A sudden burst of something shuddered the earth: some passion or otherwise.
Lashing onto the sultry ground was a great spurt of impatient fluid that on their first contact went scattering over the surface, clawing its way into the sodden soil. Millions of those life-nourishing droplets were embraced by the still-quivering earth and, tunnelling among stones and turfs, they came to two channels leading to separate ways.
One had to choose either way; no hesitation or halt was given by the great host of fluid. Some turned back with a solemn look for their comrades, now lost and trapped behind in some clay or peat, but most parted with a wholehearted cheer and shouted good luck. The first droplet who rushed into the ground ahead of the others was heard far behind, howling: ‘Come back, come back, it’s a trap!’ But whether it was an honest warning or a guileful trick his companions did not know; neither was the answer pondered nor cared by them. The two entrances now seemed foreboding without those glimmering drops in sight.
The channel was dark and narrow: all lights were devoured by a thick, writhing darkness, and the current that carried them became ragged and treacherous. Sometimes one could hear an anguished cry just an inch from him and next moment the same cry would go walloping between his own palate and jaw. Many would find their legs dragged down when they attempted to leap over some obstacles whilst others would succumb to the sweeping current and simply let it whisk them away, wishing for once they could again breathe the unearthed air. Only a hundred out of the millions were allowed to behold the Pristine Pearl that sequestered deep in the earth.
There: at the end of the channel was a luminescent chamber where cold rays of light were emitted from the Pearl, whispering in wisps or flaunting their tendrils of coils. So beautiful and undisturbed was her shine that for a moment they forgot the purpose of their journey and their ardent desire was transcended by an unadulterated awe…
She winked her lustrous eye, majestic and glimmering with an aluminium sheen that turned their fancies into a brittle charred guilt before embracing them with her tentacles of light, so soul-freezing cold that the embers of their love flared into flames again, desperate to fill that unfulfilled iciness with their blazing affections. The petitioners clung onto her like a horde of ravenous urchins onto an enormous breast, fighting their way to the nipple that only one of the last hundred could claim and there to be fed.
A hundred friends were now ten scores of adversaries.
—Hustling, jostling, cursing, spitting, biffing, kicking…
punching, gouging, biting, wrenching, strangling—
Alliance formed; alliance broke: treachery talked of honour and love. The chaos of love. The nipple was found. A bundle of clothes enwrapped the victor. A layer impenetrable.
Then the flood came, a deluge that palpitated with the chamber. The defeated gaped and stared in excitement and fear; the Pearl smiled.
I step out of the shell like a bee would from a blossoming bud, shading the light with my hand above my eyes.
An old woman gives me a smile that is carried in a humid breeze like a kiss, landing on my cheek.
‘Welcome, son.’ she says, stretching out her arms.
I smile back and extend my arms in return. Then…
A sudden nausea seizes me when the full blaze of sunshine in the vastness of azure sky catches me, dazzling after my long, suspended period of waiting. In that moment of surprise I totter back, falling upon the heated emptiness where the shell should have been, and into the sturdy arms of someone whose presence I haven’t noticed until then. Something more than a shock rolls over my entire body, from the knobs of my shoulders where such sensation is initiated to the nerves of my arms, and across my back, which is untouched and suspended in the air, to down my legs and toes where it exits from me like a thunder into the earth. And like earth under thunder, the floor beneath my feet seems to quiver and judder. Instantly I push back the nausea and pull myself up with a straightened back almost perpendicular to the ground, shaking my head: how very curious that so many thoughts and reflections can flash into one’s head for a segment of such a brief instant. I turn.
‘Ease now, old skin.’ this stranger says; I can see the honest-white teeth in his grin that stretches his moist mouth to his high cheekbones beneath his pond-green eyes where his protruding nose glides smoothly in between. We are standing so close that the smell of salt in his mellow breath and his short, curly hair the colour of gorse comes clinging onto my face like a veil of pollen.
‘Sorry…thanks.’ I say.
The grin becomes a beam which would have blinded me there and then like the sun just did, if it had not been twisted by his attempt to speak.
‘All right, pal. Just takes a while to get used to it is all. You’ll be galloping and yodelling round the deck in no time, can promise you that!’ pulling me close to him suddenly with the heat of his voice pounding in my ear, he whispers friskily like a boy who confides his confession while only means it to be a conspiracy. ‘Think I fainted when I came, only there’s no one aboard then, except Old Anne there to see it and hold my tail since then. You see, that’s why I can’t go too wild on this ship.’
He laughs almost conspiratorially and pulls me closer as if we’re great, old friends. Words simply elude me then. Fortunately the old woman—or Old Anne I presume— comes to my rescue.
