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


X

 

Years passed. Eons. Eras without temples. Through rusting twigs, through the struts of the dome gnawed annually higher by daring termites, the sun rose, fell, rose; things flaked, things peeled, things vanished into earth and mud and brackish water, into the formless cocoon to be mixed and moulded into whatever had the energy to sprout through and have another go. I had seen it all before. It was the same awake, the same asleep. I knew by heart that if in daytime the wind blew strong and flattened the blades of grass out on the marsh, then at night it would drop and the air be silent, or that a cooling breeze would always follow a hot day, dispel the haze. Yet I did what I could. A year I spent catching up with all the correspondence neglected over the decades, that my old friends might have some notion of what had finally become of me and how my life had turned out, how I came to live in seclusion among old mirrors and deep carpets, endless chambers, atop some highest building in a great and angry city into w hose concert halls I was limousined once a month, to hear a gloomy symphony; how I lived in exile, in oases, behind ramparts of palms and aqueducts and spraying fountains, walls inlaid with intricate tiles, in the middle of a blazing desert inhabited only by morose brigands whose camels had the gout, how I fed them dates, taught their children French; or my life in northern mountains, the great stone house set amid trackless miles of evergreens half buried in the snow nine months of the year, the walls upstairs and down lined with books, my reading, my lives, my lies I told them all. For I could not speak of the sea. The sea was there, was all, beyond the mud and ooze of the floating marsh, too close to be chattered about. When I finally sealed up those hun­dred and fifty letters pasted with the bankrupt republics worthless postage stamps which depicted the S. S. The Mrs Unguentine cutting through the waves in all her ancient splendour, a tiny smear of dots and hatchmarks to the right forming two seated figures, perhaps Unguen­tine and I at the breakfast table granting a cheerful salute with waving arms, again and again, a hundred and fifty times, those arms, licked, pasted, cancelled away under the postmark once bestowed upon me, honorary postmistress of the high seas, and which read simply BARGE. I tied them all up into bundles and sealed them inside a sheet of plastic, then fitted them into a wooden box roped with life preservers. There were still pools of water around the barge, narrow estuaries which flowed out to sea and sometimes ran sweet, sometimes salty; I dropped the box into one of these and watched it float away. It didn’t get far. Fifty yards at the most, where it ran aground on a mudbank and stayed forever after.

 

The barge called, however. My health was perfect, my body the repository of a long life of vigorous exercise, fresh sea air, a simple diet, and I could not remain inactive amid the weary throes of the old vessel; she had to be tended, aided, propped. Unguentine’s mechanical trees could be death-traps. More than once while raking up the gardens I was caught out there by a wind suddenly rising, momentarily seduced by the clatter of the leaves and padded boughs, until the groan of bending metal would tell me something was going to fall, was falling-but which? Which teetering? Where to run? The huge green claw, hairs of metal hissing, would swoop down past me inches away and strike the earth with a rustling bang, whirrings, a tinkle of bells, with a shower of sparks and a puff of smoke shooting out of the stump at the point where it had rusted through. They always made such a mess. Their white stuffing would waft about the garden for days and days, noxious and impotent pollen. Metal branches that I tripped over and got caught up in like barbed wire. Leaves that would not yellow. The odor of rotting mattresses. One by one they fell down over the years. I managed to cover most of them up by sewing together a dozen trunkloads of old clothes and linen, into huge motley muffs which I draped over them like furniture covers, securing them tightly with cords staked into the ground. Thus they stood or lay and seemed to float about the garden, bloated forms marked with the puzzle-pattern of ancient wardrobes, until my plantings of honeysuckle and wistaria would finally cover them, consume what they could of them; if ever.

 

Things still grew, except trees, except the livestock which died oft fell overboard, waded or swam away. I didn’t mind. It was quieter without them. I had my vegetable patch. Potatoes and yams mainly a few carrots and greens, a tomato plant or two towards the bow end of the barge, up high on the right in a clear and sunny space with a southern exposure and where, on account of the barge’s list, the trees fell the other way. Water I carried in buckets from the stern pump uphill to my vegetables, tasting it each day to make certain it was still fresh. Most things I ate raw, laying out a tablecloth on the ground on the high side of the vegetable patch, with a basin of water, a sharp knife, a plate, a napkin, and I would sit there a while in silence and look over the short rows and tops of green, then wander amongst my plants to pull up a carrot or pick a tomato, return to my spot and wash them, eat them, perhaps return for more. I took my time. They grew slowly, I had no wish to rush them. With dinner I would watch the sun setting through the twisted struts of the dome, stove in here and there and glassless except where beaded gleams of sunlight indicated a sliver still resisting the winds, and all across the marsh long-legged birds would settle in for the night, vanish in the grass; a mist might begin to rise, and off in the distance the hoarse barkings of seals and sea lions, moments when the surf only sighed, not pounded. Perhaps it was they who drove in those tiny fish like sardines which came close to the barge in shallow water,L beneath its silvered surface, and bred there before my very eyes, on and on, swarms that came and went. Cold months I sometimes netted up a few and fried them over the fire in the pilot-house, now galley, now bedroom, now my little house with water lapping at the sill since that day when the hull finally gave out and flooded everything below deck.

