Of the compass dial, I can’t tell you much because it broke in the fight for the paddle and both fell into the neon-teal sea. That was the seventh day.
Old balding Arby, Jessica and myself used the compass to good effect until Arby decided to call Jessica a “hussy” and she took the paddle’s small end and struck at him, hitting his hand and the compass in it. The compass spun apart in flashing glass and glowing metal, each a diamond point in the air, under the noonday sun, spreading like a conflagration racing from a common point, a central origin, and it was all so pretty, until the two started fighting. Arby climbed over me to get at her as she struck him repeatedly with the paddle. He seized and they rolled around curing each other, flailing, and biting. The paddle fell into the ocean and floated away. I threw Arby off of her and then looked for the paddle in the shining water. The whiteness of the boat, and the compass splinters, and the pattern of light on the ocean made the little paddle invisible.
“That paddle! The paddle!” I screamed.
“The paddle!” Jessica said, forgetting the fight and gripping the polished edge of the boat.
“Melissa,” she said, “did you see what side it went off?”
“Left,” I said, shielding my eyes. My hair burned the back of my neck, my skin blistered lobster-like. Dark hair, fair skin made the ocean sun a particular enemy of mine. A hateful, cruel enemy, spelling cancer out on my skin as it reddened. Melanoma ran in the family. It was in our blood.
“No oar?” Arby said. “Great. We’ll just float here. When we have to eat each other, I’m eating this blonde bitch first.”
Jessica, whose blonde hair gave her head a blazing halo in the light, whose skinny frame held together with ropy muscles quivered, whose blue eyes held malice in their glass ball iris trapped as if in amber, looked at the fat, balding man and said, “Try it and I’ll murder your ass.”
“It won’t come to that,” I said.
Our situation; no paddle, no food, no water; was worse now. The boat did not just sit. It spun slowly, describing a graceful, directionless arc. A wide boat, with a deep bottom. Heavy, it rested low in the water, only displacement kept it afloat. Polished, white, curved to a point at one end, a giant carved tusk. The mammoth would have been beyond proportion, high-rise-sized, to produce a tusk this large. No animal I knew was large enough. I supposed it could have been made from pieces of ivory fitted together like a three dimensional jigsaw puzzle, but if so the seams were very cleverly hidden. It was an impossible boat, made of ivory, carved with elephants and snakes on the outside, the edge was ribbed. The benches were chiseled dragons with leering white eyes and flattened wings to make a surface to sit on. The dragon’s wings however ended in sharp points. I’d scraped my leg against on earlier and instantly regretted it. It was all a marvelous work of art, I thought, until I remember that ivory equals death. I’ve read how they get it, how they’ll kill entire elephant families to get this white jewelry. All ivory art is tainted. It’s unredeemable. Ivory is frozen elephant blood, and I felt sick thinking this as my eyes admired the boat’s craftsmanship.
“I’ll eat her,” Arby said to me. “If she keeps talking, I’ll eat her right now.”
“Don’t be absurd,” I said. “We’ll paddle with our hands.”
“Impossible,” Jessica said, crossing her arms.
“You want to sit here?” I asked. “It’s bloody hot and we’re drifting.”
“The compass is broken,” Arby said, holding up his swollen and lacerated hand for emphasis. Blood jeweled his hand like drops of rubies. The compass’s last meal had been flesh and blood. “Even with the oar, we’d never know if we were going the right way.”
“Brilliant,” Jessica said. “Well deduced. I’m glad you’re amazing insights have such--.”
“Profundity,” I said finishing her sentence for her and cutting her off. “Look, if we sit here we’re not making any progress.”
“There’s none to be made,” Arby said.
“We can use the stars and the sun to--.”
“We can’t paddle with our hands,” Jessica said. “The boat’s too heavy.”
“We’ll starve to death before we get anywhere,” Arby said.
“Or die of thirst,” Jessica.
“Or drown,” Arby.
