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April 15, 2024

Adrift at Sea

By Steve Carr

The metal cups and dishes in the cupboard clanked noisily against each other as the small yacht, the Brizo, bounced on the turbulent ocean waves. Lying on the bunk, Dave rolled onto his side and tried to focus his bleary eyesight on the canvas that swung from a hook screwed into the wall. The bright red, blue and green acrylic paints used to paint the tropical island scenery seemed to slosh back and forth as if the painting was no more than the hodgepodge of colors he had lifted from the palette, or like colorful currents on a windswept pond. He squinted, focusing on a palm tree until it took shape, and then began to see the painting for what it was: a lone bamboo lean-to with a palm thatched roof on a white sand beach with a tropical jungle for a backdrop. He moaned as his temples pounded with the headache brought on by being hung over. The whiskey in his stomach formed waves of their own. He leaned over the edge of the bunk and vomited on the mound of his clothing lying on the floor.

The yacht rolled violently on its port side, opening the cupboard doors and spilling the contents of the cupboard onto the counter. A stack of paintings leaning against a wall fell over and slid across the floor. The structure of the yacht groaned as if protesting being tossed about. When the Brizo righted itself, he slowly sat up and grabbed onto the edge of the bunk and waited until the surge of nausea that gripped his stomach passed. He kicked aside the clothes and stood up, holding his arms out to balance himself, and then he crossed the cabin to the communications radio attached to a small table. He toggled the on and off switch several times and momentarily thought he heard static, but it was just wishful thinking. It had been dead for a week. He turned and surveyed the condition of the cabin.

"I should be ashamed of myself," he said aloud as he looked at the floor cluttered with his canvases, empty tubes of paint, clothes, whiskey bottles, half-empty cans of food, plastic water bottles, banana peelings and coconut shells.

The yacht suddenly lurched forward, pushed from the stern by a large wave like a child pushing a toy boat in a bathtub. He flew across the cabin, landing with a resounding thud against the door leading to the stairs going to the helm. He slid to the floor, grasping his left forearm, certain he had broken it. Using his feet, he pulled a whiskey bottle to him. He raised it to his mouth with his right hand, put the metal cap in his teeth, and unscrewed it. He spit out the cap and drank the last of the whiskey in the bottle.

The Brizo rocked on its starboard side as a large wave washed over the ship, cracking into two the last mast that had still been standing, sending it and the sails secured to it crashing into the sea.

Dave glanced at the canvas that hung askew on the hook, wishing he had done a better job of painting it. He felt woozy and his arm burned with pain. He looked up at the porthole above the bunk and saw a man looking in at him.

Then he passed out.

* * *

Lying on the bunk, Dave awoke to the tapping of the waves against the hull of the yacht, like children knocking to be allowed aboard. A warm breeze scented with the fragrance of seawater blew in through the open porthole. Still half-asleep, he gazed up at the ceiling of the cabin as if looking through fog, thinking it was strange that he was in the yacht instead of on the beach and inside the lean-to lying on a grass mat with Palila lying beside him. Then the realization of why he was aboard the Brizo and what was happening to him flooded his mind. He glanced at the open porthole and sat bolt upright and winced as pain shot through his arm. He grasped the bandage around his forearm, and then stared at it, thinking, how did that get there?

He swung his legs around and sat up on the edge of the bunk and looked around. The painting on the hook had been righted and his other paintings were arranged on the counters and against the walls as if on display. The colors used in the images of white capped ocean tides, moonlight on jungle pools, water cascading over boulders, and scenes of the beach and lean-to, seemed more luminescent than he remembered painting them. In the one painting of Palila it looked as if she was going to step out of the canvas and give him the mango she held in her hand. For a few moments he felt as if he was staring at paintings done by a stranger, except he remembered all too clearly the smile on Palila's face. He gazed at it for several minutes before rising from the bunk and in a moment of despair, swept the paintings from the counters and kicked aside the paintings on the floor. He then opened the door and climbed the stairs to the helm.

The glass in the windows of the wheelhouse had been blown out and the instrument panel and radio equipment was wrecked. He carefully stepped up to the helm, careful not to step on the shards of glass strewn on the floor. He placed his hands on the wheel and looked out beyond the bow of the yacht. The bright sunlight reflecting off the placid ocean momentarily blinded him. When the spots cleared from his vision he scanned the horizon, hopeful that there might be land within sight, but saw nothing but the endless green sea. He looked down at the compass. The Brizo was drifting southward.

