worry, Mom, that’s all.”
Mother and father look at their daughter. They smile, smiles like they’ve learned the secret of existence and want to keep it to themselves for a little while longer, then they look out to sea.
Because they understand now. They know that two hearts are stronger than one.
A week later two boats sail out of Papeete’s Passe de Taapuna and tack through the wind, begin working their way west; both are making the short hop across the narrow strait to Cook’s Bay on the north side of Moorea. The boat with the name Achilles across her stern leads, and the other boat follows close astern. There is a woman steering this second boat, and a man is standing on the bow pulpit, enjoying the feel of the wind in his hair and the spray on his face – as the air dances with it’s arms all around him.
If you were seagull perhaps, or someone sailing in the sky behind this second boat, and close enough to examine this boat more closely, you’d find the boat’s name appears to have recently been changed, from Sirius to Orca. Odd choice, you might say, but there are as many stories behind a boat’s name as there are stars in the night sky. Perhaps the couple pulled the name out of a hat. You never can tell about such things.
You might, from your lofty perspective, watch as the man steps down from the pulpit and walks back to the woman behind the wheel, and you might notice that there is a certain depth in the man’s eyes as he looks at the woman. The woman must be his wife, but you think as you watch him that there is much more going on here than that. This woman is his life, and as he sits beside her he watches her closely, watches while she eyes the sails and as she turns the wheel, adjusts their course a little to the shifting wind. The man turns and looks back at Papeete as it falls away in gray-green mist, then he looks down into the infinite blue that recedes behind their boat, beneath the smooth wake the Orca makes as she slips through this fathomless sea.
The shark still circles, the man knows as he watches shadows pass in the sea below – the shark is still out there, waiting, always waiting – for that moment. But that’s life, this strange mortal coil that holds us up to the light – within that briefest flash of time. He remembers the orca in that fragile moment, the deep curiosity within the liquid gaze that held him, when more than understanding passed between two souls – in that lift on a wave.
He takes a deep breath within the memory, and the cool sea still bathes his soul. He looks at the woman by his side once again, looks at her with that same understanding, and he knows the burden she carries. And yet his heart smiles as he watches her at the wheel, altering their course a little more – again – adjusting to the ever changing winds of their life together. She turns and looks at him, and he sighs.
There is curiosity in her eyes, too, and love. He leans back and closes his eyes, listens to the wind and the water as time slips by under the sun.
A shadow passing, then he feels her lips on his, and the salt of a tear on his lips. She sits beside him and it is as it has always been: when she leans into him that feeling comes – again. With her flesh on his, he is complete. Pure and whole as the day he was born.
Another passing gust and Orca heels into the wind, slipping through time now, soaring past shadows. A man and a woman, pure and whole, hold on to one another as the miles fall away.
(C)2009-2016 | Adrian Leverkühn | abw | adrianleverkuhnwrites.com