We were passengers forced to jump into the water when our ship, the 2020, after years of creaking, cracked in half and sank down into the darkness. The ship was long thought to be beautiful. For it gleamed in the sunlight. And it gleamed in the moonlight. It throbbed like a beacon, could be seen across great distances. And since it was like a beacon it was taken for a beacon.
But the ship was never beautiful. Where there should have been wood there was gold and where there could have been gold there were guns. It was ill-gotten, falsified, and much like it housed every imaginable person it also housed every imaginable horror. Yes, in a certain light it could pass for beautiful but it was the water that was beautiful. It was the water that was part of the natural course of things. Another natural course of things was the fate of ships that mistook themselves for water much like our ship had done.
It traveled without purpose aside from the purpose of being itself, which was considered enough of a purpose by both those who claimed to own the ship and those who claimed to steer it. And on it went, without a sail or engine, simply being suggested forward by what was commonly called the will of God, which was as white as the clouds and as clear as the wind. It has been claimed that this God is endless in his power. Thus, he is everywhere. Thus, in being unknown he is known. Thus, he guides the ship.
Therefore, the wreck under our feet is still guided by him. For what he guides never falters. And what he touches never breaks.
Some of the people in the water are actually saying this.
They had been told this and so they say this. “Our ship spins away from us but our God is here, and our God is our ship, so we are safe here with him.” They yell now over the waves as their mouths fill with water. Some thrash, cough, and sink. Some see the others coughing and sinking and nevertheless start up with the yelling again: “Our ship spins away from us but our God is here, and our God is our ship, so we are safe here with him.”
In the distance, the captain clings to a slick chunk of driftwood and can hear them. He doesn’t want to hear them and wishes they were dead. He doesn’t want to hear anyone and wishes they were all dead. In their death, he reasons, he would live. For knowing they had died would surely mean that he had survived and in surviving he would be seen as having been right all along; that the ship is the most beautiful ship that there ever was and is perfect as it is. He will find another ship, like his father did. He is sure of this. He will find another ship and that ship will pull his ship out of the water and it will be perfect as it is and he will set off again through the waters with what survivors are left and why can’t everyone see that and know that that’s fine?
The ship, after all, had been broken before. It never quite sank, but it had been broken. That was many captains ago and not this captain’s fault at all, this captain thought.
Amid the chaos in the water, the most chaos is where the captain is. He thrashes like he’s never seen water before. He is at the center of a circle of trusted people who also embraced whatever floats and therefore keeps them afloat. They yell across the water to each other, to the captain, to the sky.
Those who yelled “Our ship spins away from us but our God is here, and our God is our ship, so we are safe here with him” took the yelling they heard coming from that direction to be the same as what they were yelling and so they yell back to it, but louder. Their covered feet keep paddling to keep their heads above the water. Their arms keep parting the water. They are tired but believe in their salvation and in the purity of it and of the water. That purity came in the form of the freedom of their movement, how they kick and wade, how they hold their children above their heads and above the water keeping their weary eyes open for a sign from God or anyone of vague to opaque pigmentation. They refuse the stray life jackets that bob toward them. Freedom is in being able to say no to these things and they like saying no so much they say it again and again as they had seen done on the television or heard done on the radio. Whatever floats by them is greeted by a chorus of nos so that what’s heard in the water above all else is “No ship spins away from us, no God is here, and our God is our no, so we are safe here with no.” And when no God comes, they call this God’s prophecy fulfilled.
Tell me a story, you said, and here I am telling you a story. Remember that you all were on a ship and that the ship snapped in half. I could tell you what to believe and not to believe about how that happened, or I could teach you how to tread water for days, how to let the saltwater enter and swill around on your tongue until the salt is gone and you can swallow it, how to dive under the surface with your eyes open to catch a glimpse of the ship if only to remind yourself that there really was once a ship under your feet and because there was once a ship under your feet you could argue that you used to walk on water.
The ship did not snap in half because you had walked on water. The ship snapped in half because it thought that it walked on water, which was God’s plan as the ship was in the image of his son. And as God sacrificed his only son, he would also sacrifice his only ship. That there were many other ships seen in the water and that the ship balanced on the surface of the water due to basic science and craftwork was a dissenting opinion reserved for specific sections of the ship.
But let’s not talk about that.
Tell me a story, you said. Tell me about the current state of things, you said. And so here I am telling you a story about the current state of things. Forget that there is no land in sight. Forget the harbor lights you think you see far off in the horizon’s fiery zone, and yes, I see them too. Those are other ships and they have heard of us and they will have nothing to do with us. And after so many months now like this, making broken figure eights in the water, watching, listening, waiting, I am limited in my imagination. I can only tell you what I see and what I hear: nonsense, protests, contemplations, and drowning drowning drowning. I have swum as far from here as I can go and seen other ships and they have not sunk. I saw a ship cracked open like an egg but then pulled back together and fused by a chain of people stretched from one side of the ship to the other and simply refusing to let go. Perhaps we could have done that.
It is summer and the water is warm and we have killed most of the predators for food or distraction so we should be able to survive like this for a while. We are strong, dumb, and resilient. Someone will do a head count so we know what we number. And someone will ask the captain what we do next and come back with his answer. Better to send an interpreter since the captain speaks in what can only be called riddles if we assume that the captain is sane and capable and cares. But you would be right to ask whether we need listen to the captain as there is no longer a ship, though the captain says there is indeed still a ship and that it will be hoisted up from the deep and ready to go again by fall.
