the next chapter of log of the ss the mrs unguentine

VI

At the sound of the splash I sprang to the rail, peered overboard. Bending over a flower bed, weeding. Sweeping a deck. Such things. And now I stared down into the foam of his white splash sliding over the wound in the sea like the knitted fingers of the elderly. Then bubbles, his last globes of carbon dioxide. Free at last? So I thought, and would soon have dashed to the pilot-house to set sail on a course due-north for some great harbor where I might sell the barge for a handsome price, to live out my life on land, days; parched throat, sea legs to the end. Years and years. Packages one unwraps, then wraps up, again unwraps, brown paper, twine, excelsior, unwanted gift. But I was wrong. Suddenly out of the turquoise depths a shiny form wiggled surfacewards and shot into the air like a jumping trout, to splash back. A gaff was handy; I netted it. Inside, a note: ‘Will be back in an hour or so.’ Of course. As was sometimes his wont this time of morning, he’d gone for a plunge in his hand-made diving bell, a thing of beaten brass and capable of extraordinary depths. So I went back to what I had been doing. Swept a deck. Bent over a flower bed, weeded. Such things. Humming a resigned tune. For such were the days when Unguentine’s forty trees were grown stout and healthy enough that we could sail anywhere in the world so long as we avoided arctic ices and equatorial heats. My work was simple and fulfilling, but hard. I watered and trimmed the flower banks, raked up the leaves under the trees, gathered fallen branches to dry out on the bow for firewood, I tended the vegetable garden we had growing in a small plot aft of the lawn and which was richly fertilized by ground-up seaweed, I fished, I cooked when we tired of raw food; I mended the ancient clothes we rarely had occasion to wear; and mushrooms I grew on trays in the bilge next to the chicken coop. We had ducks, too, mallards with clipped wings; they kept down the snails. One cat, two dogs, retired port mongrels. Also a goat. From twin vines that formed a natural awning over the stern pilothouse deck, we yearly harvested grapes, pressed them, casked and drank the wine whenever we sensed from over the horizon, on a distant land, an aura of national celebration. Cheers to some people (I would murmur, our glasses colliding), some race, as they commemorate some fine hour within the sadness of history.

 

Unguentine was about and visible more than ever before, his darkly tanned body now striding the length of the barge to fetch a hammer and wrench— as I might press myself against a bulkhead to clear a path— now crouching on the deck wet from my waterings to secure a length of rope, lubricate a winch, assemble his latest device. Long hours he spent in the uppermost branches of the tallest tree, the fast-growing Cottonwood Elizabeth, gangly thing, with field-glasses pointed out to sea, looking over the driftwood and floating debris with which he made up the machinery of our lives, and the ships, the countless ships which often cluttered our route and menaced our navigations, and abandoned all as if sailing the seas had gone out of fashion. Indeed, no wonder, with those waves, those swells. Whenever the weather was windless and calm, Unguentine would take the skiff and row out to sea, and soon the horizons would ring and chatter under the distant detonations of the charges with which he cleansed the seas of ships and floating wrecks, sending up plumed geysers as they went down, gasping, gulping in a last indigestible drink. Single-handedly he scuttled the fleet of a great nation, taking weeks to do it; and on the decks of one tall ship he found laid out the numbered stone blocks of an historic monument which I thought I remembered seeing as a child, having eaten roasted chestnuts in its presence; if that childhood was ever mine and all that seemed to follow. From the bow half of an abandoned freighter probably broken up in a hurricane, and one of the last ships we were ever to see, he salvaged the materials for a towering salt-water distillation plant which he installed on the south side of the pilot-house with some of its solar panels hanging over the rudder, eastwards, in a most unsightly manner. But we had no choice, for the barge, grown heavy and cumbersome under its weight of vegetation, could no longer be so speedily navigated in and out of rain zones. Many times for days on end we floated through the dismal wreckage of aircraft disasters, the split-open suitcases, the dead, the limbs, the only other people we were ever then to see, and with a net between prayers we fished up a fine set of silverware, an alarm clock, a kerosene lantern, several volumes of an encyclopedia. One day, inexplicably, for the sea was like that, we came across a sturdy raft bearing a flawlessly new electric stove, refugee of some inland flood or advertisement, and Unguentine stripped it down to pieces small enough to fit through the hatchway and down the stairs to my galley where he hooked it up; the raft we took in tow as a swimming platform. Likewise we acquired deck-chairs, sofas, bedding, linen, teacups, curtains. 

