Channel Crossing : A short story

channelcrossing_final

The sounds from the boat were unceasing, a continuous scraping and scratching that did not fit in well with the other small noises of the evening, the ruffle of fish breaking the lagoon’s surface, the crackle of fire on the beach, the laughter of the turtle hunters yelling their yarns.

Wayan Rena squatted apart from the others, his sarong wrapped around his shoulders. A quarter moon crested the jungled hills of Lombok. Tomorrow they’d be home. The tide was out, and the bow of the boat nestled on the exposed slope of sand. Shelves lined the open hull, crammed with sea turtles. Several dozen more were heaped on the planking over the bilge, straining against the rattan strips lashing their limbs together. There were over two hundred, enough to return home much earlier than expected, flush with success. In all his seasons, which had started when he was a boy learning the ways of a bountiful ocean, Rena had never returned this early. It made him uneasy, this easy success.

“Hey, old man,” Batulo called out, “counting your share?” As the boat owner’s brother, Batulo occasionally went along on the trips to keep an eye on things. The brothers were from Buton, where the men were fearless sailors, and where the sorcery was strong and the tempers fierce.

Rena said nothing. As captain, he was entitled to a percentage of the catch. He did not like the tone in Batulo’s voice. He had always been scrupulously honest, which was why Batulo’s brother always hired him as captain and gave him a bonus when the catch was good. He was a hard man, Batulo’s brother, but at least he was fair. Batulo, on the other hand – well, what could be said? His magic was strong. He had blown on his amulets and ordered Rena to sail to a place where sea monsters prowled, terrible creatures whose names no one dared uttered, and where raging ocean waves hurled themselves onto wicked reefs. Rena had adamantly refused until Batulo pulled his curved knife from its waistband sheath, his eyes gleaming with rage.

Rena sailed with trepidation to the place, only to find a placid sea with dolphins weaving their graceful arcs around dozens of turtles basking on the surface. There had been no need for the usual wearying work of netting them one by one, or free diving deep to spear them by their flippers. Such was the delight of the six-man crew that they quickly forgot the tension between their captain and Batulo. Even now, with the anticipation of home, Batulo’s comment seemed nothing more than friendly humor, and they grinned.

As the fire died to glowing embers, Batulo told his bawdy stories. “The girls of Makassar,” he said. “No greater delight than a Makassar girl in your arms. Hey, Rena, you could tell us a thing or two about Makassar girls, couldn’t you?” He said to the others, “Rena sailed around that area years ago. He almost married one. Until she told her father that he needed to be circumcised into the faith. Allah! roared the father, how do you know this?”

The crew burst out laughing, led by fat Pupuk, as good-natured as he was jolly.

A small wave lapped onto the sand. The boat stirred. The tide was changing. They’d be able to leave at dawn. Rena spread his mat on the flats above the high tide line. It would be best to try to get some sleep before the channel crossing, when he would need his mind and senses on full alert.

Before sleep came, he saw a girl with silk-spun hair and a smile as welcome as sunlight after a storm. Her name, so long unrecalled, came to him, and with it a remembrance of the passions of a young man, when love boiled in the blood, as powerful and mysterious as the unknown shores awaiting his footprints.

Jungle roosters crowed, announcing the arrival of dawn. Around the cold ashes of the fire, the crew stirred. They stepped into the bushes to relieve themselves, and then dragged the two dugout canoes to the water’s edge to paddle to the boat, tugging on its anchor line with the high tide.

Rena inspected the sail’s rigging as Kadek the engine man double-checked the ancient’s diesel oil and creaky water pump. The rest of the crew checked the turtles for any that might have died. These were butchered for their shells.

A broad-beamed vessel, the boat was not much more than a hull with a mast, bowsprit and engine. The aft deck was barely large enough for Rena at the tiller to keep an eye on the sail and the seas, for Kadek to keep an eye on the engine, and for Batulo to keep an eye on all. The other men found places where they could. The two dugouts trailed on their tow lines.

Batulo climbed to the bowsprit to say his prayers and consult his amulets. When he was finished, Kadek turned the ignition. The engine sputtered to life, the exhaust burping black smoke that hung in the still air. Two hours of motoring would bring them to the channel separating Lombok and the Balinese island of Nusa Penida. Hopefully there might be enough wind to hoist the sails. The channel was not to be taken lightly, especially weighted down as they were. Off Bangko Point, the shallow water fell abruptly away to a measureless deep. The enormous volume of ocean being pushed about by the tidal currents would hit the shelf and transform into a maelstrom of churning whirlpools and ugly boils. Rena had once seen an oil tanker spinning in circles, its powerful engines unable to make headway. His wife always presented offerings to the gods of Bangko Point to keep her husband safe, though the crossing was safe enough if the right tides were picked.