Yes, he said that. You asked me to tell you a story, and I assume you want facts in it. The sun is God and the ship on the ocean floor is God. Therefore, the attraction of the sun and the ship will lift the ship back up to the surface of the water. This is his fact. His circle, no matter how well or poorly one of them swims, spins round him like a wheel circling its focus, yelling his fact so that all of us stranded here at sea can hear it. The yell being how they think to subdue nature for as you yell you are heard and if you are heard you are alive. It’s that simple. The natural thing now would be to be dead, would it not? But yelling, after all that has happened, is proof that we are here, is it not? Yelling turns fact into feeling. The people who yelled about God and the ship feel this way now. And as they heard it being yelled from the captain’s spinning circle it must be so. And so now they yell: “The sun is God and the ship is God and we shall meet both in the middle.” I am tired of being told to pity them.
No ship is unstoried. And our ship was not without its fill of them. Yet, I have felt compelled to tell you about the water. The black jade of it. That it undulated just above and just below the eyes like when you stand a sheet’s length away from your mother and shake the sheet before walking toward her so she can fold it. That it blackens like dark matter in the night when the mist rises and clouds the eyes and you can hear chants from the other sides of the ship. That it shimmers like the feathers on a peacock’s neck. The water. Its acute changes that over the span of a day don’t seem like changes at all but rather just itself. I worry about all of us becoming like that. Change confused for simply itself. Change unrecognized in a tightening gyre of sound and sound alone.
But what about the ship, you ask? What happened to the ship? It always had its problems, but why did it finally come apart? Did it hit something? The answer is natural history.
See that bird circling overhead, all red on one half of its body and all white on the other? That’s called a hermaphrodite cardinal. There is no reason it should be here and yet here it is.
Do what you can to drown out all the other noise: Listen to it sing. I have been listening to it and little else for months now. I have followed it miles from the shipwreck and have returned when it has returned. It refuses to leave and refuses to land. I never saw it before the ship went down, but I had heard something in the air that I know now was it.
A man I didn’t know and yet knew had told me what I heard.
He was obsessed with birds and could name them by what song they sang. Some storytellers rise late in the day and tell stories until late in the night. I am a storyteller who rises early in the morning when the sky is that rare lilac-beige. That would be when I would see him on the deck, binoculars around his neck, thick glasses on his face, a Star Trek T-shirt and a look on his face that would say “I am listening” and not wanting to bother him I would stay and listen, too, for the oriole and the woodpecker, the red-winged blackbird, and the black-capped chickadee.
I would follow him, saying little to him so as neither to disturb him nor scare away the birds. He would say nothing to me. But he would sing to the birds. They would arrive, sing, and leave, seemingly pleased to have left me rooted there. Both the bird and the man, I mean.
The ship, as always, was going nowhere. But this man had somewhere to be. He would be in those moments not on that stagnant ship but where the birds had been. Seeing this man was like looking into a mirror. His blackness. His height. His sense of aloofness. His stolid reality in an abstract world.
One day, a few months ago, he simply said one word and with that one word the ship jumped. The water was smooth, and the sky was clear. But when the ship caught air and then landed again it had changed. It was as though it had leaped through time. The gold on the ship had turned to verdigris and the guns were now pointed back at the ship itself.
Have you ever heard the gray catbird? Related to the mockingbirds and thrashers, it is about the size of two small fists. I had learned from the man by watching him. All of the successes and frustrations in the world can be reduced to a moment of silent listening. I would watch him and watch him being watched and watch him watch himself being watched, all while he listened and I too tried to listen as he listened. The gray catbird. I had never seen one until that morning. They tend to chill in the bush and sing from there. I remembered my mother’s reprimand when I tried to step onto the deck, my hair and clothes: that people would think I was from the bush, though there were no bushes on the ship. The ship that morning had been chorusing in the sun, bending light around it like a halo but a hazy gray set in for the day.
He told me to be quiet. This was the first time he’d ever said anything to me, though I hadn’t said a word. Shhh, he said to me again as though my presence itself was too loud. Shhh.
“Hey, Eric! Hey, Eric!” the gray catbird started to sing.
“Hey, Eric! Hey, Eric!”
“Is that your na…”
“Hey, Eric! Hey, Eric! Hey, Eric! Hey, Eric! Hey, Eric! Hey, Eric! Hey, Eric! Hey, Eric! Hey, Eric! Hey, Eric! Hey, Eric! Hey, Eric! Hey, Eric! Hey, Eric! Hey, Eric! Hey, Eric! Hey, Eric! Hey, Eric! Hey, Eric! Hey, Eric! Hey, Eric! Hey, Eric! Hey, Eric! Hey, Eric! Hey, Eric! Hey, Eric! Hey, Eric! Hey, Eric! Hey, Eric! Hey, Eric! Hey, Eric! Hey, Eric! Hey, Eric! Hey, Eric!”
And then he simply said, “No.”
This is when the ship caught air, launching itself like a cat from certainty to uncertainty.
And as it touched down again, first the bow then the stern which lifted the bow before it crashed down again, and the sound of the sea’s surge against the side of the ship swelled in all of our ears, I swear to you the water sounded like it was saying George.