From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

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Fiction

Ledge

Ledge by Austin Bunn (art by Vlada Monakhova)

Art by Vlada Monakhova

Mother, I have seen such marvels. Like the ocean aglow at night with a cold green fire and a fish with a child’s face and two fleshy whiskers. (No man would eat it. We blessed the creature and tossed it back.) I’ve seen a corpse with golden hair in a boat set adrift; his eyes were the slits on a newly born kitten. When the boatswain came-to after three days on the garrucha for the crime of sodomy—his wrists tied behind him and hoisted above the deck so that his arms tore and jellied—he asked, “Am I dead?” and soon he was. I looked to Diego, who dropped his dark eyes in shame, and I saw that too. Three hundred leagues into the Ocean Sea, we came upon a floating meadow, crabs and petrels tinkering along its dank branches and fronds. A palm tree had taken root there and I imagined, briefly, the coastline of Seville, of home.

But none of these compare to you mother, suddenly here, at the gunwale of this ship, soaking wet. Your hands are folded across your chest and you stare away, at the ledge. You look precisely as I left you, your long black hair damp and loose against your back and your bare feet white as salt. Around me, the crew and the others race to trim the Elena’s sails in a westerly. The captain is missing and I am full of questions. Are you a dream? Is this a fever or worse? I’m afraid to speak. And so I sit alone, in the shade of the quarterdeck, and write.

The great Venetian who saw the court of the Kublai Khan wrote his Book of Marvels. I remember how I loved it as a young man. I stole into the college to read the manuscript and teach myself the words. It took me a year to finish it, and when I was done, I started over again. At night, I dreamed of trader Polo’s adventures: the falcons of Karmania, the silver tower of Mien, and the festival of wives. Marco Polo told his story from a Genoese jail. The Elena is now my prison. His stories saved his life. Perhaps so will mine.

This record begins three days ago, on the Elenas twenty-second day at sea. We sailed in search of the sea-path to India, driving a slant from the Canaries to the Azores into the blue-black unknown. For days, we had been mired in a meadow of sargassum. Captain Veragua, convinced it was the grass of a sub-marine ridge, ordered the crew to sound the waters on every watch. But the bulb of lead, of the end of the fathom-long cordage, could never sink through the dense thicket. In boredom, the English conscript used a crossbow to hunt a petrel, resting on the carpet of weed, and succeeded only in punching it into oblivion. But on Sunday, the meadow miraculously began to break into patches and then lacy fingers. As it trailed into our wake, the crew sang psalms and Salve Regina with renewed (if not exactly pleasing) vigor.

Summoned by our good feeling, a group of dolphins assembled beneath the Elena. They moved together like a shadow, fracturing and collecting with astounding speed. They teased us playfully, the way children at the Magdalena city gate greet strangers. They leapt into the air and made an exuberant birdlike speech. I opened the navigation ledger and stared at our rhumb line. It hung on, fixed at one end and one thousand leagues long. I wrote, “Sea like a river, new friends, new hope.”

And then a cry came from the rigging. Diego, swung up in the web of mainsail rope, yelled a shapeless sound and pointed frantically off the side of the ship. At port, two iridescent coils, the height of three men, arched across our length. They moved as fast as a lash and seemed pure muscle, strong enough to splinter the Elena to matchwood. Their scales shimmered like cathedral glass, slick and brilliant. I froze with the ledger open on my lap. Before long, other sea serpents, large as the first, foamed the water in a frenzy. The ocean was a tipped basket of eels. The serpents coiled and, at once, lunged beneath the boat.

The men backed away from the gunwale. The waters went still and the air flashed with heat. No man moved. In short time, our wake ran red. Bits of pink meat floated and were snatched down.

Pinzón, our interpreter, clutched my arm.

“Where,” he whispered, “are we?”

Every sailor knows the stories of seacats and mermaids with cadaver-cold breasts. St. Brendan told of sailing home to Ireland on the back of a whale. But in my young years at sail, as a scribe, men never died from stories. They reefed on fogged-out coasts. They wrecked on breakers off Cape Bojador, circled forever in the Mare Tenebrosum. Except now, new horrors brushed against our keel and knifed the water. We were eighteen men buoyed by forty feet of caulked and tarred oak, the thinnest wooden wall between our fate and us. My fingers found the western blank of my chart, the freefall of our rhumb line, where lay the mapmaker’s warning: Here be monsters.