He then stepped out of the wheelhouse and gazed at what remained of the broken masts. The sails and rigging were gone. A blue and white lifesaver ringed the stump of a mast, as if tossed there during a game.

"Your vessel has been destroyed."

Dave whirled about and saw standing a few feet behind him a naked man with green scaly skin and gills that lined both sides of his torso. He had a muscular physique and webbed fingers and toes. His was the face Dave had seen looking at him through the porthole.

"Who, what, are you?" Dave stammered.

"They call me Nereus. I'm from the sea, just as you are," he said. "Who are you?"

"I'm Dave. I'm originally from Boston, that's a city on the coast of the United States. I'm not from the sea."

Nereus cocked his head and gazed at Dave appraisingly. "You were born under the water sign, Aquarius, yes?"

"Yes, but that's meaningless."

"Is it?" Nereus looked into Dave's eyes, as if searching for something. "It's very easy to become disconnected from our origins."

"Perhaps, but I was blown off course by a storm that raged for days," Dave said. He watched as the flaps of skin over Nereus's gills fluttered with every breath. "I've never seen anything like you before. Are you a fish or a human?"

Nereus chuckled. "I'm friends to both and sometimes enemies to both, but I am neither."

Dave pointed to his bandaged arm. "Did you do this?"

"Yes. I served as the surgeon on a pirate ship. Your arm isn't broken, just badly bruised."

Dave gazed at Nereus thoughtfully. "How is it that you speak my language, or speak at all?"

"Long, long ago and far away, a man named Jonah taught me to speak while we both were inside the belly of a whale." Nereus answered. "Since then I've met many of your species."

David had a thousand questions he wanted to ask, but asked only one. "Can you tell me my location?"

Nereus looked out at the ocean. "You're here. This is your location. But if you wish to be somewhere else, since your sails are gone, doesn't this craft have one of those motor things I saw on a fishing trawler when I was caught in the netting of some fishermen and held captive until Neptune came to my rescue?"

"Neptune, the God?"

"Do you know other Neptunes?"

Dave chuckled. "No, I don't. The engine compartment was flooded and I can't get the engine to start."

A sudden loud thump against the side of the yacht turned Dave's attention away from Nereus. He turned and saw a large great white shark circling in the water.

"Is that a friend of yours?" he said, and then turned back and saw that Nereus was gone.

* * *

That night, Dave sat on the deck at the bow of the ship with the sextant to his eye. He had just found it while rummaging around in a storage locker and although he had received training in how to use it, that had been just before he left Boston, almost six months before, which felt like an eternity. Frustrated with not being able to figure it out, he tossed it into the ocean. He laid back and gazed up at the star cluttered sky. He tried to ignore the memories of laying on the beach alone at night. He wished he could have shown Palila the constellations, but she always left at twilight. He closed his eyes and imagined he could smell the fragrance of the gardenia she always wore in her long black hair. A sudden loud thump against the side of the yacht startled him out of his reverie.

"I didn't intend for Lamia to follow me," Nereus said.

Dave sat up and looked behind him. Nereus was standing a few feet away.

"You're just an hallucination," Dave said.

"I am?"

"Jonah lived over two thousand years ago. That would mean you're that old, at least. Nothing lives that long, and most of what you say is gibberish."

"Irregardless," Nereus responded, "Lamia poses a real threat to both of us."

Dave stood up. "Who is Lamia?"

"The shark that is trying to determine how strong this craft is. She plans on eating you soon, and me along with you if she can get her teeth into me."

Dave headed toward the wheelhouse. "I keep a speargun under my bunk," he said.

Just then Lamia rammed the side of the hull with all its might. The cracking of wood and fiberglass resounded in the otherwise still night. David ran into the wheelhouse and down the stairs. Water was rushing into the cabin through a crack that ran up the port side wall. The trash, clothes and canvases that had been on the floor floated in a rising pool of water. He splashed his way to the bunk and reached under it and pulled out a speargun and an emergency pack. He jammed a bottle of whiskey into the pack and then slung it over his shoulder, grabbed the painting of Palila and tucked it under his arm, and ran up the steps carrying the speargun in his right hand. He set the painting aside and tossed the pack and speargun out of a broken window onto the deck. He then pulled the inflatable raft from a compartment under the instrument panel and quickly dragged it out to the bow of the yacht.

