By Larissa Douglass
A bronze statue of a sailor weeps green in a dead end court. Water pools around cobblestones. Geraniums drip on little balconies. Before the statue’s time, the sailor was in a shipwreck. The St. Lucy sank in a storm. A freak hundred-foot-high wave swallowed her. She went down in seconds, crushed by the pressure, the splinters gulped down by a green tidal pool, a hole of whirling ink. He awoke at dawn floating on a bit of wooden wreckage, hunted by sharks. He felt them watching him. Blank-eyed, relentless, their tiny compulsive brains rammed after the blood in the water. They tore his dead and dying crewmates into ragged chunks. And he — he survived.
Crack — imagine the odds, the uncanny luck, when a whaling ship hit the bobbing pieces of the St. Lucy. The whalers plucked him from his wooden plank, hoisted him from their sturdy lifeboat. On the main deck, they gathered around the near-catatonic survivor. He winced and crouched; even the blinding morning sun gave him trauma. They wrapped him in Highland wool blankets. When they tried to feed him whale broth, he threw up.
After the rescue, the whalers brought him to their station. But his eyes glistened too much for their liking. He had become a ‘lone survivor.’ “Best for him to go home,” they said. Behind his back, they feared the bad luck he would bring them. Within two months, he walked dizzily on English soil again, land sick and delirious, and reeled up the hill from the inquest at the port. He brought the sickly taste of seawater, and other things, back from the expanse of ocean, from the shark-eaten outer world into the little circled close. He could not get the taste out of the back of his mouth. It was the worst day of his life. His sister Anne and his betrothed Elizabeth ran down the front hall and into the street to meet him. Behind them, mother and father waited on the stoop, swallowing hard.
Elizabeth’s lips pressed on his. He was numb. Numb. The seaside town made much of their survivor. Behind his back, they muttered at the pub about the boys who never made it home. He stumbled through a winter. His parents’ coal fire could not warm him. He spent weeks huddled by the hearth, trying to get the cold and damp out of his bones.
When the crocuses bloomed, he slid a ring on Elizabeth’s finger. But he floated, suspended in a secret sleep. He knew he should smile, so he stretched his cheekbones. He knew he should wave and take her waist, and yes, he did so. His best man, a brother from the docks, a vague acquaintance (for all his mates had drowned), smiled and clubbed him on the shoulder. But the man’s eyes crinkled at the edges when he said, “Congratulations.” That detail magnified inside the sailor’s mind. During their stroll to the wedding dinner, ocean waves washed over thumping boards in his softened brain.
When he bedded Elizabeth that sacred night, she smelt and tasted of seawater. Salted mist surrounded their tangled bodies. His dead crewmates’ hands pulled the bridal sheets from her shivering curves. Drenched wood floated and tapped at his shoulder while he kissed her briny lips. The sharks picked at dead men all around their marital bed. Months of nights dissolved like this. He blundered through the days in a frigid fog. His office work for a shipping agent fell apart in strips and pieces and finally flowed away.
Elizabeth taught at the little school on the hill up by the church. Her belly grew, though the unborn’s father barely noticed. The townsfolk whispered, although the women always smiled as his wife passed. “Such a brave girl,” they said, and shook their heads at the haunted shadow by her side. When the women repaired the fishing nets, they nattered, and hoped he would not bring that nice family, no, not bring the town, any more bad luck.
Elizabeth surrounded their little cottage window with boxes of red geraniums. She stroked his clammy temples. Sometimes, when the sun came out on a cheerful morning, his fogged eyes cleared. And for a blissful half an hour or so, he was himself again. He clung to her then and kissed her heavily, while she wept to have him briefly back.
Expedition! The Admiralty called for men. He left for London.
Another voyage began for the survivor mariner, drawn in among the ranks of great explorers, bound for grandeur and history.
It was another unsuccessful voyage.
This time, he lay still. And close to him, there was a silver spoon and a silver knife, stamped with the captain’s crest. A broken watch. And a lake of frozen fire. His feet were burning, but he was numb. Numb. Starvation ate the meat on his freezing bones. He lay dying in the Arctic barrens, poisoned by lead. With each breath, pneumonia stabbed his lungs and filled them with fluid. He was drowning on dry water, on a white, crystallized sea.
At home in the close, not six yards from mother’s and father’s stoop, the town commissioned a statue of their dead hero. He stands there still, ringed by houses, his bronze hem oxidizing green while children play at his feet. He has stood, separated from himself by a glacial space.
The explorer clung to his bit of board for 150 years, until the forensic archaeologists came for him. She rescued him. The archaeologist, Christine, walks into the cul-de-sac. The sun shower stops and she folds her umbrella, shaking off the drops. The statue gleams wet and copper-green in the afternoon rays. Lines of silvery light edge his naval uniform like shining sea foam. He was so handsome. He had a look that you never see in men these days. Those rugged, worthy, symmetrical good looks are well extinct. She reaches up furtively to touch his knee. She hears laughter above; the local children peek at her from the balconies.