The barge being ancient but without history, built in the olden days of sound hulls, Unguentine was all the time repairing its fixtures decrepit with over-use, the steam-engine whose bearings always over-heated, the cracked propeller shaft whose wooden splints flew off at regular intervals, the rudder which jammed only In calm seas and usually late in the afternoon. He would emerge from the engine-room covered in black grease except for the red patches of blood where he. had nicked and scraped himself on hands and feet, and his flowing white beard protected with a bandana, but with a smile visible: he had done it again, repaired some crucial part with only a slight loss of speed. The engine-room could be a cozy place in the middle of whatever winter we might have happened to choose in an escape from an excess of summer, the warmest spot when the galley stove was off, where we could huddle alongside the tall and gleaming steam-engine, arms entwined, swaying back and forth to its syncopations, its throbbings, sighs, groans, squeaks, hisses, all night, until a cloudy dawn. Then with a yawn, above deck. Calisthenics in the fog. The long day’s work forever expanding the gardens, covering every inch of deck and roof with pots of shrubs and flowers, with the barrels, cans and buckets salvaged from sea-currents, with soil we composted and mulched ourselves, watered with our own water distilled from the sea. Unguentine was happy; I was radiant. I adopted at times his method of communication by notes, though to the bolus of paper spurting from the bathroom tap, to the lamination suddenly unyielding to teeth and tongue while eating a sandwich, I would always reply in my manner, directly, to the point, with only a moderate delay, by leaving a note tacked to the pilot-house door in plain view. He never seemed affronted by that, at least. One such dialogue took four days to complete. My glowing message: ‘I never want. to see land again!!’ Time passed, dawns and dusks. At last his reply: ‘You never will, my dear.’

 

I didn’t know what to think. At first it seemed he might be answering one of my earlier messages, but of those I could remember none fitted the reply. Or he was simply wrong. I knew there must be land nearby; with his navigations, I knew he must be flirting with coasts just beyond the line of sight. Had not a flock of heavy land-birds descended upon our greenery suddenly one midnight, refusing to depart except under a full blast of our sprinkler system? They left behind some broken branches, white stains, innumerable red feathers, a speckled egg or two. Casually I spied on Unguentine as he pored over his maps and charts in the pilot-house, but saw nothing unusual in his addition of a reef here, his erasure of a strand there, the shift of an island a degree this way or that, corresponding no doubt to the kneading and agitating action of the sea. There were times I swore to hear the throb of the motors of a distant ship, the rush of a jet plane like a sheet being torn in half,  times when I knew Unguentine had nothing to do with these sounds, for he was in the habit of amusing me, or so he hoped, by imitating all manner of urban noises, the traffic of cars, buses, trains, distant sirens and bells, the patter of footsteps on a crowded street, carnivals, pounding surf, applause, the swarming mur­mur of some genteel gathering. He could drive me to tears doing that, standing on a ladder and pruning a limb, his back towards me, blowing all those noises out of his mouth. I could tell it was him. His whiskers always quivered. Will you shut up?’ I’d shriek from the far end of the barge. Glad therefore I was when he took to spending whole days towards the bottom of the sea in that divingbell of his, and I was left alone, could rush upstairs from the galley as many times as I wanted to, to see what sound that was. But there was nothing to see, nothing but the rafts of seeming trash Unguentine was bringing up from below. Fat timbers and beams of some heavy, seasoaked wood. Packing-crates as tall as a man and sealed with barnacles. Barrels and barrels of angular fixtures made of some once-fashionable metal. Coils of cable, rope. Nuts. Bolts. Screws. For days this went on. The polished diving-bell, glowing like the sun, bursting up through the waves, and Unguentineflinging open the hatch and hauling in by hand and by winch ropes to which were attached, floated and pontooned, his latest finds, soon breaking surface and shedding sea­waters; then he would lash it all to the side of the barge, go under again. At night, weary and sopping wet, he would clamber stiffly on board with a basket of deep­-sea clams tucked under his arm, bolt down his dinner, fall asleep at the pilot wheel.

 

When Unguentine had collected enough odds and ends to make our barge resemble one of those protected corners of a beach, or a cove, where the sea-currents unload all their trash and run, construction began. He hewed, planed, sawed, mitred the sea-seasoned lengths of hickory and ash and oak into an astounding series of struts, no two alike, which, one moonlit night while I was in bed with a fever, he slung over the barge in the form of a great dome, well over three stories high and clearing even the tops of the tallest of his forty trees, then Elizabeth and the Poplar Agnes. I awoke, staggered from my bed at dawn to see him way up there on the top of this spider‘s web of a thing, pounding in the last and topmost wooden peg, sledge-hammer raised high over his head, his bare toes scarcely gripping the wide-spanned struts, so high in the sky. Keystone to what now? I sighed. Shall we all be covered with canvas and no longer even see the sea? The sky? Cooling winds? Hot breezes? Gone forever too? No, thank God. Soon with crowbar and hammer he was prying open the packing-crates and sliding out sheets of high-impact glass made in some city I once loved; he cut and trimmed them, laid and puttied them into their casements which opened and closed like wings all over the dome, then spent days rigging the windows up, hundreds in all, to a system of ropes and pulleys and counterweights by which each and every pane might be opened to any degree by turning a crank in the pilothouse, with only one hand. Thus the light remained with us, the breezes, but a sunlight now refracted by crystalline glass, faintly watery, aquatic, with subtle auras, and inside the dome as the light grew dim towards the end of the day, all my flowers would multiply in mirror in the sky, stars suddenly come near to ring the image of my little face up there, staring rapt and wondrous as all the windows slowly tilted and sealed shut; into night and our silent, dark aquarium.

