Tuo bel cielo

August 8, 2010 at 9:30 pm (Skrifa) (, , , )

It is going to rain. Air that is sweet with the darkening sky kisses her bows and she remembers, dreaming, as she is tipped back and forth by ripples of brackish water. Look! Here, under the water line, a scar where a great fish, heaving against an enemy he couldn’t see, has dented her belly. At her stern, white letters spell her name: “Aida”.

A sea bird shits on her deck. He lands and ruffles his feathers, and stares over the water. She provides a good lookout for fishing, but he’d found a newly discarded pile of crab shells in the afternoon and later, a fried dinner that someone had left behind. He’d gorged on potato, on fish skin coated in batter that had been picked from the flesh underneath, bending his neck into the plastic basket with its fluttering red gingham wax paper so comically that a family of people sitting a few tables away had not bothered to shoo him.

He preens – combing each feather. He has all the time in the world.

The wind picks up. It blows a breath of salt from over the cold oceans of the wild North into the bay. Her cabin doors – on springs that have been weakened by salt and water – knock against her stairs. An adult man must bend at the waist to enter, but the seagull has no such trouble. He sees the rain coming to the bay. He’s been inside empty human dwellings before, and this one smells dank and unused. If he sleeps through the storm he will be able to weather it easily.

At first he beds down on the stairs, under the overhang. Once the rain begins, clattering over her glass and washing her deck, wet air sweeps down her stairs and musses his feathers. He shakes droplets from his head and beak. Her slatted cabin doors are open – their maple, varnished many times, glows even in the dim evening sunlight.

She doesn’t feel him enter the cabin; how could she? Her motor pulls her into the water half-an-inch more than she was built to lie. It is a working motor, started with a switch, not with a pull-rope, and was put there when her last motor had rusted so that the blades could no longer move, by a fisherman, who had bought her and restored her. It hangs above the water, a promise, a little menacing, rain water sluicing down its sides.

The seagull turns his head, not side to side, as humans are wont to do, but around: parallel to floor right, perpendicular, parallel left – his eyes aren’t used to the dim light. Nothing moves. He walks forward, this time turning his head on its vertical axis and back again. No, the cubby bathroom is uninteresting. But! There is a table.

He hops onto it, sharpens his beak on one rounded, metal-tipped corner. There isn’t any food in sight. He lies on the table, next to one of her gaping, sleeping eyes, settling his feathers. He sleeps, and dreams with her, peculiar dreams.

“What do you think, baby?”

“Yeah, it’s great. Real great, John.”

“Oh god, I love it when you wear lingerie-”

The girl rolls her eyes, and reaches over him to pour herself another shot of vodka, and she notices (she can’t help noticing) that he has a mole right under the slight overhang of his left nipple. His chest hair is white.

He doesn’t take his eyes from her breasts. She can make all the faces she wants.

“I do everything for you,” he says, breathing wetly into her stomach. She lets him do whatever, and concentrates on the clink of the ice in her glass. She stares out the porthole, glassily, stares at her car in the marina’s parking lot, at the bleached white bones of the docks, not really seeing, until there are hot pink pumps nearly in her face.

She starts, spilling vodka on him.

“Jenny, what the fuck?” he yells.

She scrambles off the bed, breathing. She hides under the table. She sees the hot pink pumps clack down the stairs, come under the swinging cabin doors.

“Oh god,” says her lover, more from disgust than fear. “What?”

Jenny is dragged from her hiding place by the elbow. Her lover’s wife spits in her face, then turns and says, “You’re an idiot, John.” She turns back to Jenny. “Did you even want my goddamn boat named after you?”

“No,”Jenny says. She likes his wife more than she likes him.

The seagull tucks his bill into the other side of his wings. The dreams don’t bother him. Outside, the rain is a sheet, churning the surface of the bay. He is lucky to have found her.

The sun sets sometime during the rain, but the clouds are still weeping violent tears. The seagull is not a night bird but after a few hours he wakes and sets about rummaging for food. There are cupboards, and they are within reach. The upper cupboards are closed, but one on the bottom, next to the floor, has come open.

