more fun on the barge from log of the s.s. the mrs unguentine

 

"nude we would caper then, eyes downwards, fascinated by the pornography of our disembodiment, as if beneath a leafy heaven and the limbs of lounging gods…"

 

Someone may be making a movie of Stanley Crawford’s Log of the S.S. The Mrs. Unguentine! Here’s Chapter VII:   

 

VII

 

When was that morning I was out on the stern deck hanging up the wash on the line that ran from the distillation plant to the flagpole and back, thinking it no doubt not long enough to hold the huge basketful at my feet? When? Lost in futile reveries of far lands and times which seemed then more and more like erroneous transmissions from other lives, not mine, not of my time; and more so now. No matter when. All I know, it had been a long and exhausting decade. A wind had come up, a fitful thing that blew hard and then suddenly dropped, and there I was grappling with wet laundry as it flopped about and would not stay pinned to the line, and wondering what would blow off first into the sea, overalls, underwear, socks, or the whole line. I was bending over the basket when to my back a gust of wind blew open the stern door with a clatter. From inside the pilot-house there came a panicked shout from Unguentine. I raised my head. Drifting out of the doorway and tossed and turned up over my head by the wind, there sailed a large sheet of paper. In the nick of time I stretched to tiptoes and plucked it from the air. There were inscriptions, marks. I smoothed it out against a bulkhead. It was one of Unguentine’s maps. I had never looked so close up at one before. Fascinated, I let my eyes swim all over the bright mass of colour which depicted some hemisphere or other and which was scribbled with indications of sea-currents and trade winds and storm centers and mean annual temperatures, reefs, shoals, shallows. From the long hours I had seen him poring over them, I gathered that he was reworking them for precision and accuracy. A nice piece of draftsmanship, I thought. Some suitable, mellow hour, I would remind myself to compliment him. Then I realized there was something different about this map, something missing: it was land. There was not a scrap of land anywhere on it. Utterly bald. I gaped. Only water over all this quarter or half a globe? What? How? But soon he was at my side humming. Gently teasing the paper from my wet fingers. I let it go. The slam of the stern pilot-house door as he went back inside. So that was the way things were, I thought, and set about walking up and down the narrow walkways of the barge, snapping off a sprig of mint to press to my nose, pausing now and then before the long lists of nautical terms Unguentine had posted here and there for my instruction, in his concern that I use the right vocabulary while at sea. I memorized the lists, but to no effect. I had no one to talk to. Unguentine’s notes were terse, less than a dozen words each. It had been years since we had sighted another ship whole and intact, with living people on the decks, and I could no longer climb the dome and hang out great banners proclaiming certain unfortunate aspects of our marriage, inviting relief, rescue, consolation. Once I wrote a long letter to an old friend, tied it to the feet of one of our pigeons which I secretly dispatched in a midnight gale; next day I found Unguentine silently reading the letter in the pilot-house, his only comment being a grunt, the crackling sound of it being folded up, handed back. So I went on with my chores. What else could I do?

 

Little, for life on our barge was not conducive to much more than just keeping it going, watering the plants and sailing on from climate to climate, and though there were times when I might wish for it all to sink with a muddy gurgle, there were also others, timeless, without cages, with only leaves and blooms and a silent man. From atop the dome whose prisms I daily polished the gardens were beautiful beyond any memory I might some day have of them. In the very center of the barge, Unguentine’s forty trees with an inner circle of evergreens, cool, dark, unchanging, and surrounded by a flowing ring of deciduous trees, the rounded and drooping boughs of sycamores, elms, oaks, horse-chestnuts, a beech with a white trunk, a red maple, a weeping willow and others whose leaves flashed from hue to hue several times a year. Beneath them, ferns and mosses and an assortment of tropical plants accustomed to a sunless housing, with freshwater ponds here and there with lotuses, water-lilies, watercress, cattails, and bright fresh-water fish, descendants of those netted from the mouth of a great tropical river we once sailed across. At night when all was illuminated by the powerful floodlights Unguentine had salvaged from an abandoned dredge, the dome as seen from inside reflected the gardens in its five hundred panes and faceted and rearranged all the leaves and flowers into patterns of nameless intricacy, kaleidoscopic. Nude we would caper then, eyes downwards, fascinated by the pornography of our disembodiment, as if beneath a leafy heaven and the limbs of lounging gods, as it used to be all painted.

