M T Ingoldby
There were two men on board; Bren Vandoros, the younger, who was wiry and thin and lashed himself to each task with a young man’s fierce romance for the unknown; who lifted crates far heavier than himself with a merciless tyranny of will over body and bathed his soul in the spray cast over the prow – and Cleto Manjova, the older, who had known nothing but the strenuous demands of the sea; indeed, he had been born a soft lump of coal in the frozen arms of a stowaway found in the hold of a cargo ship. His mother had not lived to see the shore, but he had, and many more since, flinging his spirit across the globe and never venturing further inland than the whorehouses and bars of the harbour towns. Bren could not guess Cleto’s age – he looked perhaps sixty, though with his seemingly inexhaustible supply of tales and cavernous grey eyes he could well be over a hundred. At night the pair would retire, battered, to their single cabin and Cleto would recount stories while Bren listened in rapt and hungry silence, periodically topping up cracked glasses from a casket of nameless ale.
“And when was this?” he would ask.
The old sailor would chuckle throatily. “I tell you, is the same. The sea, always the same.”
Now he spoke of having witnessed a school of orcas tear a grey whale calf from its mother, far from the Arctic shore, and how the mother bellowed such pain that shook their whole vessel and echoed through its timbers. Then the mother had disappeared into that dimension unknown on land; the plunging deep, where light is barred and sound arrives in dull subsonic thuds, like the footsteps of giants. In that moment Cleto knew the anguished mother would never return to the light. The tale ended.
Outside the wind flung silver ripples across the tranquil sea on which their small craft was precariously balanced, a minute speck on a boundless immensity. Bren was struck after each tale by the gruesome thrill of being allowed to exist by the dispensation of an ocean, like some vast beast, too serene to swat the flies from its skin. The grey undulations outside reinforced this idea, like blood being carried through broad subcutaneous veins, converging into the currents that powered the heart of this huge, world-sprawling brute.
The next morning Bren woke above an empty bunk. As usual Cleto was already on deck, assessing the day’s weather. Bren had never seen him sleep, but a man like any other must take his rest sometime, perhaps in the early hours of the morning when the ocean slumbered fitfully around them. Emerging on deck to the bracing vista, juxtaposed against the confines of the cabin, filled Bren with a rare humility. Its power was absolute. He leant over the coarse rail and entertained the youthful fantasy of self-destruction, of giving himself to the sea in glorious surrender, that always took hold before the day’s toil brought out the fight in him. He tore himself away to see Cleto unusually still and gazing out from the rail opposite. The ropes were untouched, still slack in their overnight moorings.
“Cleto,” said Bren.
Cleto turned, though his eyes retained their focus on some remote point and he spoke with strange grating depth. “Boy….” He shook his head.
Bent looked at the sea to account for the old man’s disquiet, but it had quelled and the sky a seamless white. He was spurned once again by Cleto’s finer sensitivity to nature and drooped to ask him, “what is it?”
Cleto took his time in responding. “Signal,” he spoke finally, “came at night. Bad news.”
Bren reflected he must slept very deeply to have not heard the harsh note of the radio through the wall. He waited for the old man to continue.
“Bad news on shore. A sickness there. We stay out or it take us too.”
“I know it,” said Cleto. “Called it the Redness. Makes a man mad. Starts in like a rash on y’arm or leg and grows o’ your body til it’s in your head, till all a man sees be red, all he thinks too. Nothing to do but pray for him.” He brushed memories from his trouser leg.
Complications angered Bren: he had set sail to escape them. He yearned for progress, to feel the the ropes tear his hands and to strengthen himself against the nothingness about them. He scuffed his feet on the rough deck. “What do we do?”
The old man indicated he did not know.
“Ah. Could be a week maybe. Maybe more.”
“We should head back.”
“Naw, lad. Only food water for one month, two aboard.” Their voyage had lasted almost three, following a chance encounter at a dockland bar.
“We can ration. I won’t eat. We can fish.”
“Naw,” and Cleto spoke the words the young man was dreading. “Wait. We do this only. Sit tight wait for signal.”
The boat swayed. Bren spat violently and cursed. He wanted suddenly to throw the old man overboard and set course for shore, sickness be damned. Cleto looked at him and knew what he was thinking, which was enough to send Bren pounding back inside.
