maiden journey

The fog had lingered it seemed for weeks, the weather gray as gloom, as if it had thrown down an anchor in their harbor, tied itself to their port alongside the fishing boats, who appeared nearly as forlorn. There could be no leaving port in search of food in the thickness of this cloud, no drifting out beyond the defines and the confines of the coastline to cast nets into the deep, where they might be withdrawn satiated. No, just one hundred feet from shore, all bearings would be lost. And so, forsaken by their owners, the boats clattered and smacked against one another and the dock, as if to remind the ones whom they carried faithfully of their presence and their eagerness to satisfy their needs for sustenance.


The fishermen themselves were beginning to fret. They had mended nets, inspected riggings, performed routine maintenance on outboard motors, busied themselves until they were merely restless. The yearning to return to the sea was bordering on hunger, and the belly ache caused them alternately to lash out viciously at loved ones, or to retreat into hibernation where they would not be so affected by it. Indeed, they were as bears imprisoned by the land.


Jeremiah was the one to whom she first appeared. Wandering along the waterfront at twilight, out of the house, drawn away from the worn out pub’s comfort  toward another unnamed one, he scanned the nonexistent horizon for a sign of a break in the gloom, peering deeply into the hovering mist. In the shadows, beyond the limits of the lights of town, he spotted her, standing alongside her weather-beaten row boat, gazing into him as intently as he into the fog.


He felt her, more than saw her, at least at first, felt the sadness of her eyes penetrating his skin, searching his exposed insides, as if desperate for something lost. Chilled to the bone, he shrugged his shoulders as if to somehow shake it off, pulled the collar of his pea coat tight about his neck, and turned to head back toward town. Maybe there was a change in weather coming after all.


As he began to turn, she came into his view, materialized along with her battered vessel beside the rocks where she had secured it. There amidst the rocks, beneath the ancient trees, whose wintry skeletons, dark like hers, appeared in silhouette on the horizon, she stood shock-still. Actually, she was more gray than black, the trees somehow more solid than she, and had he not known these trees, he would have later passed the entire vision off as mirage. But he did know them, well, like he knew every other detail of this coast, like he knew the curve of his wife’s hip beside him in the bed; he could see them in the dark.


So many times these trees had been his beacon, reassuring him as he came around that final jutting scrap of rock, that he had found his way back home, inspiring him with their tenacity. How they managed to survive, to thrive in the harshness of the environ into which they had been planted was both a mystery and a revelation to him. He used to come out here, just to examine their roots, stretched out as they were across and around the surface of the rocks, as if hugging them to hold on against the winter winds and pounding tides. What was even more curious to him than what they withstood above ground was how they managed to find sustenance beneath the sandy soil. What nourishment could possibly be found in such an inhospitable soil?


Once when he was a child, he dug a hole as deep as he could, down into the coarseness of the sand not refined by daily beatings, down to where the sand was heavier and darker, down to where he could stand and still not be seen from the surface. He had sat down in the bottom of the hole, until the tide rose and lapped the edges, until the water trickled vein-like paths into the sides, until the water rushed unexpectedly around him, until it filled his hiding place, until all that protruded from the murky fluid was his head. He couldn’t see his legs, his swimming trunks, his wrinkled fingertips, his shriveled nipples.


His mother had freaked out when she found him there. She had been scanning the horizon, calling him. It was time for dinner. When she stumbled upon the hole, the water had arisen to the point where he had to tip his chin toward the sky so that he could breathe. His detached face peering up at her had shaken her. It was like happening across a mirror in the desert, the way his reflection glinted momentarily in the light, as if it might actually be water.  But then she saw her likeness and she screamed, pulling him roughly out, alternately hugging him and scolding him for getting lost. But he was not lost. He knew where he was. She should have known he would be there, looking for the secret of how the trees hold on.


He had discovered that day that it was merely their faces that the ancient trees revealed, gnarled and twisted as they had become with time, each passing season worn into the ridges of their weathered beauty. So much more of them must lie deep beneath the surface. From the security of this anchor, they could observe both man and sea, and Jeremiah put his faith in their time-honed wisdom. If they could hang on, then so could he.


Perhaps he had walked all this way tonight after all to revisit them. Now, captured by the intense gaze that seemed to come from beneath their knobby limbs, his own limbs felt as unreal as they had that day in the hole, wanting to float to the surface even as he held them fast. Finally, he shook himself to be sure that they were still attached. She disappeared.


But he had seen her. Sure as he was standing there, so was she. Her gray slicker dripping, had appeared to drape over her bones like a grown man’s overcoat thrown across his feeble mother. Her drenched hat, pulled down over her ears, had likewise dripped its tears down across her face. Except it was not raining. She had stood so motionless, like the startled deer he had once come upon in the woods. It was ultimately his need to check on the existence of his arms and legs that had sent the creature scurrying that day too.


And yet, he had the feeling that he had been the creature being observed, noticed long before he noticed her. Walking cautiously closer to the trees, his eyes scanned the periphery for some sign of the woman or the boat.  There was none, although given the thickness of the fog, she could be standing on the margins and he would not have been able to see her. Perhaps she watched him still.


He sat down upon the rocks, upon the spot where he had spotted her, sat there until the separation between earth and sky grew vague, until the wind picked up where the sun had left off, trying to convince the fog to lift, to let go its hold and move out to sea. It pressed against the ancient trees, and he soon heard the creaking of their bones as they resurrected their old dance to the wind’s evocative strains. And they held fast their mooring.


Eventually he was seduced to sleep by the harmonious lullaby, now recalled, of wind and trees and a woman’s mournful low.


…to be continued

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