 

The barge, although sealed in against the elements, was always in need of refurbishment and improvement; we spent countless years towards its perfection. A vast increase in vegetation beneath the dome had ended up generating an acute problem of heat and humidity whose solution turned out to be splendid. The uppermost panes, two hundred in all, Unguentine uncaulked, removed, cleaned and silvered in such a way that a certain percentage of the sun’s rays would be deflected. With re-installation, the effect was successful. Also, he stripped down all the wooden casements and struts inside and out with a wire brush, treated the wood, then applied new coatings of a special hybrid lichen he had developed, a bluish growth which rendered the dome structure almost invisible in certain lights. It must have been during those long hours up on the dome, on the bamboo scaffolding, in the blaze of sunlight and atop the empty sea, the almost breezeless air, that he first con¬ceived the way to rid ourselves of the steam-engine, whose ghastly fumes would fill up the dome in certain winds and cover all the leaves with soot, and whose ceaseless thumping all hours of the night often set off unnerving vibrations in the dome, angered the bees. Nor was there any hope of replacing the old engine, about to give out on account of the low-grade sea-scavenged fuel Unguentine fed it, and whose stop-gap repairs were consuming more and more of our time. So he set me to work spinning up several bales of fine cotton he’d found one day into a heavy thread which I then wove into three hundred yards of sailcloth on a huge spool; next I cut it into five hundred triangular shapes about two feet each on the hypotenuse, hemmed and shrunk, the lot, and thus our sails were ready. Meanwhile, Unguentine rigged up cables all over the inside of the dome by day, and after dark pored over drawings and plans on the galley table in calculation of wind speeds, drag, tensions, weights, control vectors, nautical aesthetics. With block and tackle and hydraulic jacks he laboriously moved the pilot-house astern two yards in order to have a better angle for the master control cable which was to be buried out of sight down the middle of the garden, secondary cables feeding out from it, also buried, like spines on a fishbone. Luck had it that out one day in his diving bell he hit upon a submerged cargo of pulleys, brought up more than the two thousand he needed and most in good condition. A few squeaked; he threw those away. Months passed. He excavated the garden to lay the conduits for the cables, a noisy and urban time with rows of ditches and heaps of raw earth, stacks of tile pipes, and the sea-driven cement mixer endlessly sloshing. The scars in the lawn were to last a year. Then, conduits laid, cables threaded and tested, the garden restored to order, and during a week predicted to be windless and sunny at our particular latitude and longitude, Unguentine mounted the outside of the dome and fastened down and hooked up the five hundred sails each the size of a manly handkerchief, each subtly controlled by the cable system from the pilot-house where he had installed a great lever, hand-carved and amazing, with which the sails might be trimmed at three speeds, Slow, Moderate, Fast.

 

