Oh, Nereus by Steve Carr
My short story "Oh, Nereus" on The Drunken Llama today
9:59 AM - 6 Dec 2016
Oh, Nereus by Steve Carr
The sea is my world, and it stretches on forever, on and on in the days since the sinking of my yacht, The Mercy. This world has no foothold, only islands and coasts seen on the horizon, never reached, reefs and volcanoes sprouting up like exotic flowers and simmering cauldrons in the middle of the jade-green and turquoise waters. The sea provides a mattress, a deathbed of rocking waves that lull me into sleep on this raft where I spend my days and nights; all the hours melding into years. All the years lost.
How many years since the day The Mercy went down in this watery graveyard, this salty, liquid earth? It’s like counting the pinpoints of light in the Milky Way. The days pass like that, twinklings in a distance, miscounted. I can lie on the boards and with the rising sun and its setting, watching the morning and evening skies shift, creating patterns like rotating colored glass in a kaleidoscope. I can watch the moon appear and disappear like a whale’s eye in the ocean of space.
At the bottom of the sea, The Mercy may rest in some crevice, some fissure where striped fish, gray eels and the ink-spitting octopus swim in the darkness. Maybe The Mercy is broken in half, like the Titanic, bow and stern separated, its contents – luggage, furniture, skeletons – scattered and decomposing in the depths or preserved in the coldness. Maybe the First Mate, Pete, stares out at the sharks and barracuda, watching from inside The Mercy. He’s trapped forever in the cabin as he peers with lifeless eyes through the porthole, the porthole where I last saw his has handsome face, his blue eyes full of sorrow. I fell past him, past that porthole, into the sea, tossed from the sinking yacht into the storm-driven waves.
The squall came upon us so quickly, so unexpectedly, that before The Mercy went down, Andrea didn’t have time to tie her daughter’s shows, Maximilian and Jan couldn’t tally their gin rummy score, Lucy was unable to fasten the top hook of her Christian Dior gown. Pete couldn’t get the door to his cabin open. I banged on his door. I rammed it with my shoulder.
“Pete, I need you,” I called in to him, then ran up to the deck, to the starboard side to get an ax. I wondered as I fell past his porthole if he thought I’d jumped – that I had abandoned him and the others. He must have known that The Mercy would be swallowed into the sea.
Of the others, including the effeminate Ray and his macho partner Mack, their room full of leather and feathers, of Suzanne who drank too much and looked older than her twenty years, of Sam the cook and the other servants; I don’t know they spent their final moments.
On the way to get the ax to rescue Pete, who could rescue all of us, who knew the yacht better than me, I saw Andrea as I passed her cabin. She was kneeling before her daughter, Tracy, and trying to tie Tracy’s running shoes while Tracy wailed against the horrors of the creaking ship, the pounding of the waves against every outside surface.
“It’ll be alright,” I yelled to Andrea, my shout barely heard above the stormy din.
I climbed the stairs and past the dining room and saw Jan, laughing, his Swedish voice booming “you didn’t win. I won.” Maximilian, much older than his young blond lover, was holding up the pad with the score and laughing also. They didn’t see me as I passed.
Neither did my teenage daughter, Lucy, who stood in front of the wall mirror in the living room, her feet squarely planted on the carpeted floor as the yacht tossed about, her hands behind her neck trying to fasten the top of her gown, a birthday present from me. She looked so much like her mother, the only woman I had ever slept with, when I was twenty, and before I knew what my true sexual tastes were.
The wave that washed across the yacht, that shattered port side windows and portholes, that swept me over the starboard side, seemed like a hand that held me in chilling fingers and emptied me from its palm into the sea. In that moment, beneath the water, I saw a school of fish blithely swimming on like a choreographed marching unit, and it seemed as if there were no storm at all. When I surfaced, I turned every direction, my eyes slapped with the stinging salt of the ocean as I searched for The Mercy. I was submerged again by the crush of the hand that had guided my watery fate, and beneath the water I saw the sinking yacht, The Mercy, stern-first going down into the darkness, bubbles rising from it like giant jellyfish racing to the surface.
I didn’t think at that moment about how such things happen, or why. I didn’t ponder the question of ballast or buoyancy, of the incredible sinking speed, the failure of the yacht to withstand the squall. I thought of Pete, waiting nude in his cabin for me before the squall hit, his door jammed as the boat was suddenly smacked with a monstrous wave, his voice sounding calm, yet strained, as he beat against the door before I ran to get the ax, before I was plummeted into the drifting eternity.
And now I try to count the days, the months, the years, and all are lost to me. Just as the memories fade and become distorted, so had time. The hypnotic sparkle of sunlight on sea, the mesmerizing quality of a shark’s fin slicing the water’s surface, the timelessness of playful dolphins; there things alter my perceptions and minutes become hours that become a day. I was thirty-seven when The Mercy sank, and was fit and handsome then, free of the stress of a less-wealthier life. I know by the wrinkles in my face, the whiteness in my hair, the aching in my muscles, that I have entered old age like a man who awakes from a coma and finds his past can never be regained once lost.
Even Nereus can’t stall the ravages of time that will someday be my salvation, my death. In his questioning eyes I see him pondering the growing slowness of my movements, of my weakening limbs as I swim with him beneath shooting stars.
“I’m getting old,” I say to him. “It happens to men, all men.”
He replies in a sing-song vocalization, like a quartet singing in a foreign language, tenor and soprano all at once, and though I have taught him some of my language, I can’t understand his. He reaches out and touches my hair, holds the white strands between his strong, tanned fingers and looks at me with alarm and misunderstanding.
