chapter viii of log of the s.s. the mrs unguentine

VIII  

 

After years and years of marriage) and forever on the seas, lonely, I finally demanded a child. I remember the day. The sky clear and hard with a hot, dry wind foaming the crests of high waves, the barge rolling and pitching, branches of trees snapping back and forth. Here and there leaves and twigs, whip-lashed free, dribbled to the ground. Unguentine had previously removed the figurehead from the prow for a new paint job; she was a thick-lipped and heavily rouged creature with a fixed stare, and all bundled up in drapery to conceal a problem of bulk; and made out of wood. Her name, unknown. She hadn’t come with the barge. Unguentine had pulled her up out of some shallows one day despite my caustic remarks. So there she was. He had her inside the dome and laid out on a tarpaulin on the lawn, had sanded her down, was re-painting her. The lower lids of her big black eyes drooped, giving her an expression of dumb terror such as might be assumed at the prospect of imminent collision; no doubt she deserved those shallows, her long water life. I compliment her arms, however, hanging limply by her sides, for at least there was something feminine about them. I shuffled around the lawn smoking while Unguentine knelt and painted. The jealousy I was attempting to feign was mainly to clear the air. Having spent all morning searching the garden for a note from him. Having taken up smoking for the occasion, that he might know where I was by means of the smoke and my frequent fits of coughing. Rhythmically he brushed away at her red robe. ‘Won’t help,’ I muttered. ‘She’s too far gone.’ Such things. Every now and then, the paint stinking, he would clear his nose with a sharp and hissing inhalation, or draw his left wrist across the nostrils, wiping the residue on his left hip pocket. ‘Blow your nose,’ I told him more than once, not that he could easily do so with paint all over his hands. I was waiting for him to get it on his trousers. Then I might really have words with him. But he refused to do either. Raised slowly but inexorably by a huge swell, the barge crested and rumbled down the other side, the glass of the dome chattering in its frames andthe decks shuddering as we hit bottom with a lurch. The branches of the nearest tree, the Fir Irene, sprang up and down. Beyond the trees, a splash, the angry quacking of ducks. It seemed I was getting nowhere with him. I turned my back and strode away without saying a word, down the little path laid with driftwood through the sycamores, the lilacs, the roses, the gladioli, past a tub of cactus, and opened the door on to the bow and stepped outside. A brisk gale had sprung up. The glass of the dome was all hazed over by countless applications of salt-spray; yet it was hot out, over ninety, with the sky now dimmed by the golden dusts of some far desert, a land in the air. I marvelled briefly. The most I had seen in years. With tears streaming from my eyes and the wind whipping them away, I slung my brown thighs over the rail and dropped my feet to a ledge and groped along to the anchor as the bow pumped up and down over the high waves and into the valleys between, my body utterly naked to the hot wind and cooling spray. At last I was gripping the rusty studs which had held at the figurehead and by which, in an instant of calm, I swung myself down to her pedestal where I soon stood facing out to sea, my arms stretched wide to welcome the ceaseless waters, scraps of seaweed, fish, anything. ‘Please!’ I shouted, perhaps more than once. My eyes became sealed, closed by the howling brine wind; after each wave I gargled and retched. Yet there was some odd security amid all the tumult, poised as I was on the edge of a precipice, gripping numbly, the roughness scraping against my buttocks, and I felt I could have released my hands or even kicked my legs so perfect was the balance of my position, pressed between wind, waves and barge. Or that I might be lying on a prickly earth, on my back, staring into a fierce sun. Possibly it went on for hours. My body vanished away into a sort of numbness for whoever or whatever was left inside me, watching, listening, a small creature who came to life spasmodically whenever the wind chanced to pry open my lips and whirl down my throat, striking my vocal chords and generating words, half-words, groans, odd scraps of verbiage that seemed like fuzzy caterpillars or thistles glowing many colours. But how could they have warmed me so much? Words not even mine but only the flogging sea’s, jammed into my throat, uttered? Then vanish? Thistles? Thistles?