"Here's the raft," he said to Nereus who stood by, watching.

"I was in the much colder waters far north of here years ago guiding a pod of whales home and watched a much larger ship as it sunk, the Titanic I think it was called, and they had much larger rafts," Nereus said.

"Those were lifeboats," Dave said. "This will be large enough for the two of us."

He pulled the cord on the raft and stood back. When it was fully inflated he tossed the pack into the floor of the round raft. Carrying the speargun, he walked to the edge of the deck and looked out at the dark water.

"Can you get the shark to come to the surface of the water?" he asked. "I'll shoot it with this as soon as I see it."

Nereus nodded. "I hope your aim is good. Lamia will waste no time." He then jumped into the water and began splashing.

"I didn't mean for you . . ." Dave started, and terrified, watched as Lamia surfaced a few feet away from Nereus. He aimed the gun and shot the spear, shooting it into Lamia's head. The shark grabbed Nereus by the foot, and as blood spurted out of the shark's wound, the shark and Nereus submerged.

Dave stood on the deck for a long time watching for one of them to resurface.

* * *

Morning light spread across the ocean waves as the raft was swept from the deck of the Brizo. With the raft bobbing up and down on the choppy water, Dave felt the loss of three things as he watched his yacht sink: the Brizo, Nereus, and the painting of Palila that he had forgotten to go back and get. He reached into the pack, pulled out the bottle of whiskey, opened it, and took a swig. The liquor soothed his scratchy throat but landed in his stomach like an exploding grenade. It struck him that he hadn't eaten anything for almost twenty-four hours. He opened the pack and took out a protein bar. Just as he was about to unwrap it a large pod of dolphins surfaced, encircling the raft. They chirped and chattered like excited school children. He unwrapped the bar, broke it apart and tossed pieces to them, which they ignored, but it gave him a small amount of comfort to be interacting with another living thing, thinking it might be the last time he did so. A half hour later the dolphins moved on. Dave laid his head back on the rim of the raft, letting the hazy sunlight bathe his face, and thought about Palila.

* * *

He had gone to Tahiti hoping to trace some of the steps of his favorite artist, Paul Gauguin. He had sailed at a leisurely pace down the coast of the United States, stopping for a month in Miami, before sailing on to Panama and through the canal. In the approximate 4500 nautical miles from Panama to Tahiti was nothing but the vast Pacific Ocean. He spent the days manning the sails, sketching, and drinking. Occasionally he passed other vessels, usually large container ships, but his communications with them via the radio was brief. He left Boston with one intention, to reach Tahiti to paint, not to make friends along the way. He was lucky that in the more than a month that it took to reach the northern shore of Tahiti, near Tiare, he only encountered two severe storms that did no damage to the Brizo. By the time he reached land he had used all of his supplies, so he restocked his shelves, cabinets and larder in Tiare, and then sailed north along Tahiti's coast for a few days until he found the deserted beach he had spotted when first approaching the island. He dropped the anchor a short distance from the beach, pulled in the sails and tied them to the masts. Throughout the day he swam from the Brizo to land, carrying in plastic bags what he would need to live on along with his painting supplies and canvases.

He dragged bamboo and ferns from the jungle and built a lean-to, using palm leaves to reinforce the roof in the event of rain. He put everything in the lean-to, leaving enough space to lie down. For a week he spent the days painting scenes of sailboats on the torquoise water and parakeets perched in the trees and bushes that bordered the beach.

Then early one morning as he sat at the base of a coconut tree digging a hole into it with a penknife to get to the milk, he looked up to see Palila walk out of the jungle. She wore a bright red sarong and a gardenia pinned in her hair. In his forty-two years of life he had never seen such a beautiful woman. Awestruck, he stared at her, mouth agape, as she walked by him and walked to the edge of the water, removed the sarong, and then jumped into the waves and swam out a little ways. She then waved at him, beckoning him to join her. He dropped the coconut and then rushed to the water and dived in after her.

