19: Daedalus

Image by Winnond, freedigitalphotos.net

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Someone once made the mistake of telling my Grandfather that, being the greatest shipwright the province over, he could build a boat out of anything. I remember him laughing at the man, grabbing his chest, his white beard quivering, but his eyes were starting to mist over. Something then, gripped him, and never let go.

First it was a boat made of hair. He sent my sister and I throughout the town, and then the neighbouring town, and on and on down the roads to collect all the strands. I remember standing there in the sweltering heat, holding the bucket as the old women went round shaving heads, their deft old hands working so quickly as to become a blur before our eyes. Those with the strongest, darkest hair took our money, and we gathered up the hair newly fallen from now glistening heads. We took the buckets back to our Grandfather who hugged us in excitement when he saw how much we had collected. He would comment lovingly on the good quality of the hair, what a great job we had done. He would reward us with biscuits from an old tin adorned with a smiling lady holding a bursting cornucopia. Later, when we were afloat in that other boat, I would think of her, and wonder where she had gathered such wondrous fruit, and if we would ever see land again.

The boat made of hair was not seaworthy. It pained us all to see my Grandfather abandon it, but everyone knew it was a fool’s errand. Suddenly where once we had a house full of laughter and industrious excitement, now even the walls radiated with silence. My Grandfather was thinking, he was grieving for his dream, surrounded by all the swathes of dark hair left here and there in every room that seemed to become entwined in everything. But he did not give up.

Next there was the boat made of heavily salted butter, but you know how that turned out. I think pretty much everyone heard about that one. There was not enough salt in all the land to make that ship sail, and you know it’s funny because the sea is full of salt, but there it is. My Grandfather abandoned that too, and everyone we knew said (by that stage) that it was a good thing my Grandmother was not alive to see it. It would have cut her two, they said, to watch him turn his hand to all these follies.

It was only one day, when I was sitting under the willow, that I heard my Grandfather shout from out of a window somewhere, and I knew he had done it at last. It was the most unlikely design, but it was beautiful.

“A boat made from paper! But of course! So simple, even a child could make one!”

He was leaning out of the side of the house like that, clear out of the window into the sun. I can still see him now, and yes I think he really was half in and half out of life. Each day and each new design brought him a little further away from reality.

But the boat made from paper was the greatest of all his successes. That’s what everyone said. Grandfather was so proud, he stood at the docks and beamed at it, and beamed at us and now when I remember what it was like to look upon that ship it fills me with wonder still. She had the tallest sails, ivory white, and her sides were tinged with blue. The cabin walls were smooth as glass and the bunks so soft to lie upon, I’ll never really know how he did it.

“It was all in the folds,” he told me as if that were the secret. “I folded all my dreams into every plank, into the mast; as I shaped the body of the figurehead, I thought about what it would be like to have made the ship that no one could make – and I have done it!”

We set sail one quiet autumn day and half the province came to wave us off. They all brought picnics and there was singing and dancing and fires burning all along the wharf as we drifted away like a feather on the wind. I remember having some misgivings. I was sorry to leave so many of my things behind but Grandfather said I would be able to buy new things, once we got to some new place. My sister grew dark as she heard him say this, her face became stuck, pained. She asked him how he knew where we would go and what we would do there and he just said that the boat would decide. He actually laughed at our concerns.

“I built this boat, and this boat will not fail me.”

But my sister whispered into my ear one night,

“Doesn’t Grandfather realise that this boat is made of paper?”

“Of course he does,” I said, “don’t be silly.”

She sighed, her hair glinted where the moonlight cut across it to make a path out of the darkness.

“A paper boat would sink with all of us in it. Only magic is holding this boat up in the water, and magic comes at a price.”

I thought about what she said, the thought had never once crossed my mind.

“What price?” I asked. But she never answered. Still I could hear her thinking in the dark all night.

It took a few days but soon I saw it. The change in her,

I found her down below, in the belly of the ship. She was sobbing. My Grandfather was up on deck singing, oblivious. But when I came to my sister to see what was wrong, I found she was bent over a sheet of paper, she had a pen in her hand. It may as well have been a knife. A pen. On a magical boat made of paper.

“I can’t stop.” She had, by way of an excuse. She had been writing.

