chapter ix of stanley crawfird’s log of the s.s. mrs unguentine

IX

 

The barge, magnificent barge, a jewel cresting upon the high seas those thirty to forty years when the weather was still a true marvel, when one could see stars at noon, when the rare clouds were so fine and gauze-like and so much more transparent to moons, when rains were frank and without whining drizzle and cleared without lingering-such was the bright and empty space we sailed across seemingly to no end, and where my simple chores could have gone on for days and days without me minding-there could never be too many decks to sweep and wash, too many sails to mend, too many windows to clean amid that everlasting radiance. I remember the morning, if it is the one, that I brought the dishpan up from the galley in order to wash the dishes out in the rising sun and cool breeze of the stern deck, the galley being hot and steamy and infested with one of our infrequent plagues of crickets and cockroaches. Unguentine knew about them, would be down there this very moment unleashing the domestic snakes. By noon the galley would be all cleaned out and the reptiles, fat and lethargic, put back in their cages out of my sight. Are you sure? I always asked. Did you count them? You checked the dark corners to make sure they did no breeding down there? He would nod reassuringly. Meanwhile I went on with the dishes, clearing them off the table and tossing the scraps over­board into the water of our fresh-water lake fluorescent green with strands of algae, the water-cress and water­lilies where perched and floated heavy, complacent bullfrogs with fast tongues, strange body of water which swelled and shrank in size according to some principle I never grasped, changes in temperature perhaps. But the air, which had seemed clear and fresh before I went below deck for the dishpan, now was gathering up a humid haze, tarnishing the sea beyond our lake with a scum-like effect such as I could not remember having seen in years; or in the drowsiness of early morning I had simply not noticed: perhaps it had even been with us for days. I was out of time. I hadn’t slept well the night before, had mistakenly attempted a midnight stroll through the gardens in the dark only to walk right into a field of ripe peaches and apricots fallen on the ground, the awful squishing noises beneath my bare feet, the slime and stickiness, and from which I finally ran slipping and screaming to the lawn where I was able to light a candle and hose myself off. Why I refused to eat any fruit that morning. Our abundance at times was gagging. I was grown too plump anyway, though it was all still firm this body of mine, spangled with the reflec­tions of wavelets in the dishpan, naked in the sun, every bone and muscle ceaselessly active and fresh, my skin tanned to a glowing sienna with only a vein surfac­ing here and there near a breast, a wrist, an instep, to indicate the warm flood which sometimes seemed to flow out and beyond, to feed the rainbow colours of it ale dishpan and stern deck, our lake, the sea, back to the sun.

Unguentine was in his prime those days, he was more present, more carnal, his body exuding the manly aromas of ripe glands so strongly I could nose out his shifts in mood, the nature of his work, for hours at a time even though he might be at the far end of the barge. He never spoke, no longer wrote me notes. I didn’t need them. I would read his face and body, and he mine, to know what thoughts were to traverse the narrow band of air which separated our flesh. From a hand lying loosely on the table, palm nearly exposed, perhaps trembling slightly with the pulse within, I heard repose and the silence of no thought. From the half-tightened fist seeming to indicate rest but being only an interlude, I heard the chatter of little plans before he would spring to his feet and slip into the garden-to do God knows what, for our trees and flowers and vegetables grew by themselves in a weedless, springy humus which needed no tending beyond the regular harvests that only per­mitted them to grow more, did not empty the garden, did not ravish it. We had too much, in fact. Often while pulling up a head of lettuce and a few carrots and onions for the simple salad-dinner we would have that night, I wearied at the thought of what we might pos­sibly do with those rows upon rows of vegetables which would not stop growing and which we mainly fed to the chickens and goats, only to be swamped with eggs and milk and cupboards crammed with cheeses-dumped finally overboard to feed the fish. The balance of nature we carried about with us wherever we sailed was so perfect, so precise that were Unguentine and I to leave it all for ten years, say on some excursion to land at last, upon our return we would find nothing changed, per­haps only the trees grown a little higher, hens a dif­ferent colour, the cold and glassy stare of another goat or two. Even, days like this, sky becoming whiter and the air more humid, I felt pressed down by the thought we might be intruders on this barge, for one could not sink a hoe into our earth without slicing up at least half a dozen earthworms and grubs, and then, that done, be surrounded by a gathering of robins anxious to feast. Flies would hatch in the compost heap and live long enough to lay more eggs before being pounced on by spiders, snatched up by swallows; and then the visita­tions of hawks and shrikes that thinned the swallows and sparrows and lizards and frogs while we watched, perhaps only watched. I knew the necessity, our carrots and onions, peaches and cream; yet sometimes I wished it would simply all cease.