I came to hours later to find myself stretched out on some blankets on the bedroom floor, with Unguentine crouching opposite me, leaning against the bulkhead with his knees drawn up to his chin. A pot of steaming tea separated us, biscuits. Outside the storm still raged. Moments like this I imagined, for comfort, that through those walls all the good and smiling people I had ever known were throwing buckets of water against the side of the barge. Unguentine now prepared to speak. I knew the gesture intimately. The manner in which he quickly wet his lips with his tongue, swallowed, opened his mouth a crack. What exactly is it you want, my dear?’

 

I rewarded him with a winning smile despite my condition. My whole face glowed. ‘A child,’ I said. At last I had done it, said it. Unflinchingly he poured tea and handed me a cup, also a biscuit. Brightly I awaited a response. But none came, only the sound of tea being sipped, the crunch of biscuits. Through the bulkhead came the creaks and groans of unused machinery, wardrobes and trunks shifting about. After a while he got up and left me. The storm was to last five days, at the end of which time I was recovered sufficiently to resume hangingaround him, get in his way, sigh. At last a response came, or at least an acknowledgment of my request. He was searching the roses for aphids at the time. I remember his large black eyes staring at me through leaves. Shimmering leaves. He was kneeling in the dirt. He said he would see. I thought, while he spoke those words, I heard a tinkling of very fine bells or the chatter of a tambourine—but such was often the case those rare times he spoke, what with that fleshly tongue of his, that oddly musical pronunciation.

 

But see what? I was to puzzle at length over these words and wonder whether by saying he would see he meant that by waiting long enough my desire might lapse, be displaced by others, such as school-teaching, baby-sitting, affection for dogs and cats; or whether he meant to deny me now in order to reward me greater some time later. Next day I ransacked his gestures for a hint of exegesis, but they were the same as always, breakfast taken standing on the stern deck at sunrise to those peculiar mutterings he made only at that hour, little squeals and groans deep in his throat, an inner sort of laughter that scarcely passed his lips, the click of tongue, the yawn, a rubbing noise he produced by kneading his bare toes on the deck, this last being a signal for those five or six gulls he had befriended and which stayed with our barge through thick and thin for the regular breakfast he now scattered into the water: some toast, a pailful of garden pests, a few slices of fresh fruit. Days passed. Idly I wandered around the barge and wondered what to do. Then for the first time in years I took to wearing clothes again, plain things, drab things, tattered, unironed. One morning, written in miniscule letters on a white speck stuck to the bathroom mirror, the message: Where has your body gone?’ So he had noticed. I sniffed success. The night, Unguentine asleep, I flung open trunks and footlockers and dragged bundles of clothes upstairs and spread them out on bushes to air in the garden, drawing them back in before dawn like coloured mists. A day of secret ironing and mending. Next morning, I arrived late and haughty to the breakfast table, wrapped in the dazzling lavenders of a full-length evening gown as if I had spent the whole night dancing with dark and hairy men. Unguentine tried to pretend nothing was the matter. But I saw his whiskers billow in and out with the heavy breathing of irritation, I saw him twice spill his coffee. On I went. Seemingly from nowhere, I would make my apparition in the garden and glide slowly between trees, my oiled body lathered in veils. Decked out in flowers and a too-short pinafore, I swung back and forth in our garden swing, lisping infantile lullabies. In buckskin loincloth and feathered bra I climbed trees and criticized his lawn-mowing in shrewish pidgin English, pelted him with ripe fruit. Or he would be down in the hold sealing a leak in the hull when, quietly, from out of the darkness, a soft and grease-smeared form clad in overalls would roll past him to vanish into another darkness. Once I dabbed myself with ketchup and old scraps of material and draped myself over the winch, as if with leg caught in the gears. One whole afternoon I spent making up my eyelids to resemble my eyes, in such a way that when closed they appeared to be wide open; I confronted him with this phenomenon at dinner, the seemingly blinkless stare; he bolted his dinner and ran.