He tosses aside a box of pancake mix. There is a hole in it, and it spills out over the linoleum floor. Behind that, crackers. These are open. He disembowels the box on the floor. The trash can smells faintly of fish; at the bottom there is a mostly eaten tin of partially rotten sardines, which he eats.

This time he sleeps on the bunk, bare of any sheets. It has only a foam mattress with a plastic green and white striped cover. He did not remember her dreams in his search for something to eat. They have continued in his absence.

He sees a man in sailing shorts, a striped polo shirt. The man’s hair is gold, parted on the side. A small girl clings to his striped kneesocks.

“Daddy?” she says.

“Mmm,” he replies. He is checking the compass.


“Just a minute, girly.”


He ignores her, putting the boat in a higher gear, altering course slightly.



“Can I have some juice?”

“Ask Mommy, sweet pie.”

She turns around, not steady on her feet. She holds to his knees still with one hand. Her cheek is pressed to his thigh.

“Mommy?” she calls, over the spray and the sound of the motor.

A woman comes out of the cabin, hitting her shoulder on the door frame, and exclaiming involuntarily. “Yes?”

“Are you okay, Mommy?”

“I’ll be fine. What is it?”

“Can I have some juice?”

Her mother nods. “In a minute.” She puts her hand on her husband’s shoulder. “How’s she doing?”

“Beautiful,” he says. “What a beaut.” He thumps the wheel affectionately. “Our Aida.”

The little girl is grumpy. “What about me?” she says.

He looks down at her. “She’ll be yours when you’re old enough, goof.”

“Okay, Daddy.”

“And then you can name her whatever you want.”

“No,” says the little girl. “That was a pretty name, the one you said was pretty. I wish that was my name.”

In the morning, the gull suns himself on her deck. The cabin, though it had been safe, was damp. The bay is olive green in the bright sun, but there is some ocean blue mixed with the rich mud, where the clams lie and crabs jerk their limbs, swimming with the current that sweeps in and out with the ocean. At about ten o’clock, the seagull leaves her. She doesn’t notice his departure. He flies out to sea, out to the deep waters, where the storms can kill him, where he must sometimes sleep on the ocean, tossed about like a toy over the waves.


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Competition Piece – Descent

May 2, 2010 at 1:40 am (Skrifa) (, , )

Informal forum writing competition entry.

Prompt (which I took very literally):



At the front of the bowl-shaped crevice, slick with moss, there is a small pebble. I must push it a little to the side, so that it falls. It is rough-surfaced, not smooth. I shift my index finger over, press it against the pebble – which tilts a bit, and doesn’t move. Again. The pebble rolls over once. Again. The pebble falls.

My next task is to wedge my index finger into this crevice. It stretches the tendons in my hands a bit, but I manage. My fingers would shake had I not stuffed them, with great care, into cracks in the rock. The grit on my ruined skin provides traction.

My middle finger will not come out, and I have to move it. If I pull it violently, it will come, but will be useless to me. I guide it left, right, and it is free. About two inches above my index finger is a crack I intend my middle finger to occupy. When I have pushed it into the crack enough to feel the rock biting my bones, I begin to move my third and fourth fingers. There is no space big enough for my thumb.

My left hand is secure. I could hang my entire body from it if my fingers were not pulled from my hand. I do not know whether they would be.

I shake my head, tilt it back on my shoulders. I have no hands free to move my hair from my eyes, so I must wait until the wind takes it.

I set about moving my right foot. The rain gets in my eyes, and I blink them rapidly. I will wait for the wind to change direction. It is rare that I find a gap in the rock big enough to fit my feet, and my right eye does not see clearly; its surface has been damaged by the ends of my hair thrashing against it. I must search for a crack with my foot. My toes are senseless to gentle touch: the meat of them has long since been exposed. I must hit the rock roughly to feel any gaps.

