a bit more on stanley crawford’s log of the s.s. the mrs unguentine

Reading Stanley Crawford’s Log of the S.S. The Mrs Unguentine
Ben Marcus

1972 was a difficult year for the novel. This might—and perhaps should—be said of all years and times, since the novel is forever, genetically, finding everything a struggle and all things difficult (I think we’re supposed to be worried when the novel does not do this). But 1972 was particularly special in its overshadowing, domineering, mattering way. It was a year that refused to cede an inch to the make-believe. The merely imaginary might finally have seemed trifling up against some of the defining and grisly moments of the century that collided that year and chewed up every available dose of attention in the culture. 1972, in short, produced the Watergate scandal, the Munich Massacre, and Bloody Sunday. Nixon traveled to China in 1972, and the last U.S. troops finally departed Vietnam. It wasn’t clear that a novel had leverage against all of this atrocity, deceit, transgression, and milestone, let alone a novel posing as a ship’s log, narrated by a widowed ship slave who has witnessed logic-defying architecture, radical ecological invention, and faked a pregnancy while being banished—by her alcoholic, abusive husband—from all land and humanity.

Forget that painting (or sculpture, or the better poetry) was never asked to compete with the news, or to be the news. The novel’s weird burden of relevance—to reflect and anticipate the times, to grab headlines, to be somehow current, while not also disgracing the language—was being shirked all over the place, and Stanley Crawford, already unusually capable of uncoiling his brain and repacking it in his head in a new, gnarled design for every book he wrote, was chief among those writers who seemed siloed in a special, ahistorical field, working with private alchemical tools, producing work just out of tune enough to disrupt the flight of the birds that passed his hideout.

Architectural dreamwork, end-times seascapes so barren they seem cut from the pages of the Bible, coolly-rendered Rube Goldberg apparati, and the crushing sadness that results when you tie your emotional fortunes to a person whose tongue is so fat in his mouth he can barely speak, mark this little masterpiece of a novel. Cast as a soliloquy in the form of a ship’s log, a grief report from someone who has no good insurance she will ever be heard, the novel moves fluidly between its major forms: love song, a treatise on gardening at sea, an argument against the company of others, and a dark science expo for exquisite inventions like a hybrid lichen that makes things invisible. Published by Alfred A. Knopf under the editorial guidance of Gordon Lish, the fiction world’s singular Quixote—a champion of innovative styles and formal ambition—there may have been no better year in which to tuck such an odd, exquisite book. Instead of rushing for relevance and breaking the news, Crawford was taking the oldest news of all—it is strange and alone here, even when we are surrounded by people, and there is a great degree of pain to be felt—and reporting it as nautical confessional. The result, now thirty-six years later, seems to prove that interior news, the news of what it feels like to want too much from another person, will not readily smother under archival dust . . .

—from Ben Marcus’ afterword to Log of the S.S. Mrs Unguentine

The complete text of log of the s.s. mrs unguentine is here


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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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.

 

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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?

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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.

 

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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 rest of chapter 6