Waiting for the Winds
by Thomas Lee Joseph Smith
The room was almost dark; almost quiet. Joseph Rack woke and then opened his eyes. There was a candle’s worth of light in the room; the light having snuck into the room by parts: one-third from the window, one-third from the door, the rest from the open companionway over his head.
And there was enough sound in the room for Joseph to picture five lazy hornets arguing slowly, their dispute a minor one... except... the deep growling buzzes did not originate with insects. The five rasping, snarling, sting-less centers of sound were actually five separate men making their slumber noises. All of them were snoring. All of them were still abed in their canvas hammocks.
And other noises tried on the room for size. Tiny noises. By custom, those noises articled to sleepy ships slowly awakening. Small noises drifting in through the thick timbers and the slightly open door. There was the sound of a rope being smacked against the rung of a ladder. There was the sound of the night watch descending to the ship’s innards. Far above someone was tossing pieces of coal into a stove, the coal bouncing softly off the stove’s iron plates.
Now, with his eyes full-accustomed to the gentle morning... now what caught Joseph’s attention was the lack of motion. Nothing ever moved. Nothing ever seemed to move. Joseph’s eyes longed for movement. Any movement. He always expected to see the dozen hammocks in front of him moving gently. Expected to see all of them rocking back and forth. Rocking like so many bright brass weights on the long metal stems of so many dark clocks. He wanted to see the round window next to him swing up against the hull and then swing back again. He wanted to see it swing gently back, to stop only when the thin line restraining its motion slipped past its short length and snapped tight and straight.
He also wanted the lantern overhead to start making little circles. And the lack of its motion was as strange to him... as strange to him... as it would be to men in their soil-standing houses... if while they were dwelling on the land, they woke and found their displayed dishes unaccountably rolling around. Rolling perpetually left and right in their curio cabinets. The delicate dishes... pacing now... back and forth... like new prisoners.
Joseph wished there was motion. But everything held its ground.
Joseph kicked his legs over the edge of his canvas cocoon, and his feet found the deck and he stood up. He was already dressed. A big shirt with big sleeves. Stripes on the shirt. Just like the stripes of, ‘Where’s Waldo’, only, Joseph was a big man.
As he passed the loudest of the snoring men, Joseph bumped his shoulder against the man’s back. The man grunted and then began snoring even louder.
Joseph walked forward and entered a much bigger area.
There was a table and a wide set of stairs. In the middle of the room, there was the plunging stub of the mainmast, as it came through the room from above. It went down through this room. Down into the floor. Ending mysteriously below him... further... further... further inside the big ship.
Some of the crew were in the main room already. One man was playing a harmonica; playing a tune that started going somewhere, then looped back, and started again. And it did this over and over. There were a half a dozen sailors in the room, and not one of them liked that song.
The stairs had an inhabitant. The man they called the Spaniard. He was sitting on one of the wide planks and in front of him were pieces of fat rope. He was examining the pieces, looking for openings in the lay. Looking for strands to separate and blend. Looking for seams to touch and cure. Seams to touch with the short, pointed spike he held in his left hand.
When things were calm on a ship: there were always nets to mend, caulking to hammer into cracks, ropes to repair. The Spaniard wasn’t one to waste time. He knew how to boil out a bad kick; how to twist one single strand into a strong grommet. How to make an almost new rope from a pile of skeins and bones.
He held the spike and looked carefully at the rope. Every rope he’d ever seen was either ‘left lay’ or ‘right lay’. The rope he had in his hand was different. The rope was indivisible. The Spaniard scratched his grey beard and frowned. After a minute he put down the rope... and put down the spike... and he got up off the stairs... and he walked over to the table and sat down.
The cook was putting items on the table. The cook put six big platters on the table and Joseph walked over and looked at the fare. He didn’t sit down. He’d try to eat something later. The food always looked so wonderful... and filling... but Joseph knew from experience, that there’d be no aroma, no texture, and no taste. Even the evening ale was golden... but tasted like water.
He walked up the steps, careful to avoid the Spaniard’s pile of rope.
As he emerged from the ship’s innards he had to squint his eyes against the bright light. He looked aft and saw Riley and then looked forward and saw the captain, and Mr. Pottowee, and the lad they called Binks.
Joseph walked forward.
“Breakfast up?” the captain asked.
