6.12 / October 2011

Urbs in Amnis

After the divorce, you don’t want to see anyone.  You don’t want to talk.  You want to take your broken heart and put it on a raft and push it out to sea, which is an idea that came up in one of the final yelling matches, before the resignation set in.

You’re serious, though.  You buy a rowboat and drive it down to the dog park that same afternoon.  There’s a boat launch there, and your map shows the river as a broad blue on-ramp to the sea.  A man ties his dog to a tree and helps you haul the boat down to the water.  When he asks if you’re all right from here on your own, you say Oh yes.

The current carries you obligingly, like a crushed soda can, until the land falls away.  You’re in the ocean, you realize.  You’ve done it.  You lean back and close your eyes, surprised at how easy it was after all.  More people should do this, you think.

The sky turns into a white mirror, then a dirty pewter one, then into a black velvet box scattered with diamonds. There’s nothing to see out here, except waves that extend out to infinity, curving with the planet.  You’re on the same path a few hundred thousand other people have taken before-maybe a few million, counting all those wartime steamers. But really, relatively speaking, it’s untraveled. And how many people have ridden out like this, in a dugout or a coracle or a wooden ship without an engine, taking the hazardous leap from one bank to the other? Not many. There’s a reason for that, of course. You’ll probably die. But you’re happy.

That first day’s okay.  The weather’s good, you’ve drifted out of the shipping routes, it’s quiet. You’re alone in your boat with your sun umbrella and your sleeping bag, eating beef jerky and drinking water from a plastic jug, pretending you know how to read your compass.  There are things to distract you from feeling the way you always feel now-like you’re deranged, like you’re a monster, like you have cancer of the stomach, like you need to jump off this bridge.  You don’t feel any of that.  You don’t even feel seasick.

That night you hold one of the plastic water bottles in your arms because there’s nothing else in the boat that’s remotely like a human body. You kiss its cap before you fall asleep.

The next morning you wake up soaking wet. The bottle leaked during the night, and slowly, by degrees, your sleeping bag soaked it up. That’s how love is, you reflect.  You go to bed happy and you wake up with problems.  You unzip the bag, open it like a filleted fish, and drape it over the stern to dry. You change your clothes. You count the remaining plastic jugs of water.

It’s hotter that day, and by noon you have to crawl into the darkness under your sleeping bag to escape the sun. It smells like childhood camping trips, like nylon and basement mildew. The sleeping bag was something you picked up in the confusion of dividing the household.  You’ve never seen it before in your life.

You eat more beef jerky. You fiddle with the compass. How long will it take to get to the other side?  How big is the ocean, again?

You poke your head out from beneath the sleeping bag, but it’s still noon, and you’re still in the middle of nowhere.

You nap.

When you wake up, the sun’s low and the boat is rocking gently, like a hammock. You stand up to stretch, forgetting you should never stand up in a boat, and lose your balance. You’re lightheaded–sunstroked, maybe. The boat rocks, you rock with it, and there’s a bad minute when you think you’re going to flip.  And then where will you be? You’ve seen Titanic. You know how these things go.

You remember to crouch down, and the rocking stops. Then you turn around and realize that, back where the sleeping bag was hung across the stern, there’s nothing. Far behind you, you see the salmon-red interior of the sleeping bag floating. Before you can do anything, it soaks up enough water to sink it, and disappears.

Later that afternoon a breeze picks up, flicking white crests from the waves. You study the horizon, trying to decide whether what you see is just nightfall or an approaching storm. You find a sweater and put it on.

You are beginning to think that this was a bad idea.

Some time later you crouch on the bottom of the boat, clinging with one hand to each gunwale as you’re lifted up the face of black swells you can barely see, swells so big that when you plunge down the other side, your stomach slings up like a ball on an elastic string. There’s a ghostly blue light on the horizon, but you only glimpse it once or twice because you spend so much time in between waves,  screaming.  You cling to the boat with iron hands.  Cold spray soaks you from all sides. Once or twice, silent lightning splits the sky.

The bottom of the boat fills with water, which you ignore until it reaches almost to your waist. Then you scrabble for the empty jug and bail. It’s slow work. With one hand on the jug, you’re almost thrown from the boat. You search for the length of rope you brought–every boat needs rope–but can’t find it. Your fingers are numb.

That night lasts forever.

At some point the wind dies down, and some time after that, you realize the swells are smaller. You can see grey sky over their tops, the way you can see sky over the top of a steep hill in the road. The world is calming down.

You crouch in the bottom of the boat, in cold water two inches deep, and watch the sun rise.  Part of your mind toys with pathetic fallacy, with analogies to love and divorce and heartbreak, but there’s a much larger part of you that says flatly, Fuck that.  A storm at sea is nothing like a divorce.  In a divorce you still have half your income, your car, your damaged psyche.  A storm at sea just fucking kills you.

That afternoon you get serious with yourself. You’re not ready to die. You’ve done something incredibly stupid, and now you have to get rescued. You tried to prepare, at least a little.  You brought the emergency kit from the trunk of the car, which has flares in it–but sometime during the night it must have gone overboard. Today it’s just you, a few plastic packs of beef jerky, a pair of Ray-Bans with a broken lens, and two jugs of water.

You try to remember how much water a person needs in a day, to survive.

You take off the sweater and use one of the boat’s oars to raise it like a flag over the stern. You go to the bow to look at it. Even from there, it looks tiny. Around you, the ocean spreads out farther than Badlands National Park, where you honeymooned. It spreads farther than the sky.

Your lips are cracked, and you’re thirsty. You drink some water. Not much.