“What is that?” I asked her, I felt my hands shaking, something strange was happening to us.

“It’s a page from the galley table.” She said. “But it’s just a page, it won’t be missed.”

That was what she said then. That night I heard her scribbling away again.

“What are you writing?” I asked her. But she could not reply. I found some of her notes and began hoarding them in case Grandfather might see. I tried to read them but they made no sense to me at all. They were just strings of words, some weren’t even spelt correctly. Soon her bed was gone. She had ripped it up to write a book of nonsense verse in a language she had invented. My Grandfather, who slept on deck, was still none the wiser until she started attacking the very helm. She tore the great wheel apart in her madness for paper to write upon.

When my Grandfather saw what had happened to her he fell down upon his knees and wept. Carelessly he tore a sheet from the deck to use as a tissue to blow his great nose in. He knew then that all magic comes at a price. He had been willing to pay any deficit for our sakes, he said, but no one had come asking, the magic had just taken the thing it wanted most, or what was most easily taken.

My sister went raving mad when we took the pen away and so we had to lock her in the brig. Still she ripped at the sides of her cell and so we had to restrain her. Lying awake at night I could hear her screams and I even took the pen and hurled it into the ocean but it did no good. My Grandfather and I both beseeched the ship to leave my sister be, and to torment us instead, but to no avail. You cannot unchoose a choice made by magic.

“Sink it.” He said to me one night in a storm. “Sink it and we’ll try and swim away.” The storm raged so loud that night we were almost grateful because it drowned out the cries of my poor mad sister. Every cloud has a silver lining they say.

“To the bottom of the ocean with her.” Grandfather cried, and he downed the last of the whiskey, and crushed the soggy bottle with one hand. In his ship, even the bottles were made of paper. We had run out of food by that stage, and as my Grandfather said, we could not eat the paper.

“How are we to do it though? How do we sink her?” I asked.

“Magic.” Was all he said.

The next morning I woke to the sound of seagulls and a face full of sand. I turned my head to my right and saw my sister, lying on the beach, her hair extended in beautiful honey tendrils. For a moment I felt like I was only dreaming, and I wanted only to put my hand out to touch those soft strands, to feel them under my fingers, something safe and familiar and beautiful. But I knew in my heart I was awake. It was then I saw my Grandfather waving goodbye to us, I watched him sink below the waves and rubbed my eyes because it seemed impossible. How had we come to be there? Could it really be my Grandfather sinking away into the water, leaving us? The reality hit me like the waves, full in the face, stinging and blinding and relentless.I screamed and screamed but he came no nearer to us, in one moment he was gone, swallowed by a wave, his boat of dreams, obliterated in an instant.

I turned back to my sister who was waking. She too rubbed her eyes as if emerging from a great sleep.

“Oh it’s beautiful here!” She said, as if she had quite forgotten my Grandfather and the boat made of paper.

People were coming towards us now, tall people with beautiful eyes holding baskets, some held children.

“Mermaids!” Said one.

“No, see they have no tails.” Said another.

“Please help us,” I ran to them. “Our Grandfather will drown, he’s out there now in a boat made of paper.” That’s what I said to them. I pointed out to sea but someone said.

“There’s nothing at all in the waves child.”

And she was right, where my Grandfather’s boat had once been, was now the ocean, and the long horizon.

I felt a last cry gather in my mouth and then stiffle. I saw my sister smiling and chatting to the people on the beach, I saw her take a shell out of her beautiful hair and act as if nothing had happened. I felt utterly at a loss, and so I put my hands in my pockets and it was then that I felt something crumple. It was a sheet of paper. I took it out and opened it up and saw the words my sister had written start to make sense at last.

“I had to give everything up to get anything back.” It started off, the words slanting this way and that, twirling round each other like twine.

“I had to loose everything to gain anything worth having.” Here and there the letters twisted so I had to twist the paper to follow them, like a road into a labyrinth.

“I needed to be empty, in order to be full again.” The words neared the centre.

“I needed to be wiped away, and in order to be written again.”

The words stopped. They had finally run aground. I shook my head and tried to say something to my sister, about the things she had written, and about our Grandfather, and about that emptiness in the centre of the page but she was already moving away. The sun was rising high above our heads, and above the people who led her away up into the trees. Someone was singing, the smell of food was drifting down the beach and catching me up in it.

