From the collection Transitory, out now from Civil Coping Mechanisms. Buy it here.
Another long day's trawling. I am thankful for the ship. Thankful for the chamber and thankful for the coastal views. Maine at its northernmost. Lost miracles before we set out for the resting spot, the contented spot. Captain tells us we'll make Miquelon this run, that we've taken on the proper space, the proper weight; that our stint in the shipyards was not for naught. I ready the power source and plug in and begin the night's words.
Songs of the colder months. Songs of jackets and parkas, all of us remaining for the fall and the winter bound up in them on deck, awaiting our brilliant piercing views of towns shuttered for the season.
We have been told that there will be cabins in Miquelon; that visa arrangements have been made for the overwinter stay there. I'd signed forms in Grant's office before I boarded: a room a little larger than mine, a divider set up between living areas and the space where he did the ship's business, archaic communication technology scattered on countertops and wall-hanging in harnesses. Something that looked like my mother's cellular phone, an immaculate relic now decades old. "That?" I asked with a nod.
"In the waters we travel, service is strange," he said. "Sometimes you stay with the classics."
I didn't envy him his works. When we would disembark for the handful of supply runs in Bar Harbor or Saint John–the captain and I taking most of the pickup work, my cost of travel–it was Grant's time to barter for contracts, for annotations, for notarizations across all borders. He was often the last to board. I would watch his furtive runs down the docks, the gait of a man sprinting to avoid a downpour, even when there was no rain.
Eight of us had bid for this life, and three were selected: two for the crew, and me to document it all. The captain insisted on a print volume. Grant preferred the notion of electronic dispatches, either archived somewhere or sent sporadically, a newsletter that advertisements and appeals for cash could be affixed. Grant knew better than the rest of us what the ship's condition was. There had been benefits before we cast off; there were ambitious plans for this vessel to be the first of five, the first of a fleet. So far, it was the first of one. We had been given our territory to monitor. I observed and jotted down impressions, images, interviews. Ate eggs on toast. Imagined tricks to make the bulk-bought coffee taste better.
The northernmost bookstore in Maine is two days' voyage off. Some books will be offloaded; I read during the six days I'm off shift; a constant barrage of words. I sit in the waiting area, near the space that had served as cafeteria when this ship was an operational ferry. There are few of us now, few enough that seats near the counter are the source of no competition. We can dwell there fine.
Most days I sit and read and study. I journal. I look at old maps and dream of the coastlines. We're the new voyagers, I suppose. We're keeping watch.
Two days until new books, and until I can hand off some of the old. Over the radio comes a broadcast telling of a canal between the New Brunswick/Nova Scotia border; a way to circumvent coming too close to Halifax. I heard the captain clear her throat. "Lies," she said.
"I know," I told her. "You don't have to tell me about the landscape." She shook her head and went. The charge on my light lasted for a little longer. I dimmed it further and walked outside and looked out at the railing. I saw silent cliffs and breakwaters, and gulls' slumber on the rocks. I saw buildings in the moonlight and in the searchlights, but I saw no forms in the windows. Early sleepers, I thought, or abandoned. I returned to my cabin, and to the maps there, and dreamt of old exploration.
The older man is back. He rejoined us in town; we docked, bartering some items and bringing new food on board. The captain had said some words about gardening, of using some unused space on the deck for a kind of greenhouse, a shield from the cold and the spattering salt from our transit. Since then, we have heard no news. Perhaps it will be begun in the warmer months; regardless, this docking, six hours in total, resulted in no building supplies being brought back on board. I went there quickly; I dropped off some books and bought a new stack of volumes for this, the leg into international waters, and the long wait.
I was reading in my usual seat when the older man rapped on the wall above me. It should have been startling; instead it was enmeshed, as much of the structure of the space as the creaks of the deck and the sound of splashing from the waterline. "Still here," he said.
"Still here," I said.
We called him "the older man" because of his seniority to Hector, The Old Man, who'd been one of the first to join the vessel. Hector had been 75, a fit 75, a spry 75. He had made one of the long circuits with us during the time that we still made the long circuits, before Halifax turned hostile. We picked up the older man, who'd once asked us to call him Vilgrain, at a dock that had long since vanished from our routes. He'd spent eighteen months on the vessel and then he'd gone. "Time of two births," he'd said to me once, and I'd shrugged. Plenty of encounters with the inappropriate, but fewer out here. We imagined ourselves stoics; we imagined ourselves better, a self-selected society. Who knew if it was true?