 

I remember the evacuation. It took almost a week. In all those years of solitude it was the one time I raised my voice and called in desperation for Unguentine, to have his help, his guidance, his ingenuity. Otherwise, I scarcely missed him. I wanted to recount to him my adventure in the bilge below the stern deck when I was wandering around down there to see how all the bulk­heads and pipes and machines were doing, all that ironwork rusting away, neglected, silent, sealed off for so many years. I was armed with a board on account of my fear of rats and snakes, and happened to thrust the end of it against the hull near the old propeller shaft. It went clear through, to my amazement, and with no more resistance than a pie-crust. Hastily I withdrew it, expect­ing to be enveloped in a shower of water or a jumbled whirlpool, be pursued or floated up the stairs and shot into the air as the whole barge crumbled into pieces and sank into the mud and water, leaving me adrift in the marsh, alone, muddy, clutching at the last debris of what had been. But no, nothing happened. I bent down and peered through the hole. The light was dim; I could see nothing. Finally I dared reach into it and succeeded in withdrawing a handful of black muck and white roots, whereupon there began to flow a small trickle of dank water. I sensed I was about to have a flood on my hands. Indeed, within minutes it grew into a hardy spout, belching and erectile, its surging spray spotted with a multitude of tiny frogs, fish, the bright leaves of water-cress. I stood on a box, wondered what to do. There were things to be moved upstairs and above deck. Which? Which first? Which second? I ran. Most of the hatchways were rusted and jammed open, and even those. I succeeded in closing in the path of the cheerfully babbling stream did no good: the bulkheads were cracked and fissured all over the barge below deck and the water quickly found the way. But still I could not decide. So I simply moved everything I could carry above deck with the intention of sorting it out later up there, down to a few treasured possessions which I would stow in the skiff and on the swimming platform. It was a frenzied week. Laden down with bundles and boxes, dragging trunks and suitcases behind me, I staggered and crawled up those narrow stairs hundreds of times, day and night, with pots and pans and dishware, sacks of potatoes, bedding, small tables, chairs, box upon box of Unguentine’s tools and materials, nautical instruments, ropes, cables; my rugs, my curtains and countless things I knew I could never use but felt compelled to save from those rising waters. And I would have gone on after the water was knee-deep, would even have attempted to learn how to unbolt the cabinets in the galley, dismantle the stove, save an attractive oil-lamp in the old engine­room-had it not been for the rats, flushed out in ever greater numbers from hiding-places I had not known about before, thank God. I gave up, sealed closed the hatchway above the stairs, laid myself down on it and fell immediately into the sleep of utter exhaustion.

 

I slept perhaps for days. When I awoke and raised my head to find myself surrounded by heaps of house­hold goods and bloated tree tents, a flea-market, a warehouse of damaged goods, a circus in disorder, amid all this unaccountable debris, I could have gone back to sleep and left it at that, finally unaccountable. There had been no beginnings. There would be no end. In this vast rangeland of junk I would awaken now and then, tidy up here and there, make false order, sleep again, wake up anew in another chaos, do my work anew, resume sleep. And when after several weeks it became apparent that the barge had no intention of sinking, or was unable to, was, perhaps, solidly encased in a mud life’ preserver a quarter of a mile in diameter, I saw how foolish I had been and realized that the time had come to simplify my life. I had no need of museums, collec­tions, mementoes. So I opened up the hatch to the stairs below deck and into that dark well of sloshing water I threw back all I had dragged upstairs. Grimly at first, calculating my losses, but gradually then with calm, until with joy, until song and liberations, until I filled it all up to the sill and closed the door, shoving the rest into the pond in the cargo hold. I saved only a few kitchen utensils, dishes, some blankets, two changes of clothes and a heavy coat for winter.

 

Jauntily, suitcase in hand, I walked over to the pilot­house and moved in. It was a small place, nine by six, but ample for my needs. The pilot wheel I succeeded in unscrewing, hung above the window; the other levers and controls I left as they were to drape my clothes over, air the bedding on. A small mattress already lay on a row of footlockers; these I dragged outside and pried open one afternoon: more old clothes, papers, letters I had stored away decades before and which I now shoved overboard with only the briefest of visits from my fingers. There was a small box of photographs all curled up and yellowed, photographs of Unguentine in athletic poses perhaps identical to ones he now held elsewhere­—on another barge, with another woman? Of myself embraced by a forgotten landscape, young thing, un­knowing, unwise, no doubt peering through time to this moment of being able to gaze back on it all, but still unknowing, unwise, tossing it all over the railing to a shallow splash. They floated on and on, taking days to submerge. Lilies, water faces, friends, family, pets. The mud eventually claimed them. As they silted deeper and deeper in they might fossilize, those faces, to be touched by a germ of life eons hence, to move again, breed again, be photographed again. 


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