One woman came and stood beside me for a time as I grieved for my Grandfather and his boat.

“Better that you should live, and that he should go.” She said by way of a kindness to me.

I nodded and screwed up the paper into a ball. I tossed it away from me.

“He was all we had.” I said.

“Are the kinds of dreams one makes out of paper, really worth sailing off in?” She asked me, her head cocked to one side, her eyes large and taking me in as if I were a mirage.

“Yes.” I said. “They got us this far.”

We watched the ocean for a while longer, and then she told me her name and asked if I was hungry. and I thought I may as well follow her to where the trees met the sand, to where all adventurers go eventually.

 

 

 

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12: The Nature of the Beast.

Image by cbenjasuwan courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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“Let me tell you about the nature of the beast,” the Captain said.

He wiped a bead of sweat from the arch of his brow with a pained expression, as the lights in front and the lights behind him began to flicker in some rogue breeze, the whisper of a tempest.

“Go on then!” Matthew said, his hands clasping his cap between his knees, his back bent, leaning in as if the Captain’s words were like the warmth of a fireside to him. But the Captain rose, and in the dim I saw how Matthew’s face slumped down in bitter disappointment. We both thought the moment had passed, but then the Captain spoke.

“Wait,”

The wind blew again and a weight of expectation fell upon the room already so wreathed in anticipation; impregnated with the smell of the salt water, and of men sweating in the dark.

“If I tell you-” he began.

“Yes, if I tell you, don’t ever forget.”

The silence grew around his words the very second he ended them. A rough wave slapped the side of the ship and sent the Captain’s dog slinking away under the bed. Even now when I think of him, the Captain, I hear those words he said.

“Don’t ever forget.”

We looked on at him through that hunkering darkness, through the gloom of monotony brought on by all the days we had spent pent up together on that vast, labyrinthine ocean.

“Did you ever know a fear–“he began again, Matthew tried to speak then, eager to join in but the Captain hushed him with a hand.

“No, wait Matthew wait, don’t interrupt, yes I know you boys have felt it, the fear of death, I have. We’ve all known that terror. Of starvation, of hanging, the thought of pain, but did you ever know a fear without an end?”

Again I saw Matthew open his mouth, again the Captain silenced him. He looked right through him, even in the twilight of the candles you could tell what sort of a look that was. His silence made the Captain smile and half the teeth in his head were glinting, and the skin around his mouth grew taught like he was only wearing that face, like it was just a piece of hide that he used for a mask.

“No,” he said, quietly.

“I wouldn’t expect you to understand that terror, no.”

Then he sat back, and he sighed, and for the first time I saw it. The misery, it was positively leaking out of him. He was smiling again, and yet the sadness was all I could see of him.

“When I was your age Arthur, I met that terror,” he said. “I had met with terrors of a similar kind before, but the real monster, that I met later. I wasn’t young but I wasn’t old either. I was hovering in life.”

He stopped and his words sunk into us. One of the candles flickered and died and somewhere under the bed I heard that poor dog let out a whimper.

“I can’t describe the monster to you now, because it would make no sense. You couldn’t imagine it as it truly was, you wouldn’t imagine it right at all.”

He turned his face away from us, he sat back lower in his chair and seemed to disappear into the darkness.

“No. Let me tell you how it made me feel.”

“The first time I saw it I did not think it so terrible. I was bold enough to go right up to it, almost to put my hand out to touch the thing, but I didn’t. Maybe in some part of me then I knew that it was a monstrous thing, that the nearer I got to it the worse things would go for me. But maybe that is too easy to claim after events have passed. It was a long time ago now, in the marketplace, in Algiers, and I didn’t know then what I was looking at. “

“Yes, strange things,” Matthew said, half to himself.

“I’d forgotten you knew of it, that you had been there.”

Matthew sighed. “There were no monsters when I was there, only men, but they were beast-like enough.”

“Of course,” the Captain sighed, “you would say that.”

He turned then, to me and asked, “were you ever in Algiers, Arthur?”

“Yes. Yes I was once.”

“And what thought you of it?”

His eyes were burning, perhaps it was just the candle light, but suddenly there was fire in his eyes all at once.

