The Smell of Land
by Clark Zlotchew
Ed Perdue was glad to be going, to be getting away. Brooklyn in January 1958 was cold, too cold. The Navy Yard was its usual bleak self of concrete and steel, but on that day it was all locked in a freezer.
In his heavy wool uniform and pea coat, Ed shivered as he trudged toward the destroyer-escort Rizzi. He climbed the gangway, duffle bag slung over his shoulder, and saw the ice on the railings, ice on the steel decks, ice on the radar. The ship — cold gray steel — was encased in ice. His heart contracted with the sight of it. He consoled himself with the thought that in a few days he would be warm enough. He would be in the tropics under a blazing sun, among palm trees and sultry beauties. And there wouldn’t be any complications, like the kind he suffered through with her, with Terri.
They had been married for more than two years, after dating for only six weeks. She had told him she couldn’t stand the long absences when he was away; she was lonely, and wanted to be free to find someone “more stable.” He suspected she had already found this more stable person while Ed was at sea.
* * *
They cast off the following morning. The Rizzi slipped away from the dock and into the channel, entered the East River and sailed close by the stately towers of lower Manhattan. Those soaring skyscrapers of Manhattan to starboard and the crouching structures of Brooklyn off the port side were cold, solid monuments in a gigantic cemetery. The vessel slipped under the graceful steel-towered Manhattan Bridge which gleamed icily as it passed over the mast, seemingly low enough to snap it off. Then the massive stone towers of the Brooklyn Bridge flew over the mast, like an airborne cathedral with its gothic arches threatening to collapse and crush the frail craft.
They steamed past Governor’s Island and into Upper New York Bay. The ship passed from the frozen womb of a dead world, through the narrow passage between Brooklyn and Staten Island, pushed through the Lower Bay and was thrust into the vast Atlantic waste where the turbulent waters heaved mightily and the wild, icy winds howled in his ears.
* * *
On the third day of sailing south, the January sky was blue with occasional white cirrus clouds high above the vessel. The sun was strong. Ed Perdue leaned on the rail and allowed his lulled mind to drift, but it drifted to Terri, back in frigid New Jersey. Ah, to hell with her, he decided. Forget her. And to hell with love. From now on, no more sentimental crap. Too damn complicated. Just pure pleasure from now on. No more complications for me. Right, no more complications.
* * *
That evening, the crew’s sleeping quarters were in darkness except for the dim red lamps installed at regular intervals. Lying in his rack, Ed stared at the eerily-glowing red lights, which as he closed his eyes and descended into the misty realm of dreams, became...
Flaming torches affixed at intervals to the rocky walls of a cavern. All is in darkness except for those torches, whose flickering flames cast shadows that shift on the stone floor in a disturbing dance. Ed walks and walks in slow motion until he comes to a narrow tunnel. He squats and now, in total darkness, begins to grope his way through the damp, cramped passage.
He cannot remember what he is seeking but feels it is something important and that he must reach his goal in time... But what goal? In time for what? He cannot remember but is sure it is vastly important.
He walks and crawls, blindly feeling his way through the uneven tunnel and, just as he is about to despair of ever emerging from this dank, seemingly infinite tunnel, he glimpses shifting light at the end of it. He struggles toward it with greater urgency, though still in frustratingly slow motion.
Finally, he emerges from the tunnel and finds himself in a spacious chamber, the walls and floor of which are paved with huge blocks of sandstone. Here, too, torches are affixed to the walls. He sees, at the other end of the vast chamber, an enormous statue of a beautiful goddess. He sees it for the first time in his life, yet he senses it is somehow familiar to him. He feels its meaning lurks somewhere in his mist-enshrouded memory.
The gleaming idol is of gold and is inlaid with precious stones that glint and sparkle as they reflect the torch light. Its dark eyes, which had been staring at nothing in particular, suddenly shift to look directly at him. A warm smile appears on the goddess’s ruby lips, which part to reveal dazzlingly white teeth. Her bejeweled right hand beckons for Ed to approach.
The idol had been standing but is now seated, even though Ed had not seen it move. Priests in pure white robes light candles and place them on her lap along with pots of incense that produce a thick red cloud, which then thins into a mist and spreads throughout the chamber along with an intoxicating spicy-sweet aroma.
Evincing absolutely no surprise, the priests turn their heads toward Ed. Their faces are identical. Their blank stares turn to welcoming smiles. They open a path for him between the two rows now formed by the shaven-headed priests.
Ed walks between those rows. Now he tries to proceed slowly, solemnly, to suit the occasion, yet with every step he takes, he finds himself moving toward the idol with surprising speed. He approaches the statue with adoration and awe. He stops and looks back when he has covered half the distance between the idol and the tunnel from which he had emerged. There is no opening! No tunnel. No going back. Where the opening had been is a blank wall of the same enormous sandstone blocks as the other walls. He turns back to the idol.
