3rd Annual Terrain.org Nonfiction Contest Finalist

 

This boat shimmers with the haphazard traverses of ants, always seeming to scramble. They are tiny, even for ants, but they are everywhere, wherever you look.

We are all boats alternately swimming, treading, and floating on any current that can bear us. The New York Times tells me that only one in ten cells in the human body is human. In a sweat lodge, the leader tells me we are floating on a turtle’s back in a great water.

~

The ants are our housekeepers, tenders to whatever we overlook: crumb of toast, drop of water that went astray in the pouring, dust-mote of skin sloughed off and forgotten. Do the ants likewise harbor their own ubiquitous crew, endlessly swabbing the decks of shining hard chitin, preening the bristles and the hooks?

~

I am a boat, hollow shell afloat and adrift. In the night do the ants come while I dream and mine soft balls of wax from my ears to make bricks for their mansions or bundle loose eyebrow hairs and eyelashes into sheaves of thatch for roofs? Inside, what burly sweating engine workers man the boilers, vent the valves, pump the bilge?

~

This wooden boat covered in a lattice of split bamboo, woven palm-frond mats, and coir lashing is a world afloat on the placid green waters of these canals, like the water hyacinths that float through the reflected clouds on the water’s surface, singly or in small clumps, or in large green islands on whose backs rise thick lawns of grasses and where shining white egrets and sleek black cormorants find perch for their forays below the water line.

~

I will also perch, on this boat, for three days scanning the fluid forms on the water’s surface for what lies beneath the cloud-flowers, the arching coconut palms’ shadows breaking like clouds across the chopping wavelets. I try to photograph this variously glimmering, flowing, shimmering limn but my camera too often refuses. It requires a focus, on either that which floats above or that which floats below, boats in either case. But to pierce the veil and see that upon which all boats float is difficult.

~

At night, pale gray-pink lizards scurry out of the thatching of the roof, moving in short bursts and coming to sudden halts. Along the walls they spread out, each one’s eyes only pupils, black holes devouring all light. Occasionally they seem to move, a quick snap of their mouths, presumably feasting on ants.

~

I sit on this boat, reclining on one seat for hours gazing at one bank of the canal, and then moving to the bench on the other side of the boat with my back resting against the coir-rope edging of the bamboo-lattice windows. Every once in a while I snap to attention and grab my camera or my journal, feasting.

~

Three days and then move on: fly off, dive down, wink out in a sudden snapping eclipse. If not this boat’s passenger what kind of traveler will I be? Disembarked, unboated of its charge, what will this be? Coconut shell, ant skull, empty kalpa?

~

Small slips of silver chuckle up over the surface gulping air and insect on the downward plunge. Angled hieroglyphs of shining white poise orange spears for hours and then thrust. Gauzy clouds of net disperse and hang taut, floating. What hidden host will show me the limn and unboat me?

~

This morning I woke up with a sore throat and discovered that the tiny ants had taken up residence in my backpack. I reached for pants and brushing the open flap a black cloud of ants dispersed into a net of retreat. Likewise my mind scattered in confusion, my hand retreated in revulsion. No hatch can hold forever, no seal is impervious. When Noah’s boat passed, certainly some forgotten creatures stowed themselves in wood-grains, nested in nail-holes, chewed slowly to soft pulp the ribs of even this divine vessel that it might hold water too.

~

Returning for fuel to the landing, this boat reenters the society of its kind, strolling along the water past cliques and conferences of barges, some double-decker ostentatious affairs and others more humble like this one-bedroomer. On its own lodged against a bank lies a boat whose palm-frond skin is gray, ragged, and broken, whose bamboo skeleton is snapped and foundered, its ribcage sunken. The whole sorry thing lists toward the bank, its time done. Crows too conference here, hopping and turning on the broken ribs, tugging and pulling away shreds of coir ligaments, palm-frond skin, cawing.

~

As alien water plants glide by just below the surface, as the bloat glides by men scrubbing themselves clean and women slapping laundry on stones along the canal, crows glide black through the air straight towards the window I am leaning against. I see the shining darkness of the outstretched wings, the intelligent emotionless black eyes, the brown cowl that makes them look oddly bald, the few pin feathers below their slightly opened beaks like old men’s stubble. They glide in directly towards me and with one flap of wings lift up at the last second to the land on the roof above me. Caw! A joke, a prophecy, a warning: this near encounter.