 

My work increased with the dome, for there were windows to wash inside and out, their opening angles to be adjusted according to current light, temperature and humidity readings four times daily when it was summer outside, twice when winter, but my happiness was such that I could not complain; indeed, there was no time. And my joy at seeing Unguentine so content. A smile, I knew, was fixed beneath his fine-spun beard which concealed his mouth like a yellow window-shade. He no longer had to worry about those fierce winds which could blow down the whole of his stand of trees in a single gust, the labour of propping them back up one by one, the nursing of their torn roots with vitamins, limbing the shattered branches. Now in the secrecy before dawn he would mount the scaffolding and paste a little note of encouragement to the glass, way up high, some­times on the inside of the panes, sometimes outside, often cleverly both, and I would scrape them off. Later in the morning as I might be polishing the last and upper­most of the panes outside, he would scramble up the side with the aid of a rope – often leaving footprints on my freshly cleaned glass – and stretch out on top of the dome and doze in the sun, binoculars rising and falling on his bare belly. Then I would join him and we would take turns scanning the sea for floating bottles. Our forty years’ voyage yielded perhaps twenty-five found in this manner. The best days being overcast and greyish with the horizon distinctly etched, a sea so flat and calm that each ripple would seem to have its own character. Then the telltale green or blue glint. Unguentine would pass me the field-glasses and slide down the side of the dome, his bare feet striking the deck with an awful whack. To my shouts he would navigate towards the speck. News at last, I chanted, news at last! I remember the day. I never learned. The barge was now drifting. The gap but a hundred yards. Unbelieving, I slid down to the deck. This was no ordinary bottle we were draw­ing near to, no simple wine bottle, but a huge blue thing of five gallons riding high on the waves and crammed with papers. Unguentine emerged from the pilot-house and lowered himself into a prone position on the deck with his dark hair-matted arm reaching through the railing, fingers dipping into the water, the hissing and bubbling of the steam-engine boiler coming from a port­hole open nearby and seeming to fill the whole black sky, while I held his other hand between my two, my feet planted firmly on deck. I saw his fingers stretch wide as we drifted closer. His breathing tight, whistling through his nose. Strands of his long white hair trailed in the water. Then the tips of his fingers touched the bottle and spun it closer. He grasped its neck. I shouted. But that was that. As usual he flung his shirt or some cloth over the thing and hurried away with it to a hiding­place I never discovered. Perhaps he muttered something about it not being fit for a woman to read, later in the day, noting the despondent cast in my eyes. It could have been anything. To the very end he was to forbid me all reading matter other than what was already on the barge, encyclopedias, dictionaries, repair manuals, cookbooks, agricultural publications. Everything I needed ever to know was in there, he once tried to tell me. Still, I squeezed some consolation from those bottles we hit upon every year or so, in knowing there was at least some news about even though I might never see it.

 

We stayed at anchor that day for the spring seeding, planting and grafting, and opened the dome windows wide to admit passing flocks of insect-eating birds, and the trees chattered happily as they went about their work. Unguentine discouraged overnight stays and nesting, however, and towards sunset he would go about the barge with a long pole and gently beat the branches until the little grey birds would fly away with a pathetic twig clutched in the bill and no doubt suffering under the illusion that there would be another barge such as ours within easy flying distance where they could rest in peace. Unguentine’s attitude being that we could not afford to feed them continuously; also we had a few pair of doves and pigeons. I was always saddened to see those flocks flutter through the windows and circle the barge a time or two before setting off in the dusk, a handful of peppercorns cast to the winds, and would have to rush down to the antechamber off the engine-room that was our bedroom to weep for the children I would never have, that being before I had the courage to do so in front of him. There I would lie in wait for him to note my absence. He would, in three or four hours. Finally when he climbed below deck after dark, wondering where his dinner was, perhaps with a storm come up and rough seas and blinding rains, I’d sulk and lure him into the warm and steamy darkness and from the hairs of his warm body I’d breed a myriad smiling, sparkle-eyed one-year-olds, my broods, my flocks. In the churning seas, below the waves, together inside our hammock woven in coarse sailcloth by Unguentine’s deft hands, a spherical webbed sack which hung and swivelled between the two walls of our bedroom, we would spin round and round with lapping tongues and the soft suction of lips, whirling, our amorous centrifuge, all night long, zipped inside against the elements. Now, years and years later, those nights, the thought and touch of them is enough to make me throw myself down on the ground and roll in the dust like a hen nibbled by mites, generating clouds, stars and all the rest.     

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