“Aye, sir.” said Joseph.
Binks, and Mr. Pottowee, and the captain, walked past him; heading for the stairs.
Joseph went to the starboard rail and looked out at the sea. Everything was so predictable, so regular, and so deliberate. He could have counted the waves. So... another day, he thought. Another day like the last one. And the one before that. And the one before that.
He looked up in the rigging and saw nothing but problems. Like... where were the foot-ropes...? There weren’t any! How was a sheet monkey supposed to furl sail, if he had nowhere to stand? And there was a line running from the top of the foremast, to the top of the mainmast, and it ran to the top of the mizzenmast. What the hell was that for...? The next breeze, assuming there’d ever be another breeze... the next breeze, would snap that rope like a thread-y cinch. Joseph looked for a while at the tangle over him, and then he shook his head, and turned to look port side.
Port side was actually haunted. That’s what they all said. Things seen there... kept the crew... mainly below.
He was staring over the port railing, staring at the horizon, and he saw: no clouds, no ships, no land, nor any fish, nor any fowl. Nor did he see a future... or a past. Nor did he see a purpose... or even a particular lack of purpose. Things just were.
That’s what he saw if he looked casually. But they all could see behind the first formed face. They all could see patterns of weird shadows. They tried never to talk about it but they all lived with the knowledge. He could see these things even now. Strange indistinct things. Things that resembled great fields of dreary brown... and lusterless white... and also behind the strict haze there were dots of silver and strands of dark bands, and in front of all, the soft filter of a world seen in parts.
And on those nights... on some nights... when they were all below... soft silver song would whisper at them through the sea. And they would climb up and hold open the hatch and peer out... with cat-bright eyes. And they would see the red damask veils, dancing in slow patterns with gold lamé partners... just like the Northern lights... only stronger and so very warm.
He started to turn from the rail... and then he saw it. If the light had been different, or his head hadn’t moved through the particular arc it followed, or if his eyes weren’t still a little squinted from just having looked at the white sails, ifs and ifs and ifs... but all those things were bound together in that instant... and so he saw the floating thing and he paused.
Above his head, and ten feet out from the rail, there was a line floating in the air. It looked like a single straight strand of white silk... maybe six inches long, and it sat there motionless. At first he thought it might be a spider’s web or a comet’s tail. He remembered being told about comets, that some of the bright comets are even visible in the daytime. But this wasn’t nearly that far away. When he moved his head left or right... the line shifted with him.
He looked astern... intending at first to call Riley, but he didn’t actually like Riley, so he left Riley alone.
Joseph Rack walked forward. There were planks lashed onto the forward hatch, and he untied one of the long pieces of wood, and he retraced his steps back to the streak. He leaned against the rail and extended his arm and the plank, and to his great surprise, the wood touched the sky. The sky made a sound; somewhere between a clink and a thud.
He dropped the long pole and it fell into the water and bounced. Bounced on the blue surface. And the pole came to rest, one end sitting on the water, and the other end resting against the sky.
“RILEY!” he screamed.
Riley stepped around the aft superstructure and with one hand on the taffrail he looked at Joseph. “Whadda’ ya want?” he asked.
“Get ’em. Get everybody. Tell ’em something’s wrong.”
They tossed down a net. It hung from the rail, and at the lower end; sat on the sea. They climbed down. They walked away from the ship. Everyone but Mr. Pottowee. Mr. Pottowee would stand on the ocean, but he would not walk on it. That was reserved for the Galilean.
Mr. Pottowee stood on the crest of a wave and kept one hand resting on the hull. The others walked forward. At last in front of them was a clear barrier. The captain had his hand on young Bink’s shoulder. The Spaniard was tapping the curved glass with his rope-handled knife. They all were startled and stepped back when one great shadow filled the curving sky.
They all cringed when they heard the sound. The sound boomed so loudly it shook the ship... rattled the rigging... almost cracked the plaster sea. It sounded like a god entering their world. Only, the voice was so very young.
* * *
“HEY MOM! COME QUICK! HOLY MICROSCOPES... YOU’VE GOT TO SEE THIS...”
“WHERE ARE YOU?” she called.
“I’M IN THE DEN! BY THE MANTEL! COME LOOK AT THE SHIP...! THE ONE IN THE BOTTLE.”
Copyright © 2004 by Thomas Lee Joseph Smith