One day, I expected to be an Old Man, or an older man. These passages seemed to be what I did best. A passenger; an observer; and, sometimes, a set of arms, a set of hands. A counterweight.
The older man passed along an unsolicited recounting of his time over the past few years. There was an abandoned school, he said, where his daughter lived with her family. He'd lived there for a few years; he felt the call of the ocean, he told me, and said his goodbyes. He seemed to have packed light, and I suspected that his stay this time would be a brief one, before land called him again. Still, there was always a place for alumni here. The older man knew that as well as anyone.
The night after he boarded again, we met; he had brought a bottle of mezcal with him from the mainland. "The family hates this stuff," he said. I was amenable. You didn't see many spirits out here; you didn't see many drinkers at all. The roll of the deck, the salt in the air, and the monotony all drained us. You dehydrated easily; many swore off more than a handful of drinks per week after their first shipside hangover. There were the "blue flames" as well: the travelers whose reaction to the chaos was to drink themselves insensate each night, until they ran out of whatever bottles they'd amassed and decided the seafaring life was no longer worthwhile. They'd disembark at whatever port we stopped at next, duffel bags by their sides, hoping for a room at a hostel or guesthouse. The blue flames rarely returned.
The older man sat with two tin cups before him. Ice within had summoned condensation to their outsides. He pushed one towards me. "How's it been?" he said.
"Sparse," I said. "You're the first to return in months."
"Hm," he said, and took a sip of his drink. He hadn't swallowed it, I saw. He had opted to savor. For my part, I drank mine right down and let the burn resonate in my throat. "What've you seen?" he asked.
"Nothing but shoreline and cabins," I said. "Nothing off in the deeper reaches. Just the chop and the birds that fly behind."
"Amory still fishing?"
"Amory left two months ago. Bought a bus ticket on his laptop and said he was heading to Portland. Either Portland."
The older man took another drink and rubbed his forehead. "That'd be it for the fisherfolk, then?" The older man talked like he was navigating a fantasy world half the damn time. I'd never seen him reading, but Amory had told me stories of his room: secondhand mass-markets most everywhere. Which wasn't a statement of economics: most of the bookshops we saw in the towns where we docked trafficked in used volumes. We rarely went as far south as Portland; we rarely stopped near Acadia, and I was one of the few on the ship who could remember a time when we'd docked in Halifax.
We traded stories, the older man and I. He had worked engineering systems for six months on the mainland. Said there was a grand-nephew who'd talked of taking buses up through Canada towards Alaska, crossing the border and crossing the border. He'd heard there were boats similar to ours there, the constant motion, the ocean underfoot. The grand-nephew had been inspired, tantalized.
"You didn't warn him off the life?" I said. "You know what this is."
The older man shrugged. "I spilled my life to him," he said. "Told him of the grit and of the hungers, but also the glimpses. Kid was drawn in by the glimpses."
All I did was exhale; hoped that would signify my disapproval.
"Rumors the kid had heard, too," said the older man. "Rumors it's better in Alaska. Sightings more than glimpses."
Maybe he was right. I'd been on the ship for too long to want to take my chances on Pacific waters, to say nothing of the traversal out there, broke-down trains or long buses, halfway to nausea for hours on end, the jostling making it near-impossible to read. I was fine out here, chasing those glimpses, my words before me.
Felt blocked for the last 36 hours. I never stay on a good cycle out here, and I've been out here long enough that it's harder and harder to remember if I was ever on one that was proper. Prosperity tormented me; that and the rock and weave of the boat, the sound of the crashing. My last time landside I'd fallen asleep to the sense of rocking, Two days of shoreline life hadn’t broken me of the sensation that I was still out on the water; two days after getting back onto the boat, I still felt land's unsteadiness beneath my feet. It was a hybrid state that I'd come to despise, a loathsome epidemic.
If I ever exit this craft, I'll need to contend with it again. But for now, I'm on the water for the foreseeable. I have my dwelling; I am amphibious.
I shudder when thinking of life back on land, further depleted of the belongings I already culled to make this voyage. I imagine myself inland and decrepit, all traversals ended. That hybrid dizziness my default state. Those godforsaken goodbyes all I have to my name, and after a while, not even those.
Dreamt I was flirting with the captain. If I had friends there, we could laugh about that, and the inherent dangers of such behavior.
