Sailing from Redoubt to Vineland
by J.B. Pravda
Gas was cheap, and so was the vintage truck Martha drove around the fifty or so square miles of territory she considered marked by her well-worn radials that radiated now irrelevant all-weather experience, the tell-tale white flecking along the tiny vein-like fissures on the slowly spinning previous owner’s macho trophies of deliberate drunken assaults on snow pack or unwanted concrete versus rubbery encounters with painted curbs stenciled ‘NO STANDING/PARKING’. Those stout redoubts had rebuffed mounting advances from what the inert curbing saw as circular meandering asphalt that didn’t seem to know its place, perpendicular to its opposite color, itself dulled by such careless masculine aggrandizements spun, and aggressively.
She couldn’t–and didn’t–blame the offended citified borders, as she viewed her ‘tiresome’ tires’ aggressiveness as too- intimately related to maleness and its innate habit of marking the spaces it considered its own. Her exile had succeeded in lending proof of concept to at least one woman’s crossing of the Einstein-Rosen bridge whose experimental construction had begun with the adamantine folding of her divorce decree causing the parties names to roughly align at 180 degrees of separation, at least on paper. Necessity mothered this field experiment, resulting in her establishing the other side of the figurative chasm at 1000 nautical miles of distance. Physical space now afforded her mental time within that smaller space atop her neck (where he’d been a regular source of pain, filling columnar inches with various sad stories imprinted within Conjugal Times/Personal Edition) to indulge certain playful puns in her many letters to the editor: ‘tiresome’, ‘partying is such sweet soire, oh’, et cetera, setting aside the cautioning of that old English fellow who’d compiled the dictionary of a roughly shared tongue, something about pun makers picking pockets. Spanning considerable space and harsh time, that crossing empowered her to take comfort in the word-play begun in her innocent long-ago youth; Martha smiled broadly knowing the exercise of her forty-seven facial muscles to be such power made flesh as she punned: she’d never known an overinflated spare tire or pocket more deserving of deflation than belonged to the opposite (as in ‘opposing’) gender.
And, yet, that same penchant she’d nurtured since her preteen years–when she experienced that emptiness she called a hunger of her mind— seemed now an unsought reward of strangest context given the Latin root for the one word best descriptive of her state of mind, ‘redoubt’: reductus/reducere, ‘leading back to a secret place’. ‘Some reward’ she mused, this addictive need to know what words stood for, those things that governed everybody’s lives, even men’s; her therapist had seemed to scold her indifference, offering that all symbols, including words, held memory.
‘The mere mention or thought of a name..that fellow, the Buddha, he said that you become what you think..’ Sid counseled her in an almost reverent tone. As if picking his temporary eastern mind–‘have I just mined it?’–hers remembered–‘wow, that word, it conjures reattaching to something severed–his name is Sid, and he does have a good..heart, stop this!’ He asked if she was Okay and, resisting the addict’s urge to open a discussion of that misunderstood term’s Knickerbocker etymology, she simply smiled and said ‘I think..I get it, doc.’
Even that gold band she’d purchased at the fair, said to have belonged to a medicine man of the tribe that dwelt in the island off the nearby coast now inhabited by featherless ‘snowbirds’, could bear memory. Even men, a particular young man, boy, really, yes, who’d seemed real enough, at least as real as tires treading, rarely softly..’but where he’d trod, it had been..as soft as barefoot upon sand, warm sands embracing his..feet; time-worn..was he balding, as well? No, not the young one, the medicine man…….I hate this..too hot for such warm thoughts’ she counseled herself, hoping that humidity would steam away something so evanescent as a long-ago thought, a thought that had become the thinker, thanks, Sid..’where was..he?’, in her perspiring cabeza?–the auctioneer had used that Spanish word, now a tongue’s curse to the native peoples whose medicine men were no match for those plundering uninvited ‘guests’. A swipe of her bandana seemed to banish what lay just behind her overruling forehead’s lobes, and this time she was glad to see her limbic miasma fogged over, choosing not to consider whether the gold band now possessed their moribund memory, somehow becoming hers.