I had just finished washing the dishes when I heard an awful clatter from the bow. I thought for a moment we had run aground or collided with some metallic debris-until I recognized it as the long-unfamiliar sound of the anchor being lowered. A few minutes later the clatter resumed, shaking the barge stem to stern, followed by the lowering of the second anchor: we had two. A flush of annoyance flooded over me. Here? In this scummy sea with its haze-filled sky? No doubt Unguentine had his reasons, repairs to be made on the hull, the rudder adjusted. Still, he might have waited until we had reached a more pleasant climate. The barge had been in continual motion so long that I now felt quite dizzy and had to go below deck to lie down in our bedroom where the only living, crawling thing was myself, in the silent darkness. I could become oppressed by the inces­sant noises of things growing and dropping up there, the busy chatter of birds and gnawing of insects; it was as if all the creatures had flown inside my head to bat about there, to become brain cells spluttering trivial messages at each other, back and forth, to no end. I slept, how­ever. When I emerged several hours later, refreshed by a dreamless time below, an old excitement was returning to me as I stepped into the gardens again-and saw Unguentine wrestling with the trunk of the Plane Tree Judith. I heard a crack, saw a bluish glint of metal. Unguentine sprang away from the tree-trunk. He must have seen me then; he waved his arms violently, and I turned and ran, pursued by a hissing roar that gave way to a thunderous crash. From all over the barge came the rising crescendo of livestock in panic; birds, flushed from their haunts and seeking to rise to the safety of open sky, fluttered and banged against the glass of the dome. I had taken shelter behind the Fir Irene, now peeped out. The Plane Tree [udithlay prone all over the lawn, her crown staring me in the face. Beyond, through leaves drooping at unaccustomed angles, Unguentine stood leaning against an axe, body glistening with sweat.

I approached him. At his feet, a huge saw, wedges.

A little pruning, my dear? Thinning things out a bit? Perhaps such things I asked him, whether I spoke them or not as I gazed down at my favourite tree, into whose foliage I had often peered from atop the dome, into the soft and changing greens, when I was weary of looking at the harsh glitter of the sea. He must have known that. He must have heard the little cries within my heart even as he stepped away from me, dragging his tools behind him, granting me one long glance before he raised the axe to limb the fallen tree, eyes clouded and narrowed with a shadowy determination I had never seen in him, or with a sadness I thought we had forever chased from our lives. I felt a sudden lassitude, exhaus­tion. I knew somehow then that the Plane Tree Judith would not be the last. Something had happened. I could not understand those garbled noises that came from within his heaving body-if there was anything to be heard beyond the frantic stretch and pull of muscles, the squeak of joints, a heart pounding furiously. That day and the next and beyond, despite the sweltering tem­peratures of the tropical sea where we lay anchored, he cut down, limbed and sawed up the other plane tree, the Fir Irene, the Beech Cynthia, the stately Elm Myra, all the fruit trees but two; and, with the wrenching crack of each falling trunk, another flower bed, another shrub, another vine was smashed and battered to the ground; a duck was killed in one of the falls, the chickens gave up laying. Gritting my teeth to hold in a somehow angerless hysteria, I helped rake up leave and toss branches overboard until I could no longer bear it and went below deck wondering how I would ever be able to set foot in the gardens again. It was impossible to believe: to ruin so utterly the work of thirty to forty years in ten days? It was beyond reason, beyond madness.