I am lucky. I find a crack big enough to fit my first and second toes. I look up, to my right hand. Gravel hits my forehead. I close my eyes and pull back, instinctively, but thankfully do not dislodge either hand or foot. Above me, the horse paces.

“Leave!” I scream at him. The wind takes the words from my tongue. I spit out gravel.

I pull away from the rock face, now that I know it is safe, and turn my lips to the rain. I manage to catch a few drops.

My right hand is bleeding. I must wait here for the blood to thicken. If I try to move it now, it will be too slick to hold my weight. It is difficult to wait. If I relax, I rely only on the ability of my flesh to remain coherent to save me from plummeting to the water below. I shift some of my weight to my right foot, and inspect my hand. My fingers are mostly hidden in the rock, and so I cannot see anything.

When I remove my middle finger, I find that I have dislodged the fingernail. At first I do not know what to do. My other fingers are suitably situated, and I do not want to free my entire hand; the thought terrifies me.

When first I began my descent, I relied on the strength of my fingers rather than their substance. I am low enough now that the rock is slick with not only rain, but the spray of waves.

I curl my finger under itself, and press my fingernail against the rock. I push it back into place as best as I am able. It is not secure, but if I am careful I will avoid losing it altogether.

I turn my face to the darkened sky. It has not cursed me with a tempest, for which I am grateful. Through the scratches on my right eye shines a warming breath of filtered sunlight, but it is even so too bright, and I close my eyes for a moment, letting the sun warm my cheek.

The thick rain clouds rush in to close the gap, and I turn back to my busywork. Another ten feet, and there is another slight shower of sand and pebbles. Perhaps it is not the horse. It has been so many hours; I have removed his saddle and bridle. He will have left to graze. Perhaps it is a sea bird. Perhaps someone has come to steal the horse’s abandoned tack. They are welcome to it.

I must be careful next I move my left foot. There is a sharp outcropping of rock that will otherwise shear open my bare leg, already so scratched. I am careful, but it is not enough; I am tired and uncoordinated. I slip. A gash opens in my leg.

I wedge my foot in the crack I had intended for it before I look down. When I do, I am unable to see the extent of the cut, but it is very bad.

I take a breath, and I shout at the rock – without any words. A door opens.

A door, in the rock? A doorway, but no door. It is a few feet to my left, and if I am able to reach it, and if it is there, I will be able to sleep.

I take my time reaching it. I cannot make a mistake. It is really there; when I put my hand inside, I feel smoothness. I will not be able to enter the doorway if the rock is entirely smooth; my strength is gone. The sun is setting. I will scrabble uselessly, unable to find a purchase, and fall.

It is entirely smoothed, but I do not fall. The rock itself is porous, and provides some grip. I am able to slowly maneuver myself inside the chamber.

I do not care that the surface is bare rock; I fall asleep immediately, my face where the wall meets the floor, my stomach in a puddle, my toes only inches from the edge.

I dream of the crinkles by her eyes. I dream that I am stuck in a deep pit and cannot climb out, and that someone is pouring water over the lip.

In the middle of dreaming, I discover that I am awake, and sitting at the edge of the doorway. The ocean boils. I hear her wailing and I leap to my feet. A bird wheels over the water, and I am convinced that it will grab her and take her to its young. I must leave. I must find her and save her. I kneel on my savaged knees, begin to lower myself to the rock face.

There is a hand on my shoulder. I stand, and turn, but it turns with me. Little mother, it says. Be calm.

“Too late,” I reply. I turn in the other direction. The hand remains.

Yes, you will die in turmoil.

“As I must!” I say.

As you ought.

“Then I will not be at peace.”

Be calm.

I do not fully wake. I cannot feel my fingers, nor my toes, but they have held me securely. I can feel my wrists and my elbows unknit. My shoulders seem to be stretching, but are perhaps not yet entirely dislocated.

My right eye is swollen shut; I suppose the side of my face hit the stone when I lost consciousness. I pull myself up a bit. The dark rock is warm, heating my face uncomfortably. It is sunny. Morning. The blood on my face is dry. My hair is dry. I look up the cliff, and I cannot see the top. I do not have the strength to climb up. Patches of green moss dot the surface of the rock.