 

A week I performed in this manner, then disappeared into the lushest corner of the garden with a set of long mirrors for a painstaking application of iridescent body paint, with an effect of mother-of-pearl all over my body except for breasts and buttocks which I finished off in a brilliant matt orange. Thus adorned I fasted in seclusion a day and a night, and came to know inwardly that my time was near. As the sun rose the next day through the dome I planted myself in the center of the lawn and began the rhythmic beating of gongs; there was incense, perfume, and I even had a pot of coffee warming on a charcoal brazier behind a bush and some coffee-cake wrapped in tinfoil. An hour passed. The gongs grew heavy. Then the rustle of leaves somewhere in the depths of the garden. I nearly fainted. The slow and scarcely audible pad of bare feet. At last. He had under­stood. There he was, striding naked from the trees, his organ full and erect and painted purple, his beard dyed green, dark body powdered with what might have been flour, a thunder head moving near among the long and rich shadows of sunrise. He stood before me. He nudged me once with his organ and said, Are you fertile?’ ‘I am,’ I replied. With a sweeping gesture meant perhaps to encompass the whole barge, gardens, all, he then asked, ‘Do you know what it will mean?’ ‘I certainly do not,’ I snapped, impatient to get on with it, not discuss it. And so we fell to making love. I had tied our motion picture camera to a branch especially for the occasion; it now whirred gently. Our dogs, sensing an event taking place, came and sat respectfully at a distance at the edge of the lawn, bright eyes with flicking, hairy lids and limp, swinging tongues, panting. Soon they were joined by the cat and the goat, also some of the chickens, one of the ducks. I gasped; he grunted. There was no orgasm, there was only orgasm from beginning to end. I remember shrieking in the middle of some night traversed noisily at high speed: ‘I am conceiving!’ From Unguentine, a low and rhythmic groan, a syllable mouthed over the course of an hour, a morning, with the rising sun burning into our bodies on the lawn; I see him suddenly in spasms, then rolling away in the grass, perhaps hissing, ‘I have generated … ‘ We lay immobile, separated, until nearly noon, until the neglected barge drew us to our feet. We embraced once briefly, and while he bent about his business in the garden, I with­drew below to tend to my pregnancy.

 

As for our child to be, I already knew he would be a girl: manchild while within my belly, but a girl once born. I made up lists of names and posted them around the barge for Unguentine’s approval. Beatrude? Marygret? Gertrice? Barbarence? Nancice? Jilly? I wove a set of little blankets on a loom. Speedily I knitted what few clothes she would need between birth and age six. Long hours I lay in the sun on my back, that my belly might rise like yeasted dough. Unguentine spent days below deck partitioning off a section of the hold for the baby’s room, boring a hole in the hull that she might have her own porthole and for which I sewed up a set of curtains. Peaceful days, still and calm days of quiet work, with all time stopped and only gentle, distant intimations of nibblings, flight, panic, the rush of emergencies. Arm in arm we would stroll about the garden by day, brush through banks of flowers, our hair caressed by the needles of overhanging boughs, our bare feet padding upon wood, upon stone, upon grass, the metal of the deck; now and then we would stand close to the windows and peer out to sea, whitecaps and troughs of cobalt. I remember that midnight on the bow, anchors dropped, a moon casting a strange simulacrum of daylight over the water through some haze in the sky, a tone of light almost identical to that of a foggy day; and we stood at the railing which glistened under the slightest application of dew, the sea being waveless and graced only by lazy swells that passed us like the undulations of a great caterpillar’s back; and it was then, spontaneously,that we both broke into song, into a lilting sort of aria, but unsyllabled and smooth and which trailed off into a low hum, charging the night sea until the horizon bubbled with sheet-lightning and the waters glowed with the pulsations of electronic plankton, and we fell silent. Unguentine trembled; I nestled closer to his warm body. He was about to speak, I sensed, knowing the signs. He did finally, to announce quietly that he would deliver the baby. I confided that I had never dreamed of anyone else, being so far from all land now.

