"The view was always the same, it was mostly just the colors that changed, really. It was always the same temperature, the same water, the same sky, the same sounds -- only the color changed."
As time went by, the world began to rebuild itself around him. Things were quiet. He didn't feel the blood in his ears at first. It was his lips splitting open. That was how it began.
The Stonecutter's skiff drifted on through the doldrums and the leviathan still kept quiet.
The doldrums draped across his horizon, sometimes blue, mostly green and purple or something in between. The water was crystal, and every night, once the clouds were drawn out of sight, the doldrums became a lone sphere expanding into, and past, the stars. It was a sight that made the Stonecutter sick at first, but as the days passed, he felt himself becoming more accustomed to it. He didn't want to. To him, he felt acclimation to this place meant he was being separated from the place he'd left.
He wondered where he was. He focused hard and he could picture a face that he sort of recognized. There was the memory but when he grasped for the tool that would make it real and correct, the skiff wobbled, making him exhale, the doldrums coming back into view. It was just as quiet here. He looked around. He had a bucket in the skiff with him. He also had long pole that had a blunt point on one end and an oversized claw hammer on the other.
His skin started sucking closer to his bones. The clothes still fit him, yes -- the warm coat, the boots whose soles had small ruberized cactus spines, and the yellow necktie -- but his body felt a bit lighter. Easy winds pushed him around nowadays. It was a bleached-out, paralyzed feeling. He imagined he'd be buoyant if he fell into the water, like petrified wood. A few bits of moisture tinged his fingers when he let his hand fall close to the surface, yet he somehow, in a moment of clarity, made sure not to touch the water. There had to be an important reason for that, his instincts had flashed through his body so quickly, commanding him not to touch the water, no matter what. The doldrums were talking to the parts of him that he couldn't control. It would help him survive. The doldrums wanted him here, alive, for some reason, that was crystal clear, keeping him away from clear thoughts and separating him from reality. They wanted him out of where he had been and did not want him to get to where he was going and it had done well so far. It was against him. That very thought set him off so badly into an emotional, choking fit that he started to thrash violently in the little boat. It rocked with no rhythm, hog-tying his anger that wouldn't shake off, once almost capsizing, he curled into himself, grasping for calm, for something solid, only to be shaken back to the dark night waters by the waves beating on the edge of the skiff.
It wouldn't let him look away, wouldn't let him shut his eyes. It was keeping him here in the sleepless darkness with the sea of stars. This damn diamond net.
The sun was going to come up soon. The stars gave way, the waves had gone black. Orange becoming yellow becoming green becoming blue made the line between water and sky vivid again, a sight that made the Stonecutter willingly sit up straight in the skiff, staring at the horizon's meniscus.
He steadied himself now. He breathed out, slowly, then inhaled, and breathed out again even slower for a long, long time. As the light climbed, it made a narrow path of gold from one end of his vision to the other. It rolled over the skiff and he had to squint or stop looking at it. He did neither though. His eyeballs teared, he saw spots, and faced away, over the side into the water.
The black and blue bubbles still fogged his vision, and he loosened his tie so he could breathe easier and cough. After a few minutes of semi-blindness, he slapped at the water in defiance, rubbing some in his eyes. The Stonecutter lay face-down in the skiff for a whole day, making himself smell the brine that had bonded with the hull. If he needed to, he reminded himself that he could suck some flavor out of the wood again to keep from feeling crazy. By night, he just wanted the morning to grow faster, thinking that the force out there in the doldrums might sleep during the day and he could finally rest under the sun’s warmth. He held his breath. He lay still. The inevitable light blanketed him, sinking him down under a soft weight. The skiff's pressed hard on his ribs, making him spit a sort of recognizable bile. It hurt, but he was indifferent now, turning over onto his back, conceding defeat.
He resigned that not much would happen. Days passed with no sleep. The view was always the same, it was mostly just the colors that changed, really. It was always the same temperature, the same water, the same sky, the same sounds -- only the color changed.
His ear was pressed against the hull. The vibration came first. He inhaled, pushed his ear harder, and held his breath. Then came the impact. A thud, like a medium-sized stone plunking into a well, but this song was being sung in reverse. He didn't move because he felt another vibration before the second impact hit the skiff, a little bit bigger, yet airy. The third one was the lightest but he didn't hear it, already sitting up. Three fish, and soon a fourth and fifth, floated to the surface. They bumped off of each other, off of his tiny craft, and the smaller ones were even bounced by the air bubbles starting to form. After a minute, he could count fifteen or twenty dead fish, and after two minutes, he couldn't keep track of them all.
He took one that looked easy to grip, sliced its belly with the claw hammer -- gutting it rather quickly -- and picked a bit of meat out from between the finer bones. It was raw and very salty. He cupped a hand into the water, and managed a small drink. He swished it in his mouth, feeling it soften his tongue. Then he swallowed it. The skiff shook a little when he coughed before he smiled. The water was fresh and it was clean, but otherwise, it was not particularly tasty. It had a combustible, oily tang to it, but he thought that might just be the fish meat’s aftertaste. It was the fact that the fish had been warm when he ate it that worried him, as if it had been cooking, simmering itself alive in the water. He sucked on the skiff's wood and then spat as much flavor out of his mouth as he could.
The dead fish's eyes popped out when he squeezed it. "Well, this is certainly different," he said, throwing it as far as he could. He looked away from the sun where the last bits of night had just now faded. The dead fish stopped coming to the surface. Then, three long, full breaths later, he held himself still, and the bubbles stopped too. "Weird different."
A gigantic cloud took form and it was white but thick, blocking half the horizon. The leviathan! It has found him. It had never lost him.