“Or be murdered,” Jessica.
“Nobody is murdering anybody,” I said, scratching at my arm. The heat on my head beaded my scalp with sweat. Beaded everything with sweat. Standing in the boat was more work than running a marathon. I’d done that once, ten years ago or more now. Past memories of the event crowded around me. I ignored them all.
“The sun’ll kill you,” Arby said to me. “You’re red. You’ll be cooked alive out here. No drinking water means no way to cool down. I read somewhere about a military guy who got caught out in the heat somewhere. The blood in his brain boiled. Guy went nuts. Tried to kill his battle buddy. Had permanent brain damage.”
“I don’t care for pessimism,” I said, turning my back on them so I could look out at the ocean.
Sea from horizon to horizon, in one big circle, stretched as if the whole world was waterlogged, drowned. The sky seemed a reflection of the water, not the other way around. All too blue and bright. I felt like a mote in an eye, drifting, insubstantial, about to be blinked away.
“I doubt pessimism cares for you!” Arby exclaimed. “Look! There isn’t a damned bit of land anywhere. No sandbars or islands.”
“We’re all dead,” Jessica muttered.
“I’d like to walk across the water,” I said, mostly to myself. “I wonder if it would be hard? Like standing on a waterbed.”
“You want to work a miracle?” Arby asked. “Dream on, little girl.”
I turned around and looked at him evenly.
“I dream of you shutting your mouth,” Jessica said behind me. “That’d be a damn miracle.”
“Shut your own mouth,” Arby said. “Now that you lost that oar, I can say whatever I want.”
Jessica replied by taking off her shoe and lobbing it at him. A good throw, the converse flew past my head giving me a good look at the worn zigzag pattern on its heel, before it sailed by to strike Arby in the face.
He made to go around me, but I interceded, blocking his path around the benches.
“I’ll kill that bitch!” he said.
“No,” I said. Directly in front of him, I stood with my arms out. He looked like the devil. Red-rimmed eyes, red-veined face, rough-hewn stubble, but he didn’t dare push me aside. Out of everybody on the boat, we three, I had the muscles, I was the athlete. For now I was too much an obstacle. I wouldn’t always be, I would become weal before him. My metabolism burned faster.Then Jessica would push him. Or he her. They’d fight over my physical body like dogs over scraps of meat. The sun wasn’t going to kill me, nor the ocean. Not hunger, or thirst. These two bickering fools might. Then we would sail dead in this boat of white bone, we three, until some sailors found our bones in this great bone as if embowered in a fairytale.
What stories would they make up about us? How do three skeletons get in an ivory boat? This curve tusk as large as a pickup truck? I could tell them an adventure or two if I could speak. If these nude jawbones moved I’d set the teeth to work clattering out a story about a jungle: how the tattooed woman danced and the feathered man sang. I’d tell them about the engraved key to the triple-towered temple, and the path up the mountain along a pitted, honeycombed road, how I met Arby and Jessica struggling to move a dead horse. I would tell the sailors that Arby and Jessica, the other set of bones, were the last of an expedition up the mountain from the jungle side. I’d tell them that the two knew each other from years back. What their gripe was, I could not tell the sailors, for that initial flash point wasn’t mentioned. I would tell them of the temple steps and the man with the jaguar head and the crown minted with pure silver he kept on his head, and how we took the crown and broke his kingdom, how fire rained from the temple, how the man’s ghost chased us from city to city, and how we defeated him. I’d tell about the docks and the natives and I would tell them what I’d done for a boat of white bone, and we three. There my story would end. The jaws would fall still. The enamel pegs set into my face would cease their movement. My eye sockets’ glow would fade, their animating magic divorced from them like a candle flame from oxygen.
“And I’ll be gone too,” I said.
“We were discovered by a philosopher,” Jessica said to Arby. “Look at her. When she looks out to sea, I can tell she thinks too much.”
“And you think too little,” he said.
Jessica ignored him, instead asking me, “What are you thinking about?”