Thirteen-year-old Marco, the ship’s boy, squirreled up the mast as high as he could go. The twin deckhands, Alfredo the Tall and Armando the Taller, fell to their knees and raced through the Lord’s Prayer. Others rushed to the sail locker for armaments, but as an ocean exploration ship, the Elena is fast and weak. We carry no arms stronger than crossbows and a meager falconet mounted on the deck that spits scrap-metal. Against raiders—or worse—we have little defense.

Diego alone craned over the side and searched through the water. I wanted to go to his side, the safest place I know, but panic fixed me.

“What do you see?” said the conscript, his teeth clacking. Piss had spilled down his right legging and his swagger had gone with it. “Tell us.”

But Diego didn’t speak, didn’t even look up. He has his tongue and his wit, but Diego is as mute as an African. Much as I feel for him, Diego has never spoken my name. Can you love something that you never name?

We found him grinning on the steps of the cathedral, a drunk Franciscan friar, tonsure gone prickly. A spray of freckles fell across the bridge of his nose and vanished under whiskers, his face an admixture of boy and man. The friars said that he’d been silent since he entered their order as a young man and had never taken to cloistered life; but he kept the garden full of flowers, that brought the birds and then the cats, until a plague of aphids brought it to ruin. He was round as a cask and the captain, searching for crew, asked him to join us as a cook, pointing down to the banks of the Guadalquivir, to our expedition ship, with her royal flags sharp in the wind. Diego’s gaze went out, past the sails of the barques and the harbor riot, toward an unseeable shore.

How is it that some men inspire no feeling in me while others stir the deep waters? At the cathedral, I took his right hand, delicate as calfskin, and he pressed his left against the outside of mine, so that my hand was held in a gentle, warm prayer. I felt my blood rise up, the way a bulb of quicksilver feels in a pot of boiling water. He pointed to my ginger hair and made a flickering motion of fire with his fingers. I smiled like an idiot. The captain saw the meeting of new friends, but I felt found. And if Diego did not speak, his hands were more fluent than any words. He practiced a religion at the cook-box, the communion of salt-pork and sea fish, which was all that mattered. And at night, in shadows, those hands made other blessings. Now, at the bulwark, Diego looked eager and expectant. As if this encounter was his whole reason for coming.

The deck bell rang. Captain Veragua stood at the entrance to his quarters. In full daylight, he was plainly dying. He wore a hood, white eyes shining from the shadow like marble. On our second week at sail, the captain had stupored on wine and a candle tipped in a swell, setting his bedclothes and doublet alight. He jumped overboard and when he was fished from the water, his left side looked like a hank of meat rescued from embers. It took two days for Diego to pare the seared cloth from the captain’s skin with a carving knife. Every command he gave to us now was curt and purposeful, trimmed to the minimum amount of gesture.

“Peralonso,” the captain asked me, “What is that sound?”

My attention went to the sails. The wind had wore out; the main and the fore drooped without breeze. The ship’s planks creaked in complaint. The sea slapped lightly against the Elena. We had entered a white calm, the horizon crouched behind a mist. But as I listened, below all of this came a faint, wide roaring, like the rumor of a waterfall. It stretched the width of my perception.

“Land?” I answered.

The captain ordered the deep-sea lead hove overboard again. The first line, at one hundred fathoms, failed to find bottom. Armando and Alfredo recalled the line, spliced a second to the first, and sent that into the sea. Again, the lead drifted in the current. The sea here was too deep to sound.

Then the captain called for the land-birds to be released. The two crows sat in their cage high on the mast. Marco scampered up the rope ladder and raised the cage. The birds circled higher and higher, hunting shoreline. As land birds, they hate travel over seawater. But they continued to circle until we could not make them out.

“Listen,” the captain said.

Soon enough the drone was all I could hear. The Elena drifted in a minute current. Slowly, as the world reaches focus through a looking glass, the mist thinned and revealed itself as a great spume of ocean water. One league away, the curve of horizon straightened to a line, to a drop, like the edge of an enormous table. Clouds bent over this line and disappeared.

Coralito, the Elena’s frail navigator, crossed himself and went to the captain, our sail chart spindled in his hand. He was an old and difficult widower, too vain to admit his fading eyesight. Long white eyebrows billowed from his face, like puffs of sweet weather. For weeks now, he had been unable to hunt the Polestar, and I took turns with him shooting our location with the cross-staff. But as aged as he was, Coralito was the Elena’s will, our human compass. At the Talavera Commission in Salamanca, he watched Queen Isabella decree, on a carpet of maps, that the world was a plate ringed by water and that to traverse this lip from Spain to the Indies would take three years. Under his breath Coralito had muttered, What do priests and Queens know of science? The world is not flat. It is as round as a ball of wax and as knowable. You can leave a place, travel a line, and arrive where you began.

