The Doldrums

Out here, with the sky pouting overhead and water stretching to the horizon in every direction, you understand the point of cathedrals. They make you feel small the way the world does.

The landlord and his cousins have arrived at the house, you imagine. You wonder if they’ll bother clearing out the house before they pull it apart. If so, they’ll see the pile of Condemned notices in what used to be a small office on the ground floor. Your father would rip them off the front door, ball them up, and toss them in there with the old newspapers and spoiled food.

Your father will stand at that front door, holding onto one of the rotting porch columns, condemning them with strange, guttural prayers. Your mother will stand in the yard and look for neighbors to shoo away, not making eye contact with anyone.

You regret not keeping up with your sailing lessons as you got older. Pushing off from the beach was simple enough, but adjusting the sails as the wind changes tries your patience. As you spend more time upwind, you take them down entirely and use the canterboard as a paddle.

Your father told his parishioners that God gathered the waters under the heaven into a great hollow, that thunder clapped and made the vast cavity for the sea. That is what he once believed. Your mother sat in the first row, watching him with her hands folded in her lap. You squirmed and swung your legs, which could not yet touch the floor. Behind you sat rows of sailors and longshoremen, their mouths slackened by missing teeth.

It has been days now. You have been deliberate in not counting them. Your sails are limp, and your wet hands lose the canterboard. It floats away from your efforts to retrieve it, which capsize the boat again. As you kick underneath the water, you feel your right shoe loosen and slip away.

When you were not quite a man, your father was called upon to be the spiritual presence on a ship’s voyage lasting six months. You and your mother walked with him to the docks to see him off, and you were struck by the darkness of the sea. You could barely break your gaze from it to say goodbye to your father before he was led away. Your mother held your hand as their boat shoved off from the dock and away. You can still remember the shape of the boat’s wake, the foamy tips rising and settling.

You’d never seen water that dark in your life, before or since. Even now, as it surrounds you on all sides, it is not the living shadow you remember. You lay face down on the bow of your little boat and paddle with your hands. The salt stings, and your hands are stained when you pull them out of the water. You wipe them on your blue trousers, then again on your brown canvas jacket.

Your father was gone six months, and then seven, at which point your mother stopped eating. After eight months, she stopped sleeping. Her footsteps on the old floorboards and stairs were so common that whenever she spent a night quietly sitting upright in bed, you did too.

Clouds gather overhead, fat and round like blisters. You brought nothing to protect yourself from rain, so you must endure it. You stow your bags of food and tins of water under your feet, pushing them away from the water that floods your little boat and spills over the sides.

Sometimes the rain burns your skin, other times it merely stings. When you feel puckish enough to try raising the sails again, they are full of holes. You toss them over the side of the boat and watch them disintegrate.

After nine months, your father returned home. By this time, clutter was creeping into the house, little by little; a stack of dishes here, some neglected washing there. A stack of newspapers waited to be read in that little office room on the ground floor. Your father said little about it. More clutter followed him home from wherever he’d been.

The rain calms down to a sluggish drizzle that ruins much of your food supply. You ration as best you can, not so much eating as negotiating with your stomach to not throb and ache.

Time is harder to determine after the rain. Lingering clouds make tracking the passage of the sun all but impossible. Your days, for lack of a better word, are split into gray dusk and black starless night. Your compass is too full of water to use, and your father’s maps are handfuls of pulp.

You took the maps from your parents’ bedroom before you left. They were the last thing you took, and you almost forgot them. You should have looked in a mirror too, and made a memory of it. You are forgetting what you look like.

The maps are marked with X’s and hen-scratched, marginal ramblings taken from your father’s new sermons, the ones he delivered with fiery voice as his house filled with trash. His spiritual focus had always been the sea, but he’d returned from his voyage with renewed zeal, referring to the sky as an “empty vault” that God built to trick the Devil into thinking Heaven sat above the earth.

“A circle is written in light on the face of the waters, at the boundary between light and darkness,” your father would shout to the men and women who sat in pews made from salvaged ship’s wood. “May all who thirsteth, come ye to the circle.” He would repeat that a few times, and make his parishioners respond in kind.

One of the X’s on the unfolding map is less than a foot from the green-print ragged coastline where you live. You didn’t adjust that distance to scale, but it seemed like you could reach it after a few days’ journey. You wrote down the coordinates and memorized them, but without the context of the map, they are halfway to useless. Your waterlogged compass completes that journey.

What are your parents doing now, as their home is torn apart by stout men with sledgehammers and pitchforks and iron prybars? Is your father bellowing forth a sermon from the collapsing porch, as he did when he was asked to leave the church? Those sermons come from the Bible he brought home with him, the one bound in stained, tan leather.

Is your mother standing behind him, crying into his vestments with her arms locked around his waist, or have the landlord’s cousins cast her into the mud? Do they realize you’ve left? Does anyone? Have you left? Leaving implies going somewhere. You are nowhere.

You watch the sky move for a while, then compare its pace to the foul water lapping against the sides of your boat. The water looks and smells like the bottom layers of trash in your house that rotted and liquefied as more spoiled food and junk was cast on top of them. Every room smelled like a distant funeral. The walls dripped with sludge. The floorboards bent and broke under the weight of it.