He’d be seeing her again that evening. He’d dock the boat and arrange for the offloading of the turtles, and then he’d stroll into his house by the pier as if he’d just been at the local warung, telling stories over a glass of coffee. His grandchildren would be watching television, and his wife would scold him for something he had forgotten to do before he had left on the hunt. She was a good woman. His parents had chosen well, and the passing years had long eroded the bitterness of having that choice forced on him. Yet as he watched his crew weighing anchor, he wondered where he’d be now if things had been otherwise. I’ve lived the life that was meant for me to live, he thought sternly, but there was still with him the image of the girl who had troubled his dreams, and how he had first seen her, standing by the village well, a shaft of light adorning her hair and a shy mischief in her eyes.

Beh, what good does this remembering do, he thought as he steered the boat through the cove’s channel. The swell had picked up overnight. With an easy motion, the boat rose and fell on the smooth undulations. Ahead lay the island of Nusa Penida, grey in the early sun.

Batulo remained on the bowsprit, legs spread to keep an agile balance. He faced out to sea like a living figurehead, gesturing with his amulets as he murmured his chants. The crew watched him out of the corner of their eyes. Pupuk comically pantomimed Batulo’s gestures, pretending with great panicky alarm to drop the charms into the water. The others swallowed their huge grins, but nonetheless all were grateful for Batulo’s magic, sure that it would guarantee a safe passage home. His prayers done, he made his way to the aft deck with catlike steps. He was a big man, well-seasoned by his years, his broad face creased by the sun and wind. His eyes were set deep, and though he often smiled, they never did.

“Turn for Bangko Point,” he ordered Rena.

“Bangko Point?” Rena said bemusedly. This made no sense. Bangko Point was a dreadful place, with towering cliffs battered by roaring seas and offshore pinnacles that poked up like witch’s teeth, ready to rip open any hull.

“We will catch turtles at Bangko Point,” Batulo said. “Turn around.”

“Batulo, what need do we have of more turtles? See how low we ride in the water. And if we stay at the point to catch turtles, we’ll miss the tides, and there won’t be enough time to make for any anchorage. We’ll be caught in the devil’s own graveyard.”

Batulo grinned, but his eyes remained flat. “You speak of the devil, old man?” He lifted his amulets. “I don’t fear the devil or any ocean. We have room enough for fifty more turtles, and we will catch them.”

Rena did not reply, a quick fear seizing his heart at the contemptuous challenge to the gods. The crew murmured in surprised alarm. Batulo stared at them, each one in turn, and they lowered their gazes and shuffled their feet in silence.

“There was no problem before, was there?” Batulo said. “My magic is strong, old man. There is no need to be worried. Fifty more turtles, and we’ll have fatter purses when we return. A whore on each arm, and a bellyful of arak.” He laughed hugely, and then said again, “To Bangko.” He put a hand on his knife, stuck into his belt.

Rena sighed and yanked the tiller. There was no point in challenging Batulo. Perhaps when they got there, Batulo would see the danger and change his mind. If he did not, though, then something would have to be done.

But when they rounded the near cape, with Bangko Point looming ahead, it seemed as if Batulo’s magic could not go wrong. The swell subsided. The ocean was as calm as a sleeping baby and the wind as gentle as her breath. And even from that distance Rena could see the turtles milling about the offshore pinnacles.

Batulo roared with joy. “Look at them, those beautiful beasts! Another fifty of them my boys, and your pockets will be bulging with money you can throw away! Look at them!” he roared, and the crew stirred with excitement, their earlier apprehension now replaced with greed fanned by Batulo’s words.

Rena did not like it, but there was no denying Batulo’s magic, and the eagerness of the crew. “Two hours,” he said to Batulo, “and not a minute more.”

“Allah, one will be enough!” said Batulo. “What did I say, old man? What did I tell you? The devil’s graveyard? Pah!” he said, spitting over the side.