The High Priest announces, with a voice that resonates throughout the chamber, “The bridegroom approaches, my queen.” He chants:This man, o Ishtar, do not reject,
But welcome him to your embrace.
The gift of his heart we beg you select,
All his cares to erase.
Ed yearns for the High Priest to plunge the gleaming obsidian dagger into his breast and lift his beating heart out of his thorax and hurl it into the fiercely burning fire at the foot of the idol.
He is about to lie supine on the altar of her lap so that the High Priest can carry out his charge, but then he hears a still, small voice that murmurs,They have mouths, but they speak not:
Eyes have they, but they see not.
Looking down, he sees that the jewel-encrusted golden idol has feet of clay, common potter’s clay! Disillusionment strikes him like a physical blow. Then fear, disgust and anger course through his being. He sits up and leaps to the ground.
The High Priest signals the others to restrain him, but he forces his way through them to the High Priest who now stands before him, blocking his way. Ed seizes the High Priest’s obsidian dagger and flings it with all his might at the idol’s head. It soars in a slow, high arc toward the gleaming golden visage, the blade clanging against the gold as it slams into the crevice between the lips while the hilt prevents the handle from entering. The dagger is suspended there, quivering. The idol’s eyelids close.
The priests, their robes turning from sparkling white to black, look with fear from Ed to the golden goddess. The now crimson-robed priests stare, holding their breaths in expectation of a momentous event. Nothing happens. They look at each other and begin to smile with relief as their robes turn saffron. Their smiles become laughter, initially a quiet chuckling which becomes louder and louder as they progressively lose their fear. The laughter grows even louder until it is a thunderous roar which echoes throughout the cavernous chamber.
The reverberations cause the idol to tremble, initially almost imperceptibly, then more noticeably. It rocks to and fro, at first gently then in progressively wider arcs, then violently. Ed feels the sandstone floor vibrate beneath his feet. The walls of the huge chamber shudder and start to crack. The gleaming golden idol’s clay feet crumble to dust, sending the statue lurching forward onto the High Priest, as the entire chamber collapses amid the roar of falling sandstone blocks and the screams of the dirty-grey robed priests. One of the priests seizes Ed by the shoulder...
Ed awakened with a start, still feeling the hand grasping his shoulder. That hand now shook him. He rubbed his eyes, then opened them to register the red night lamps that dimly illuminated the rows of sleeping men. Turning his head, he saw the face of a crew member who quietly informed him that it was time for Ed to lay up to the bridge and start his watch as lookout in fifteen minutes.
* * *
At first it was a mere thickening of the horizon line where the blue of the sky almost imperceptibly met the blue of the sea. It thickened even more and became a shade darker. Finally, Ed could distinguish, off the port bow, the pale lighthouse tower and then the grey-brown bulk of the sixteenth-century fortress to which it clung: Morro Castle.
Then from dead ahead to a point off the starboard bow. he began to distinguish the low, garishly-painted structures — green, yellow, white, purple, blue — strung along the coast behind the grey sea wall. The warm sun, the wind in his face, the sight of a land he had never known, excited him. His sense of anticipation quickened his heartbeat, tickled the pit of his stomach.
* * *
It was a hot day in January. A yellow and purple blur of stucco houses, balconies and iron grillwork streaked past the taxi windows. The vehicle careened through the narrow streets, irresistibly sweeping Ed Perdue along with the current of Havana. His brain saturated in Cristal beer, he heard the radio blare the insistent, heavily accented rhythms and stirring melodies of Cuba that compelled him to writhe in his seat and to beat on the dashboard in time with the pulsating music. The jerking strum of guitars, the hurried chic-chic of maracas, the rasping of the güiro, the shallow beat of bongos, the thunderous pounding of frenzied conga drums in different pitches... Strident, acid trumpets in a minor key, razor sharp, slashed through the alcoholic haze that helped him forget Terri and the frigid North.
Ed and several shipmates climbed out of the taxi at the corner of Pajarito and Peñalver, and confirmed that the name painted on the window was BAR VICTORIA before pushing their way through the green swinging doors. They stagger-swaggered past the bar into a large square room containing chairs and tables with black Formica tops.
Ed glanced around the room at the walls that were glossy black tile from the floor to the halfway point, and from there to the ceiling were plaster painted dark red. He looked at the gaudy juke box that stood against one wall. It was heavy, solid, brightly lighted. It was the focus of social activities, like the hearth around which families gathered in old Christmas cards, but different.