“What did you say?” the captain asked.

“I have failed you, Captain,” Coralito repeated. “I was wrong.”

The crows returned and settled noisily on two belaying pins.

“We have reached the edge of the ocean,” Coralito continued. “We can go no further. This is the fourth corner of the world.”

Every man is born to his first corner. Mine was a pile of flour sacks in a house in the port city of Seville, in the year 1469, under the reign of King Ferdinand of Aragon. That year, my father, a blacksmith, was conscripted into the armada marvallosa in the English war and lost at sea. He returned to my mother as one thousand maravedis of wheat grain, the compensation for sacrifice. Desperate and poor, my mother bricked in his furnace, hand-ground her grief into powder, and opened a bakery.

Every morning, I rose to find her kneading the dough beneath the heavy rafters. I will always remember her ghosted with this fine white dust, cool and papery to the touch, haunting a passage to and from the oven. She was a striking, sad beauty, her hair gathered in a silver band. Countless men needled me in an effort to get her attention and force a smile on her. But none could tempt her out of the downward stare of her solitude.

“You must never leave me,” she would say, flattening my hand against her cheek. “One day you will want to. It will be a girl with gray eyes, or a distant shore. That day, you will count all the things that are keeping you here and they will not be enough. That day will be my last.”

My mother gave me the gift of letters. When I was thirteen years old, she led me to a field of goldenrod and covered my head in a shawl. She told me I must study a new book and make new prayers. I asked, “Who are we praying to?” and she said, “To the God of Israel, your true people.” That afternoon, I became two: a Catholic, the faith of my father, and a Marrano, Jew by candlelight.

Soon after, the butcher came on afternoons to sit me on his lap and write the alphabet on a slate. He read each letter aloud while I repeated them. Sometimes he would whisper made-up words in my ear, or put my hand on his belly to show me how breath worked until he sighed. I delighted in this, but my mother sent him away. “You’re too old for such things,” she said. I wept inconsolably for a loss I felt but couldn’t bring into words.

Over time, my mother’s bakery grew to serve the harbor, preparing tack and meal for sea journeys to and from the Levant, the terminus of the spice road. It was my task to deliver the breads to the barcas and naviculas anchored in the river. I grew to love the crowded port, so dense with ships that I couldn’t see the water. There were many familiar faces, salted in every crease, and crabs savoring the treacle on hulls, dry-docked on the sandbar. The port felt like a floating city of fathers: exuberant, bronzed men, barefoot and dressed only in trousers. They taught me knots, the mysteries of splicing and parceling the cordage, even as they pilfered my breads. Many asked if I wanted to join their crews, but only if I could assure that their hardtack would never worm.

I was tempted. The sailors spoke of the Spice Islands, the Moluccas, and their incomprehensible bounty. They had seen the moon dyed orange by wind-blown curries, palms scorched betel-red. Along the coastline, the air was so heavy with pepper you had to breathe through cloth. It seemed to me that these spice villages harvested delirium, and the lives there were surely made of pure color.

Once, the boldest I ever was, I stole into the hold of a returning caravel. Twenty barrels sat lashed to the floor. One barrel had been knocked open, revealing a ruby-like powder. Mace, the fine netting on the nutmeg shell. I’d seen it in the market, a spice so treasured that a tablespoon is worth a week’s labor. I tasted it with a finger. I felt that I was savoring a quality of dusk.

Just then, a mariner stepped from the shadows. He was broad-shouldered and grimy, as if he’d been swimming in the bilge. I stumbled back, afraid. He motioned for silence and slid closed the lid of the barrel. From the deck, I heard the mainsail catch in a gust and felt the ship pull.

We stayed that way, in stillness, until I broke free and launched myself out of the hold. Seville was already some distance behind. The crew, surprised by a stowaway, laughed at my terror—I’d never gone to sea, never learned to swim. A hand shoved me overboard, into the water, and I could hear their pleasure at my thrashing. The shoreline disappeared from my view, and I was sure to die.