Hours later when Cleto returned to the cabin Bren had tied a morsel of spoilt meat to a length of twine and attached the other end to the handle of a broom. Cleto said nothing, and Bren felt his disparagement and worked with greater fury to carve a groove into the broom’s end along which the twine could run without slipping. He finished soon and strode out on deck. Cut by the old man’s indifference he knew his victory alone against the dull sea would earn him respect and was in any case preferable to giving in. He cast the line overboard, and waited.
Time slithered by, measured in shades. The sky grew dark in all directions at once, from white to grey to black without one bite or enlivening breath of wind. Bren sat, teeth set grimly to the cold and the bitterness of failure and did not turn even as Cleto emerged on deck to relieve himself off the side. He waited a further hour, lashed the rod viciously in place and crept back inside, where the old man was drinking. Bren passed him wordlessly and that night dreamt of great violence without an enemy or perpetrator.
Two weeks passed without a catch. Each day Bren would ask “any word?” and the old man would break gradually from his repose and shake his head, and Bren would storm from his side in frustration. The sea remained interminably calm: so level the curvature of the earth could be seen plainly. Day swelled and night shrank about them like a vast lung, providing the only rhythm to their bleak monotony.
On a day like any other they lolled in the cabin. Outside the sea trembled. The old man stared into space with eyes as grey and sullen as their surroundings and the young man was watching him. There was a mole on Cleto’s throat to which Bren’s every nerve was poised and alert: it appeared to stare back. It shook with the old man’s breathing and before long it seemed that Cleto knew this, knew he was being watched, and his inscrutable silence was a deliberate ploy to antagonise Bren and mock his futile efforts, his desperate lust for motion, freedom; it drove like a white-hot spike into Bren’s mind a homicidal rage which built until it could no longer be suppressed and rising then to snatch a knife from the drawer he advanced on the old man snarling with the knife raised and aimed at his throat. He crossed the room in two strides. The old man did not move, barely lifting his head to observe his attacker. Bren wavered – then rammed the serrated blade into the old man’s knee. Cleto moaned and hunched over the wound. Bren wrenched away the knife and together they wrapped an old cloth tightly round Cleto’s knee to staunch the bleeding. Neither said a word and Bren plunged out onto the deck and screamed at the sky until the cold air chilled his wrath and brought with it reason. Then he fell to his knees and wept. Beside him, the twine hung still.
Although rationing had not yet been declared, neither of the pair touched the last scraps. The old man did little, moved little, and spent hours at the rail in motionless congress with the slow sea, or lying on his bunk with closed eyes and crossed arms like some regal corpse. Only by his gaze was his unfaded strength belied.
Forced into unwilling alliance with nature, the boy’s antagonistic soul had turned inwards for opposition – he starved himself with ferocious defiance, and inflicted silence on the old man who seemed at all times maddeningly unconcerned. One night a slack ribbon of moonlight was trembling on the water, drawing the eye nowhere, and a vein pulsed in Bren’s temple until he was compelled beyond reason to act, no matter how absurdly, and he swung a knotted rope over the side of the boat and lashed at the water, again and again, the knot pounding the surface and scattering the light into glittering waves and crying out like something maimed he felt the gaze of the old man from the shadow of the limp sail and turned and left the knot like a hopeless anchor in the sea and threw himself inside, his mind boiling.
Under the old man’s impassive gaze, Bren was breaking down.
He was fenced-in, pent-up, spluttering; a tethered firework who cursed in his sleep, flung his thin arms at the air, and all around the vacant wilderness gaped back from the seal of the horizon and by night even the brightest stars appeared as dim and insufficient air-holes in a suffocating sphere. The wind and still sea rustled static and though no more than a hundred nautical miles from land there was no wildlife at all: no birds, no boats, and nothing stirred below them save the glacial crush of the earth on itself. The sea was blank as milk. The sun was a white hole. So far, Bren had dreamt of nothing else.
He awoke at the crest of a guilty wave and came out on deck looking to break the long silence.
“I’m hungry,” he confessed.
The old man was silent.
“Aren’t you hungry, Cleto?” he pressed.
Cleto nodded. “Truly.”
“We should make for shore.”
“Can’t do that.”