~

In this world of water everything is always being washed: washed clean, washed over, washed out, washed up. First the feet are soaped up, the lather creamy white almost blue against heliotrope skin, then they are assiduously rubbed from every angle against the stone stair at the water’s edge, polished again to newness. Then the lungi is swapped out for a loincloth and in the deep living green of the water, gleaming smooth muscles arch and ripple under the swift strokes of soapy hands. Everywhere and at every time of day men are bathing, alone or in chatting groups, their beauty dark competition flaunted at the sun.

Or the white bar of soap is run back and forth mercilessly across the shirt-dress-lungi-sheets until it is one mass of white and green-magenta-red-sapphire and the deep charcoal gray of the stone stair. The article of clothing is twisted and first slapped against the stone several times and then without missing a beat flipped so that the other end is beaten clean. The sound of the canals is birds, lapping water, and slapping laundry wielded like whips by women in the canals.

~

Water hyacinth washes up in great green drifts against the canal banks (the men have to bat them away to make room for their own washing up). Plant seeds wash up onto the water hyacinth and sprout into grass, plants, islands. Cormorants wash up on unseen breezes onto the islands’ backs and spread their wings to dry in the sun like Christ dying on his cross. The whole universe sinks below the water line and washes up on the soft dark shore of the canal bottom. The fine muck of the death of everything washes down into the lake and washes out to the Arabian Sea. The Arabian Sea washes up into the sky and sips in small silver circle-breaths at the stars.

~

When this boat has reached the other shore, leave it behind.  But boat-bound for so long how will I land the limn-line?

~

My throat is sore and swollen and my whole body hums with an invisible tremor, as of innumerable ants’ feet tapping out a message of ransack and wreck. To float through the world is to invite passengers aboard who will pick at the coir knots that hold you together, gnaw at the black hull and the ribs underneath until water boards too and sinking is all that’s left. Jump ship! But where to? Skim the limned line of water and sky, board the cloud-boat reflected there, climb the shadow-trees bursting in ripple-flowers, extinguish the flame in the wet where no camera’s eye can rest upon you no-longer you.

~

Four men stand neck-deep in the canal, close to the bank. They jostle and pogo up and down with great effort. They talk among themselves but it doesn’t distract them from the hard work at hand. Every once in a while they dive down like cormorants, and like cormorants emerge sleek and pitch-black, sheathed in a coat of mud, arms loaded with a heavy shining mass of muck. Beside them is the canoe already nearly sinking under the weight of their haul, tall mounds of rich black earth.

What do they find with their nimble toes down there? What do they resurrect and give birth to like glistening newborns in their arms?

~

Little dark swallow darting around the boat, what message are you trying so hard to relay and from whom? You swing and sprint around the bow, disappear and then wing back for another lap. Over and over, hovering by my side, dropping to meet your speeding shadow in the water, then round the boat once more. In other times your words would unfurl on a golden spangled ribbon or pour celestial and diaphanous like rainbows into my ear, but today you and I meet eye to eye, dumb and bemused, smiling but not understanding anything.

~

I have lived my whole life on this boat, and all this time it has been on fire. A wick swimming in oil, a spirit hovering over the water. These canals in winter are calm and green in their banks of stone, but when the monsoon washes in how these channels must disappear in the roaring haze of ten trillion rain drops, water swirl around house-steps and at windowsills. Rice fields turn into kelp gardens, lily pads pass by like clouds, and everyone grows gills and sheds lungis for scales. The wick is drowned, the spirit consumed. All the boats’ knots undo themselves, bamboo and palms float on unseen currents inches or feet below the surface. Ants float by on backpacks, lizards stay dry among the water hyacinth, crows lift off like cosmonauts and blackwing their way through space to higher boats.

~

In the darkness a distant light touches the water and skips across the surface, breaking into a million small boats dancing on the line.

 

 


Marco Wilkinson is a student in University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast MFA program. He teaches sustainable agriculture and is managing editor at Oberlin College Press. His work has also appeared in Kenyon Review Online.

Photo by Marco Wilkinson.

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