 

However, a month passed when there took place an event such that I realized I was not pregnant after all—and I not pregnant with a husband who measured my girth with a tape-measure each night before bed was in a perilous position, or so I felt. I had no way of knowing. Unguentine, it seemed, was frankly worshipping my womb. One morning I arose somewhat earlier than usual and spotted him kneeling on the stern deck. I approached softly, on bare feet. But my toe brushed against an empty paint can which let out a raucous clang. His back doubled, his arms swooping in. I saw candles. I saw a shiny tin form, bulbous and horned. An embroidered cloth. But he scurried away, all his objects of devotion bundled pell-mell into the cloth from which billowed the black smoke of candles still lit, and he vanished round a corner, coughing. At other times he seemed to be in the grip of a peculiar depression and took to napping lengthily in an ugly tent-like shelter made out of old cardboard boxes, as if to shut out the splendours of the dome. The Plum Patricia, a heavily bearing tree from which I made my best jam, suddenly vanished one day; no explanation, no remains even, other than a shattered stump in the ground that spoke of cyclones, whirlwinds. I didn’t know what to do, what to say. As if to spare me the necessity of confronting him with my sad news he would go into seclusion somewhere on the barge for days on end, presumably in one of his several hiding-places I had discovered beneath the lawn, entered through a trap-door in the turf, invisible until that day he took up smoking down there and wispy plumes revealed its place and shape; the solar distillation tank, in disuse since the advent of our float­ing lake, which he entered by means of a hatch on its underside, apparently unaware that the sounds of his breathing were perfectly transmitted by the empty pipes and loudly broadcast all over the galley through the cold water tap, the familiar humming, squeaks, all his other odd noises. Or, his most prized place and favourite haunt, a nest way up in the crown of the Chestnut Anna, and many times I have chanced to watch him, thinking himself unseen, climb the trunk in the early morning and crawl out on one of the middle branches, then reach up and part a cluster of leaves and hoist himself up to a small platform. Once settled on it, he would draw the branches around him with rein-like ropes in such a way that he was completely concealed from the ground or from the dome above, a beautiful thing to see, this drawing in of the leaves around him like a flower closing for the night. Before he vanished each day he would wind up a dozen old alarm clocks hidden away in the hold, which actuated an elaborate network of piano wires and little mallets all over the barge, and which would generate a day’s worth of uncanny noises in unlikely places, the sound of a hedge being clipped, the brief clatter of tools being picked up or laid down, the tap-tap of something being driven in, worked at, broken up, distinct and life-like sounds no doubt meant to comfort me during those long hours of his absence, and that I might not try to find his hiding-places. Kind man. I never disillusioned him. I knew about it even as he secretly installed the wires, and quietly I admired the complicated mechanisms, pendulums, gyroscopes, that enabled the system to work even in rough weather and kept it from being set off accidentally with him sitting but inches away from me.

 