As for the fifty miles square her creaking landlocked vessel plied, it was her yardstick for what she considered her Disney-ed world, having learned that first day she’d earned her ears that that was the extent of Walt’s small ocean-sized World. Seeing as how he was one of the few of his kind she liked, even admired, that would be the size of her personal adventure’s land. And within the landsmen confines of that park of hers she’d Disney-like banished snow and trafficked streets with curbs that were anything but white-washed, and untainted by strange balding men with questioning eyes.
And it seemed that the inhabitants of Martha’s kudzu-captured vine-yards had been Walt-like adventurers themselves, judging from the worldly assortment of items for ‘sail’–so said one of the signs that got her 10 mile per hour attention that day. The name on the rusting postal box, part of a cluster, the sort found on rural routes for widely dispersed homesteads, painted in blood red, and freshly, judging strictly by the near invisibility of its neighbors faded nominal identities.
‘A. Hebbe’, painted old English style on an off-white three-masted sailing ship’s mainsail hung in the fashion of a business establishment’s shingle, drifting with the slightest breath of wind on an almost tropical invisible ocean of air. A dirt drive up to the New England style clapboard house they call a cottage up that way of her youth invited Martha to ‘WEIGH ANCHOR’ just next to the temporary hand-written signage announcing the pitifully punning yard ‘sail’, perhaps a sign pointing that ‘way’, again… her eager younger mind’s pocket of hope picking that word, itself weighing lightly of stealthy meanderings about of her ever-young spaces filled with timeless packets of once lighter being with their time-traversing sandy pathways. That ‘way’, that ‘weigh’..anchored, still, in silently ebbing tidal tremors.
That juvenile phase of mind’s curiosity was furnished with the hopeful key required to unlock hidden treasures she’d read about–‘..lost Picasso bought for $5…’, a half-imagined newspaper report that usually put her in mind of just how she might have responded to the womanizing Spaniard’s come-ons there, on the Riviera beach where he’d carelessly drawn her pricelessly and within the tidal reach of the waves that resounded like the heavy ventricular throbbing her once private crimson cove of a heart could then barely maintain within her breast. ‘You become your thoughts..’ Again, overheated, her renewed throbs subsided in disregard of the possibility the proprietor was somehow Pablo’s gifted younger relation but, rather, just some swindling pick pocket of a man, what with that Olde English font of the seller’s (sailor’s?) name on the mail/male box; she’d been ever cautious of the inviting spot in her exceptional heart since it had granted such a seaman ‘sure’ leave that night at the dance hall when that sailor had roughly planted his main mast amidships. ‘Damned symbols’ she protested but half-heartedly, with that resurrected scene of now ancient wood-like splintering her secret space, and preferring still to look upon that one as her ‘possible Pablo’ in his Capri pants and horizontally striped nautical French pullover made of absorbent terry cloth, sponging co-mingled passion’s frutta di mare. Her sunburnt face amply masking her blush response to that dusted-off sexual innuendo, she was prepared to meet up with this possible purveyor of her Pablo print. The accompanying smirk on that red-flagged face of hers was less an expectation of so rare a find and far more her atavistic agile mind’s rhetorical questioning just how anyone could succeed in implying–much more, inferring– anything, especially sexual, they already had intimate first-hand knowledge of. This, this smirk suddenly had become a youthful gleeful beaming, and was different and with greatest distinction; not some facile smoothing over of inference-taking from rough carpenter’s hands, how they’d created the most temporary of dockings in the shallow waters of her inner city’s viscous leisurely places. No, no, these, these hands summoned by her Buddha, ‘mined’, three-dimensional, the innocent sort, and from a distance, offshore, bronzed not by any star and belonging to another, younger, at the promontory so near a point of prepubescence.