The success of the sails was so absolute and stunning that Unguentine immediately took apart the old steam- engine and dropped it into the sea, piece by piece. With each sail being the equivalent of one horsepower in a brisk wind, no telling what in a good gale, the barge was now capable of higher speeds in addition to being fumeless and vibration-free and became a far better place to live on, its climate improving markedly and the sailing of it a thing of glorious sensations. In calm weather the sails could be folded out of sight in such a way as not to obstruct the passage of sunlight on its way into the dome to our plants; with sails extended fully, taut and billowing and shimmering, the whole dome would creak and sing in the wind at the sky beyond, concealed behind a white mask which admitted only cracks of blue whose bright crescents played over the trees and flowers in the garden, glowing somberly green under this strange new daylight so much like life beneath an umbrella at the beach, as a child. Come autumn in some corner of the barge and piles of dead leaves we had no room for composting, Unguentine would trim the north-west sails, open the windows beneath them and all the leaves would whisk away as if sucked out by a great vacuum cleaner. Likewise, rain-showers outside could be directed and concentrated to anywhere within the garden down to an area three by four. At certain latitudes and usually late in the afternoon, the barge would generate spectacular mirages of itself on the horizon, sometimes two and three at a time, upside-down and banana-shaped, countless points of light blinking and neon, gaudy beyond all belief. I saw them often while atop the dome repairing sails, my new job in addition to cleaning the glass, and by far my favourite. When control lines broke, I spliced them back together again. When a sail needed replacing, it was I who fetched a new one from the hamper and scaled the outer fence of the dome. Many hours I spent up there alone and singing with the wind. Hanging on to my little bucket. My squeegee. My sail-mending kit. Replacement halyards, eyehooks, brass swivels, grommets. The mallet. The little block of hardwood, souvenir of the Maple Rowena, felled by blight, against which I pounded with one hand, the other clutching a strut, a ripped sail flapping in the wind. The view, when I had time, exhilarating and grand. There might even seem, as I would lift a sail and peep through the glass at the garden three stories below, the goat grazing at a pile of brush, ducks waddling from one pond to another, nothing else I could possibly desire.

 

However, such was not the case. My anguish concerning certain aspects of our long life together always struck me most forcefully at the breakfast table. Warm mornings we would take breakfast to the very end of the stern deck behind the pilot-house, sometimes sit on the deck itself, legs dangling overboard,as seagulls threaded back and forth over our white wake and eyed our movements, our toast, fried eggs. Or more often we would throw open the back doors and sit just inside the dome and gaze out upon the seascape framed by the wistaria that grew around the distillation plant, and perhaps in the distance the glinting fins of playful dolphins. We always rose early and ate just before sunrise in the mists like mildew on the surface of the sea, on colourless waters, on waters lightly tinted blue or pink, sometimes yellow, calm waters flecked here and there with blue leaves and silver lips where a breeze would drive a ripple up. Several hundred yards out, that white line of foam which marked the border between fresh water and salt, for the vegetation of our barge generated so much fresh water that we were perpetually ringed by a sort of inner tube of it, a lake floating in the sea, over seventy feet deep, and where swam the hundreds of carp-like descendants of goldfish that once lived in our fish-ponds, also minnows, guppies, angelfish, bluegills. At night they would gain the shelter of the tangle of roots of Unguentine’s thirty specially grafted aquatic pines that grew out over the decks all around the barge, trunks and boughs cantilevered over the water by cables attached to the dome struts; though those roots, I cursed them often for the way they sprawled all over the decks and down into the water, being hard to sweep around and easily tripped over. Unguentine invariably woke with a frown. It usually lasted through breakfast. The way he raised his lower eyelids so that his eyes seemed to be peeping over walls. His expression thus fixed and while his coffee went cold and toast grew brittle, he would linger over the morning’s readings from the meteorological instruments, wind speed, the night’s precipitation if any, the behaviour of currents, air and water temperatures, the barometer, cloud-patterns on the horizon as compared to his home-made cloud chart. Now and then he would look up, nibble at a piece of toast, inserting the rest into his slingshot and speeding it through the air far out into the salt water, for those four or five aged sea-fish of his that kept following the barge. Croakers, I believe. During these pauses, I might try to attract his attention. Suddenly whipping out my make-up kit to re-apply my lipstick or correct an eye-shadow. At best he would notice, would knit his fingers into a basket for his chin, thrust his head forward and stare at me blankly while I did my face. I might seize the opportunity to utter a cheerful word or two. Ho! Ho! Such. But from him, no comment. He would lean back in his chair and plunk an elbow on the table, its riot of dirty dishes gleaming in the rising sun, and dab a drop of coffee from his white beard, squinting into the distance. His manner was usually to vanish for the remainder of the day; the skill with which he did this never ceased to startle me. His brusque departures seemed to be timed to the split-second to coincide with the kettle coming to the boil, or with that moment when the table-cloth was billowing away and about to drop into the water, or just as the cat was jumping up on the breakfast table, or at any of the other innumerable instants when a gesture would have to be made, when the reflex machinery could not be ‘stopped, when I was totally absorbed in some brief action. The glass doors would slam with a clatter, and he would be gone. I was not to follow. The squeaky tread of tennis shoes dying in the distance. Or those little noises of his from the pilot-house, his grunts, coughs, the hum, the snapping of fingers.