“I thought it to be like many other places. It was too hot, and there were too many people. The marketplace when I was there was chaos Sir. Absolute chaos.”

The Captain laughed but it was a convulsion, there was no joy in it.

“You speak so finely Arthur, you must forgive me. I do like to hear you talk lad, it amuses me to hear you.” His chuckling continued for a while, like the aftershock of an earthquake.

“When I was there, all those many years ago, there was a trader, his name I forget. He was a sleek fellow with sunken eyes like two tar pits inside his head. I never saw an uglier specimen of a man, and I have seen the foulest, wickedest things this Earth holds. Yes, he was a sapling brute, that Arab.”

Matthew laughed, it was a loud, cruel laugh and it made me shudder.

“Laugh, yes go on, laugh! But he was the most intelligent man I ever knew. I mistrusted him at first, because he was so strange to me. But later, I came to see and hear a lot of him, and it made me know him, and in spite of the devious nature of his trade, I saw how promising his intellect was, and how wasted. He sat there in the middle of that square on his dirty rug, with dirty feet curled up under him and flies beating round his head like acolytes. Arthur you would have loathed him, I am sure of it. I did at first, but like I said, I came to know him, and my opinion of him changed. We came to talking he and I, and haggling over the price of some goods or other. He spoke English in a faltering way, and I was impressed with that to begin with. I asked him where he had picked up the language, but all he would mention was a name. “Mr Hatterdale.” He would repeat, “Mr Hatterdale” as if it were a mantra. I wondered who this man might be, perhaps a missionary, who knows. But that was when he took to me to see the monster, and I forgot all about his Mr Hatterdale.

“I thought you said this beast was in the marketplace?” Matthew asked.

“I did see it in the marketplace, I saw it there first, or rather I glimpsed it. I grabbed that little prophet by his scrawny neck and I said, ‘see there, what is that?’ and he got very excited and told me –for a modest fee of course– that I might see it if I wanted. I did want to, and so he took me. We followed that beast down the alleys and by-ways, we hunted after it. I was desperate to know of it then. It was so strange to me. I wondered how, no one else was as intrigued as I to know the nature of this beast. I never thought then that to them, it was an everyday thing. They were numb to it now. I could never become blind to such a thing. I was entrapped by it, and it would haunt me night and day without end. I wish now that I had never seen it. No. That is a lie. But it’s taken a part of me now, and I’ll never get it back, and so it has me.”

Matthew lent forward, “which part?” he asked.

“Idiot,” the Captain said, and he shook his head, tossing his grey-black curls in a rage because Matthew didn’t understand.

We were quiet again for a time. I almost thought the Captain had fallen asleep. The ship rocked us to and fro like a hand on a cradle; the waves beating like birds’ wings against the ship’s sides in the dark. The dog came out again from its hiding place and scurried amongst us all. To the Captain it came last, and he roused himself, and he gave it a pat on the head.

“Good lad,” he said. But the Captain was staring into darkness. I saw his eyes flash again as old memories must have been working their way to the surface of his mind.

“Sometimes I shudder all over when I think about what I’ve seen. In darkened souks, in dirty hovels at the ends of the earth. You know, I remember when I was a boy and my uncle would stop in our room late in the evening, and he would lean on the doorframe, drunk out of his mind, but he would speak to us like a prophet. He was a sailor too you see, and he knew more than you or I will ever know. He was a great man my uncle, but he was a hideous drunk when he came to port. My mother dreaded him coming and our father hated him with such a passion, and I never knew why, but come to see us he did from time to time, and such things he brought with him! A little wooden mahogany box, inlaid with mother of pearl so as it shone like a rainbow. It smelt like sandalwood, rich and sweet. I used to keep stones in it, and shells. But he told us stories too, about the things that lived in foreign lands under scorched earth and in caves deep, deep in the ocean. I never forgot them.”

I was now straining to see the Captain through the gloom. The glow of the candles was a poor light to sit in. They were nearly burnt down to the nub, but it was the Captain’s words which compelled me. I felt that as he talked, I was falling down into a vast well and that I might never crawl out, but still I listened.

