Story contains descriptions of cannibalism, nudity and sex, and dangerous weather. Just FYI.
With wind in our sails we swept through seas’ endless foam, the formant of the trough, the sharp cry of eagles at our backs, the distant land of the bayou behind the fog bank. We were obscured at last.
Then night fell, and none of us could see a thing, not in that pitch. The roll of the deck, the flight of sail cloth as it shimmered in the glimmering wind atop in the mast, the direction-less stars lending no design to our ultimate destination. We sank and fell as we crossed dune after endless dune of black murky wet webbing. We were motionless. We drank sea air through holes in our clothes, and our hair grew salty, our skin cracked like ashes on a burning log.
We were cast adrift.
Five of us. Men, except for Alice. China, Archibald, Neumann, and me, Pie. And Alice.
We all shared her, like she shared us. Moments of camaraderie broken with instances of intimacy, silent undulations underscoring the twofold lovers, sometimes Neumann, sometimes Pie, sometimes it was Alice and me, our bodies molding into one, as the others looked on, or out, over the ocean, looking for land. The intervals were short.
Alice was always silent during, and the only sound, other than the flapping and the cracks of tar-shorn Viking timber, was hardened breathing.
We went like this for days. The sun always shone. The clouds always moved in a southwesterly direction above us, following the byways of some interspatial coded map, a heavenly causeway broken with wisps and tendrils of faint white. Blue longer than the eye could hold a steady gaze.
We didn’t talk much. There was never much conversation between us on land, but out here, under the ocean of the sky, atop of the empire of the fish and crabs, we were all waiting, holding silence for answers to questions we dared not ask. Our human skin was too fragile for those answers.
So we sailed on, our topmast holding, prevailing against stronger gusts, the sun going like a bicycle wheel across the concrete horizon, echoing with blistering pins upon the frolic of the sea water. Day fell into a black night, and we slept sprawled out on canvas and plastic, wrapped into netting to keep warm. We’d sometimes huddle, our bodies together once again in communal energy, Alice in the center, our backs and stomachs bulwarks from fear. From night, back into morning that grew light, not gradually, but in an instant, seemingly from the hand of God into the sky. Light, bright and warm, and we rode the day through, and sometimes Alice, until evening fell again.
After a while, Neumann started crying. Great tears. Silent but for a gentle sob and the sniffling, salty skin absorbed the tears, and China ventured a hand to Neumann’s shoulder. His eyes were great and red and puffy, but in the dead calm center, a wilted blue, clear and piercing.
He said he could not see. Waving our hands about his face produced no reaction.
Later we fed him, and he sat by himself through the day, not venturing to the center of the boat, but trailing his hand over the edge into the water, he hung across it like a beached Christ, head hanging low, hair slung about his shoulders, and staring with those clear, dead eyes, into the depths.
I estimated our time upon the water at thirty days. China and Archibald thought it had been longer, but Alice, perhaps more aligned and knowing with her biology and sex, put us at no more than twenty-two days. We had forgotten to keep count. Neumann did not offer his estimate.
Food was running low. We gave ourselves five, six days left with the biscuits in plastic sealed containers, and bottled water for ten days, maybe less. Days were hot, the sun drying us out, and we had already gone so long without seeing land.
We made love less. Our spirits weren’t in it, and Alice said she was menstruating. I put it to a vote, and we agreed to give her an extra ration of water for three days. It was all we could spare. She protested, and refused to drink the extra portion allotted her. Neumann also did not drink, and threw his biscuit overboard. Archibald nearly throttled him; it took China and I all our diminished strength to wrench him away, the boat tipping and rolling against the flurry of action. Our bodies made warmer by the heat of some kind of battle.
That night, Archibald took Alice and laid into her, flesh slapping against flesh until she cried out. Archibald slumped over her for a moment, as if stung by some guilty thought, then withdrew, and faced away from all of us, fingers stretched out and touching the interior of the boat shell. He fell asleep that way.
Alice cried, curled in a fetal ball, body shaking with sobs.
I fell asleep with Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique awash in my brain, the percussive music deviling the lovely silence.
That night, Neumann expired. When we rose, it was light, golden beams casting shadows in the boat. Neumann was slumped over and his face had the crinkled age of a much older man. His beard had grown salty brown, streaks of white and gray ash, giving his face the appearance of moths, or a deserted circus tent.