Currents of cigarette fumes wafted through what passed for air. Attractive young women in bright-hued gowns glided through the streams of smoke like tropical fish in an aquarium. Detecting the white uniforms and leathery faces, they promptly approached the Navy men. Very pretty, Ed thought. But hungry. A school of piranha. But that’s just what the doctor ordered: fun and games with no complications. Right: no complications.
Ed heard a commotion in the far corner. Turning, he saw a burly boatswain slap a slim young girl in the face. As she whirled away from him, the man sent her sprawling to the floor with his foot. Ed, on impulse, rushed over to the brawny sailor and threw a wild punch. The boatswain blocked it and sent his fist crashing into Ed’s face. Ed saw colored lights and found himself on the floor tasting the blood from his own nostrils.
His shipmates went to his defense, starting a general brawl. As he staggered to his feet someone yelled, “Shore Patrol!” The slim young girl in green rushed over to him and tugged at his arm. She hastily led him to a back door and motioned for him to leave. “Gracias,” she whispered, squeezing his hand, “you’re a good man.”
* * *
The next evening Ed returned to the Bar Victoria, determined to control his liquor consumption and his temper. He was hoping to encounter the girl in green, but she was not present. The place was filled with beautiful women, but he was dejected because she, the girl in green, was not there. He told himself it was ridiculous. He didn’t know her, hadn’t even spoken with her. And yet...
Joe, his shipmate, said, “What? Looking for that skinny one?”
Ed nodded as he scanned the room.
“The one you started that riot over last night?”
“It doesn’t make sense to me to get bashed almost senseless just because of some stupid prostitute.”
“Does it have to make sense?”
Ed ended the evening by going upstairs with a voluptuous young woman who seemed to overflow her red gown and who had been pushing her pelvis insistently against his as they danced.
* * *
The cool salt air rushing through the taxi window at two in the morning started to clear Ed’s mind. He thought about the evening’s transaction. The fact that it was just that — a transaction — began to eat into his consciousness like a corrosive acid. He had paid the woman called “Mamá” five pesos. The Cuban peso then being on a par with the dollar, it was no great sum. Yet he had handed over cash for her. In public. For the privilege of making “love.” A very modest sum, but... Like at a meat market. No, not even that. It was not even like buying meat. It was like renting it.
Can you rent meat? And after you chew and swallow it, do you give it back? Sure. You puke it up. When he and the perfumed barracuda in the red dress had returned to the main room, she smelled fresh blood and, without a backward glance, swayed over to her next prospect: a gangly Apprentice Seaman with carrot-colored hair.
Ed and two shipmates exited the taxi at the docks and staggered toward their destroyer-escort. Ed inhaled deeply. The cool salt breeze wrestled with the heat still radiating from the land and with the clinging odors of raw tobacco leaf, sweat, cheap perfume and disinfectant. The fresh, clean smell of the open sea was locked in combat with the rotting tang of tropical earth and the stink of decaying vegetation.
They proceeded along the concrete pier between rows of grey warships moored one beside the other on their left and on their right. Because they were sleepy and still inebriated, there was no conversation. They were aware of the rhythmic pattern formed by the sound of their shoes striking the hard surface.
In the darkness, Ed felt hemmed in by the twin rows of steel. These cold metal hulks were dark and menacing as they towered over him. He felt he was passing through a nightmare corridor. He heard the hollow droning of machinery, of exhaust systems, of ventilation, that flowed ceaselessly from their metallic lungs, metallic guts, metallic throats. They were steel titans moaning in their sleep, grinding their teeth, dreaming their mechanical dreams.
Jets of steam hissed intermittently from these resting giants. Against the black sky, the puffs of vapor were white, snowy white, pure white. Like human breath in a northern winter. Like freshly fallen snow. Against the blackness of night, they appeared clearly but briefly. Ed thought, They appear only to disappear, to dissolve, to dissipate. Instantaneously. To become nothing. Nothing! Without leaving a trace, a residue, some sign they had existed.
When they reached their ship, Ed gazed out at the bay. The bay was black. The sky was black, but the bay was even blacker. It was a slick, oily blackness, a shiny blackness that glowed and reflected the moonlight like a black jewel. Ed saw the tiny specks of light around the edges of the bay where he knew ships must be docked, and at different points within the bay where vessels would be anchored. The lights were pale and sickly yellow when compared with the bright blue-white sparkle of the stars overhead. But the stars glinted hard as diamonds, cold as ice.
Ed felt strangely suspended in time and space. He felt as though he were one of the lights in the bay, swaying in the darkness under the illusion of motion, circling very slowly in place. No, he was one of the stars, isolated in the most remote and frigid regions of outer space.
* * *
Copyright © 2018 by Clark Zlotchew