“The first time I visited the beast I was shaking all over,” he continued. “I was so young, and I didn’t know the true meaning of courage. But that was how I came to know it. Not through rough seas or harsh words or beatings, or fray. I learnt how to be a man just by looking at that thing. I wanted to touch it, I wanted to know it was really real but I didn’t dare. The Arab took my money from me, and he shook his head at me every time I came, because I wasn’t as bold as the others, I never touched the beast. I knew that the second I did, it would destroy every last part of me. So I waited, and waited, and waited.”

“What did it look like?”

“Hmm?”

The Captain roused himself as if from a dream. His eyes were like black marbles shinning in the dark. And I noticed then that the Captain’s arms never reached out for anyone, but his eyes did, perpetually. They cried out of his head, trapped in that great, scarred face like jewels in a panel of stone.

“Oh Arthur,” he said, and he turned away.

The dog was softly snoring, I heard its wheezing breath rise and fall. Matthew was slumped over too, but he slept as if he were dead and so I had forgotten him. Nothing mattered but the words of the Captain, flowing out into the room like a river.

“I’ll never forget it,” he said. “Never. I could live a thousand lives and see a thousand wonders, terrors, everyday ordinary things too, and yet I’ll never forget its face. Ah the sound it made as it moved, its way of speaking to me, yes it spoke! Does that surprise you?” He looked over to me, and I nodded, I knew he was not expecting an answer and so he rolled on.

“I’ll never forget the sound of its voice.”

As he said it, a strangeness came into his own, a strangling of the throat, an uncustomary emotion gripped him so that I was forced to look away, though I doubt he could see my face in the dark. I was not in the light of the remaining candles as he was.

He said, “I came to see the thing as often as I could. I know that others came too, that they came as frequently as that little Arab would let them. I knew that in some part of his heart it caused him pain to be the warden of such a thing, and to be its guardian and custodian and nothing else. But still he took their money and I waited outside until it was my turn. Yes I waited at the wretched mouth of his tent like the great, white whale of a man that I was. But it was worth waiting. I waited until the last, until all the others had gone and dawn was about to break over the market. Then the Arab would call me forward and there it was, lurking in the shadows. And it seems to me that the thing had a thousand faces, and that it spoke in a thousand voices, and that it had a thousand hands that could reach out and grasp at me, could reach right through me. It broke through my heart, through my soul, through everything that I was.”

His voice wavered again and I stared down at the floor. I wondered why the Captain would not finish his story. As if sensing my impatience to know the truth of it, he sighed. He slapped his hands downs on his thighs, and the motion blew the remaining candles out but one.

For a moment the almost absolute darkness made me wonder who the man was who was sitting in front of me, and if I knew him at all. He seemed about as far away from me then as any one human being could be from another.

“You want to know what it is I saw in that place don’t you,” he said.

“Yes” I replied.

He seemed to hover for a moment in uncertainty, I feared he was almost at the end of his energy. Still I could not stop him from reaching his conclusion and I did not want to. He said:

“Maybe one day, you’ll meet it too. I hope that it will take a different form for you than it did for me.”

“I am in no hurry to return to Algiers Sir, I assure you.”

“Algiers!” he laughed.

“Algiers Arthur!” he mocked kindly.

“No, you may not meet it there, that beast is gone. I tried to barter with the little man, I offered him all the gold I had, that I would return to him with all the gold in the world, but he would not take it. “

“For what?”

“For the beast,” he said.

“Why?”

“Arthur, have you ever seen a monster? Do you know what one looks like? Have you heard one speak, or say your name? No of course you haven’t. You would know if you had. The monsters you’ve seen are in storybooks, or they are tales told by old men like me, who’ve spent their lives cooped up in holes in the ground or buckets in the water like this one. You could see a dog with ten heads, or a child with no eyes, or a man eat his own brother and you would think that it was monstrous, but you might never know a monster until one broke you apart.”

I asked him again.

“What was the beast you saw?”

I waited. Even the silence waited.

“Love,” he answered.

And the silence swept in to swallow us up until we were nothing at all.

“A whore?” finally I asked him.

The Captain responded in a whisper so ragged that I had to strain to hear him.

“Hollow women,” he said. “Hollow women, for hollow men.”

The lone candle died and total darkness fell upon us.

“Love is the most monstrous thing of all,” he said at last.

I felt as much as saw the tears falling from the Captain’s eyes. Even in the dark they glinted, washing over his face like a veil.