Unable to find him for days on end and unable to speak the words to him when he finally emerged from seclusion, I took to the wearing of clothes again and would not be touched; I strapped a specially sewn pillow around my middle, and above all I ate and ate, became shy. The second month I began to put on weight all over, a silky plumpness, tight and firm except for my thighs with their dimpled slackness, but only I saw that. Unguentine soon noticed, soon glowed; I was happy for him, at least. He prohibited me from all manual work and labour. He spied on me through keyholes and cracks in order to discover my cravings. A hankering glance cast at a food cupboard would bring him bursting through the hatchway five minutes later, staggering under a heaped platter of whatever he thought I might then desire. Bananas? Peanuts? Avocadoes? Milk shakes? Chocolate cakes? And he would sit there, eyes wide with adoration and fascination, until I finished the last crumb and drop. The raw materials of our child, I thought I heard him say once. Stoke the furnaces! Chew, woman, chew! The more weight I gained and the more I grew, the happier Unguentine seemed to become and the more food he prepared for me., cheeses, yoghurts, all the fruits and nuts and vegetables our barge-garden was then bearing, rare delicacies made from herbs and honeys, special preparations of kelp and algae. But this could not go on. In three months I gained a hundred pounds. One hot day as I reclined perspiring under a fir tree near the lawn, as I lay there obese and barren, a beached walrus, panting, fanning myself, I wondered through my tears how I was possibly ever going to get out of this, how I could ever discharge myself of his expectations. Even now as I lay there Unguentine was rigging up nearby a low-lying contraption of wood and canvas—a great fan, it turned out, which beat towards me with wings like those of a butterfly at rest; and to its slow pulsations and the waves of air washing over my tears and beads of sweat I composed elaborate speeches I would never have the courage to utter to my poor husband, whose life was now only an impatient wait for all my populations. ‘My dear,’ I would say to him and did even type it all out, ‘concerning my pregnancy I would like to make an observation or two, a remark. I have the feeling it might not be taking, for example that the sperm might not have been sufficiently strong to break through the shell of the egg, preferring rather to simply lie beside it. Resulting in a pregnancy rather too spiritual for the coarser mechanisms of my body which searched and longed for the less-nuanced form, the direct yes, the blunt no, without maybe, without perhaps, without in part. Therefore I conclude that though egg and sperm came together they did not in fact ever meld into one—though in being somewhat less than two, my ignorant body so interpreted their quasi-union and thus initiated this whole sequence of events which I now believe is leading us absolutely nowhere. owhere. where. here. ere. re. e.’

 

But how could I ever say such a thing to a man who was spending whole days in elaborate preparations for the day of birth? Who was installing a dozen signalling cannon on the decks of the barge, to be fired off upon the birthday dawn, perhaps opposite some great port where friends still lived but whom now in my shame I never wanted to see again? Who was building an amazing series of twelve cradles, the smallest being for the first month, the largest for the twelfth, and which all fitted together in such a way that, when stored, the whole lot took up no more room than the twelfth alone, and which, beyond the twelfth month, could be effortlessly refitted to form little houses, wagons, boats, trains, and which finally, after age twelve, could be stacked against the wall as a pyramid-shaped bookshelf? As a planter? How could I say? How? I could not. One night when I was still ambulatory, the sixth or seventh month, I complained of insomnia and sent Unguentine below deck to bed so that I might wander the gardens alone in my misery and flabby unworthiness, and it was then that I resolved to escape at last and leave this barge and the gardens and Unguentine and launch myself into the blackness of the night, forever. I knew now I no longer deserved this life with him I had so often cursed for that aura of bland eventlessness which had seemed to surround him and all his works, those old accusations that he never did anything, that nothing ever happened to him, that it just went on and on. Here was an event now, an awful event: my failure. What was I amongst his subtle tools of light and air, water, growth, decay? A parasite, a parasite bloated near to madness with over-eating. So I loaded up our little skiff with jugs of water and cartons of dried fruit, a few biscuits, a change of clothes that might come to fit me again after several weeks of wasting away at sea, an umbrella, a pair of high-heeled shoes, and, as future memento of all that would have been, a pot of geraniums. As I stood there on deck, the night pitch-black, flashlight trained on the skiff’s little cargo complete now but for myself and ready to be lowered into the water, I remembered all the times I had jumped ship decades before and gone and hid far away from that man, in cities, in hard, unyielding landscapes. I wondered often how he always found me, why he always came and got me. Those weeks of utter silence back on the barge. Days I would lie in bed, refusing even food. Then forget. Forget it all. When now I found myself unable to move. Except, weeping, to cast the contents of the skiff into the sea, and lie down on the deck to be swept over by the cooling breezes of night.