As the pregnant memory-laden word ‘hand’ floated near the now solitary shore of her subconscious, her blue-veined thinly skinned white hand consciously grasped the ship’s bell-shaped door-knock and put it to landlubber use. A noise Martha knew as the same one her door’s peephole cover made told her attention had been paid her, though transacted in a peculiar realm’s invisible coinage.
“Ahoy…” the door’s owner seemed to creak in unison with the round-topped portal, both no longer closed book-like containers whose frayed binding seemed equally ancient and faded away, there and not quite there as with time’s toll, upon the sun-drenched shelving of Martha’s sometimes illegible awareness.
He’d approached the island whose name was said at the council fires to be her namesake–‘Murrtuh’, as the people’s tongues knew nothing of the ‘th’ sound of the whites, Martha, the girl child of the Englishman known as Gosnold.
Belying these Englishmen’s name for his place of departure, ‘Noman’s Land’, the dugout canoe was paddled away from his tongue’s name for what was, after all, his land, Noepe, saying in his people’s tongue ‘in the midst of the sea.’ His grandfather had warned him that these places of his ancestors were now counted by the whites as ‘Dukes’, a miniature kingdom of their distant king whose own land was strangely always incomplete, and enlarging. They had placed a squared piece of three-colored cloth upon a high pole, and made thunder with things they called cannons when they placed it atop that pole each day.
But thunder had never been known to snuff out the light he felt, and its sparking companion only added to this flame the young naked one kept even away from his home. Despite his grandfather’s wisdom, it was strong, no matter that they had come before with other white-tongued names like Vineland; the young one knew that the givers of this name had come only as men, making them a poor race, perhaps sad with longing for their women and true home despite their shining swords–they did not stay. These whites, English men and women, must have come to stay, this he also knew in his deepest sinew, that liquid-fueled envelope that pounded in his breast when aroused, that place he also knew to be the house of his lightning. For this he was somehow glad, though called foolish by his people; he had seen her, the young girl with the gold for hair, at the place the English called ‘Gays Head’.
“Yes….sorry to, um disturb you” Martha spoke-gasped, the eye patch he wore both fitting and unsettling, as if in parody of this very personal world of Martha’s, one she dubbed ‘whirled’ as one great hyperbole of itself–one whose author’s surname was the first and given name of Walt’s grandchild, Joyce, she thought. That such a to-be-expected accoutrement should yet surprise her only caused her to the more distrust the aggressive radial tires that had driven her here and not somewhere else inside her fifty mile realm.
“Aye, not a bit of it..ye were invited, now, weren’t ye? Name’s Hebbe, Captain A. they calls me, or used to; oy suspect you’ll be wantin ta see me wares” the caricature cemented his place in an increasingly suspected waking dream state even ‘Captain’ Disney, Cap’n D’, might’ve thought a too-far bridge over Credible Creek, and at flood stage.
As she followed her host to the yard of the advertised ‘sail’ she noticed a distinct limp in his step, and would have surmised that the melodramatic peg-leg hid beneath a denim-clothed pant leg was but a handy club in which his folded at-the-knee whole leg was at temporary rest, soon to render her unconscious were it not for her eyes having detected through an open seam the absence of any flesh beneath the knee/stump responsible for his genuine gimpy alternation to the left then right, right then left. But it was the elaborate carved vines which helix-like surrounded the rough hewn columns of the parlor which conjured the foredeck of a vessel, one smelling of cedar with barrel strapping where ordinary joists might be. And the exaggerated vine leaves were artfully carved outward, suggesting that some unfelt pushing wind had forced them to act as sails, the floorboards creaking along with what felt like swaying side to side apart from the thumping step of his alternating gimping, itself just out of synchrony with that swaying.