Without warning, a thick arm wrapped around my neck and I found myself dragged to the surface, then to the riverbank. I vomited water into my lap. My rescuer, the man from the hold, stared back at the ship as it coasted down river. Our swim had transformed him, washed him clean. How supple and pale his skin was, with inky hair tufting along his arm. He took a bandoliered wineskin out from under his shirt—the cork had popped and the wineskin was swollen with river water. He poured it and the water ran clay-red. The stolen, ruined mace. The thief shook his head and tossed the skin into the current. We said nothing.

I brought him back to my mother’s shop. My mother was gone and we lay together on my bed of flour sacks to dry. He held me tightly, his arm belting me from behind, as Diego has done, as if I were on the verge of falling. There are many ledges that split this world, between the known and the unknown, and we choose to go over. While the thief slept, I watched his pulse tick in a vein in his forearm, a single cord snapping taut then loose in neat, regular meter. I was more awake than I’d ever been. It is said the celestial spheres chime as they roll against each other. In just this way, my body vibrated against his. I knew then I would leave my mother and join his world, the world of men.

The Elena drifted at the ledge. We continued with the watches, four hours to a shift, all heads listening for the catch of canvas. But no breeze filled the sails, and a small, inexorable current pushed us toward the drop.

At evening, the hard sun sank behind the ledge. With the Elena hove to and sideways toward it, the English conscript took a crossbow—he was now inseparable from it—and fired an arrow over. It dropped silently out of view. Alfredo told him he “had missed” and fired another. It too vanished.

At half a league’s distance from the ledge, the captain—from his bunk—ordered all the ballast dumped from the ship and the crew to mount the sweeps. We would row the Elena back into whatever trades brought us here. With our barrels of supplies adrift around us, the crew dug the oars in the water the entire night. I laid my quill in the ledger and joined Diego to pull. We sat next to each other on a bench and, in the darkness, he laid his hand atop mine.

Our interpreter, Pinzón, was afraid the motion of the oars would call the serpents. We set torches along the gunwale, but spotted nothing. Perhaps even the serpents recognized the danger of the precipice, the way certain fish know to stop at the mouth of the Guadalquivir and go no further. Despite our hours rowing, the Elena’s prow made no progress. The current toward the ledge was too strong.

The captain called out to me. Inside his quarters, he lay dressed in a long, loose tunic, Coralito kneeling at his side. From the hem, Captain Veragua’s withered legs stuck out long and rigid as fork tines. He seemed to have lost half his weight.

“How far are we?” he asked. “Coralito cannot see the distance.”

“I should think we will meet the ledge in two days’ time,” I said.

The captain closed his eyes. In the faint light, I made out on his shirt the spottings of blood and grease, where Diego had applied fat as a salve.

“Drop the sea anchors behind us,” the captain ordered. “And bring the longboat.” He lifted himself up and winced. “Dress me, Coralito,” he said. “Then take me to my men.”

I did as I was commanded, though his intentions were unclear. I woke Alfredo and Armando to cast the sea-anchors. The broad canvas sacks hit the water and swelled immediately. They would slow our drift nearly to a stop, but we would no longer be able to turn and sail. Next, I led the longboat that trailed the Elena up amidships. Without sail or mast, the longboat was designed for short islanding journeys. It was a glorified rowboat, shadeless and exhausting. Didn’t the captain know we were a thousand leagues from home? Or had his mind fevered past reason?

“You can’t row that to Spain,” the English conscript said, a slick rat wriggling in his hand. “Not without miracles.”

“We’re not going back,” I said and tied the line of the longboat to a pin.

Pinzón paced the deck, scratching the back of his hand until it bled. “We must be cursed. Some sin lives aboard this ship.” He saw me then, his eyes begging me. “Where is the sin, Peralonso?”

The English conscript slit the throat of the rat and held it over the water by the tail as it thrashed and the blood drained into the sea. “Tell him, boy. You know where.”

Pinzón looked back and forth, puzzled. A narrow flame coiled inside me, burning away my breath. “My heart is pure,” I said.

He brandished his wet knife. The rat went still. “Is that what Diego likes? Your purity?” he said, tongue flickering between his teeth. He hammered his knife into the gunwale and dug his fingers under the flesh as he tore the skin from the body.

The captain tolled the bell. He winced in his officer’s trousers, a pouch in his hand, and I fell in with the gathering crew, happy to leave the conscript to his work. “Let us give thanks to He who has thought us worthy to discover such a great wonder, this ledge,” the captain began. He shook the pouch. In the sack, he explained, were beans representing the crew of the Elena, and among them were four marked with crosses, four great honors. Each of us would come and take a single bean and those that pulled a cross would strike out for the ledge.