There’s nothing else to do, so you bail out the boat and lie down to wait. The early European explorers said they followed a river in the ocean. You have a feeling about this–that your boat is in one of those rivers, a fast-track current that will carry you all the way to the far shore by the next morning. Like the Concorde.

Night. You eat beef jerky, drink water, and pee precariously over the side of the boat. You go to sleep shivering.

When you wake up in pearliest dawn, you think at first this is it–you’re here. That wasn’t so bad after all, you think, staring fuzzily at the barnacled rock just past the gunwale.

The rock blows gas and sinks out of sight, and you smell a rank, fishy stink.

You spend the rest of the day watching for a dark body swelling beneath you, boiling up to knock you into the sea.

After two days you’re out of jerky and low on water. Your face and hands are caked in salt, split at their seams. Your heart races and stops, races and stops.

After three days you just lie in the bottom of the boat, thinking about the river. You imagine it as a brown thread in the middle of the dark blue water, like the river at home that spills into the ocean and muddies the water for miles when the tide is low. The river in your mind doesn’t disperse, though. It lies over the ocean like a line of brown ink, drawn freshly by a heavy brush, along a wet paper.  Like the lifeline in your palm, which some bullshit fake psychic once told you is long, but marked with suffering.

Toward the end of the third day you feel yourself rise up out of your body.  You wonder if you’ve died without noticing. But you can feel your heart still beating, your lungs still pulling. You look down at your sad, shriveled body and feel sorry for yourself. You sure have made some dumb decisions in your life.

You turn for the horizon, the way the bow of the boat is pointed, and with a particular kind of effort, start that way. It’s easy. Now that you look down, you can see the line you need to follow. It’s narrower than you’d expected it to be, and you couldn’t say what it’s made of, but you can see its energy and momentum, heading west. Or is it west? You can’t remember, and it doesn’t seem important.

You let the line carry you until land appears on the horizon. You see seabirds first, circling with their heads tilted critically; then something that might be a city.  The tops of some towers, set back from the sea. You pass over a line of piers and then a promenade where people are walking, hand in hand or with linked arms, stopping to smile at each other.  The city is made of marble and cast iron, terra cotta and copper.  Old materials, the kind they used to use when they were building for the ages.

Immediately you know that this is a better city than the one you came from, better than any city you’ve ever visited.  It has dignity and self-respect, an abundance of affection.  It’s a place where people can live full and satisfying lives, where they can be true to each other, where no promise costs too much to keep.  This is exactly the place you’d hoped to find on the other shore.

But you can’t stop.  You’re caught in some kind of magnetism, and you hurtle past the great civic buildings, the plazas, the great avenues lined with trees.  You catch a glimpse of the austere, handsome street where you’d like to live-and then it’s gone.  Goddammit, you think.  As you often do, in dreams.

Ahead of you is something else.  Something that makes no sense at first–a kind of brilliant wavering sheet.  You feel heat on your face and realize that’s what it is:  a fiery curtain thousands of miles in all directions. Far below, the land has turned to desert.  You’re shooting like a comet toward the curtain.

This is it, you think, this is the end. You might still be sprawled in the bottom of the boat, your tongue swelling in your mouth and your skin cracking, dying of dehydration–or you might be hurtling helplessly into a fiery wall in the middle of nowhere, but either way, this is the end. You wish you’d thought this through a little better.

Without any pain you shoot right through the curtain. The light is so fierce that it erases you. Afterward, you’re not even a shadow of yourself. There’s no place left to cast a shadow, not in the lap of so much light.

You wake up in a tightly-tucked cot with a porthole view of blue sky. A man with a pendulous nose, wearing a white coat over a grey jumpsuit, sits down beside you. In Slavic English, he tells you that you’re on board a Chinese cargo ship. You say–What? He shrugs. They found you adrift. A junior seaman saw your sweater-flag, and thought it might be flotsam. There were hopes of salvage. People are disappointed that it was only you.

What? you say, and he shrugs again. They’ll take you near the coast of French Guiana, and call a boat to come and take you inland to Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni. That way, he explains, you’ll be in a country run by Europeans, civilized men. Any further south and it would be grim Brazil.

What? you say, but he’s already standing up.

What a foolish stunt, he says. Where did you think you were going?

Nothing is returned to you from your boat, and when you finally make land you have no passport, no papers. The officials are kind to you, although you can see they don’t believe your story. What kind of person sets out to cross the ocean in a rowboat? They have identified you as some kind of small-time criminal, not very bright but also not their problem, so they let you sit on sun-dappled balconies drinking black coffee and eating croissants while they call around to find your owners.

You sit in mild morning sun, looking down over a beautifully rusted railing at a young man gathering up a hose. He is a gardener for the ministry. As you watch him wind the hose gently, teasing it into its nautiloid coil with clever movements of his hands, you remember your painless passage through the wall of light–so vividly that your fingers fall open, and your coffee cup snaps on the pavers.

The young man looks up, startled.  His face is young, open and kind, and in the rush of an instant you can imagine spending your life with him.  You could remarry, settle down properly this time, discuss children in a rational way.  You could have a simple, happy life in this terracotta-tiled, rose-petaled country on the edge of the ocean, where you recognize nothing and owe everything to strangers.

You don’t know the French for any of that. The man studies you, trying to decide if you are offering him something, or asking for something. After a minute he gathers up the hose and carries it away with one end dragging on the path behind him, dribbling a line of dark water.

Karen Munro finished her MFA in Fiction at the Iowa Writers' Workshop in 1999. She has published stories in Grain, Glimmer Train, Hunger Mountain, Strange Horizons, and elsewhere. She's currently working on a novel about strangeness in the Great Northwest. She sometimes posts words to her blog, Munrovian [http://munrovian.wordpress.com].
6.12 / October 2011