Crack — she lifts her foot. They’ve been smashing bottles against him. The spaces between the cobbles are filled with bright shards of broken glass. The shattered pieces lie around his feet, like piles of chipped ice.
Crack — blinding Arctic light surrounded him. His wooden box exhaled as she broke its seal. Christine was the lead researcher, commissioned by the government and a northern university to find the men barbarously consumed by the Arctic wasteland. Even now, she sees his face, the eyes frozen open, the lips pulled back. Protein contraction in the facial muscles due to arrested decomposition, she noted.
Crack — in her hotel room, lying in the bathtub, she weeps. The wine does not help, the glass falls from the tub ledge; she cuts herself on crescent slivers. He was only 36. When the coffin opened, he looked right at her. His frozen eyes beckoned to her. She understands that he learned a secret, and its price was dear. He is seducing her with it. She needs to understand the explorer. Why did he do this? What did he know? What was it? And why was he willing to die for it? This is the obscurity in man, which women cannot fathom.
Lost men create vacuums. They don’t fill them. She gasps for air, crying, just like his long-dead wife, when the Royal Navy finally brought the letter that he was: ‘Deceased in service.’ Elizabeth did not ask why he went; why he never came back. She lived in a period when ‘service’ explained all mysteries. But the archaeologist, her successor, the sailor’s new wife, lives in a different age, a time of wayward, vacuum-hearted egotists. Because she loves him, she makes the connections that all others ignored. She read the inquest report, the shady details around the miraculous lone survivor. She saw his wedding photos at the municipal museum, the handsome groom with hollow eyes. She held him in her arms, the corpse preserved for over 15 decades. She dissected him and wrote a report for the government and the professors, her contract completed. Just today, she touched the metal hem of his bronzed green uniform, crunching through the broken glass. Trembling, clutching her wrist below her bleeding hand, she asks why? What search into the unknown void? Why go beyond — the beyond? Men, she curses.
She is caught up by his secret. He’s her young, mummified mariner now, and he pulls her deeper, past where she wants to go. “What is the Arctic? What is Asia? What is Africa?” he whispers to her. “Are they not what men always sought?”
At the Nile’s gate, men pushed outward, mapping coasts and continents. Lost explorers would see the Niger, the Amazon, the Mackenzie deltas no differently. Imagine Scott, stepping off the Terra Nova, and writing his final note, “to my widow.” Or Franklin, trapped with the Terror and the Erebus in the Northwest Passage, on his expedition, yes, this expedition, which ended in cannibalism. This was the officer to whom her mummified mariner pledged his life.
She runs cold water on her cuts. Hot tears trail saline down her cheeks. She lives in a time past accepting, praying, loving and waiting. She wants to know. Are not men’s dreams of an Avalon, a Kingdom of the Saguenay, a gold rush, or an Eldorado, or Z, a lost city in the rainforest, with an Indian name — like the rain drops hanging from the petals of a woman’s stone lotus flower? How different are these dreams from the true love women seek, that defeat that always looks like certain victory? Women are bound, find themselves transported and enslaved, and dash their heads against the stones. They spend their lives trying to go home again; for if their hero prince is found, the Sphinx inside them will finally devour herself, the vacuum filled.
Those words give an answer and solve nothing. What would a man say? Libraries, libraries, like the one that burnt in Alexandria, are filled with men’s words. The scrawled note left in the cairn at King William Island, that pathetic Black Bay memento, is filled with men’s words. Every day, they answer these interminable questions. Every day, they do not answer these interminable questions. They build whole empires that rise and fall, and die away. If women understood men’s failure, all would be lost, but —
Crack — with gritted teeth, she pulls a shard from her hand and throws it in the sink; she bites her cheek, and swallows salty blood. An expedition which ended in cannibalism. He was so desperate to stay alive, survive out there, past the frontier. In the borderland, the frozen waters consumed him. From his wooden coffin, he stared at her with sightless eyes. “Cross the wastes with me, my Love,” he whispered. The seaman, the explorer, the metal statue, the iceland mummy, the archaeologist’s love, survives. Plucked from wooden wreckage, the seafarer lives again in her clinical embrace.
He swims across hardened lakes of broken glass, a lone survivor who cannot sleep beneath her autopsy. She preserves him again, devoted to his dead eyes. His new wife grants him immortality. He treads the centuries, crossing waters to a new reality. And thousands know him. His dead eyes gaze through them, frustrated and lost, through the documentary she made, disseminated. He walks again, dizzily reeling up the port town road from a new investigation, where snow gives way to crystals, frozen tears in a weeping reality. And in that flickering afterlife, the sonar pulse of the searchers, the pixels of the curious, greet him and make way for him, the Lost Explorer. The lone survivor swims the video waters, and millions see his flickering face, and wonder at the sights he saw, even now, even still.