The men eyed one another skeptically. Our captain had admitted that our great expedition was folly. The countries we knew were the only countries. But what unimaginable vale awaited us over the ledge? What did it feel like to fall forever?

The sack was passed from man to man, and each fished among the beans. The English conscript went first, and though I prayed for fortune not to visit him, he smiled and showed his smooth bean. When Diego pulled his, he made no expression, which I took for luck. The carpenter Ginés pulled the first marked one and Pinzón the second. He rushed to the captain.

“I am an interpreter,” Pinzón said. “I’m not a seaman or have any skill with a bow. I will be a failure to the crew of that small boat.”

The captain rested his mottled hand on Pinzón’s shoulder. “Every country, every animal speaks a language. When we return, you will tell with your best words what you have seen.”

“But this plan is death,” Pinzón continued.

The captain said back, “You shall be rewarded. Or face the lash.”

I went last. On the surface of the final bean, I felt the markings of a knife. The last cross.

The captain asked, “Who is the fourth man?”

I looked at Diego. He must have seen the fear in me because, with a courage I would never know, Diego then stepped forward, casting his bean off the side. He would be the fourth. I would stay afraid and alive.

The captain said, “We will leave at dawn.”

As the crew scattered across the deck, sinking into their privacies, I felt a cutting mix of shame and loss. I had been made a coward. The men began to pray—Alfredo and Armando and Bartolomé and Gonzalo and gap-toothed Ginés and others—all the men praying for deliverance, for the opportunity to see their fathers and wives and children again, for an everlasting life that I could not understand. I knew only the ache of the present. I thought of my mother pulling a tray of alfajores from the oven, scored with the Hebrew letter for righteousness. “The world begins the day we are born,” she told me, “and the world will end the day we die.”

Under the torchlight, I found Diego alone on the forecastle, staring out at the drop. He looked calm and peaceful and welcomed me with a pat on the deck beside him. I sat and began to cry, as quietly as I could.

“Why Diego?” I whispered. “Why did you save me?”

His eyes were gentle. To my amazement, he took the ledger from my hand and lettered slowly. I had never seen him use a quill. For the first time, I heard his voice on the page and, in shock, my tears stopped.

YOUNG, he wrote and pointed at my chest. MORE LIFE.

“But you have life too,” I said. “Why are you not afraid?”

He took up his lettering again. SOMEONE I WISH TO SEE.

He pointed out to the ledge. A shudder traveled along my spine. Then Diego clutched me, generously, openly, and I felt a finality, as if he were trying to give over whatever part of him I hungered for. He felt solid and strong and then he was gone, crossing the deck to the cook-box. Until dawn, he stoked the fires, preparing a breakfast of breads, served with the captain’s jars of prunes and jam. I came to him. “Diego,” I began and stopped, unsure of how to shape into words an ocean of feelings.

He pressed his pinched fingers at my lips. The last time I felt him alive. Powdered cinnamon dusted my mouth and exploded into a rounded, delicious silence.

At dawn, the crew mounted a torch to the prow of the longboat and cinched the long fathom line to an oarlock. The line would run from the longboat to the Elena, to keep it tethered in case of rescue. When the preparations were done, Diego and Ginés lowered the captain into the boat and set him in the bow. In his hand, he held the queen’s letters of introduction. At the stern, Pinzón pleaded upwards. He’d spent the night writing long letters to his wife. At dawn, he burned them all and wrote one to his mistress in Madrid, a letter he sealed with wax and swore me to deliver.

The sun rose as they set out, oars slapping into a waveless ocean. The hemp line uncoiled in lazy jerks. The captain peered out from the bow, his eyes fixed on the approaching ledge. Diego rowed and rowed, never looking back at me though I yearned to share some last secret contact. On the Elena, no one spoke as the longboat shrank into the distance. When the second knot on the line passed over the gunwale, Alfredo called out, “Two fathoms gone!”

In an instant, the line unwound ferociously and the longboat vanished over the ledge. We never heard their cries. The crew jumped on the rope and found themselves nearly propelled over the side. I grabbed the final length of line and knotted it around the base of the main-mast. When it uncoiled completely, the rope, three-fingers thick, sprang taut. The mast howled under a massive weight. The crew crushed forward to regain a purchase, but could not pull the line back. We were strung tight; the fathom-line ran from the Elena, through the air and over the ledge.