China and I conferred together over the body. Alice and Archibald had retreated to opposite ends of the craft and were staring mindlessly. China wanted to pitch the body, but I suggested wrapping him in one of the canvas tarps. To what end, China wanted to know, and I told him that I didn’t know, it just seemed more decent than dumping the body into the drink. But what I really thought I didn’t say. I was thinking about food.
In the end, China’s suggestion prevailed. We stripped off his clothes. China tied an iron sledge head to Neumann’s torso. Archibald and Alice stood apart, watching. I said a prayer as and then China and Archibald and I lifted Neumann’s slight frame, tilted it sideways, and let him slip over the edge. He floated for a moment, and I was concerned the iron was not heavy enough. But a moment later the body sank into the murk, little eddies disappearing as the great sea pushed on.
For the next few days, things were better. Archibald and Alice were still not talking, but our food and water needs had lessened. China and I invented a game, we called Nation. We began with A. Whoever could name the last country beginning with that letter would win. At first, China suggested the stakes be a hundred bucks when we returned to commerce, but I was feeling monstrous. I told him the stakes needed to be more personal, more immediate. We decided to play for an extra bit of water, to come from the other’s ration.
In this way, we would progress through the globe, conquering as our memories and geography lessons would allow. We offered to let Alice and Archibald play, but they declined in silence.
Our appetites grew, and grew fierce. We were squabbling over food now, and our water supply had dwindled alarmingly. We discovered a hole in one of the bladders and set to blaming each other.
In the afternoon, China and Alice made love, and then as Archibald looked on, I joined them. Together we plundered each other’s bodies with pirates’ abandon, fiercely, cruelly, and even sweetly, returning kisses and half-meant touches, as above in the clouds a gray light grew.
The first lightning strike stopped our carouse. We disentangled our limbs. I heard Archibald mutter something under his breath, and he scowled as he looked at us rising and returning to our tattered clothes.
China and I removed the sail, while Alice covered our store with the canvas. Then we sat. We waited as the wind rose. The air grew chilly, and the day darkened into a brown muck. Upon the horizon, flashes broke from sky to strike upon the water.
The storm brought out fear, and from fear anger rose. Voices raised, shouting became clamor, and the wind strove to drown it, the sound of our fighting. Nature prevailed. The sea rose, and the lightning fell, and despite the uncertainty in the clouds, it did not rain. We were not to be blessed with new water.
But our boat was a marble upon a rock. We bounced, sure our fates were to be spent bounding from high sea mount to low trough. In the chaos, we seemed to shrink. The maelstrom made us smaller.
A wave washed China away. He hung on like a stunt worker but the twisting vessel broke him and he sailed into the crush, smashing through the wall of water that rose above us. His body was utterly insignificant next to that wave. The water came upon us in an instant, dashing us and splintering the mast. We hung on to the gunwales, nearly gone ourselves. China had disappeared without a sound.
When we awoke, we discovered our food had been washed away. I calculated three days’ water for each of us. Alice and Archibald took the news in silence, but later I heard Archibald laughing to himself, his body almost wracked with some humor only alive inside his head.
Alice came to me that night. Archibald was watching, lying with his head propped against the edge. He squinted as she slipped the tatters off her shoulders, shrugging off her cut off pants. She stood naked facing me, her back to Archibald, and she slid her hands over my body. Alice took control that night, and I let her move above me. I simply watched, the small of her belly, now wistfully thin, moving almost in an echo of the boat sway. Her skin was stretched, hair strung loose and white with salt crystals.
I felt nothing.
When she was finished, she fell asleep next to me and I covered her with her broken rags, and I looked over at Archibald. He grinned at me, then turned his head aside. I sank back down.
The next morning I saw Alice standing over Archibald. She had donned her shirt, which was already worn through with corrosion, but her bare buttocks and spindly legs balanced against the swells that came and went. I watched a moment, and realized Archibald was still sleeping. I slipped back down, my head lying in the indentation of some roll of netting, and settled back into sleep.
What seemed moments later, but was really much more than that, I awoke suddenly with the vague sensation of something sitting upon my chest, a heavy darkness that prevented me from moving for several moments, though I could sense the motion of the ship and felt the concave mold of the ship, where my body was lying. I yelped, pulling myself out with a will and effort to combat the paralytic muscles that bound me. I could move again.
