THE SUNLESS SEA — Chapter 1


Bukit Bear has been posting some excellent writing, with reference to HEART OF DARKNESS and mad Kurtz. This reminded me of a novel I wrote years ago, back when personal computers still used DOS system with green cursors, and WordPerfect was the word processor of choice. I had no idea what happened to the manuscript, but I eventually found a copy on a RW-CD that miraculously still booted up. I re-read the opening chapter, winced at some places. I don’t know if I dare read more. (PS I updated some anachronistic references to this modern era but left it pretty much the same). Here it is

********

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree :
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

— Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Chapter 1


And on the morning of the third day, he slept.

The shrieking wind had sucked out of him all thoughts and memories and even, at the last, his name. When the cyclone finally blew itself out, he had only the energy to turn on the radar’s alarm and take off his safety harness before collapsing into oblivion as deep as the Indian Ocean drifting beneath the sailboat.

Something woke him. For a moment his mind was an amnesiac’s perfectly blank consciousness, colored only by his immediate senses. He lay scrunched on the cockpit’s back passenger seat. Sweat dripped down the outstretched arm cradling his face. Without lifting his head he focused his gaze on a lone tern gliding in the cloud-swollen sky, the bird black as a mote from hell. It screamed once and wheeled away.

He stood and stretched, woozy with disorientation. Was that a rising or a setting sun behind the spongy gray clouds? How long does it take for demented seas to flatten into calm, thick-skinned ocean? His sense of time was normally acute. At cocktail parties he was famous for guessing the precise hour and minute.

As his mouth stretched in a huge yawn, all of it came back, as sour as his breath.

My name is Andy Mack, and this is my new life.

His surfboards were gone. They’d blown off in the cyclone. Three of them, each in a board bag, had been lashed in a stack on the bow. The crashing of seas and howling of wind worked loose the rope and there came a moment, on a crest of wave, when they’d peeled off like leaves, twirling high into the storm. Who knew where they were now?

A light breeze ruffled his salt-stiffened hair. He contemplated the wind vane atop the mast, knowing there was some metaphysical lesson to be had from it, but too weary to bring himself to such a futile exercise. The wind was on the nose to where he wanted to go. He glanced at the bulkhead clock —seven a.m. —and the chart. He should turn on the engine and motor along. Instead, he adjusted the sails to extract maximum speed, even though this took the Chinook away from his original destination, the world-famous surfing waves of Sumatra’s Mentawai islands. His plan had been to spend a season surfing those waves, coaxing back to perfection his physical skills as he gave time for his heart to heal smooth and cold like a glistening scar. But such healing could be done just as well elsewhere. Say on the Thai island of Phuket. Phuket didn’t have surf, but then again he no longer had his surfboards. He’d do some charters. Hell, he’d sell the boat and become a beach bum. One of the world’s outcasts, finding refuge as an anonymous expat donning a new persona. Thailand was an ideal place to reinvent the childless, wifeless, career-less self.

The breeze soon died. The boat rocked, the sails flapped, the stays clanked. A metronome for the cataleptic. The clouds provided woolen insulation rather than shade. Andy sweated heavily. Again he thought of turning on the engine, but these were the famous equatorial doldrums, the latitudes of lassitude. Why not experience it in all its perspiring glory?

His wedding ring itched. He twisted it around his finger. The thick gold band was scratched in several places from the labors of single-handed sailing and engine maintenance. He’d signed the divorce papers a month earlier. Why hadn’t he taken it off yet? The ocean stretched away to empty horizons. Beside the wallowing hull, several water spiders, gangly as their landlubberly cousins, skittered on the water’s surface. How did they survive cyclones?

Even sunless, the water’s translucent depth held luring promises. He dove in. The cool water welcomed him, fit around his skin like weightless silk. The boat’s hull inched past. One gust and the Chinook would sail itself away from him. One long gust and he would have quite a swim to catch up. One steady wind and he would be dead.

Andy swam twenty yards away from the boat, aquatic Russian roulette, his fingertips tingling with thrill. All the water underneath him, the millions of tons of fathomless sea, buoyed him like helium. The short stretch of water between him and the boat could kill. Andy sensed rather than felt the strike of wind, the cat’s paws racing across the smooth surface. The moment stretched in meditative calmness that reached deep into his soul. So be it. Then his heart was a sudden wild thing, and he stroked furiously for the boat. He saw, in brief staccato flashes as he lifted his head to breathe, the sails fill and the Chinook heel as it surged forward. One last stroke, a lunge, and his right hand fell onto the stern’s duckboard. His fingers clenched through the aluminum grating. The tug nearly wrenched his shoulder out of joint. He got his other hand on the duckboard and hauled himself out of the rushing water.