A monstrous pull tilted the ship sidelong and dragged her towards the drop. Everything on deck slid to one side.

Alfredo drew his knife and leapt onto the fathom-line. He began to cut. But my courage alit inside me. I couldn’t let him release Diego and the others to their death. If there is only this life—and nothing after—then it must be defended.

I met him at the line, his blade already biting in.

“You’ll kill them,” I said.

“They’re lost already,” he said. “We’ll go with them!”

I grabbed the knife from his hand and tossed it overboard, Alfredo looked at me as if I were mad. In an instant, I felt another blade across my throat.

“Cut the line,” the English conscript called out from behind me.

Armando came to his brother’s side and continued the sawing with his own knife. The fathom line opened like a tendon. But then my eye caught something out at the ledge: Diego, pulling himself up along the rope, hand over hand, back to the Elena.

“Look!” I cried.

Armando stopped when he saw the survivor climbing back to us. The crew gathered at the line and heaved. And this time, the line began to yield. We managed to reclaim it, until it was clear that we were pulling a weight far greater than just Diego. With a final heave, the tension on the line dropped and then we could see the longboat itself crest back through the spume and come to rest on the ocean surface. We had gaffed Diego back onto the deck—he rolled on his back and sank into a stupor—before I noticed the longboat was not empty.

A lone figure sat inside it. A woman.

She sat primly on one of the benches, in a high-waisted dress with flared sleeves and a heart-shaped hat. She was old and frail and dripping wet. Her skin looked as pale as boiled bone.

“Where am I?” she called to us. “I’m frightened.”

I knew the Elena’s bilge could inspire delusions, awash with rotting food, piss, the human slurry of a long voyage. Ethers from below-decks had been known to poison sailors with mirages, even throttle them in sleep. You could be surrounded by fresh sea air and your own ship could suffocate you. But we all saw this woman. Could every man be taken with the same dream?

Coralito peered out, his face blanched. His eyes hunted through his blindness. “Who is there?” he asked. “I cannot see.”

“A woman,” I said. “From beyond the ledge.”

“What is your name?” Coralito called out.

The woman swooned. “The sun is burning my skin. I must dry and get out of this heat.”

“What is your name!” Coralito called again. “Your name!”

The woman looked back oddly. “Coralito?”

Coralito staggered back and crossed himself. “This cannot be,” he said.

“Tell us your name,” I called out.

The woman flapped her hat in her face. “My name is Isabela Hernandez Coralito, wife of Fernando Mancuello,” she said and cast a glance over her shoulder.

Coralito hissed, “She has been dead for six years.”

“Please,” she said. “There are so many others waiting.”

We kept her in the longboat. All day the wraith cried out, demanding shade and water. Her voice was so human, so frail and chilling. She tried, fruitlessly, to paddle forward with her hands. When the sun continued to rise in a rinsed sky, she grew more urgent and pained. If she had been alive, truly alive, our treatment—watching an old woman wilt—would have been torture. Instead, as Coralito swore, his wife had passed away. He set her tombstone himself.

At dusk, Diego gathered strength, though he was now ashen, his skin drained of color. I caved a blanket around him while he stared into the bowl of his hands. They were red and badly cut, one wrist disjointed and swollen where he’d twisted it up in the line as he climbed back. He rehearsed his grip, opening and closing his fingers. I sat beside him, holding the ledger.

“Write,” I said. “Tell me. What did you see?”

I noticed, then, his wound: a deep gash at his right wrist that ran through to the other side. Inside, the tissue was gray. Every time Diego rotated his hand, the flesh opened like a mouth and did not bleed. He looked at it queerly.

His letters were feeble and wrong-handed. DEAD?

I felt a kick to my leg. “What’d he write?” the English conscript asked, peering on the page. “What’re those letters?”

“He’s weak,” I answered. “We need to leave him alone.”

The conscript sized me with cold eyes. “I served ten years for my crime. And you, for yours?”

At the sound of oars in the water, I pushed him off. I stood to see Alfredo and Armando in the fishing dinghy. They approached the woman with a small skin of fresh water—their Christian duty—and a crossbow aimed at her chest. Coralito joined them. The dory held still at thirty strokes from the longboat.

“Fernando, why do these men hold their weapons at me?” she called out, nervously.

“Where have you come from?” Coralito asked. “I buried you.”