I smelled smoke, and above the lapping of water against the hull I heard a crackle, sharp and bright in the air, and the smell of cooking meat. I drew my breath in through my nostrils, savoring it, imagining it to be a succulent sausage, for that was what my atrophied brain had kept hold of, somewhere in the dark webbing of neurotic synapses. That sharp tang of pork, the slavering bristle of heat on animal flesh. I wanted to cry, it smelled too much of home.
I looked over. Alice, hovering over a metal pan, squatting, coarse cloth hanging down in front obscuring her inevitable pudenda, and I was shocked at how much of a skeleton she looked, striated ribs like keys on a piano emerging from beyond her skin to protrusions of want. The striations were a sick parody of the joy of repetition, as if revealing them over time produced some inner beauty of the human form. She did not see me gazing at her.
I could not tell while I was lying, but as I rose up on stiff arms, the sound of the cooking changed, and I saw Alice lift a strip of well-cooked meat in the air, blowing upon it. As she did so she saw me and the look changed from contented anticipation to sharp repulsion, or suspicion, as if I was a thief and she a well-dressed courtier.
It was then that I saw Archibald, his head lolling to the side, blank expression, and his torso a mess where Alice had carved into him. With what, I could not guess, as we had no knives. Blood was every where. It had seeped into the wood and even now had darkened and formed a skin, as if it were milk being heated. Her face relented, and she nodded, pulling me over toward the pan and the frying slivers of Archibald.
Alice did not say anything, but offered the piece to me in conciliation. I looked at Archibald’s dead form again, but he looked less human now than even a minute before. Now he was a shapeless bulk of cargo, as if dropped from the sky, and the vaguely humanoid form had taken on a lumpy appearance. It was no longer even the shell of a person; it was simply a mound, a natural resource to be used for our survival. Alice had chosen Archibald, and he had gone without a sound, while I slept, while I dreamed.
I took the piece of meat from Alice’s hand, the meat warm but not hot, and its texture was strangely fibrous, loose, like I imagined a cow’s tongue might be. It flopped, a slice of bacon, and I sniffed it. The unmistakable scent of pork. Was this what we were? Were we simply another kind of barnyard animal, moving and floating about on this endless sea? Were we food in some others’ larder? Fodder for some others’ feast?
I took the slice in my mouth, savoring its woody, almost gamy entrance upon my tongue. I had tasted it before, in smaller doses, in hundreds of dishes, but those had always been close-ups of a painting by Seurat. Now I was engaged with the whole piece, the taste pure in my mouth, and I was able to take in the entirety of the flavor, its ramifications, its intentions. Archibald was not magnificent, not like a work that survives after centuries and eons. But the taste of him, in that one moment, was like the rush of sentiment and cultured sense of identity when one gazes upon great art, and for a moment, is joined with it.
Alice and I ate in silence, and when we were full, we wrapped up the remaining portions in the canvas that had been our only warmth.
“I loved him,” she said to me later. We had moved him to behind the shill boxes, now empty except for straw, and cracking from the weather. Now we were lying amidships. We were wearing nothing now except a sash around her left shoulder, between her breasts and up the fine blond hairs of her back, and me, a slip of cloth over my mentula. I held her hand up and we felt the wind, and the scent of the sea covering the aroma of our meal, which we had taken care not to gorge down. We were spare, if nothing, and comfortable in eating just enough.
“What will happen to us?” I asked her. “When we land, I mean.”
“I don’t know if I want to land anymore,” she said. “Where would we go? What is left for us?”
“I think we’re all that really matter now. What’s back on land is not real. It’s just the big fading blue horizon and us that is real. All that and nothing else.”
I still had my love, my connection to the land, the nostalgia of breathing salt-free and inside, away from the wind. I wanted still the feel of fabric not tortured. I wanted to sleep in a bed. I wanted the feel of a woman around me, or a man. Skin. Any human contact.
This. This was not what I wanted.
And I knew that when we were through with Archibald, we would no longer just be two people on the ocean. It was one for the sake of the other.
I held Alice’s hand, squeezed it tightly and we both looked up into the blue where there were no more clouds.