“I’m thinking of yesterday, and the day before that. I think the tide is coming in and it’s sink or swim.”
“A real philosopher,” Jessica said. “I took a philosophy class once, back in college. One day we spent the entire class arguing if the idea of love was the same as love.”
“Love is love,” I said. I looked at her, wishing my hair could be light and heat resistant like hers. All that reflected light gave her beauty. I wanted to kiss her as if she were an angel. I wanted to steal her wings and fly away.
“It’s all sink, of course,” she said breaking the moment.
“Why are you so bitter?” I asked.
“Because it’s all sink,” she repeated. “Don’t try to tell me you’re not bitter. You look away to the sea and I can see your past. An idealist doesn’t belong in this world.”
Arby snorted at that.
“What?” Jessica asked, annoyed.
“And you’re a nihilist. That’s no better. That’s why you’re such a pain in the ass.”
“And you’re an idiot. Melissa will tell you.”
“Hey,” I said. They can fight, but they better not drag me into it.
“There was a boy once,” Jessica said to me confidentiality.
“No,” Arby said, approaching again. “You will not tell her that story!” His cheeks puffed out like one of those poisonous snakes that spit venom. Only his venom were his words. He had no other power.
“I love this boy--.”
“You bitch!” Arby screamed. “I forbid you to say anything else!”
I tried to back away from both of them. Being between them there was only one direction to go and my butt hit the side of the boat painfully.
“I loved him and this man here--!”
“He was my son!”
“He was my boyfriend!”
With me out of their way they flew at each other, tearing at faces, screaming obscenities. I should have broken them up, but the phrase, “There was a boy once” raced through my mind. I had a similar phrase, one probably engraved on my heart, certainly one engraved on every corner and wrinkle of my brain.
There was a girl once. I loved her. I love her. She had brown eyes, and tan skin, and blonde hair. She never wore makeup. Didn’t need it. She hummed doo-wop when happy. Her freckles were my stars, her face my sun. Kissing her was my world. At night I saw her, eyes opened or closed. If home is where the heart is, my home was in her hands.
Once there was a girl.
Girls don’t love girls. I heard it over and over again from every quarter, from every position that opinion could be given. I heard other things too. I heard Temptress, Sinner, Devil. I heard My Daughter would NEVER. I heard the sound of doors shutting and the sound of running feet. I heard of a moving van, but that sound came later, after all movement was done. I heard that sound from a friend of a friend. I never really heard it and I never really heard Goodbye.
Once there was a girl.
All these yesterdays in my head. When I look out to sea, I think too much. I am in the sea now and all the yesterdays come back. If home is where the heart is, my home is half a world away. If home is where the heart is, my home is a decade ago.
And the two in front of me were trying to kill each other. They rolled around between the sharp dragon benches. No punches, only clawing and biting. I did not see a way to separate them, so I let them fight until they were exhausted, crawling away from each other to their ivory corners leaving red-stained white trails along the ivory.
“If I had a gun--!” Jessica said. Her voice was course, rasping. It sounded like a dying motor trying to start. Her heaving breathing raised and lowered her chest by a foot. Arby did not respond.
“I think I’m bleeding to death,” she said.
I checked her. She was no longer pretty. Her blonde hair hung limp with blood. Her make up was bruises and blood. One eye was swelling shut, eclipsing her bright blue iris.
“No danger of that,” I said. “All these cuts are superficial. Is this out of your system? You two are useless if you continue to fight.”
“Don’t know,” she said. “I hate him. I want him to die.”
Disgusted, I walked the length of the boat to Arby. Facedown, his bald head reflected the sun as a fuzzy point on his crown. I turned him over. A gash across his arm was probably what did it (from one of the dragon wings). Bled out. Dead.
