Friday, August 8, 2014

Lonely Sea

Wind buffets my face and steals my breath. I hear only a distant, quiet susurration as the ship slices through the water with rhythmic waves of spray. Flags ripple overhead but I can’t hear them—the wind whips that away too. Salt in the air, and all around. It coats every surface like slippery, crazed icing.

I stand at the bulwark, preparing for my watch. I slip the strap of the binoculars over my head and let the heavy weight dangle from my neck. After a while, that weight will burrow into my skin and my shoulders will ache. For now, the familiar tug goes unnoticed, a necessary part of the routine.

I hate midwatch. It’s so boring. At least it’s not freezing tonight.

The top of the ship sways and I steady myself. I lower the large, padded earpieces of the sound-powered phone onto my head and adjust them over my ears. Suddenly all sound evaporates, but I still hear the ocean waves crashing in my ears, as if from a seashell. I press the button on the receiver to speak.
“Bridge—Starboard Lookout, back online.”
Propping my elbows on the bulwark, I pick up the binoculars and scan the ocean. The water reflects the moonlight in soft glimmers between peaked white caps of small waves. I can see for miles and miles, to the edge of the earth.
Nothing to report. I lower the binoculars and my eyes squint against the breeze.
“Bridge—Starboard Lookout, no contacts.”
I shift my gaze to the endless expanse of milky river flowing across the sky. The stars look different at sea, with no light pollution. I can identify a few bright, burning individuals, but the rest of the sky billows with the wispy, cottony glow of millions of other worlds. I grow dizzy trying to contemplate their multitude. It’s wondrous, yet intimidating, and arouses a feeling of intense loneliness.

I am such a small, insignificant being.

Those worlds out there care nothing for me. They revolve and change and will never even know of me. My presence, or absence, is meaningless to them. My family cares, of course. But in this moment, thousands of miles away, they seem a hazy memory. Beyond those few people, does my existence matter? I remind myself of the hundreds of people sleeping and working underneath me. They know me—at least some of them—and would miss me if I were gone. Wouldn’t they? But they don’t really know me, nor I them. I spend all twenty-four hours of every day with them. We crack jokes, complain about the Chief, and hit the bars together on liberty, but I’ve never confided my deepest hopes and fears to any of them. Would they care if the wind carried me away and let me disappear beneath the rolling swells? I have no answer.

During the day, I wish I could be alone. I want to silence the endless clamor of voices, boots, music, and equipment. I crave an escape from the constant suffocating presence of people. I ache for a quiet moment of privacy and peace.

I am alone. It’s quiet now. I have escaped.

To what? A lonely pinnacle atop the deserted ocean. The sea mocks me with singular solitude and I curse the hollow granting of my wish.

A flash of iridescent turquoise shimmers in the water. The glowing bioluminescence of a million companions reveals their presence. I could whisper all my secrets to them, and they’d never tell a soul.

There! Off the starboard side, just behind the bow. Silvery silhouettes emerge from the water and time stops as they float over the passing waves. No flapping of wings, just a smooth glide brings them into my airy world. I smile at the flying fish. They too would harbor my most private musings, if I chose to speak them. The fish plunge under the shroud of their world, the only trace of their flight a brief wrinkle in the waves.

Perhaps I’m not so alone in this bounding main. Creatures big and small permeate the ocean surrounding me, swimming and floating in a silent ballet. Knowing they are there soothes my sense of desolation.

My melancholy mood fades and I scan the surface again. My eyes track the movement of the swells, looking for any objects.
Nothing to report.
My eyes droop and I look at my watch. Zero-three-thirty. Almost done.

The wind dies down, but the night is cooler now. Puffs of air still flow over me as the ship steams to its destination. I shiver and pull my collar up.

The infinite liquid plain stretches before me. The calm before dawn settles the white-caps. Suddenly, the sea clears and turns glassy. No ripples mar its perfect stillness. Tranquility descends upon me, too. The darkness no longer seems overwhelming; rather, it feels open and liberating, full of possibility.

Movement at the edge of my vision catches my attention. I turn my head and focus my gaze a hundred yards away, beyond the ship’s wake.

The water rises up. No, not the water. Something under the water pushes up from below. A large, rounded shadow breaks the surface and silky, black fluid cascades from its sides.

My lips part in a gasp of ecstasy. My heart renders galloping thumps in my chest and I start to breathe in great, heaving gulps. Tingles rush over my skin and I shiver again, overcome with joy and awe.

The behemoth expels a blast of air and rides the wake for a glorious moment, before it sinks back into the depths.

I smile so wide my cheeks hurt. I search intently, hoping to see the beast surface again. Stillness returns.

My throat tightens and I try to swallow. Salty droplets spring to my eyes and spill onto my cheeks as if the sea has filled me to overflowing. I perceive a connection to the leviathan that transcends the barriers of our worlds. He knows me, and I know him.

My breathing slows but the thrill of wonder remains. My spirits buoyed, I see the depths with a new sense of intimacy. I know its secrets now, and I can share mine.

I lean over the bulwark and speak to my companions under the waves.
“I’m not alone!” Passion adds power to my voice.
“What?...Lynn, go to bed.”
I slowly pull myself back and turn around. My relief stands before me, eyeing me with unease.
I give him a sheepish grin and hand him the binoculars.
“Who were you talking to?” he asks with a dubious glance over the side.
“Nobody you know.”

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