The match flared up, illuminating the man’s features, then arced brightly into the waves. The man drew on his pipe, the only thing he had saved before boarding the empty lifeboat. He counted it a miracle that the matches and the tobacco had stayed dry. The remnants of his ship – and his shipmates – floated on the burning sea. He felt nothing. He wasn’t terribly surprised that he felt nothing, not even as parts of those he would have called “friend” just hours before floated by, still recognizable, still with names. They wouldn’t have names for long. The Moon rose over the devastation left by the torpedo. He sighed, and settled in. The waves made a steady, soft slap on the small boat. It was soothing, in spite of the debris, the burning and the bodies.
He noted the glint of the moonlight on the sea. Its beauty. The scudding clouds. The halo around the full Moon. The horizon was so brightly lit by Moon and by oil fire that it almost resembled day. That was what had made the night so dangerous. That damned Moon. But he still couldn’t feel any horror, or sadness. He felt only the uselessness of it all. The war hadn’t been his idea, after all. He was every bit as content being alone here under the moonlight, in a small boat with no one else around. And it was no more dangerous than when he had been on a big warship. He liked it better, in fact. He never had liked the intrusion of the other men, at close quarters, onto his thoughts. He got along with them okay. He had tried to save them. But it had all happened so quickly and the next thing he knew he had found himself alone in a lifeboat, stepping almost lightly into it once he knew he was completely alone. But he didn’t need the other men. He only needed the sea. That and his tobacco. And his own thoughts.
A small splash caught his attention. It was out of sequence with the steady slap of the waves against the hull of the lifeboat. A fish, he thought, and turned to glance over his shoulder. But there was nothing there. He turned back to gaze out across the water. Maybe a signal had gone out. Maybe a convoy would arrive and pick him up. He almost didn’t care.
I must have been hit in the head, he thought. I can hear someone singing.
He noticed a patch of long seaweed floating near the lifeboat. It was almost like hair, darkly snaking and undulating in the sea, with every motion of the waves. As he watched it moved under the boat, then quickly disappeared. He thought he saw a fish tail as well, following the seaweed. Must be some sort of fish that feeds on kelp, he said to himself.
A thump on the side of the boat and this time he startled. He spun around in the boat, nearly dropping his pipe. A woman was gazing at him from the side of the boat. Her small hands clutched the gunwales and her hair was long and wet and stuck to her shoulders. The rest of her was in the water. What was a woman doing all the way out here? Where had she come from? Was there a boat nearby? He looked around, but saw nothing except the burning oil and the detritus and the bodies.
The woman opened her mouth and sang. The song was strange, lovely and soft, but as if a dolphin had learned to sing, not a human woman. Her voice went deep inside of him, touched the areas around his heart, tenderly, feeling its contours, as if taking its measure. She sang for some time, then held out a small, perfect shell. He took the shell and held it to his ear. It was just an ordinary shell, but for a second he felt as he had when, as a child, he had listened to what the grown-ups said was the faraway sea. In place of the sea, though, he thought he could hear the echoes of home, the voices of his parents and siblings. He longed for the warmth and light of home, was sick with longing. And he wept, thinking of all the wonders he had lost sight and sense of since.
When he looked up again she was still looking at him. Silently she slipped back into the waters. He threw himself at the side of the boat and reached into the water. She was still looking up at him from below the boat. He could see her full tail and naked body. He longed for her, needed her, wanted to cling to her beauty and the miracle of her, needed to hear her song again. But she sank further and further out of view, into the cold, dark sea. Desperately he picked up the oars and began to pull at them. Where was she? He pulled and pulled, searching all over the surface of the sea. But she was gone. The sea was a calm mirror now, reflecting only his own image back to him as the horizon began to warm and brighten. He held the shell to his ear and heard the song again. And he pulled at the oars toward the rosy horizon and the form of a ship appeared on that line between the dark sea and the dawn. And her song followed him all the way to the light.
Erica Chappuis is an artist who lives and works on an island between two countries. Her artist’s book illustrating Subcomandante Marcos’ story, The Cave of Desire, is in the collection of the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington D.C., and also in the Museum of Erotic Art in Barcelona, Spain and the Kinsey Institute in Bloomington, Indiana, USA.
The Ekphrastic Review
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