It was moving close, and he could tell it was not being blown by the wind because there was a breeze nipping his neck and his eyes kept dry. The gigantic cloud didn't roll the way most clouds did, and should, he thought. "Nope, that's different," he said, sort of repeating himself, sort of forgetting he’d said. "Nope, that’s different. Just more different." White and gigantic against blue sky, the cloud made acres of the still, deep ocean. The hot ocean, running like hell, evacuating itself of its fish and air minutes earlier, looked like a hole had opened on the face of the doldrums. More wind itched his neck. He kept still and it went on itching. The breeze stopped suggesting and started demanding as he stood up tall, knees aching to keep balance in the skiff.
The cloud moved against the wind. The hole in the ocean was dragged along beneath it. Light spiked the water around its perimeter. The surface had become so still that the light could find its way right through it, kind of bonding with it, and when the wind cut out, he wanted to believe the water was so shallow here that he could see the ocean floor. But his knee buckled when the wind stopped and he fell on his back, undignified. More distance was closed between him and the gigantic, unbending cloud that moved against the wind. He refused to take his eyes off it. Because now he could hear it too.
It wasn't like soft wind, which you really feel just as much as you hear, and he wouldn't mistake it for a total absence of sound. There was noise. Two of the same thing rubbing against one another. Heat touching heat. Water touching water. Sand touching sand. Always in equal measure. What he saw should be louder and he was worried he wasn't hearing correctly. He wanted to lean closer to hear what it was saying. It was too big to be unheard or to be so damn quiet. At fifty feet away, he was sure it was there. The cloud wasn't making the sound and neither was the water. The noise was there -- in between. It pricked and popped pockets of air in his lungs, and he had to hold his breath. Everything inside him tightened. He gripped into himself but it was still there -- it was there and he could see the sound happening.
He might have shut off some senses to keep from going into shock because there wasn't another sound when he fell in. His face crawled with tiny water-krill and he panicked until he realized they were just bubbles. He held his breath again, reminding himself not to inhale water. Impossible! Don't, it's impossible! Air burped out, ribs creaking. The noise that the space between was making was too close now. He flipped the skiff and gasped when he lowered the vessel over his head. The bottom was close, so he could stand firmly on the nesting, knotted water plants, holding the little boat steady. Touch was there, his heart shook inside. Smell was gone, taste, of course, also.
Sense of sight was there, changing the overturned boat into a closing iris that shut before he shut his own eyes. Sound was here. He was close to a fire now. It was popping. A chemical reaction so sudden that it was resorting to violence, changing one element into another. He was inside the reaction. The noise was soft but he was inside it, and the rest of the Stonecutter was just curled, dead nerves burning off, winking out. His senses rubbed against each other until they were fuzzy, gray, and blended. That mess was cohesive in the half-second when he brushed against the center of the passing cloud.
The doldrums spun him. They were a beast's bowels, forcing him from one frothing pool to another. It was bright and the colors began to separate from each other. One became definite from the next.
He saw what it needed him to see.
Like a music box, it snapped shut. He coughed blood and seawater onto his chest, screaming into the sky. Each muscle in his body fought him. Paralysis locked his jaw shut and all of the small bones in his body disconnected from one another. He had to narrow his focus, he ordered himself! It could not really be like this, he had to have been wrong somewhere, he must have given an incorrect answer, not remembering it right, it could not, could not be like this. The back of his head fell off and he tried to press it into place. He blacked out. The paralysis followed him into the unconsciousness, settling down, making itself at home. There, the leviathan looked at him, looked at the space around them, and then --
"-- Tell me where you're from," it said. The leviathan's face tensed, dozens of bones clenching, cheeks jutting a little, eyes motionless, nostrils fluctuating. "Originally, where are you from? I know you, I've heard what people have said, but I want you to tell me. I've heard you're from the east, but others said you've lived in the west. I just want to know where you're from. So tell me, where are you from?"
The leviathan was deliberate in each movement, flickering twitches present at all time, creeping into the Stonecutter's thoughts as he replied, "There's no reason for me to tell you that."
"It's a harmless detail," the leviathan insisted right away. "Come on. How big of a deal is it? Don't be defensive about it. I won't care where you're from. Be the bigger individual, just tell me. Honestly, we're friends, you and I. We are. We're in the same business."
"No we're not."
"No we're not?" The leviathan was done faking exasperation. If ever, it was being dead serious now. "No, we're not in the same business, or no, we're not friends? I'm pretty sure we both do the same thing every day. Am I right? I think so. I know so, which means you're talking about the other thing. If we're not friends, then I don't have any reason to be nice to you. I've been nice so far. Now you're saying that you want to throw that away? Oh, my boy. What will they say? Knocking away an olive branch like this. You know how small the world is, how disingenuous it is to burn bridges. Always be careful, my boy. Be careful and promise me you will --"
-- he woke up, skipping grogginess, stepping straight into wide-open alertness. His body answered when his brain came calling, except his arm, which was numb. It was a no surprise that a coral shard was jutting from his bicep, striking him hard with fear that the paralysis, if even in a small quantity, yet remained. It had to be from when he had flipped the skiff, wasn't it? Alone, he assured himself (but who knew for sure?) that that was what he believed. Trembling, he moved his arm, willing himself, he tugged it. It took four tries to yank it out. The gratification of throwing it into the ocean wasn’t as emphatic as he'd hoped. It didn't bleed much though. He was lying on his back in the skiff, exhausted. There was still nothing to see, naturally.
"Still nothing to see, naturally," he laughed. "Oh. Wait."
And he snapped straight up. The air was clear, the sky was blue, painted with Cirrus clouds that calm winds pushed -- water was casual sea-green, thunking and thunking against the little wooden boat that kept him afloat.
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-- Alex Crumb (originally published 4/27/11)