Perhaps your father was right and the clouds will peel away and expose corroded rigging, brittle from constant exposure to a cold, indifferent sun. You look back at the endless water. No other boats or structures break the panoramic monotony. Not even a speck of land. A single wooden plank floats by and you analyze it for days, running your flat palm over its topography, inspecting every barnacle and mold spot. You pull it into the boat with you before you fall asleep. It’s gone when you wake up.

When clean-looking men in suits started attending your father’s sermons in church, he started delivering them from the front porch of your house. One time, a child almost made it up to the front door, only to be gently led back to his mother by your mother, her hand trembling over his.

Your little boat is old, streaked with silt, the paint cracked and peeling. Every day you mount the bow to paddle with your hands, exposing your back to the sun and rain and stinging air. Every night you climb back into the little aperature that must pass for comfort, your arms heavy and sore. Sometimes the water is boiling hot on one side of the boat and freezing cold on the other. When a fish bites your finger, you pull it up from the water and eat it raw, and spend days tonguing scales out of your gumline.

Dark shapes move under the water. You cannot see them, only the negative space around them as it reflects the sun. You alter your course to follow them, your compass forgotten on the floor of the boat. Your hands disappear into the water and you stretch out your fingers, hoping to touch what you follow.

You think about the the disappearance of He from your father’s mouth, and the creeping arrival of She. As you follow the shapes that write black letters under the water with their undulating bodies, you consider that they are She, or disciples of She, and your heart cracks a little. At night, when you sleep adrift in the boat, you bring your knees up to the hollowness in your stomach and think about shadows dancing around tall rocks and trees and dock pylons as the sun passes over them.

As a child, you used to run from the base of the shadow of an old man’s ship mast to the top, then back again, your bare feet making mush of the earth. You convinced yourself that you’d found an easy way to climb the mast. Perhaps you are still young enough for the sun to make such cruel sport of you.

“She who rose up from the sea and beheld the sky’s emptiness and rejected the lie of its divinity,” your father said, reading from a tan leather book. “She who exposed the sky as a conceit, that it is not and was never the seat of Heav’n, and who thereupon immortalized her accusing fingers as black crystals before returning to the depths of the sea, deep within the Black Lake.” He looked up at a crowd of nine or ten people standing around the porch, their shoes sinking into the mud rising up through the thin grass. They gazed with pity upon a man who had not bathed or changed his clothing in days, whose wife’s arms and legs were a constellation of flea bites. Behind them, their house collapsed in a slow faint.

You secured your boat after the landlord forced his way into the house and saw your family eating on the floor, leaving the veil of garbage covering the table undisturbed. Your mother cried. Your father flew into a rage, pushing the landlord down the porch steps into the mud. Condemned letters appeared on the front door after that, new ones every week, the print bigger and heavier each time.

The sky has drawn thick gray clouds over the sun, and drowsy light exposes the shapes under the water in greater detail. You can see the sleekness of their skin, the steady movements of fins and tails, accordion-like propellant movements that suggest more complicated physiology. The sky darkens and yet does not rain. The air is harsh and dry in your lungs. Blood trickles from your nose at intervals. You lean over the edge of the bow and empty a nostril into the water. An eye opens beneath you.

In a dream, your mother’s legs dangle beneath her, bare under a simple gray shift. One of her black slippers falls to the dusty wood floor of an unfinished attic; the exposed beams and steepled ceiling give it away. A chair has been tipped onto its side underneath her. You trace the longitudinal blue veins in her exposed foot as ship’s line bristles into her neck. A trapdoor creaks open and her voice leaves her mouth as a whistle and steam.

You wake up with your hands around your own throat, and decide that from now on they will only paddle. You cast off your canvas jacket and shirt and pursue the dark shapes with renewed vigor. Days pass. Your skin tightens to your bones, peels off in strips. Nights pass. Your shoulders burn in their sockets, but you will not rest. This secret that destroyed your house from within, that turned your mother and father into paper lanterns of themselves, you will find it.

Above and below you, the sky and water share an eldritch rhythm.

A black spire reaches up from the water and pierces the clouds. It has the angular construction of volcanic glass, but as you stare at it, the light leaves your body and bends into the spire. You shut your eyes and fall back into the boat, listening to waves crash against the sides of the spire. Pale sunlight streaks through the clouds at the spire’s peak and dies in the water. The dark shapes thrash underneath you, their wake pushing you closer and closer.

“The nethermost caverns are not for the fathoming of eyes that see,” your father said, “for their marvels are strange and terrific.”

Carcasses of ships bob to the surface of the water, their sails flapping against the waves like old skin. Rainbows swirl in puddles of oil forming on the water’s surface.

“Things have learnt to walk that ought to crawl,” your father said. “After summer is winter, after winter summer. They wait patient and potent, for here shall they reign again.”

Casting overboard what few belongings you have, you only linger on your compass as it leaks water into your hand. You throw it as far as you can and duck into the boat’s hollow, your head resting where your feet once were. How much of your father’s light left him out here? How much did he permit himself to lose? You wonder if your corpse will look at all like his.
It does.

Dave K. writes for Adweek and Barnes & Noble, and his fiction/essays/poetry have appeared in Front Porch Journal, Battered Suitcase, Cobalt, Artichoke Haircut, The Avenue, Welter, TRUCK, and on the LED billboard in the Station North neighborhood of Baltimore, MD. He is also the author of stone a pig and MY NAME IS HATE, both self-published. He is also also a nature reserve and forest located in Fall River, Massachusetts.

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