The captain and I had joked about it once: photographing the Lights to fund our activities. We crowdfunded adequately; the allure of these coastal trips was often enough to pull on board an affluent patron every six months or so. We trotted out ceremonies for them; we ferried them on board via a powerboat through the shallows, upped the drama, sold the vessel's size, made it look imposing rather than the converted commuter ferry it actually was. The captain often suggested we do the deep runs then. Much of the damage we took was to impress the donors; that too was a part of the routine. That sense of breaking it and buying it, by which I mean, yes, the captain was damn good at guilting the hell out of the wealthy and getting a little extra for fuel, for the stockpiles, for the gear we used to measure conditions and hope for a return of the Lights and the messages they carried.
So, then: the Lights and the shapes that emerged from them. This was the phenomenon we stared at, and the downtime we kept along the way. We got dispatches from the shore periodically, like cloistered monks getting news in quarterly increments. I'm sure some could fixate on the Lights and see evidence of aliens and others the divine and others new and inexplicable developments in climate, of the way light hits the atmosphere. Dim shapes in the Lights that might have been letters in some lost language. A cryptographer's paradise. We had some come on board once. It was a disaster, as some had predicted. Shouts and questions of the captain's authority. Attempts to take the vessel below the Lights. There was, in fact, no way to do this.
Some fuck boarded with a satchel of books on the monastic tradition. Talked about pitching a tent on the lower level, where this vessel had carried cars when it had been a vessel that carried cars. For my money, it was dangerous. Now the arrays from the panels on the roof were down there, along with the plants and the tanks. When I walked through the upstairs platform, I flattered myself by thinking I could differentiate the rumbles each of them left in the walls.
Who was the fuck, I asked the captain. Consultant, she said.
I asked her what kind he was. She smiled. Line of succession, she said. Keep this thing going if the krakens take me.
Krakens aren't real, I said.
I know, she said. But who the hell knows if I want to captain forever.
She was keeping this sustainable, which I well understood. Still. Borrowed a bottle from the older man, told him I'd repay him when we next docked. That would be, someone said, the geodomes at Winter Harbor. Pretty sure one of those was a general store now. Stragglers last year told us someone had begun making variations on gin. Almost no-one's gone blind, they said. So I would do that, buy one for the older man and one for me. For the present time, I kept to myself; I let the ship's rocking steady me, and I thought about the next.
Crossed into Canadian waters yesterday. Saw another vessel, with Moncton registry. A couple of us stood on the platform and waved. The whole crew seemed to be children. Didn't seem right. I assumed someone older was at the helm, but all the wavers looked ten or eleven. Children of the crew, I supposed, or some sort of strange daycare. Or maybe they'd hijacked the whole thing; perhaps we were one fragment, bystanders in their adventure. I never knew with kids. You didn't banter much with other vessels. It was months since we'd seen the last converted transport vessel. There were plenty, but the schedules never lined up.
Maybe there weren't plenty any more. Who knew? I didn't man the radio here. The captain would know such things, and some of the crew. I had other duties. When I did take on labor, it was usually private. Made me something of an outlier among the crew, but I didn't mind.
I saw the captain a few hours after the Moncton ship had passed. What was all that, I asked. She shrugged.
Maybe a generational thing, she said. Maybe an apprenticeship.
Seemed rational. I asked her about the next destination. We hadn't docked in days. She said, somewhere between here and New Glasgow. And then New Glasgow. I nodded. She asked if I had a preference. I said didn't. And then I amended: anywhere I could walk on land for a little bit. Not just the pier systems; somewhere we could have an hour or two to wander. I hadn't wandered in a while.
She said, I'll see what I can do. Which probably meant we'd stop at Port George for half an hour. I was all right with that.
Port George was shrouded in mist, as it always was. The old buildings that overlooked the water; the summer cottages, no longer inhabited seasonally. There, too, were the modular homes, a more recent addition, and the artists' studios, some small and some cavernous. Art was one of the industries here now; it was also a port, albeit a modest one, pulling in vessels like ours and selling spirits, dried meats, packaged goods. Reports of bad weather to the north meant that we'd dock here for the night. I was all right with that. Sleeping with a different sort of motion below me seemed fine: that steady rock instead of the unpredictable forward momentum.