Was this Unguentine, my Unguentine of the flowing white hair and yellow beard who had tended the gar­dens into all their magnificence? How could I watch the axe raised above his head and warmly feel his whole body tensed and poised for a perfectly delivered slice, the blur of a sudden movement, the blow, yellow chip spinning away-how could I still follow his every gesture with such fascination, then to collapse with trembling at the thought of what he was actually carrying out? He was cutting wood, I tried to tell myself, only cutting wood, for we might be sailing soon to colder seas and would need heat, fat logs for the fireplace, Irene, kindling, Cynthia. Or, the trees were being cut down, but not by Unguentine: it was some other, someone else, another man whom I had never personally met, never wished to.

He left me alone in my seclusion. He prepared my meals in the galley and set them on a tray in front of the bedroom door, adding every other night a pair of clean sheets, for even the normally cool depths of the barge were infected with the oppressive heat; I could open the porthole only at midnight to catch a brief, cool breeze that sprang up about then. Days I numbly watched the sickly sea through glass and longed for the moment when the barge would sink with a rush of waves and broken glass and settle to a quiet place below, waveless, dark, cold, as surely it would have to some day: the sooner the better. I stripped the bedroom of all its furnishings except the bed, a pitcher of water, a basin, and stuffed everything through the porthole in the middle of the night, rugs, tapestries, hangings I had once spent months weaving. For the first time in years I wanted Unguentine to come to me, explain, soothe me with torrents of words-not that any of it could undo what had been done, but only for the comfort of another voice until the intoxication of words might lead us on to do what little remained to be done, if anything, and face the earth and leaves and branches as they were, without noise, purely, quietly. I wove happy fantasies of how he would replant all the trees with fresh saplings, and we would watch, them grow high again, twice as fast as before; again to be cut, again to grow. I ventured into dreams of setting foot on an empty beach with white sands, but withdrew after a brief visit filled with vertigo and a handful of small seashells, useless souvenirs, for now, with so many years at sea, I knew I could live no other way than what had been if I were to live at all, with the wind through the trees and the thirst of the prow for endless waves.

When, two weeks later, my solitude having placed me in a state of resignation in which I thought I could bear anything, Unguentine strode through the bedroom door with bright eyes and a smile that seemed to indicate nothing had ever happened—I burst into tears and fiercely wished nothing ever had. We embraced. I apologized for having stripped the bedroom, chattered on about this and that, old conversations, ancient words that uncontrollably came across the years and back to me. He didn’t seem to mind. Soon I was following him upstairs towards the gardens. I hadn’t wanted to go, not so quickly. I wondered whether it was really my Unguen­tine I was behind, or some arrogant, hirsute creature whose biped tramping set the whole staircase to clatter­ing. I dreaded the first look. Desert? Dustbowl? Bomb crater? Unaccustomed tothe flood of bright light beneath the dome, I was to wander around uncomprehending a half hour until his gestures and demonstrations made clear what he had done. A few trees he had spared; why I didn’t know, no more than I knew why he had cut the others down, why he had begun replacing them with ones of his own creation, dry and brittle mimics which yet caught the contour of trunk and branch framework, the traceries of twig, needle, bud-why this fake forestry? I was stunned. Upon armatures of steel rod he had woven coils of rope fifty and sixty feet into the air, padded them with kapok and foam rubber, glued and stitched them up with simulated barks of dried and shredded kelp, bound and applied in the manner of papier-macho. The leaves, plastic, of a two-ply lamination enclosing a liquid solution that gave them a flickering motion in breezes and winds and an uncanny translu­cence, almost too leaf-like. The tools and materials of his handiwork littered the remains of the living garden; I saw petunias gasping for air from beneath piles of iron rod, grapes bleeding under heaps of half-rotted rope; upended tree stumps, sacks of cement, gaping holes in the lawn where were to be sunk the steel roots of the next crop of artificial trees. I leaned on him repeatedly, his warm flesh, and sobbed; to be with him again, but also at these, his monstrosities.