“It might be over. Likely they forgot us.”
“Can’t know it.” Cleto still had not turned.
Bren said: “If we don’t eat, we’ll die. Both of us.”
“You’ll die first. And I can’t sail her alone.”
Cleto nodded at this admission, knowing it had pained the boy. “Could be.”
Now he turned. For the first time Bren could see the doubt behind the man’s determination. It had cost him greatly to turn and the lines in his face were taut and rigid with effort. He had a stoop that was new, and Bren could see plainly his silence and slowness were not a display of contempt, they masked a growing hollowness that if revealed would weaken the boy’s hope. Bren was frightened. He looked away, at the weak, buried sun now only a spectre in the dismal sky. Cleto grunted then headed to the bunk from which he would not move for a long time.
Nothing, as though the bone sky resisted even the distinctions of night and day. Bren slept from habit alone – he did not know when or for how long each time. The immense pressure of an ocean was compressed into their cocoon, horizon to horizon sealed and empty of life. It was hell, absolute, unending, that rendered their very survival a miserable and meaningless erosion of strength and soul, and the slow decline into numbness of every faculty. Absent of life, it was Death. Without death, it was merely suffering. Only by suffering could Bren believe that such a place existed.
Death was close. A husk remained of Cleto. The radio was silent.
Bren stayed out on deck for days at a time. He hated the old man to see him lying there so passive and pale with barely the strength to cough. He had begged the man to let him hoist the sail for shore but Cleto only shut his eyes and grimaced and Bren even now had not the will to act against him.
Bren made the rail his crutch. Sometimes he would moan with hunger, or else cry wildly at the waveless plain, though more often he would peer wordlessly into the deep like an open casket for hours to the exclusion of all thoughts but the surety of death. He suffered greatly, more so than the old man who dozed immobile within; who seemed to accept the dwindling options fate afforded them with docile calm. Perhaps the hunger had slackened his will, as his own grew more acute: A cruel punishment for his powerlessness; and the curse of hope, of believing there was some course yet open by which to remedy their plight, burned in his veins like a slow acid.
He sat heavily, bent over his aching gut. All was calm. And yet some prescience born from sleep made him look out to sea where by some confluence of nature and nightmare a wide V of ripples appeared in the wake of some submerged mass and nudged their vessel awake. He watched as not twenty feet from him a long, broad back blossomed from the smooth surface like the birth of an island. It was life. A jet shot skyward from its blowhole; a huge, battered tail rose in pursuit and sliced downwards without a splash and was gone. The skin of the sea healed so quickly that Bren could not say for sure if it had really broken. It had been a hallucination, a gross phantom broken from the tatters of his mind and loosed upon his sight. He would not believe it. And yet, real or imagined, it awoke in him a strange and powerful certainty, as though the sea had granted him a signal at last – a purpose that he, for all his passion, could not have come to alone. He sat there, gathering resolve, feeling his doubts thaw and ebb and his blood warm in readiness. His lips moved in prayer and finally he rose, the sea shimmering at his back, stumbling once more to the cabin.
Cleto watched him with eyes that gleamed in a body marked for death. They followed the boy’s approach intently. Taking the knife still stained with the old man’s blood Bren lay down next to Cleto’s bunk so he would not have far to move when it was over. There was victory in the dull depths of Cleto’s gaze. Bren lay down and drove the cold blade to the hilt between the ribs above his heart and in agony ground blood from his tongue in a deathly grimace. Red broke over his chest and between his fingers and soaked against his back and shortly then he was dead; fulfilled and bound for a longer and even more mysterious voyage.
At last the old man moved. Raised up on one elbow he tipped himself onto the boy’s body, quenching his face in Bren’s chest. Cleto drank what he could and lay to sleep on the cooling corpse and when night had flown over with a slow beat of its wing he awoke refreshed and took from the hold a bowl and a filleting knife and claimed back his strength from the outlasted flesh. What he could not eat he stored at the base of the boat against the cool membrane of the hull to keep it fresh.
The dormant sea relaxed and resumed and what had gone before was permitted as ever to continue. In two days the old man had recovered the vigour to handle the ropes, raise the mainsail and angle the tiller single-handed towards shore where he would undoubtedly meet another young contender beset by wild intimations of the ever-hungry sea.