This raft I’m on, this twelve-by-twelve board topped with a canvas tent and a single mast with a single sail, has taken me, I think, around the world, past continents and island chains. I’ve floated and sailed out where the horizon is another man’s piece of poetry. From miles off I’ve seen beaches and cities, ships and harbors. I am trapped on this cell as Nereus’ man. He doesn’t understand the concept of captive, or prisoner, or even possession, as he pulls me with a rope attached to the raft – a rope he holds in his strong white teeth as he swims the seas.
At night he climbs aboard the raft and crawls into the tent and holds me in his wet muscles. He kisses with salty lips, and we make love as he sings, and his songs attract the whales who swim with us as night as I teach Nereus over and over the ways in which men make love.
Nereus knows these things: how to bring food, fish, kelp and canned goods from sunken ships and stolen from ship’s stores; to replace my tent and sail and bedding when they are ragged, by going into harbors and stealing such things from small boats; how to pull me to safety during storms. All other things I must re-teach him every day, every night. He knows that I am changing, growing older, but I don’t think he remembers what I once was, how differently I made love at thirty-seven.
Nereus doesn’t age.
“I want to go home,” I tell him every day.
Nereus laughs and splashes in the water and pulls the rope, drawing the raft so that I go first in one direction, then another, and his message becomes clear: I am home.
“Take me there,” I tell him when we see a beach, a city, a ship. He tilts his head to one side and with grave eyes sings me what I’ve taken to be a warning, a musical note of caution, just as he does when we see a shark or we see an oncoming storm.
Occasionally he brings me things: a shoe, a wooden bowl, a piece of pretty coral. He lays these items at my feet and looks up at me with adoring eyes and rolls onto his stomach and my thank you is to take him, to make him sing, to bring the whales.
From sunken ships and harbor boats he has brought me books and clothes, and hundreds of small items, kitchen utensils and toys, and though there is not room on the raft for all these things, I have thanked him each time, thanked him because I hoped some day he would bring me a blank book, a diary and a pen, which now he’s done.
Today the sea is calm and the sun is high above the canvas tarp I wile away this endlessness of moments by recounting what till now has occurred, how my life ceased when The Mercy sank, though I am alive and fed and clothed, provided shelter and safety from the storms, and have a lover who is insatiable and infinite in his lovemaking, and amazing and breathtaking in his beauty. How many times have I cursed this all, and endless times jumped into the sea to end it, only to be pulled back onto the raft by Nereus.
Nereus has brought me a long piece of rope, a gift, laying at my feet and offering himself to me. While inside him, while he sings to the whales who sing to him, I think about the sea, the maddening sea, about getting home at any cost.
In the night the sea is as still as the day and I count the stars reflected in the black of the waters. The half-moon provides candlelight shadows as Nereus and I make love on the boards outside the tent, with the warm breeze drying him, drying his scales that cover his flipper, the whales singing in response to Nereus who seems particularly happy. Afterward we sit in the starlight as he preens his flipper. I comb his sea-green hair and decorate his long locks with starfish and pearls. I feed him seahorses, his favorite, while he strokes my weathered face.
He falls asleep in my arms and when the rhythm of his breath and the tenor notes of his sleep-sighs assures me that I won’t awaken him, I take his gift, the rope, and tie his arms and hands. I tie them so securely that even I couldn’t undo the knots without a knife. I fear that his adoring eyes, his pained song will stir me to change my mind.
When dawn comes, the sea sprinkled with shimmering sunlight, red and pink, I awake to the singing alarm of Nereus struggling with the rope. His eyes implore me, searching my face for answers. Maybe for a moment he thinks it is a game, because he smiles. But when I don’t smile back his alarm increases.
“I’m so sorry, Nereus,” I say, “but you don’t understand. I have to go home.”
Nereus looks about the sea.
“No, Nereus. This isn’t my home.”
I put up the sail and let the winds push the raft, and we float, sail on, and the day grows hot and Nereus becomes quiet. The following whales fall behind, and a school of dolphin who had accompanied us in the night, are gone from sight. I dip my hands into the sea and pour water to his lips and let him drink from my hands.
We float, sail, and I dream of home. I think about the way it would feel to walk up a tree-lined street, to feel the earth beneath me, to walk barefoot in the soil, to see a mountain, solid and unmoving. I think of how I’d smell the flowers and look up at birds other than seagulls.
In late afternoon I fall asleep, made drowsy by the breeze and warmth. I awake a while later to the sound of thrashing in the water. Nereus has rolled himself off the raft and is caught on the edge of the raft by the rope I have tied him with. Several sharks are circling around him, closing in. Nereus is singing, his sing-song voice rising out of the water like children playing flutes. I reach into the water to grab him, to pull him aboard. He looks at me, his eyes full of loathing, and he kicks at my hands with his flipper. His body breaks free from the raft – the raft he placed me on when he found me as The Mercy sank.
The sharks devour him.
Tonight I sail on a satin sea, and I have no idea where I am, but I suspect because of weather and stars it’s somewhere in the Pacific, maybe near Hawaii. If I should die on this raft in the seeming endlessness of ocean, then it will be a just and fair retribution for the death of Nereus. If I awake in the morning, or any morning, or any hour, and spot land and am saved, I’ll tell my saviors that I grew old and alone on a deserted island since the sinking of The Mercy.
Steve Carr began his writing career as a military journalist and has had short stories published in Double Feature, Tigershark Magazin