 

But year after year, this could not go on. Annually I attempted reforms. My manner was to present him a typed sheet of remarks at breakfast-time, neatly folded on his plate like a napkin: ‘I have noticed lately, my dear, these past three to four years you have not opened your mouth to speak literally one word, preferring rather to nod, wave your arms about, and the like, to the point I hardly know who you are any more, not that I ever did. Nor that I complain. Our bliss, I know, has been fantastic. The last crop of pumpkins broke all records for size and tastiness. Our hybrid zinnias have attained blooms nineteen inches in diameter, glow in the dark. We have identified and named three new species of porpoise. I love that diamond necklace you brought up last week. Yet these things, however fulfilling they may be, scarcely add up to tell me what you refuse to speak, and if you could possibly see fit to spare a moment now and then to take me into your confidence, discuss something, anything in fact, then I might venture to suggest—brazen hypothesis, I know—that we could start working our way towards the heart of the matter, on the way to engaging in many a colourful argument, discussion, seminar, so on, so forth. Permit me to cite a few examples of the things you have never spoken to me of. Your mother, for one, your no doubt dear old mother. Then there’s your father, your brothers, sisters, assorted relatives, friends. Then there are countless items about your own person, your likes and dislikes, past adventures, the scar on your left kneecap. What did you think of the soup last night? The state of your health? Any colds lately? A brief sketch is all I would like. An anecdote or two. The juicy peccadillo, say. Even blasphemy. Such facts, trivial even, I would love to hear more of, or simply of, and would willingly dote on to pass the time of day and to know somewhat more fully the silent stranger I now so selflessly serve and not even wondering why any more, that being the way things happen to have worked out, God knows how. Past experience, agreed, has been somewhat grim in this connection, that is, if I remember correctly, or if you do. That’s another thing. For, rare times we did talk, years ago, you would claim not to remember things I could still see clearly. And then you’d recall things I scoffed at as improbable, unlikely, impossible, and when we did both agree on something, it usually had nothing at all to do with either of us. The colour of the sea in a certain morning light seven and a half years prior. A dense and clammy fog that stayed with us nine days. So on. So that where I once did not know who or what you were, now I wonder who I or we are, or what. What planet is this anyway, my dear? You see my confusion. I need to have things explained. Like what we’ll do tomorrow and the next day and in our old age, discussions about little things, miniscule matters such as the possibility of varying the hour of breakfast, for sometimes I wish for a sort of landmark, change, by which to commemorate the passage of time. More coffee? In fact you might find a bit of change would add a certain spice to your life, you who seem determined to resist change, you who seem to slip from one posture or gesture into another in so mechanical a way and back again, on and on. Your habits, my dear, I confess to find somewhat iron-bound ever since the time when-well, whenever that was. I realize of course that life on this barge is not conducive to violent changes such as characterize the racing-car driver’s, the space man’s, the political agitator’s; yet you might consider attempting to complicate our lives simply for the experience to be gained thereby, that later in such moments of calm like this we might have something to talk over. What do youthink?’

 