‘You certainly don’t want to squeeze the breath out of him, Jamie, like No-one did to you when you first came.’ she giggles like a little girl with her crackling voice, and I feel the pull on my shoulders slacken. ‘Said to meself: I’d never seen such a handsome fella in my entire time on Star, aye, I did. Not much changed since then, did you? But again, rarely anyone here does. Oh, blushing like a monkey’s petals now, are you? One would think oneself would never see a brazen, little devil like you with reddened cheeks like that! Now, hand the lad here to me before I blurt out titbits that might embarrass you more!’
He lets me go then, to my relief mingled with mild disappointment.
‘Call me Anne, young lad. Don’t add ‘old’ before that, mind you, no matter what that cheeky chimp there might have wrongly informed you. You do know your name, don’t you?’
‘Edward.’ I say, choosing the first name that springs into my consciousness.
‘Ed.’ she says; the name makes her smile. She always seems to smile, which makes her wrinkled countenance look much younger though there’s a certain shade of sorrow hanging at the corners of her mouth and a weight that drags her eyes when a smile is supposed to lift them.
‘Don’t mind me calling you Ed, do you?’
I shake my head, wondering the extent of the sustenance she must still possesses to maintain that never-diminishing smile with her aged muscles.
‘Come on then, I’ll show you your cabin and you can have a kip or so. Must be rather wrecked after all that journey. Don’t mind not seeing you till next morning, no I don’t. Someone will bring you breakfast then, he will.’ she pauses and winks before continues. ‘You are at home, Ed. Now try not to fall and keep up with me. Hold on to the railings to begin with if that helps. Mind you, I still have the ostrich bounce in me yet. Stagger along then, boy!’
It is only when (Old) Anne starts moving and turns back with a feigned impatient wave the realisation finally dawns on me. On her left is a stretching wooden gunwale and, further left, a few seagulls squawk across the expanse of the staunch blue, which is constantly disturbed by rolling waves and the hitching motions of the ship.
The nausea returns, and I feel the pressing presence of the same arms behind me once again. Lurching forward before I can fall back, I stumble up some steps until my hands can grasp the railings, trying my best not to look left. Anne has stopped for me with the same encouraging smile which conceals her concerns so subtly that to discern it is as difficult as to spot a drop of rain among the piling cumulus clouds in a summer afternoon. Many newcomers are not able to observe it as I do, so I believe.
I give her a reassuring smile then, after a few steps forward along the gunwale. But somehow some urge I cannot resist makes me turn. I see him grin and wave at the exact spot I left him.
‘I’ll see you later then, old skin!’ he shouts.
Watching him from some distance I then realise that he might be of the same age as me, or at most within two years span. Well, of course he is. I walk on.
I wake with cosy darkness snuggling against my sides. Someone must have tucked me in some quilts after I had fallen asleep. I didn’t intend for a long sleep, only supposing it would help to have a short rest and get the rhythms of the ship into my body.
The darkness is not stark and is studded with a myriad of blinking stars as I look out the porthole opposite my top bunk. But I am able to only snatch some of their winks before the door clinks open and all lights are shut out from my eyes.
A few gentle cracks along the cabin floor. A waft of seaweed and salt. How very curious I recognise the smell and the way images and words find each other in my head even though I am yet to understand them more. Ship. Cabin. Bunk.
I sense the climbing motion along the ladder then. Is that the shaking of the bunk or my heart? Breathe in; breathe out; so slow that I think I will suffocate myself doing so.
Brushing away the hair on my forehead he kisses me there. It’s done quite briefly and he goes down to repose in his berth then.
Some time eclipses and relief comes over me when sleep blankets me once more. There’s something puzzling me, something very simple and delicate, yet confusing and wild at the same time. I know I have to figure it out before my time comes.
I release the tensions in the folds of my eyelids then, and dream his name with a careful sigh: Jamie—Anne has said he’s to share the cabin with me.
We become intimate soon after my eyes watered at the next morning rays that seeped through the porthole and he flung open the door with a shark-ish grin and a salver weighed with food.
Round the ship he’s taken me after breakfast: down below the deck where other compartments lay, provisions are stored and other passengers rest; up onto the deck where two masts loom near either the bow or stern with their riggings catching winds and a raised bridge at the stern with a wooden steer turning on its own. There is also a special spot where I can behold the maximum revelation of the figurehead at the prow on either side of the ship. He stands close behind me when I squeal with inexhaustible joy and excitement, watching the Mother-like figurehead prowling along the clasping waves: making sure I don’t fall over the railings accidently, as more than half of my body is leaning across it and my feet rock on the highest niche I can find in the planks.
The nausea was gone when I woke, and we’ve been gallivanting round the ship since then. With nausea is my anxiety towards him dispelled too, or most of it. Or is it lurking among some dark corners in me? Maybe it’s due to the resolution I made last night or maybe it’s due to my newly-gained energy.
