Becalmed

A ship sails in the darkness. Only three people are aboard. The captain stands on the deck, watching the stars’ reflection in the calm waters that lie beyond the ripples that the ships rocking movement is creating. She sends an arm out, wishing she could touch them – the reflections, not the stars. The stars are too far away. They’re intangible and require faith. The little specks on the water, however, are as real to the captain as the silver streaks that she sees during the day and knows to be fish.

Her first mate lies stretched out in her cabin below. It is not her watch yet. The captain will wake her when she’s needed, she has no doubt about that. But she cannot sleep, even though it’s almost impossible, making a ship work smoothly with only a captain to guide her and a half-mad, broken-down sailor to aid her. She worries about the following day and wonders whether the winds will finally rise and help them. She’s heard horror stories before about becalmed ships, but she never thought that it would be so incredibly frightening to be on one. The absence of any certainty is eating away at her: she knows not when the winds will rise, she knows not when she will see land again, she knows not whether she will live to touch her loved ones again. There is enough food to last a while, but the water has begun to seem a lot less plentiful than it had a week ago when the winds disappeared.

The lone sailor, a simpleton to begin with and driven almost out of her wits by the plague that destroyed the rest of the once large crew, rocks back and forth in her hammock in the large, empty room that she shared, until two weeks ago, with many others. The ropes creak comfortingly and she hums their notes as she swings, trying to lull herself into comfort. She has had no joy beyond the wooden planks of this ship; it is the one and only place she has ever found camaraderie. It’s almost all gone now, and she clings to the memories of what she had and tries to forget the sight of her fellow sailors in their death throes.

The wind doesn’t pick up. There is no hope yet for the three aboard the ship. But all three are human, and so they cannot help hoping anyway.

Foghorn

Jack stood on the edge of the cliff, his hands clasped firmly around the thin metal rails that were all that separated him from the fifty foot fall down a hard rocky edge into the raging iron-gray sea below. He gazed out, refusing to look down at the turmoil of waves, spray and jagged rock beneath him. In the distance, a small off-white spot was most likely a cruise ship. Jack watched its slow progress along the horizon and wondered what was happening on the massive hotel-boat, if indeed it was a cruise. He thought enviously of the warmed dining rooms with tables spread in white and set with silver, the sumptuous smells that rose from platters of roasted duck, tureens of gravy and baskets of freshly baked bread. He pictured the heated pool on the seventh floor where children would swim, bouncing a beach ball between them, giggling and watching the storm raging outside the porthole set underwater for their enjoyment. Most of all, he yearned for one of the comfy cots piled with blankets in cabins warmed by central heating and pillows changed and plumped once a day by pretty maids.

The knuckles of his hands were white with pressure when he finally looked down at them. He focused solely on them, ignoring the flashes of dark blue and gray beneath that were blurry and inviting at the edges of his eyes. Slowly, deliberately, he forced his palms to loosen their grip. It took a full minute to pry them loose, but when he did, he turned the usually-white palms towards him and saw that the itching he’d been feeling was due to the rusting flecks that came loose from the rail. It’s rusty, it’s no good, it’s not even a real rail, not really, he thought, words tumbling themselves into a panic so that it seemed as if neon lights lit up his mind with NO GOOD and RUSTY and NOT REAL.

As if the sea were a magnet and his eyes were metallic orbs; as if the sea was a hypnotist and Jack a willing supplicant; as if the sea was a naked woman and Jack was fourteen again, he had to look. He fought the urge and closed his eyes, but they snapped open again, and he watched, mouth stretched wide in a silent scream. The water looked like a violent creature, surging and jumping to reach him but never succeeding. The distance between Jack and his nemesis grew and shrank, his eyes playing tricks on him so that one moment the cliff seemed to rise into the clouds and the next sank like Atlantis into the beckoning ocean.

Pressure fell on Jack’s shoulders. A body, warmer and less wet than his, clung to him. “Come inside, Jack,” a voice murmured. “Stop torturing yourself and come inside. The foghorn’s been going all morning and soon you won’t be able to see your way home.” Jack nodded mutely, his eyes still fixed. A finger turned his chin away, until finally his eyes, strain as they would, couldn’t find the water. He realized suddenly how very drenched and cold he was, how foggy his surroundings were. He realized that the rain was pounding him less because a bent umbrella was being held over his head by a woman. Her eyes crinkled in a smile that was impossible to see because her face was wrapped almost entirely in a hand-knitted scarf.

Jack took a deep, shaky breath and bravely smiled back. He allowed her to take his hand and lead him away from the edge of the cliff.

Seeing The Milky Way

I was ten when my family and I took a trip to the Sinai Desert in Egypt. We drove down all night long and arrived in the morning. We hadn’t booked a hotel, since we weren’t planning on sleeping in a big resort on the beaches of the Red Sea. No, we preferred to find one of the small groups of huts to rent out – “chushot” as they’re called – and rent ourselves a couple of huts for the week we were planning on staying.

We found the most perfect spot. A man who had just started up his hut rental spot was glad to welcome us as his first customers. He was a chef and had studied in France and so despite our protests he cooked a couple of serious meals while we were there. The huts were rudimentary, but then that’s what we’d wanted – there were a couple of sandy mattresses and thin blankets in each hut, and the windows were just shutters which we threw wide open during the night, trying to will a breeze to enter the stifling rooms. The only time we ever spent in those huts was at night, to sleep. During the rest of our days and evenings, we enjoyed our secluded and empty beach – no one in sight except for us and the manager’s friends who visited him from Nueba, the nearest city. We snorkeled, saw exotic fish and beautiful coral reefs. We lay in the sun, we played backgammon, we walked around the markets of Nueba – it was the most restful and idle vacation I’d ever been on, and I haven’t been on a similar one since.

The trip is a blur to me, the memories all fading into each other and forming a short montage of what we’d done during that week. However, one night stands out crystal clear in my memory.

The moon rises not from the sea, but from the mountains in Sinai, and so it seems to rise very late because it takes it so long to rise above the mountains and be visible. One night, the full moon, it rose very late. Until it rose, the sky was this vast and endless velvet blanket above us, sprinkled with a million stars, all twinkling brightly. We were so far away from the big hotels and from the city that when we extinguished the lamps we had, we could see the stars perfectly. We could have counted them one by one if we’d wishes. I felt so small, so insignificant that night, because I saw The Milky Way – that ribbon of stars that is the basis of our galaxy’s name. It was so plain and easy to see – right there, above me, a river of stars so dense they seemed like a long white cloth spread across the heavens. I’d never felt or seen the full scope of the sky like that before.

It was, to say the least, overwhelming. But there is something wonderful in looking up and seeing how big the world really is and how small and insignificant your life is. There’s a sort of relief to it.