 

Still it went on and on. I could not speak the words. The ninth month I lay in a special three-ply heavy-duty hammock Unguentine had slung between two trees, the Plane Trees Martha and Judith, I lay there swinging lay with a horrible 250-pound excrescence coagulated upon my frail bones, unable to walk, unable even to see my feet, occasionally flapping my fleshly arms for exercise or to speed the swinging of the hammock to and fro. Above me, amid translucent trees, birds twittered. Birds! That an ounce of flesh and bones and feathers could not only fly but could sing as well—so very much! An ounce! And I, an eighth of a ton avoirdupois. I wept. That afternoon, in my ninth month, I remembered in a sort of delirium my every mouthful of food, I remembered its harvesting, its preparation, its cooking, I traced the genealogy of tiny seeds back into a past without memory, and all I wanted to do was vomit it back to earth, for I had taken and eaten what was not mine, upon false pretences. Night fell. Someone must have closed the dome windows. I had not seen Unguentine all day. The sea being rough that night, the hammock swung back and forth to the sharp creaking of ropes and the groan of branches under strain, my bottom dragging on the lawn and wearing an ugly sore In the grass. I resolved then, no matter the cost or the consequences, to tell Unguentine the truth first thing in the morning and begin fasting immediately thereafter.

 

At 3 a.m. however I was roused from sleep by a sharp clicking noise followed by a floodbath of light. Grunting, I raised my head and squinted around at the gardens completely illuminated from lamps concealed in the earth, and with that peculiar effect of vegetal nudity that comes from brightness playing on the underside of leaves. Then the familiar metal clank and grinding noises, ratchets and chains, and there, to the other side of the lawn, the rising hook-like form of the freight elevator, and Unguentine’s head. He had been using the freight elevator to bring me up food prepared in the galley, also to take me down below for my daily bath; now I closed my eyes, clenched my teeth and fortified my resolve. Not a bite. Not one. I could hear his footsteps. Perhaps he knew. Perhaps he was coming to murder me. I deserved it. I had brought it all upon myself. I could feel his hand steadying the swinging hammock. ‘Open your eyes,’ he said softly. I did. I gasped. For there, before me, in his outstretched arms, was a perfectly formed nine-month-old baby, grandly sexed as male, and staring at me thoughtfully. Such eyes. I fainted.

 

I came to as the dome of night above me, above the plane trees, pulsated and glinted with the outrageous colours of Unguentine’s home-made fireworks whose detonations set the five hundred panes into a frenzy of rattling. The sea, calm and moonless, responded with ripples of reflection, drank flames. At dawn the twenty cannon blasted away until exhausted. And through all this the child slept, tiny creature in a cradle bedecked with gaping orchids. From the trees Unguentine finally emerged again. He was covered head to toe with soot, his overalls in a shambles. It was a magnificent moment. On the grass we were to lie all together then, the three of us, for hours while I learned from Unguentine the number of nappies per day, the preparation of the child’s cereal and vegetables, milk, his sleeping hours, his periods of optimum petulance, his attitudes towards sun, baths, drafts, ice, fire. But no name. Unguentine refused. To name, he said, would be to clasp the near and present end of the chain called history and thus to forge another link, and how sad! I agreed. He remained nameless. Child, baby, son. Quite enough terms to cover his condition. He spoke early and ignored both our admonitions, Unguentine’s that he should seek silence and speak not at all, mine that he should speak only the purest of truths at whatever length he wished to do so up to twenty-four hours a day; instead he turned out to be an average talker, a casual but charming liar by virtue of averagely not knowing what to say during that always crucial moment, of talking constantly in hindsight and in foresight and thereby eating up more and more of the endless time now, though with what a sweet voice, my God! He matured a genius at five, became an excellent swimmer, grew modest and swam away one day, no doubt having had his fill of us, the barge, these seas.

 

 

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  1. However, you must register to view a free chapter or a table of contents. Dropshipping


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