There are other people aboard this ship and I have time enough to become acquainted with them. Some boys in groups rummage about the ship with eye-patches strung diagonally across their faces, shouting ‘Retreat. Advance. Treasure!’ One or two old gentlemen will raise their canes like swords and yell: ‘Would you give us a rest?’ while some men scoop up an armful of boys and guffaw: ‘Who’s the dragon? Who’s the dragon, eh?’ A girl, Helen, he tells me her name, is seen more than often to kick and punch the bellies of some unwise boys who dare to scamper near her, declaring triumphantly with a gleam on her face: ‘I am the Queen, get away from me!’ Some women laugh, bending their backs, while others smile.
We all have our moments and we stick to them. Those moments that then become parts of us will preserve the truest sides of us after the dawn of humanity summons us, away from this blissful ship…
‘What’s that look on your face, old skin?’ he asks.
‘What?’ I say, turning left to look at him, my back lolling against the planks.
‘That solemn look you put on when think everyone else’s so blind as not to notice it.’ He says.
‘Was just thinking it’s my second day here and not got many left. How many?’ I count the fingers. ‘Six? Excluding today.’
‘It’s six lifetimes away then.’
‘Think about sunrise and sunset, that’s a circle of life.’
I fall silent, pondering at this notion, adding it to my own philosophy. He seems to sense the operation of the introspective clock ticking inside me, as he does not speak for a while. After a while, maybe he can also sense the explosive insinuation of the clock or maybe the machinery of action inside him eventually whirrs and clanks after a short shutdown, he takes me by my shoulder and asks: ‘Want to see something?’
I nod and shrug and he decides it’s all for the nod, then off we go to find Anne and he tells her where we’re going. She asks me how I am feeling; I answer I am grand, thank you, and she smiles and pats on my shoulders and says I will love where Jamie’s showing me. We scuttle off then and find a boat under the deck.
Climbing down inside the boat we lower it onto the sea along the hull, and with the sun right above us he pats on the side of it, which makes it jiggle shortly and move, settled, ploughing away from its mother ship. A rope— attached at the stern of the boat; connecting the mother and the son— trails behind us like an umbilical cord. My heart shudders as some knowledge becomes more vivid and imminent.
…We arrived at an island that afternoon, and for the next two days we commuted between the island and the ship. Of those two days we’d wake up when the sighing waves greeted the rising sun in her dusky haze, intermingle—as he put it—with other passengers, new and old, while we munched our morning bread as well as our ‘good morning, sir’ and ‘good morning, missis’, and when the sun’d trundled straight above us he’d take my hand and off to the island we’d sail. Well, of course, having politely informed Anne and received a fond pinch on our cheeks. And always, always we’d rock our boat back to the ship as soon as the setting sun frowned upon us with her silent, scarlet fingers of upbraid, shushing us and our sprightly souls…
So I am sitting on my bunk, gazing through the porthole at the glittering stars, with Jamie in his bed, whittling at some piece of wood. I guess we are both trying to remember, to preserve our memories, through the eternities gained by observing the sublime (in my case) and (in his case) by repeating seconds that aren’t lost in the past but merely extend into three directions. Time isn’t liminal then.
…Tomorrow will be a grand day, so I was told: everyone except Anne will sail out in boats to witness something special, something festive. When I asked her why she wouldn’t come with us, she smiled and said she doesn’t need to and that she can see it without seeing it. And that’s that…
‘Do you think I shall spend more time with Anne and less with you?’ I ask, remembering her smile that’s a bit too shadowy than her usual ones.
If whales could laugh I’d bet that his laugh sounds exactly like theirs.
‘What put that notion into your head, as if you haven’t got enough of the likes of them, like “Why does sand always stick to my feet” or “Would you like to walk me back, on the water?” Oh, I remember you asking, all right.’ He says, still laughing.
I am a bit affronted somehow by his joking disapproval of my serious questions then, so I reply nothing, remembering.
…The rope taut enough to direct us back but not so much as to snap. The shimmering water so pure and clear: fish swimming in currents, crabs sidling across rocks, small shadows darting between wavering reefs, dolphins frolicking here and there, sea snakes floating like ribbons of many colours, sharks snapping their jaws, crimson blossoms reddening the blue, and the deep, deep crevice with smirking darkness defying our inquisitive eyes. A few people we met greeting us from left and right, but never from ahead of us: Jason, the outgoing man with blue eyes, sitting with Emily, the kind and sweet woman; Derek the dapper one with Bridgey the dapper-er one; some urchins playing pirates in a crowed boat which Jamie pushed deliberately, setting them squealing like a bunch of parrots. The arching stone above our heads. The shallow water. The island. The faraway wind. Sniggers among the leaves. Fire in the sky. The slightly singed smells of some buds. The mirage of peace…
I look into his deep, green eyes, trying not to seem surprised. I didn’t notice him climbing up the ladder then.