She stood, her hand on her chest. “What?”

“You died in our bedroom in Aragon, in my arms,” Coralito said. “We fell asleep and when I awoke you were gone, Isabela. This was six years ago.”

Isabela collapsed.

“I don’t remember, Fernando, I don’t remember any of that,” she said.

Then, at Coralito’s sign, Armando and Alfredo rowed the dory closer and closer until it knocked the side of the longboat. They dropped the crossbow and Coralito stepped over to attend to his wife.

She was fed and given a swath of tarpaulin for shade. While Coralito comforted her, Alfredo and Armando rigged a small shelter with a split-bunk post and cord fixed to the prow. They left Coralito and rowed back to the Elena.

“I felt her breath,” Armando whispered. “It was cold, like a winter draft.”

“Her eyes are black,” Alfredo added. “But her pain is as real as any.”

By nightfall, Coralito called for the dory. Back on ship, he steadied himself at the mast. “She is no dream,” he said.

“What does she know of the captain, of the others?” I asked.

“Where did she come from?” Armando asked.

“It is a peculiar story,” Coralito began, chewing his nail. She told him that one day she awoke on a shoreline crowded with people. The sea there was tideless and still. Inland, trees loomed over the shore, a forest so dense it seemed like a wall. People there wandered along this shore as far as she could see, men and women of many ages, colors, costumes, speaking in bewildering tongues. Each appeared to travel alone, and they often stopped her and begged things, but she was afraid and pulled away. Eventually, she said, she began walking too. She never saw the same face twice.

At one moment, a moment that she could not separate from other moments, Isabela moved into the sea, knee deep. She had never thought to enter the water before. But something called to her.

“The water pooled at her feet, like stepping into the face of a mirror, she said. From the mist, the longboat drifted into her sight. She got in. The crowds from the shore saw and rushed at the water. The fathom line snapped taut and she found herself pulled out to sea. She held tight as a mist enveloped her. The sound of the voices faded until it was replaced by a rumble and a vertiginous turn. The next she knew, she could make out the Elena.

Coralito stopped and ran his hand across his face, wiping the disbelief from it. Armando the Taller crossed himself.

“I asked for her hand and made a cut along her finger,” Coralito continued. “Her blood is as red and as real as ours.”

The English conscript spat back, “Lie. She doesn’t bleed.” He gestured to Diego. “Just like the mute. They’re both wraiths now.”

The crew stared at Diego. He did not look up.

I said, “Come morning, we return her to the ledge.”

Coralito tugged his tunic taut against his chest. “Then I go with her,” he answered. “I will not leave my wife alone.”

“Diego must go too,” Armando said.

His brother stepped toward him. “But what if there are others, abandoned over the ledge? Are we to leave them in purgatory?”

Armando shook his head. “Anything else would defy God’s will.”

Alfredo’s face lost all of its softness. He seemed to rise up his whole length. “You speak of God’s will?” he shot back. “Was it His choice to take our brother? Or was it yours?”

The brothers leapt on each other and wrestled to the deck. They fought, equally matched, like a man with his reflection. If no one stopped them, it was because we felt we were watching the war within us playing out. Each man aboard—Coralito, the conscript, Diego, Marco, and the other deckhands—understood that the ledge was now among us. We could pass over the edge or we could plunder it, but we couldn’t escape. We watched in silence until the two brothers sat across from each other, exhausted and bruised. Blood ran from Alfredo’s nose and his brother rubbed his jaw.

“I remember him,” Alfredo said. “He was our brother. And if he is still alive, I will go and get him myself.”

That night, there was no reversing of the sand-clock, no order to the Elena. Coralito boarded the dory and was rowed out to his wife. The men drained the wine casks and fired all the supplies in a noisy, reckless feast. Diego stood at the prow, ignoring me, and looking even paler, like alabaster. He paced, the way a wife grooves a path of anticipation on a widow’s walk, and stared out at the ledge. I could find no consolation in the riot around me and the chill air had me missing the simple heat of my mother’s bakery. Why had I ever left? Why is it that men are always leaving? What is this hunger for what we can’t see? I ached for the Calle de la Mar, for the sounds of the fruit carts jostling, and to see one more time my mother at the doorway and smell her honey cakes rolling out into the street. I called to her in a prayer. I wanted to see her face again and feel blessed, but I could not summon the whole of it. It remained blurred and opaque, like smoked glass, and the knowledge that I had forgotten it filled me with a clawing emptiness. The night wore on. The crew’s exuberance faded into melancholy, and they keened for their families and home cities, for those they would never see again. I fell asleep alone, in a curl of loose sail.