 

Yet there was nothing to do but go on, wherever it all might lead. After a day of rest in the sticky sun, I began to help him. Something to do. He showed me how to paint the leaves. Gave me a little box of paints. Brushes. A pot of glue. A hamper of unpainted leaves the colour of skimmed milk, and slowly they began to pass through my fingers for their spatterings of green, then to be fastened to twigs of molybdenum wire and into drooping sprays along the lines indicated by his rough sketches, only a few dozen leaves a day at first, then with prac­tice over two hundred, from one basket to another through my increasingly deft fingers, leaving small callouses and arid memories. Thence into branches and boughs to be stacked around a naked trunk, to be hoisted up and bolted on with the insidious clicking of a ratchet wrench, until a calm morning just before sunrise when the light was soft and easy to work under, a high tree ready to be inaugurated, Unguentine would climb the ladder and shift the leaves of a bough here and there to my hand signals down below, tilting them, bending them, giving a branch a vigorous shake to see how it would hang after a wind. Then he would come down to hook up the paint sprayer, re-ascend with a long red rubber tube dangling behind him and vanish into the depths of the leaves to straddle a branch while

I would wait below on the lawn holding the large mirror by which he could see how his spraying appeared at a distance. The whole tree would tremble and creak as he positioned himself; then, up there somewhere, leaves would part and I might glimpse his face, eyes rolling as he struggled to unkink the hose, undog the spray gun. A hand would droop out, point left. I’d hold up the mirror inthe direction indicated. His arm reaching way out through the foliage with the nozzle pointed at a cluster of leaves whose greens were perhaps still too poisonous, he would pull the trigger, psst-psst, and suddenly the spot would harmonize. On to the next he would go, branches springing up and down, until gradually the whole tree would be muted with a subtle haze, like dew, like dust, and until the sun would swell up over the horizon and the dome creak to the influx of light and heat, elements for which the new trees had no use. When finished, he would climb down and walk around the trunk once or twice, his head thrown back, frowning, squinting up at it. I might go, Eh-ah, feign enthusiasm. I hated the stench of fresh paint. Some days this would be the most I saw of him. We rarely spoke. The communications I received from him were orders mainly. Do this, do that. Shear the goat, weave a rug. Air the hold. Dig up the onions, potatoes. There was no rest.

Unguentine was either busy cutting down the last of the living trees of any size, with the shambles of tangled branches, broken windows, with wandering furrows all over the yard where heavy logs had been dragged to the bow to be dropped overboard, or was wiring up their mechanical replacements, each one more ambitious, more intricate than the last. In the place of the Chestnut Anna, the most splendid of his trees when alive, there came to stand a silent and gracefully swaying thing with specially articulated boughs that needed a daily lubrica­tion in windy weather or high seas. The leaves of the Beech Cynthia turned bright yellow after a month as the top coat of green paint flaked off in invisible specks, revealing the autumnal undercoat; and I thought we would be seeing her like that forever, paralyzed in splendour, until one morning, a morning that promised to be quiet and eventless, for there were no more large trees to be cut and the garden was now overcrowded with mechanical trees and no space left, thank God: I knew I would suffocate with any more lifelessness about. We were crossing the lawn together, just having had breakfast, in a silence that was not morose but over which seemed to hang the understanding that if only time might pass a little faster, then all might be well; and it was then that Unguentine stepped away from my side and reached over to the artificial Beech Cynthia, pulled something, a lever perhaps, and all of a sudden from up high the air resounded with a flurry of clicking noises followed by a rushing shower. I flung my arms over my head. I screamed perhaps-while everyone of her thousands of leaves dropped to the ground at once with the sound of wet noodles. Then it was all over. Perhaps he said something about their needing changing, repainting. But I wasn’t listening, or was listening only to the sad popping noises the laminated leaves made as crushed beneath my aimless feet, their yellow solution spurting out to stain the lawn. So this was how it would be. Year after year. Grinding them all up. Bleaching the plastic powder. Mixing up a new solution. Rolling them out like dough, cutting the leaf forms anew. The lamina­tion. Injecting the liquid solution. Painting one side, then the other. So on, so forth, through artificial springs and painted autumns, tree by tree, the mindless work waxing and varnishing our bodies into ages too old to bear, the hideous leaves burying us and everything we had ever known under matted, impermeable mounds.