The crew worked furiously, not because they were in a rush to leave, but because they were made slightly mad by this fortune so easily plucked. The boat settled lower into the water as the grunting crew hoisted the turtles on board, where fat Pupuk lashed their flippers with rattan rope. Rena and Kadek remained on the boat, careful to keep the hull away from the jagged pinnacles. Rena smoked clove cigarettes, one after another. He pictured waves smashing into the shoreline cliffs with thundering booms. He imagined currents swirling and sucking around those dreadful offshore teeth, offering no escape. He thought of boats that had gone down, the friends he had never seen again. Now his boat was sitting here as if the place were some backwater harbor. But this was not his choice, and this was not his arrogance. There was nothing to do but to smoke his cigarettes and watch the boat wallowing deeper in the water and hope the gods would understand. His wife would have made offerings and tonight he’d be home, with an old man’s weariness in his bones.

He had only a few seasons left. Soon all this would be an old man’s memory, and that day was as fixed and immutable as all the days that had preceded it. He had accepted the twisting fortunes of his life without murmur, but now, on this bright and cloudless morning, he thought of that bleak day when his elder brother had arrived unannounced, stern and forbidding, with a command from their father that was not to be disobeyed. He was to marry the girl his family elders had chosen. He had been torn between duty and love, an anguish that still had power to echo over the years, and even now settled with an ache on his heart. What if he had refused? Would his years have been happier, and his old age more contented?

Ah, Atijah, where are you now? Tell me, was I wrong to have left you?

The only answer was the gleeful shouting of the men. They finally stopped when they ran out of rattan lashing. Batulo raged but then said, “Allah, never mind, this is fortune enough! Just throw that one last monster on top.”

The crew muscled in the last turtle, a huge green beast that must have weighed a hundred kilos, a size that Rena had not seen for a long time. With his knife, Batulo punched holes through its flippers and then cut a length of line off the sail’s halyard which he threaded through the bleeding wounds. He stood and surveyed the catch with a deep breath of satisfaction.

“All right, old man, take us home,” he said.

Rena turned the boat to sea, glad to be quits from this coast. Kadek gave the engine more throttle. After a moment of staccato knocking, it died. Kadek checked the fuel and water lines and tried to restart the engine. It burped to life for a few seconds and then died again. After several more minutes of trying, he told Rena, “I think it’s the fuel jets.” He helplessly spread his arms. “But I can’t fix that here.”

The boat wallowed a hundred meters from the nearest pinnacle. Batulo pushed Kadek aside, reinspected the lines, and turned the ignition key. The starter whined. Batulo tried again and again.

“You’re wasting the battery,” Kadek said.

Batulo ignored him and turned the key again, but there was only a click. The battery had gone flat. He cursed in disgust.

“Hoist the sails,” Rena shouted to the crew. There was only a puff of breeze, barely enough to flap the main, but it was something for them to do. Curiously, he felt no panic or alarm.

What will happen will happen, he thought, and there is nothing we can do about it. Except maybe for Batulo and his amulets.

“Make us some wind, Batulo,” he cried.

Batulo pulled out his charms and prayed, mumbling and blowing. The breeze strengthened enough to belly the sails. The boat slugged forward, too heavy to make much headway, but it was better than nothing. Rena was so preoccupied with getting the most out of the wind that he did not notice when the water began to bump and twist.

“The current’s changed,” Kadek observed.

Cold black water from the darkest abyss trickled down Rena’s spine. “You got us into this, Batulo,” he said. “How will you get us out?”

“Don’t bleat like a goat,” Batulo said. “There’s barely a current.”

Rena clenched his jaws. Batulo for one should well know how quickly the sea would change. And it was in fact changing, with the current picking up pace and sucking the boat toward the horizon.

The sea abruptly heaved, as if some great creature was surfacing from the depths. Ragged lumps of water rose in a confused mass and broke, battering the boat from all sides. A wave crested over the bow, water streaming into the hull.

“We’re too heavy!” Rena shouted. “Throw the turtles overboard!”

The crew rushed into the hold to obey, ready to cut the lashings, but Batulo bellowed, “Do not touch them!”

“Batulo, we must lighten the boat,” Rena shouted as another wave crashed over the side. Already the bilge water slopped above the floorboards. “We’re being be swamped!”

“Are we women to wail and cry? We’ll be safe enough, I tell you. Bail, everyone, bail!”

The crew bailed frantically, but they couldn’t keep up with the water pouring over the gunnels. The wind picked up, but gusting from all directions, and carrying a thickening mist. All sight of land was lost. The turtles, roused by the seawater soaking them, were becoming agitated, straining harder against their lashings.

Pupuk straightened, hands to his aching back and gasping for breath. He was the first to see it, croaking in panic as he pointed over the bow. “Oh may the gods have mercy!”