And what, he might wonder as he held the chattering sheet of onion-skin between his fingers, what was all this about? I invariably neglected to say. I preferred not to proclaim at once my innermost desires. I felt they should be subtly drawn out of me, gently teased from the very core of my being. Children of course; five to be exact, an ample brood. I still did long every now and then to see land before I died, just a scrap, any old desert island, but a full-fledged continental mass if at all possible. The thought being to lead him into conversations, then from one thing to another, and to those things finally. But his reaction, equally invariable, to my carefully typed-out remarks was to award me a day off, and foolishly every time I leaped at the opportunity, swallowed the bait and resolved to wait another year before resuming negotiations. So I would go downstairs and wash up the dishes and return to deck to find Unguentine drawing in the heavy rope by which the swimming platform was towed, a thing of fat timbers strapped on to old oil drums. I remember the day. I looked over the rail; the platform was directly below the stern. We embraced. The thickness, the solidity, the sheer weight of the incarnation of our bodies together surprised me into an audible gasp. So he was there, after all. Where were my things, he indicated somberly. I produced a bag. Inside, a plastic raincoat, towel, a few home-made chocolate bars, a jar of fresh water, a flash-light; a hook, line, sinker and bait. Then I squatted on top of the railing an instant before dropping my lithe body the seven feet below to the swimming platform, which pitched under the weight of my fall. Above, Unguentine untied the orange rope and let it snake into the water with an elongated splash. I blew him a kiss, he waved, I saw children’s faces pressed against the glass where there was no sun-glare, but illusions, flowers only. I heard Unguentine pull closed the stern doors. Soon we were drifting apart. The sea was still calm and the horizon slightly misted as I slipped away and beyond to the fading sounds of roosters crowing, ducks quacking, the cooing of doves, the morning noises of the barnyard with which I could feel no more connection if I so chose, a whole morning, most of a day, to lose myself and everything in the blankness of sea and sky. Soon it would all dwindle to a glaring presence on the horizon, impossible even to look at on account of the blinding reflections of the sun on the silvered panes of the dome, and I would spread out my towel on the hoary planks and lie down on my stomach, my cheek against cool wood, eyes half closed and lost in the worn depths of those planks on which the action of waves had raised a nap of soft orange fur and in whose grain there flowed currents and rivers from pool to pool, threaded with tapered sandbanks. Those planks, those logs, my vacation home with its wide cracks and through them the sound of water lapping and secret little drafts, glints of sunlight from the water licking at the barrels underneath. Hours might pass before I would finally turn my head to let the warming sun play upon my face and take a squinting look away, would wonder what could compare to the edge, the line formed by the planks against the opalescence of the morning sea, as seen naked with all body, body drinking, as body stretched farflung to contact more the warm, damp logs, my nails dug in to pick at splinters, toes caressing the sun hot upon my back. So to doze, sink deeper in; or lose it. Thus quickly a day. Once a year. My day off.

 

So soon sunset and out of the west, aquatic pines sighing in the wind, the flaming barge would swoop down like a proud and hissing gander to pick me up and carry me off—or the faceted eye of an insect come too close. Unguentine would be there standing on the bow with a coil of rope in hand, poised to fling it across. Often he would be balancing himself on tiptoes on the railing. I tried to discourage the habit. ‘Get down off that railing, you’ll fall,’ my first words shouted to him after a day away. Fall he did, more than once. He was like that, he would put on his tennis shoes and find some precarious point to stand on with one foot, balance there until the inevitable, humming, making little squeaks, blowing sharp, obscene noises into the wind, until he would fall. Once as he stood up on that rail, hopping methodically up and down on one foot, the other dangling over the sea, arms flexing up and down at the elbows and rope whipping back and forth, I shouted up at him somewhat harshly to throw down the line; it was getting dark, there were things to be done, dinner, the bed to be made. He attempted to give the rope a toss while still bouncing up and down. But in that delicate manoeuvre, the railing being perhaps slippery with an evening dew or an invisible application of grease or oil, he came down not on his muscular toes but on his instep, painfully, in such a way that he lost his balance slightly, his heel sliding from the rail, legs akimbo and arms thrashing, coil of rope spinning way off mark and splashing into the water, his crotch rushing inexorably downwards towards the rail, the dull thud, the awful blow by which any ordinary man would have thoroughly castrated himself. I remember the way he doubled over in pain, rolling off the rail in a compact ball. Hastily I attempted to look the other way. Seconds later there came the splash. What if it all ended like that, I thought, with a stupid accident out in the middle of nowhere? But that could never be, I knew. I fished him out, as usual. Nothing to worry about beyond the bother of it all, swirling hair and wet arms, sopping clothes. I suspected him of being somewhat immortal at times. Indestructible, surely, for he never hurt himself however much he might have tried. Often, returning to the barge, I sighed. For whatever happened, it would never end. We were out of time. On and on. Forever. That man. These seas.

 

 

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