For a long time he sat trembling in the cockpit.

~~~


Two motoring for two hours later, Camel Island rose gray as a hangover on the horizon.

The unseasonable cyclone hadn’t caught Andy unawares—the weather fax had given him sufficient warning that he could have found a safe anchorage. But as he studied the weather map that bright bubble blue morning, it seemed as though his life, past and future, was being gathered up in rotation with the evil eye bearing down on him. A line from an old Christian hymn came to him, one that his grandmother Maggie sometimes sang in her nasally voice. Blow your wildest then o Gale, on my bark so small and frail, I shall not fail, I shall not fail. So he sailed on, keeping sea room between him and nearest land mass, Camel Island. For three days and nights, however, the cyclone tried to shipwreck him on that island. Every time the Chinook’s stalwart diesel clawed him free of a dangerous lee shore, the cyclone shifted direction to drive him back.

And here the island was again.

Andy adjusted course to pass on the eastern side, where the dangerous fringing reef held closest to shore. According to the pilot book, an 18th century Portuguese navigator had given the remote island its name because its three main hills, despite their green rainforest cover, looked like the desert creature. Andy saw no resemblance at all.

As the island drew nearer, the water became mottled green and then light brown from a flooding river’s runoff. A matted clump of yellow bamboo ripped up by the roots floated by ten yards to starboard. There came into view on the far side of the bamboo a red surfboard, the tip of its nose nudged up onto the bamboo like a beached craft. A nude surfer lay on top of the angled board, his broad tanned back exposed but his pale buttocks just barely submerged. His arms draped into the water. His cheek was pressed against the deck of the board, his face turned away from Andy. Long, sun-bleached hair curled around his head like a halo.

Andy circled back and idled the Chinook a boat length away from the surfboard. He cupped his hands to his mouth and yelled at the slumped surfer, “Hey, are you all right?”

What an idiotic question.

Andy inflated the tiny spare dinghy. He shoved it over the side and rowed to the surfboard. Leaning over the side, he pressed his hand to the surfer’s exposed neck. Clammy flesh. No pulse. The slumped body was stiff in rigor mortis. Rigor passed quickly in warm temperature; the guy had been dead for less than a day, perhaps even only six hours.

Andy looked toward Camel Island and the hazy arc of a wide bay, the rumpled edge of jungle barely visible as a trace of purple on the skyline. A couple years ago he’d seen a Discovery Channel documentary on the settlement there. One of the documentary’s stars was an American doctor from the Surfers’ Assistance volunteer agency. She ran the village clinic and taught the villagers how to grow certain medicinal plants that pharmaceutical companies bought. A nice steady income. The village prospered. What was her name? An unusual one, a last name something like Nazarene. In the documentary she was big and blond and dressed in loose khaki fatigues. Was she still there? Well, even if she weren’t, there’d be a village chief. He’d drop the dead surfer at the village chief’s feet and leave.

Andy worked the board and body through the chocolate water to the empty stern davits, the two stout metal poles curving over the water like trailing afterthoughts. They had previously secured the big, rigid-hulled dingy that had been stolen in Bali’s Benoa harbor. He looped the davit lines around the board and body before getting on deck to hoist. The board rose reluctantly from the water. One ragged wave reached up and washed over it, submerging the body with a heavy pull on Andy’s arms, as though the sea wanted possession of the dead. The board broke free and rose with a curtain of dripping water. Andy meticulously tied off the lines on the cleats before glancing again at the body.

The arms and legs weren’t dangling. They’d been hogtied together around the surfboard by strips of rattan. The skin around the rattan knots was torn from desperate struggle. The purple hands were clenched together as though in prayer. The guy hadn’t fallen overboard—he’d been deliberately tied to the board and set afloat while still alive.

Andy grabbed the corpse’s long hair to swing the face into view. A crab hunkered down on top of the right eye. Andy swallowed hard against a rising gorge and shooed the crab away. It scuttled off the eye, revealing a light blue pupil whose sudden gaze seemed to shaft right into Andy’s soul.

He quickly looked over the rest of the corpse and spotted under the flaccid scrotum the edge of a wound and a big, black stitch. What the hell? Using a winch handle, he lifted the scrotum and penis. The surfer’s testicles were gone, and the clean, sharp incision at the base of scrotum stitched up with rough, hand-twilled vegetable fiber of some kind. The anus widened and a pencil-thin green eel wriggled out of the rectum and plopped back into the ocean. **

Andy leaned over and retched into the sea.

** eeeewwwww, I wrote that?


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5 Responses to THE SUNLESS SEA — Chapter 1

  1. Bukit Bear says:

    If there’s more… keep it coming..

  2. Pingback: THE SUNLESS SEA — Chapter 2 | Bali and Indo Surf Stories

  3. Pingback: THE SUNLESS SEA — Chapter 3 | Bali and Indo Surf Stories

  4. Pingback: Bali and Indo Surf Stories

  5. Pingback: THE SUNLESS SEA — Chapter 5 | Bali and Indo Surf Stories

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