I woke to a jerk. Under the first kindling of clouds, the fathom line was already strung out to the ledge and Alfredo, Diego, and others, with a great cry, pulled together.

“What are you doing?” I asked. None turned to answer me.

Armando shoved his way forward, shouting, “This is blasphemy!” But before he could fight, the longboat returned over the ledge and came through the spray, laden with three new figures.

“Armando?” one called back, standing. “Is that you? I felt you calling me!”

Armando stepped toward the gunwale, squinting, his mouth open. “Brother!” Alfredo called back eagerly. “We’re both here! Come to us!”

The longboat knocked alongside the Elena, and Alfredo lifted the young man to the deck with a stevedore’s strength. He looked just like the brothers, though younger, and his skin had no pigment. He hugged Alfredo with genuine pleasure.

“You seem so old,” he said. “Have you been away?”

“No no,” his brother said beaming. “It’s you who left us.”

Armando made the sign of the cross. “You are dead,” he said. “I took your life.”

A laugh shot out of his brother. “You took nothing.”

A boy followed up the rope ladder, unkempt, in tattered trousers. He was not more than five or six years old, and a swollen lump rested at the base of his neck. It had been years since I’d seen a mark of the plague. The boy stood still, bewildered by the unfamiliar faces, until the ship’s gimbaling startled him and he began to shake and cry. Diego pushed his way forward to face the child.

“My son,” he said, collapsing around the boy. “My son.”

Diego’s voice. The sound of it shattered me. So rich and sorrowful, the deepest chime of the closest, celestial sphere.

When the final figure boarded the Elena, holding her head down in humility, I knew that I had called her. Those who crossed the ledge did so because we summoned them with yearning. Her shirt was soaked, a damp rag giving no warmth, though none was needed. When she looked up, I understood why the crew had mutinied: Death is the tyranny. To conquer the ledge was a conquest over this. The greed of time.

My mother stood before me, wet and shivering in her resurrection. Her black eyes studied me in a bloodless face.

I embraced her and as I did, I noticed the odd twist in her body. Her neck was stretched. An angry, red indentation wrapped around her throat. My fingers sought it out and ran these ridges where a rope had once been tied tight.

“I told you to never leave,” my mother said.

My strength left and I buried myself in her hair. “Forgive me,” I said. I remained there until I felt a lock of it brush against my face in a breeze.

From where I sit, I watch the crew busy with lines. Every one is now strung over the ledge. In time, each snaps taut and the deckhands pull first the longboat, then a handful of crude rafts around the ledge, heavy with people. Soon, the Elena is crowded with men and women, in all kinds of dress and colors, my mother lost among them. I write in the ledger, “Many new souls.”

By afternoon, the crew sends the longboat one last time over the drop. This time, they cut free the sea anchors and raise the mainsail for a broad reach. A westerly favors us, and even before our sails are half-raised, the Elena heaves forward with life. An enormous weight drags on us and the Elena groans beneath it. Hemp lines split, some tear from their braces.

Finally a Portuguese galleon crests through the spume, with dozens of people clutching to its deck. The Elena has towed it over. The white faces look as if they have survived a squall, as if they are amazed to be alive. Eventually the men of the galleon set its sails and drop more lines back into the roar.

They pull over a strange ship, this one low and open and driven by oars, with a high wooden dragon head fixed at its prow. The two ships repeat this, and before long, the sea here becomes busy with boats, many unknown to me, and far outnumbering the Elena. The water carries the noise of weird cries and tongues. This motley army of the dispossessed, recovered from the ledge, soon fills the ocean as far as I see. At evening, we depart east together, sails bellied in the new wind.

© 2006 by Austin Bunn.
Originally published in One Story.
Reprinted by permission of the author.

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Austin Bunn

Austin Bunn is the author of The Brink: Stories (Harper Perennial) and his writing has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, The 2010 Pushcart Prize Anthology, Zoetrope, WBEZ, Michigan Public Radio, and elsewhere. He wrote the script for the film Kill Your Darlings (Sundance premiere, Sony Pictures Classics) and has written screenplays for Twentieth Century Fox and LionsGate. His recent short documentary In the Hollow has played twenty film festivals. He is an Asst. Professor in the Department of Performing and Media Arts at Cornell University.