I dropped off a few letters to you. Seemed preferable here than from the States. Unsure why. Maybe because we were in the Commonwealth now, I suppose. I walked to a general store and handed over the letters to you, and a few postcards to distant friends. I thought that I might purchase some more. I asked the proprietor if she had any. None left, she told me. Maybe if we stopped here on the return leg. Seemed fair, I said.
I walked up the hill to get a few of the vessel, to get a view of the town, to get a view of the open water. I'd bought some ground ginger from a shop beside the general store, and steeped a pinch of it in mug of hot water. It felt calming. The sun had started to set, and I saw something stretching along the horizon. I wondered if we might not be due for an installment of the Lights tonight. I wondered what the captain would tell us once we'd all boarded the ship again to bunk up for the night. Or most of us: one of the others often bunked with someone when we passed through here. I envied her that.
Dirt and rocks set below my feet. I was a thousand feet from the limits of the town. There were a few small shacks here; a couple of tiny homes that had been ferried out here on crafts sturdier than ours. It had been a while since I'd last looked at the structure that I'd called home for so long. It seemed good to see it in a landscape, to see it with surroundings. When I looked back at Port George, it seemed less like a vessel docked there than another building, closer to the waterside than most. That seemed welcome. That seemed a kind of pleasure. I watched it move ever so slightly, the current's tremble conjuring a resemblance to seismic action. The thing seemed rigid, but also not.
I took out my old camera and took a photo, and then another. I'd have something to send to you in the next letter, or I wouldn't: salt and time had ruined more rolls than I'd like to have imagined. But still, that image. The passengers we conveyed looked up for their preferred signs; mine came off the shore. Mine came from low-lying buildings and the craft near them, and the sea beyond. I stared at it for a little while longer before starting the walk back to the ship.
We docked in Port George for another two nights, and then struck out again. A viewing of the Lights, and then on to the winter. The guests would disembark in St. Pierre, as was the case ever since the local government in Halifax turned hostile. And then Miquelon, where the remnants of the crew would dock for the winter, lodging in one of the dormitories for the coldest months. It was a profitable arrangement for all involved; it was also one of the few times you'd see multiple vessels in a single space. It was a strange and temporary society. You saw some of the same faces year after year; others came and went. Some, you knew, didn't have the taste for it. Others had opted to start families, or to venture into other lines of work. There were plenty of reasons to cease life crossing these cold waters.
Still. We all stayed in an old factory: the rooms were heated but a central courtyard stayed seasonally chilly. We would gather there and drink spirits in the cold, or head to one of the town's taverns. We didn't feel archaic so much as timeless.
There were romances there; some brief and some that lasted. It was a good and heartfelt place to meet, I'd always said. The old factory. The walks through cold streets and the echoes of French spoken by the residents. If you were on the seas for a year or more, you picked some up. You had to.
Mail went out infrequently. Connections for phones or laptops were intermittent. It was a place of relative isolation, and I was okay with that.
Two months there, maybe more this year. I'd see the new faces. I'd see who'd come, who'd been on the ships after all the dignitaries and clergy and philosophers went away. It was a welcome season.
Four days out of Port George, we saw the Lights. I was drinking coffee and eating something dried when I heard the bell's somber ringing. Usually it was the captain who did the ringing; sometimes she'd delegate it. Once, I'd been standing beside her when they came in sight on the horizon: the patterns in the sky, the absences in the middle. If you were to ask me when I first felt connected to the ship, it would probably have been there. The hand on the cord, then hearing that sonorous sound traveling throughout the ship, and hearing the movement of feet towards the deck. That sense of causation, and the mysteries off in the distance.
I had a mug of coffee in my hand as I walked to the deck. Out of windows, I could see the Lights in the distance, already huge, occupying much of the sky. I walked to the deck; I saw the Captain there alone, the rest of the crew, the rest of the visitors, standing on the opposite platform.
Will you miss this, I asked her. You know you'll miss it.
She smiled, was all.
The absence in the middle of the Lights doesn't have an explanation. Some of the clergy and prophets say it's a message from something divine. Codebreakers analyze the shapes in them, the forms. They think they're letters, and maybe they are. Maybe they're nonsense. Maybe they're someone's art. But when I look to the sky and see the Lights, I see a correspondence, I see something up there that maybe isn't meant to be read. But still. We perceive it. We watch it and we hope we can make sense of it. And I sit down and write, letters to a you I don't even recognize. I watch and I wait and I hope, a year from now, ten years from now, to still feel that strange sense of connection.