I’m not sure why I wanted to post this today. It’s something I wrote in graduate school after my father died and I started reading the books on his nightstand. All quotes are from The Death Ship by B. Traven except for the Nick Cave lyrics.
How a Book Became Holy in a Dead Sailor’s Hands
Books are profane until they are last books. They look like plain things until they outlive you, when the stack is still tall and teetering on the nightstand and your side of the bed is empty. I’ve read books about ships. I’ve sailed the high seas in maritime stories. I’ve been on boats, but mostly I’ve just waded on through.
Walking down the creek, the sun splashing through the trees, I tripped forward to my death. I’d been trailing an unfamiliar birdsong, my heart transfixed by those little bird lungs. I fainted in the shallows and inhaled the current, cloudy from yesterday’s rain. Then I found myself in exile. Exile, at first made up of vague impressions: a bear on the bank, my toes turning blue with cold, a beloved woman screaming my name, a tractor pulling the ambulance that had sunk deeply in the mud.
The farm had been lit up that afternoon, all bright and clear with winter. I’d removed a tangle of branches from the egress of a lake we’d all skated on once. I’d paid no mind to the day turning dark. My work there was almost done. The waning light still seduced rocks and eddies further down the creek. My family awaited me, but so did that song in the treetops. I’d recreate it now if I could. But all I can hear are those beats of my heart, those erratic rhythms. Beating extra beats that day, budum, budum—you probably know the sound. I cursed myself as I stumbled, fell forward: “Stupid man, stupid man.”
Let me remind you: I’ve scaled water towers. I’ve climbed trees to heights unheard of. I’ve tripped acid on college rooftops. I’ve read the books that turn boys into men. And yet the truth stands: I’ve been on boats, but mostly I’ve just waded on through.
I’d worn special boots made for tramping through water, rubber soles suspended all the way from my shoulders, rubber all the way down, insulating my legs and my feet from the cold, for a time. I’d eaten eggs for breakfast, skimmed a Sunday newspaper. I’d read special books written for the dying. Books critical to my survival. Books written just for me.
Days before I joined the current—stupid man, stupid man—I lay in bed beside my wife, rereading a novel about a sailor on a death ship. The sailor had been dozing on the railing when the Yorikke’s engines went silent. Pause here to consider a fictional moment beyond this nonfictional moment. Something final is happening here:
Suddenly I was wide awake. I could not understand at the moment what it was that had made me so. It had been like a shock. Fixing my mind upon this strange feeling, I noticed a great quietness. The engine had ceased to work. Day and night there is a noise of the engine; its stamping, rocking, and shaking make the whole ship quiver. It makes the ship a live thing. This noise creeps into your flesh and brain. The whole body falls into the same rhythm. One speaks, eats, hears, sees, sleeps, awakes, thinks, feels, and lives in this rhythm. And then quite unexpectedly the engine stops. One feels a real pain in body and mind. One feels empty, as if dropped in an elevator down the shaft at a giddy speed. You feel the earth sinking away beneath you; and on a ship you have the stark sensation that the bottom of the ship has broken off, and the whole affair, with you inside, is going right through to the opposite end of the globe. It was this sudden silence of the engine that was the cause of my awakening.
Shortly after I inhaled the murky water, my blood ceased to warm my body like the steam that scalds the engines of the Yorikke. The cold slipped into my rubber suit. The pulse stopped sounding in my wrists. My vessels went still and numb. I never knew how loud a body was until it went quiet. Then I awakened on a lonely ship.
I can’t tell you yet about awakening.
As a young man I heard the ship’s engines. The engines drove me across continents. They carried me to Alaska, to England. To Haiti and the Grand Canyon. I manned the outboard motor of a fishing boat, I shuttled my children between islands in the Chesapeake. I saw the breaching of a humpback whale from the aft-side of a party cruise. So many times I ferried my family across the water.
In the shippy story on my nightstand, a sailor’s vessel leaves the port without him. The cabin of the ship held all the sailor’s earthly belongings, including his proof of citizenship. He stands on the dock and watches his whole life drift away from him:
I have seen children who, at a fair or in a crowd, have lost their mothers. I have seen people whose homes had burned down, others whose whole property had been carried away by floods. I have seen deer whose companions had been shot or captured. All this is so painful to see and so very sorrowful to think of. Yet of all the woeful things there is nothing so sad as a sailor in a foreign land whose ship has just sailed off leaving him behind.
There are no homefires burning on the absconding vessel. There are no misplaced mothers. The daughters are far away, dressed in mermaid costumes. And yet the sailor wanders from port to port. But he gets to choose the manner of his homecoming, by land or by sea. Either he will stick to piers and boardwalks, or he will bounce back on the waves.
You bring nothing with you to the afterlife. You have no credentials, no documentation. And so you drown, and you pray that the bottom of the ocean lacks customs officials. You hope the red tape can’t reach all the way down. You sink, a piece of coal tied to your foot so you’ll be heavier, more efficiently submerged. Your weight is your passport. “What right have you to be here?” asks the old man of the seabeds. “What qualifies you for admission to eternity?” You can only answer, “My DNA, the science that makes up my body. The paper of my skin. The stamp of my mouth. The license that my sodden heart has earned.”
My daughter’s hand on my sailor’s cheek, my sailor’s cheek tickling her palm for the last time with its whiskers. My sailor’s rags buried in a coffin ship.