I am calm. I twist around, look out over the choppy sea. There is a steam ship, not far from shore – people walking about on deck. It is a beautiful sight. I look down. I can see no pieces of ivory terrycloth, only boulders bathed in spray and the churning water.

I wrench my hands from their holds and launch myself out into the rocks and the sea. I was right. I can still rescue her. I made a mistake. I will come. Wait for me.

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“Shibboleth”, first part

June 3, 2008 at 3:37 pm (Skrifa) ()

In 1923, I was fortunate enough to be one of five passengers on a private pleasure cruise destined to seek out unexplored tributaries of the Nahr Ad-dindar River in Christian Soudan. We were to depart during the river’s most swollen months, so as not to risk grounding our boat. The organiser of the trip, a man by the name of Alberto Olmedo Maraña,  with whom I had a passing familiarity, owned and maintained a beautiful little dahabeeyah in Khartoum. He habitually wore undyed linen sacque suits, and a Havana hat when it was sunny. He moved slowly, and seemed quite fragile, as is common with very tall men in their old age. He did not smoke, but took a full lowball of dark rum in the early evening, with a glass cocktail stick to swirl the ice and to punctuate his thoughts, which tended to follow his crossed right foot as it made easy circles over the floorboards. Maraña was by origin an Argentine; he had grown up “stuffed into Palermo” as he once told me. Argentines, he said, were Europeans at heart, and who was he to deny the conquering instinct? A man like this, who has no children, no interest in that sort of immortality, seeks to make his mark on the world personally; he is not interested in the praise bestowed on his family name after he is dead.

He might have been a selfish man, but he did not think that denying something to children he did not as yet have selfish. He was in fact, quite gentle, and spared no praise where it was due, but his name was too much his own to share.

I was chosen out of his memory specifically, plucked from the multitudes, to join the expedition, I suppose partly for my vague interest in river biology. I was that rare sort of person who can be vaguely and genuinely interested in such a specific topic without being an expert, and I suppose the definition of exploration is to seek discovery; a company of experts would not suit his purpose at all. The world is discovered afresh through each pair of eyes, as someone once said.

I am typing this in Switzerland in 1995, on a typewriter, because the physicality of the ink ribbon pleases me. It is close to 5 in the evening, and I am drinking a large bottle of Tsing Tao, which tastes like it used to taste when my father drank it. It is the same first bottle of Tsing Tao drunk in 1903. Beer is immortal. It makes us feel young, nostalgic, makes us think that time is a stagnant pool. We can swim here and there, revisiting events as we please. Wine ages, develops, erasing what came before. It is a mortal’s drink, and so I don’t drink wine.

Maraña’s family was sparse. They did not like each other, and did not behave like a Catholic family at all. The only relative he kept in touch with was his niece, a serious woman one year his senior, by the name of Elisabeta Olmedo Martínez. She had received an invitation to the expedition, but declined; her concern was sleeping sickness. “You are used to such climates, Alberto,” she said. “I would succumb to the heavy heat very swiftly.” She did however, accept for her son José María, who was “of a stronger constitution.” Maraña assured her that sleeping sickness would be no problem, as he had plenty of screens and nets on the boat to keep out flies and mosquitoes, but she insisted that Chema would be more suitable for the trip. She was a well-read and modern woman, from what I heard, and so I know of only one reason why she would have used such an excuse, knowing as she must have done the true origin of sleeping sickness.

I am convinced Elisabeta knew what Maraña was planning, and substituted her son purposefully; whether out of love or hatred, I have no idea. Chema was happy to be with us. He was a gentle man, nervous and cheerful, very awkward around women, thus unmarried and using his youthful nickname at the age of thirty. He kept his distance from me; when he saw me approaching a kind of discomfort clouded his brow and he hastily extinguished his cigarette, made an excuse to leave the conversation, and sought his room. Maraña assured me it was nerves; his relative was simply not used to the company of young women.

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