‘I’m going to turn off the light. It’s going to be a festive day tomorrow, it is.’ He says; I can smell his salted breath.
During those moments we hold our gaze while some former uneasiness returns to me. Eventually he leans closer, but I recoil, suppressed between the cool wall and his rasping expiration.
He gives me a sad smile, ruffles my shivering hair with fingers nailed with hurt and something darker, climbs down and, turning off the light, mutters into darkness.
‘It’s going to be a festive day tomorrow.’
Of course I know. The stars seem so dim and damned to me then.
He’s gone now, and I’m alone in our cabin, remembering.
…At dusk, ten scores of boats slid into the currents, equipped with oars, carried to a land where we are born. So we’re told. More boats appeared around us, slithering into the sandy shore where the water is milky white, and there’s a boundary between it and the clean, cerulean sea which now seemed ice-still, like a mirror to which even a butterfly’s touch would see it shattered. There are no waves coming from there; the milky water is smooth like silk…
Sitting in his bunk, I stare into the wall.
…Among chatters and laughter we cheered for each other’s good health with wine or juice we brought with us, and jumped across the boats to join friends, new and old, cavorting in the steady boats in milky water. Then it all began with a sudden plunge of some liquid from the sky onto the land where mountains of broad-leaf trees occupy the inland horizon. The earth and the shore quivered under the impact, quivered and quivered and quivered until we all thought the boats were going to capsize and I thought the sea-mirror’s going to break with all the screams those children made. Then with a plump the shaking ceased. The consummated seed, resembling a coconut, bobbed up beside the boat I was in. A gale blew, water turning red, people rushing back to their boats, a man shouting to some tinkers, ‘Oi, get back to the ship before the current kicks in!’, and he took me by the hand, grinning. Together we jostled back to our boat and already I could feel the churning water beneath my feet sucking us back towards the land where passion-red lava now sprawled…
I wonder if I can bore some holes in the wall with my eyes.
…’You’ll find me there, yeh?’ he said. ‘I know you will.’ sensing my silence, he said, and leant close to me once more. Yet I recoiled again, averting his eyes. He sighed, and, raising my chin, grinned into my panic eyes. ‘You’ll have time enough to know your mind.’ he said, ‘I’ll see you later then, old skin,’ and was gone, leaving me alone in that bouncing boat, the last one to be hauled up aboard the ship…
I pull a blanket of darkness over me then. I think I’ve been staring too hard.
Two days have almost passed and I haven’t gone out since. Anne came in once with a new passenger, introduced me, and tried to include me in their chat. Her shadow lingered by the door before she left; for the first time I felt a resonance of our shadows. The newcomer started to snore above me as soon as she left.
The newcomer has wrinkles over her face and sorrow-grey hair, yet I find she looks younger than I must look now. We don’t talk much apart from her asking me, politely, to retrieve a book for her, from her bag below the porthole, twice a day.
‘So you’re going soon, aren’t you, my love?’ she says when I’m about to pull a blanket of darkness over me again.
‘Yes.’ I say.
‘Well, my best wishes to you.’
‘Thank you,’ I add, ‘enjoy your journey.’
And it’s hours later when she stirs to turn off her bedstead lamp and thinks I’m fast asleep that she mutters to herself.
‘Oh, my poor, lovelorn dove, I really hope you’ll find her there. God bless you, my love, God bless you.’
The next day I stand beside Anne, looking over the sea, the waves and the tear-drops of the sprays.
‘I’ll tell you something, young man,’ she says with a wink, ‘next time you see me, call me Eve.’
‘All right.’ I tell her. Birds start to sing in my ears and I find myself staring at her, her eyes looking up into the sky past and behind me. An outburst of joy quells all my sorrow and distress, and I know I’m coming to him. I saunter across the sky on springy gait and find a crack in the sky that only I can see. Beyond it are the cries and whiff of blood that only I can hear and smell.
Impatiently I plunge into the crack with a great cry of ecstasy and rolling tears of joy. There’s push and pull, howls and hauls in that tunnel of the crack. I glimpse visions of those predecessors huddling in animal skins and close to a fire, of those soldiers with their last looks of dismay glaring for a light in the encroaching darkness, of those politicians with their sneers behind the walls, of those who cry, who laugh, who live and die alone, and the visions that are yet to happen, the snapshots of those visions I forget as soon as I see.
The tunnel gets narrower and I can see its end now…
Then, with a plump I dive into the exit and see his eyes looking at me, dressed in white. He’s not Jamie, I know, but I promise myself at last then: I’ll find you Jamie, and I’ll kiss you there and then.
I look into his eyes of sadness and hope. Then I start to cry.