I stood and wondered what to do. The murderess behind me didn’t even know her crime yet. She wished it accomplished and it was done. But wishing and having are monsters of different character. If I could grant myself a wish, I knew what wish it would be, but I’d never use that power because changing the past is the same a lying to yourself. A wiser choice would be to wish away jumping into the mammoth tusk boat, but that’s not what I’d wish for, and I knew it.
“Tell that moron, next time I’ll kill him,” Jessica called from the other side of the boat.
“He’s already dead, Jessica,” I said flatly.
“What?” she said. I heard surprise in that raspy voice. It worked like fresh oil in a machine. The dying motor purred to life and she no longer sounded like death herself. “Are you serious?”
“Dead serious,” I said, unable to resist the pun even then.
Jessica crawled slowly to her feet, hauling herself up by the boat’s edge. The entire thing rocked. She staggered past me to Arby. Cursed and dead and gone Arby.
“I never thought--,” she began.
“You did think it,” I said. “You thought it and you said it.”
“I’ve never killed anybody before,” she said. She looked at me and said, “You have to believe me. Melissa, you know I’m not like this.”
“You’ve killed tons of people,” she said. “How do you deal with it?”
“You’ve seen everybody I’ve killed,” I said, thinking of the jaguar man.
“Those were self-defense. This is different,” she said. She was crying. “Listen, Melissa. I think I have to leave you.”
“Leave me? How? Off the side of the boat?” I asked. “No, you’re staying.”
She looked around as if a door would rise out of the water allowing her to escape.
“What if somebody finds up?” she asked. “Oh God. What if somebody finds us?”
I shrugged. Explaining a dead body would be hard if those sailors I was dreaming about found us. Harder for her than me. I pitied her.
“My boyfriend died of fever,” she said, stumbling to one of the dragons and sitting down. One of the dragon’s eyes had blood on it. It looked like it was weeping.
“Arby never liked me, but after--,” she paused, gulped air, then continued. “We couldn’t keep from fighting. We were out and the jungle and my boyfriend just… caught… Melissa, how do you deal with it? I can’t. It’s too much.”
“My lover killed herself,” I said. “Two years after I last saw her.” I gestured to the boat. “She killed herself with a letter opener carved from an antler.”
“Her?” Jessica said, in a whisper. “You’re…?”
“Happy,” I said, in a tone of finality guaranteed to shut her up. “Extremely happy.”
The sun dipped now, making west impossible to look at. The water in that direction looked like molten gold. Our boat’s interior grew shadows.
“I want to die,” Jessica said.
“No,” I said. I saw something glint north of the boat. A speck of--? Daring to hope, I walked to the narrower part of the boat to look. I grasp the tusk point and pulled myself up. I resembled a figurehead, leaning out like that. It was dangerous, but I had to know.
“Are you a strong swimmer?” I asked when I got back into the boat.
Her face was pale. It looked like ivory.
“You’ll do fine. See that speck there?” I pointed to where the object had grown.
“We’re going to live?”
“We’re going to get out of the boat, hang on to the sides, and we’re going to kick with our legs until the boat hits ground,” I said. “Don’t you dare let go.”
The water hurt on my burned skin. Under the water it didn’t look bright red, but light pink like undercooked steak. I couldn’t see Jessica on the other side of the boat so I yelled.
“We have to kick at the same time,” I said. “One, two, three!”
The ivory cut through the water like a knife through flesh. Jessica, despite my fears, did not let go. If she had, I would have had to go to the back part of the boat, the flat part where it had been sawed through to remove it from the animal, and I would have kicked blindly heading for the speck. I probably would have missed it and then worn out, drowned. But that didn’t happen and as we pulled closer, the speck expanded. It grew until a beach became clear, and then objects on the beach after that. A deserted boardwalk with rotting umbrellas and ruined wooden arcades, but beautifully touched by the golden hour of the setting sun, blazing clearly.
Oh, Ann, I thought, kicking through the water toward the beach. Oh, Ann, I thought, if you were alive I’d tell you of such things. You are cursed and dead and gone, but your Melissa lives on.