Every morning for the next three weeks, Palila walked out of the jungle, and they would spend the day together, swimming, having meals of fruit they picked in the jungle and fish she caught with her bare hands, and he would work on a single painting of her, a work he hoped would be a masterpiece, something comparable to a painting by Gauguin. At twilight she would go back into the jungle.

When the painting of her was finished, she went into the jungle that evening and never returned.

Heartbroken, he took his things and some of the completed canvases, including the one of her, back to the Brizo. He restocked the yacht in Tiare and then set sail for the open ocean, with no destination in mind.

* * *

Lying in the raft as a soft rain fell, Dave forgot how many days he had been adrift. Empty plastic water bottles and food wrappers floated in the puddle that had formed in the middle of the raft. He bent his head back and caught the rain in his mouth. He imagined hearing it sizzle as it hit his parched lips and sunburned skin. To fight off the feeling that he was being driven to madness by the endless sameness of the ocean, he pretended he had a canvas in front of him that he imagined painting on it Palila as she walked into the jungle. He had his eyes closed and was painting the gardenia in her hair when Nereus appeared at the edge of the raft.

"So, there you are." Nereus said.

Dave's eyes shot open. "Nereus! I thought Lamia had killed you."

Nereus smiled broadly. "She shook me about a bit, but that spear in her head put an end to her." He looked around the raft. "I see you're still rather messy. Do you mind if I join you?"

Dave grabbed the bottles as he moved aside. "Climb in. This is no Brizo, but its kept me alive."

Climbing into the raft, Nereus said, "Brizo the sea goddess has been looking out for you."

"I didn't know she was real."

"What is real regarding the sea is often open to interpretation," Nereus said.

Thunder rumbled across the clouded sky followed by streaks of lightning. As if responding to the storm quickly brewing in the sky, the waves began to leap from the water and roll across the surface in every direction. The raft started to bounce.

Dave took the almost empty whiskey bottle from the pack and unscrewed the top. "To a final goodbye to life," he said. He took a drink and then offered the bottle to Nereus.

"No thank you," Nereus said. "Your life isn't lost yet."

Dave drank the last of the whiskey and tossed the bottle into the water. "Life without Palila has no meaning anyway," he said.

* * *

The sailors who stood around Dave stared down at him with a look of astonishment on their faces. They mumbled to each other as the ship's medic thumped Dave on the back, forcing the water out of his lungs. The medic rolled Dave onto his back and stared into Dave's eyes.

"You're going to make it," he said.

Dave coughed, spitting out a small amount of water. "Where am I?"

"This is the merchant ship, the Palaimon," the medic answered. "How on earth did you survive swimming in the middle of the ocean?"

"I was on the raft, with Nereus," Dave answered.

"What raft?" the medic asked. "Who is Nereus?"

Dave closed his eyes and tried to recall what had happened, but other than the violent storm that tossed the raft about, his mind was blank. "My yacht, the Brizo, sunk. I was saved by a half man, half fish . . ." he started, but his voice trailed off as he saw the disbelieving look on the medic's face.

"Look, buddy," the medic said, "strange things happen on the sea and to those who travel on it, but I've been a sailor for over twenty years and I've never seen a man alive and floating on the kinds of waves you were pulled from as if you were just taking a nap."

"I can't explain it even if I tried," Dave said resignedly.

The medic helped him stand and then led him into the ship, through several corridors, and into the infirmary. The medic gave him a cup of coffee.

"Where's this ship headed?" Dave asked.

"Tahiti," the medic replied. "Have you been there? It's really beautiful."

"Yes, once," Dave replied. "It's magical." He looked around the infirmary. In it was a hospital bed, a medicine locker, blood pressure equipment and an IV stand. Leaning against a corner stood a canvas, its front facing toward the wall. He sat the cup on a table, walked over and turned the canvas around. It was the painting of Palila. "Where did this come from?" he asked, feeling his heart break again as he looked at her face.

"It was tossed onto the deck by a large wave just a few hours before we rescued you. Is it yours?"

Dave stared at Palila's face for several moments before he answered. "No, but she's what I've always dreamt of."

Article © Steve Carr. All rights reserved.
Published on 2022-03-07
1 Reader Comments
11:11:03 AM
I really liked this story, and only wish Dave and Nereus could team up again some time.
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