Several hundred meters ahead, there appeared out of mist an enormous sea, taller than the mast, a standing sea that continuously rose and broke. On either side of the tumbling white water, like drool escaping from voracious lips, enormous whirlpools sucked in downward spirals. The roar and the hiss and the gurgle was unearthly, unlike anything Rena had ever heard.

The boat was being slowly but irresistibly drawn towards its doom.

“We must throw the turtles over now!” Rena shouted. “For our lives, we must!”

The crew heard, and again rushed to obey, and once again Batulo roared out as he sprang into the hold, brandishing his knife, “You will not touch them!” He swayed with the boat’s lurching, his hair blowing in the wind, his eyes red and wild. He looked as dangerous as the maelstrom churning ahead.

The petrified crew stared at Batulo and then at the monstrous sea ahead, and a slow keening rose in their throats as the boat was drawn closer to one of the swirling boils, a mass of demented water a hundred meters across, its vortex gaping like a monster’s maw. Rena found his throat muscles working involuntarily at the chilling sight. The whole world he knew, the entire universe, had vanished, leaving behind this watery hell.

This is not my doing, he thought in terror beyond desperation, this is not my arrogance. And thinking that, he regained some measure of sanity and jumped into the hold to throw the turtles over himself, Batulo or no Batulo.

As he did so, he saw the enormous king turtle, the one last caught, stir and move its limbs. It had torn its lashings loose, and climbed over the backs of the other turtles to the edge of the boat.

Batulo screamed, “Quick, don’t let it escape!”

The crew did not respond, could not respond, mesmerized as they were by their certain doom. Batulo scrambled to the turtle and grabbed its shell by the neck. Such was his brute force that he brought it upright, almost flipping it over on its back. Somehow the turtle pivoted and caught him in its flippers, pulling him tight. Batulo struggled, and for a moment they remained in that peculiar embrace, and then the turtle slowly fell backward, still holding Batulo. Together they tumbled over the side and vanished into the sea.

It seemed to Rena that Batulo had cried, “Let me go,” but the wind distorted the words, and what the crew heard was something else altogether, as if the madman had finally come to his senses.

“Let them go!” Pupuk said. “Let them go!”

In a frenzy, the crew cut the lashings and threw the turtles overboard as fast as they could. “Let them go!” they chanted, “let them go!”

The boat lightened, but was now spinning on the edge of the boil. They worked even faster, gasping with huge ragged breaths, and it was not until the last turtle was thrown over that the miracle happened. The breaking sea died, the whirlpool flattened, and the spinning subsided. Within moments, there was nothing but an occasional eddy and the bump of windblown sea.

Memé” Rena breathed, not daring to believe his eyes, his ears, the goosebump tingling of his skin. “Memé

Pupuk looked around in bewilderment, his mouth agape, and scratched his head. Kadek pointed at him and giggled, and in seconds the entire crew was bent over with hysterical laughter, a paroxysm of light-headed relief that went on for a good while.

Rena finally brought them to their senses. “Tighten those sheets!” he ordered. “Pull in the jib! We’ll make Nusa Penida by nightfall.”

At dusk they anchored in the calm lagoon at Chinigan. Ravenously hungry, they cooked a quick meal of rice and dried fish. They ate quietly, somber as they remembered Batulo, the image of him in the king turtle’s embrace taking him to his watery grave. They began to talk, slowly at first and then with more animation, of Batulo’s magic, and his madness, and the terror they had seen and escaped. It was a tale that would grow with the telling, but that evening they were weary, and soon fell asleep to wait for the morning tide.

Rena stayed awake a while longer. He mulled over the day’s events, how he had nearly perished, and he thought of tomorrow, when he would stroll into his house as if he’d just been out drinking sweet coffee at the local warung. He saw again the image of a slender girl with sun-speckled hair, and once again felt the tugging memories of those love-strewn days. For a moment he was troubled, and then he found himself murmuring. “Let them go, let them go.”

The memories slowly faded, and were replaced by a sure and certain contentment. Just before sleep claimed him he thought once more of his return home, and he could hear the warmth in his wife’s voice as she scolded him for something he had forgotten to do.

**************************


Image courtesy of Victor Habbick at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

If you liked this story, then check out “Bones of the Dark Moon: A Contemporary Novel Exploring Bali’s 1965 Massacres” now available on Kindle. Print edition available early September.

Also available for Apple iPad/iBooks, Nook, Sony Reader, Kobo, and most e-reading apps including Stanza, Aldiko, Adobe Digital Editions, from here at Smashwords

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