It couldn’t end like this: I wouldn’t have it, would kill myself first. The olden days of our youth had promised more and I still remembered the times from which we had sprung, before everything changed, when people looked so much better, the young looked younger, the old looked older as if having lived in the heat of the fields, knowing dust. Perhaps none of it had ever been living, but I would remember it so, had to. Little enough of it, true. Scraps. Flashes. I remembered something about having first fallen in love with Unguentine by image, say the fleeting reflection of a newspaper photo­graph in a pond, in some park, as perhaps carried by a passer-by who must have folded the paper away into his coat pocket just as I might have been hastening to catch up and have a closer look. I would have been young and pubescent then, without the courage to tug at the man’s sleeve. But the image left some mark, would not vanish, stayed with me through those long years until one summer on a crowded beach I first heard Unguen­tine’s voice while I lay buried in hot sand with my eyes shielded by sunglasses, neither awake nor asleep. The cry, that hoarse cry torn from the fast-running figure of a man who, perceiving me only the last instant before his bare feet would have trampled me, leaped into the air, over me, and ran on. It was him, I think, a thrashing shape receding so fast towards a horizon blinding with luminous sand, surf, foam; and who, I knew, would someday return. He must have. Things must have happened one after the other, to this, the barge, the mechanical forest, to the moment not long after that he disappeared once and for all in some confidential man­ner I never learned of; but at the right time, I suppose, somewhat late even, for he must have been just as emptied by it all as I was. He heard me, no doubt. Go. Leave now, before it is too late.

I reproached him only for leaving me after forty years together without word, without note, without explana­tion, scene, quarrel, bloody drama. How dare he? He knew my tastes. He knew that I should have preferred some rich terminal event such as a foot placed with seeming carelessness on a weakened pane of glass high up on the dome, the tinkle, the shout, the long fall through plastic leaves to the lawn, at my feet, where I might be weeding: the crumpled form, my dead husband fallen from the sky. Or how much I would have mulled over and enjoyed and finally treasured up in memory a scene on the stern deck as he might have lowered himself into the skiff or diving bell or simply jumped into the water with stones tied to his ankles, my shrill abuse about the marriage vows and what was to become of me now, an emptied woman upon a rudderless, leaking barge with worn-out lawns and exhausted livestock? What was I to do? Where go? Did it not use to be that a gentleman of a man would have at least re­paired the machinery before leaving so I could possibly get somewhere? Your duty, Unguentine? He failed me. If in fact I would have had the strength to rise to such an occasion; as likely not. And just as likely there might have been some little parting scene so quiet and muted I was the one who failed to note its import at the time, as at breakfast that day when he stood up from the table and brushed a tea-leaf from his lip while through the open dome doors there came the sound of the twin sycamores’ leaves slapping and grinding together like jeering applause, and when he bent down and kissed me once on the forehead before walking away down the deck, jauntily, in the manner of one who has ten miles to cover on foot before noon. Thus he vanished from sight around the dome. I sat in my chair, finished my tea secure in the knowledge that there was no place to go. This was it. For months I remained convinced he would return somehow, come back, hear me tell of what had happened in his absence. He never did.

A year passed. Across that heavy, scummy sea the barge drifted, surrounded by an ossuary of logs that would not sink, as I tended the vegetables that still grew, the goats, the seven ducks, four hens. A few more shrubs went brown in the leaves, died. Daily I swept the barge stem to stern, scraped off a greenish growth that blossomed on the outside of the hull and which I thought might be responsible for the slight list to the left the barge was taking; these, my humble, helpless navigations. I wired the leaves back on to the Beech Cynthia in such a way they would never fall off. I repainted the bedroom. Every now and then I would crawl over the sacks of potatoes stored in the cargo hold and wind up the alarm clocks so as to have at least the consolation of his typical noises with me, punctuate my vigil, help me sleep. The night of the first anniversary of his disappearance, or of the date I first missed him and when I hauled a forty-year-old calendar out of hiding and made a mark at random on some day and month, I went out to the stern deck and turned on the neon lights he had once wired up all over the outside of the dome, and I stood there flashing them on and off, night sea shimmering under their traceries all the colours of the rainbow. But from the darkness, from reflections like pulsating electric lotuses, there came no response. Only the ducks, awakened by the false dawn, chortled and quacked. Could it then be? Like this?

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