I watch them all, the members of my family, casting lines into the Atlantic. My wife washing her wintry hands in our kitchen sink. I watch and wash them all with water, as warm as I can make it. My eldest daughter, she hates taking showers, she dreads each repetitive, droning action like using a toilet, like pouring milk on cereal, like waiting for the teabag to seep. She was born without the landlubbing instinct. I can see her when she’s sailing. I can see all my children as ships because I, too, am a ship, rudderless in some uncharted ocean. My aquatic exile, can it compare to days on solid earth? Can any part of death compare to life? Can what remains of me speak the argot of those on shore? Stupid man, these are senseless questions. No sailor can commune with earthbound faces. My loved ones can’t correspond with the dead; they don’t know the mailing address of the ship I’m on. They can’t foresee my next port of call. Stupid man, stupid man. He can’t find the harbors, he can’t find the docks.
But hear me out. I’ve been with them on boats. That one with the glass bottom that could’ve cracked on any reef. That one that was sinking, that boat that was a body, her arms clasped around me. We’ve stood together on the boat circled by whales, the mother diving, the calf bobbing on the surface like a coal-black log. We’ve been to the brink and back. If it had been a daughter who had died, I would still be in the ocean right now, probing the equator, never resting till I’d searched every sunken stockhold. If it had been a daughter, I’d be scuba diving in the Bermuda Triangle right now. I’d be rooting through shipwrecks. Will she never find me in her spyglass?
When I’m scared, I look for shipping lanes. They must be around here somewhere. They must lead me home. My daughter consoles herself by lying on her back in currents of fresh water. Perhaps in the morning she’ll wake up in the ocean. I’ve been on boats, but mostly I’ve just waded on through.
We’ve had enough of life and death today, agreed? At a certain point it’s over the top, over the treetop with the last briny birdsong. Enough with these ships around the bend. There’s always a boat to be boarded, something to carry you around Cape Horn or through the Straits of Magellan. I’d have the course if I had the map.
When the kids were little, we could see a lighthouse from our home on the shore. The keeper could have turned his spotlight 180 degrees from the bay, and shone it through our windows. He would have seen children fast asleep. He would have seen a young man and a young woman reading together under lamplight. For the sake of setting us ablaze for a moment, the keeper’s ships would have shattered against the rocks. That’s too bad. Not as bad as this.
I’ve read my last book. It was a book about sailors. My final library, she’s committed to memory. She’s my final calling card, my final decimal system. I scoured her pages, I took her chapters with me into exile. Perhaps I share her vision of hell, circling my family for eternity, watching them struggle together on the seashore. I’m in a tub, in a bucket. Stupid man, stupid sailor. I’ve abandoned everything on earth: my sons, my daughters, my wife, my medical supplies, my passport, my shaving cream.
They all say it’s a terrible song. They all say it’s sentimental. No one likes this song. They all say it’s maudlin. I’m making this up. I don’t know what they all say. No one likes death. They say it’s too easy. No one likes ships. No one boards ships. No one sails ships anymore.
“The Ship Song”
Come sail your ships around me
And burn your bridges down.
We make a little history, baby
Every time you come around.
A long time ago I attended a memorial service for a boy from Virginia. He had also died in an accident. He’d been standing on a seaside cliff in California when a rogue wave swallowed him alive. No teenage body to bring back from the Pacific. At the memorial service, the boy’s father pulled out a boom box. He played a rock song at full volume while howling lyrics toward the pews, like a miserable karaoke machine. The father tore off his shirt and you could see the sweat on his naked chest. Wet salt and stringy black hair. The father wanted to play the song in its entirety; he wanted to make everyone feel what he was feeling, through the music. The other mourners were embarrassed. His ex-wife pulled him off the stage, wadding his soaked shirt into her hands. Perhaps I’ll meet these drowned men on my travels.
I’ve been on ships but mostly I’ve just splashed against them. I’ve been a strong mast on a deck rocked by storms. I’ve been a regal sail, I’ve been a barnacle. I’ve been on boats, but mostly I’ve just waded on through.
For a simple sailor on the Yorikke, some days are worse than others. Here is the order of one’s shipside melancholy:
In the end I got a craving to feel a solid street under my feet. I wanted to see people hustling about. I wanted to make sure that the world was still going on in the usual way, doing business, making money, getting drunk, laughing, cursing, stealing, killing, dancing, falling in love, and falling out again. I really got frightened being alone there.
I had an ugly feeling in my throat now, when I knew the last minute had arrived. All my life I had wanted so badly to live in Australia and make good. Now my life was snatched away from me. There were hundreds of things I had planned to do some day. All over now. Too late. Terrible words: too late.
The little word “Why?” with a question mark. So what could I do, a sailor without papers, against the power of the word “Why?”
Of me there is not left a breath in all the vast world.
Now where is he? A man fine at heart and body, for ever willing to work true and honestly. Where am I? Where are all the deads to be some day? On a desolate reef.
After a shipwreck, the simple sailor’s delirious friend lets go of a rope and sinks for good into the ocean. The sailor, clutching his own rope, cannot fathom his friend’s disappearance:
I looked at the hole through which he had slipped off. I could see the hole for a long while. I saw it as if from a great distance. I yelled at the hole. . . He did not hear me. He would have come. Sure he would. He did not come up any more. . . There was something very remarkable about it. He did not rise. He would have come up. I could not understand. He had signed on for a long voyage. For a very great voyage.
Once, when I was a boy in a thunderstorm, I huddled under an upturned canoe with my parents and my brothers. We’d left the lake so we wouldn’t be electrocuted. I heard the rain beat hard against the hull. Budum. Budum. Every time the lightning flashed, I could see my family’s faces secure inside our cabin. We stayed dry within the belly of that landed ship. Traven writes, “It is not the mountains that make destiny, but the grains of sand and the little pebbles.” Drowning in an ocean or a raindrop, it’s all the same, you know. I’ve been shipwrecked in rural creeks. I’ve stumbled in the ocean. I’ve been on boats, but mostly I’ve just waded on through.