“Er, sir, Captain, I think I should move my truck, it’s likely blocking others from the turnaround” and before a reply could be heard Martha was out the entryway, her body a smaller vessel in portage across a shallow water-like threshold and into her truck. The impulse to depart was distracted by the frantic yet now feminine-sounding spinning of the rear tires on the four-wheel drive truck; inspecting the rear axle Martha saw it was entwined with a vine of kudzu. She knew the Japanese plant was well-known as a fast-spreading pest, called the ‘mile-a-minute’ vine in Martha’s adopted South. Her grandfather had told her what she then thought a twisted tall tale, that in 1876 the Japanese deliberately included it in the Philadelphia Centennial exhibition as revenge for the Americans forcible opening of Japan to the world at large. She wondered, now, if this sailor-type, or even the English settler of her once vine-covered native isle, Captain Gosnold, were not, somehow, related to the guilty Admiral Perry.
“The sun is over the yardarm” was her host’s only reaction to her concerns about her truck’s entanglement, a pewter mug in his upraised hand. “Alcohol, surest way of bringin ‘em under control, damnable vines, you’ll be free in no time, oy’ll apply it meself, milady; shall we to the yard?” and he motioned confidently for her to precede him down a short set of steps as if going ashore, yet, unto another unsure shore her mind vainly advised her legs.
The sun was indeed nearing its apex of high noon, and its rays revealed what reminded Martha of a pirate’s booty, spread across a bluff-like promontory overlooking a large shoreless-seeming body of water, a lake, perhaps, either the scene or her eyes were too thickly fogged in to tell.
His bare tawny skin glistened such that her eye took him for a surfacing denizen of what was now the shine upon the brine and foam seeming to erupt in chaotic surrender to the leathery covering of some sea-born/borne? mammal, perhaps a whale calf–they were known to breed and calve thereabouts, she recalled her father’s shared seafaring experience. Only the wooden paddle now carving vanishing swirling rivulets upon the waters of the bay signalled his tool-making humanity.
Beaching amid large smoothed boulders the canoe’s occupant cautiously bent behind one, his eyes now taken with the same yellow star’s effects upon her golden brown hair as had drawn hers seaward, and onto his sea-salted rippled skin. The young man then showed himself, fully, half-nakedly erect, slowly imprinting his feet upon the wet sand, kneeling to place a woven basket above the place he knew well since boyhood as beyond the furthest reach of the tidal waters, their contents a congeries of too-bright colors, nestled in vernal green vining. Glancing in her direction he smiled, his primordial teeth glistening like her Bible’s heaven’s pearly gate, then retreated to his canoe, and was remarried to his henceforth second love.
She looked behind her and, seeing her chaperone preoccupied with gathering wild flowers, Martha ventured down to the beach, finding the basket woven artfully from the native vines so abundantly noted hundreds of years ago by the visiting Norsemen. And in the basket she found flowers whose blooms she’d not seen in her four seasons on the island. Most exotic was the wooden carving of her father’s ship, in such detail as she had only seen within bottles on museum display of nautical wonders, such wonders often including alleged mermaid skeletons.
That evening she showed the artifact to her father who marvelled at its delicacy, though baffled by its source. “Surely this was somehow lost by another explorer of these waters, I should think.” He had hoped to dissuade her of any subscription to the growing legends abounding having to do with native magic, this despite his certain knowledge that this was a precise replica of his own vessel, only the poop deck’s place for her name being carved in some unknown tongue. Martha was confused, yet also charmed that, however it came to be in her possession, it was indeed another explorer whose skilled steady hands had steered his vessel amidst more than nearby waters, hewn some wooden idol, and both tasks performed within the deep-welling of her heart’s breakwaters, tangible gifting of a giver she found richly strange. Into her mind came her lesson, that very day, of the play her father’s friend, Walter Raleigh, had praised:
If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle fine is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.
Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.
O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do;
They pray, grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.
Saints do not move, though grant for prayers’ sake.
Then move not, while my prayer’s effect I take.
Thus from my lips, by yours, my sin is purged.
Then have my lips the sin that they have took.
Sin from thy lips? O trespass sweetly urged!
Give me my sin again.
You kiss by the book.”
Turning to her father, young Martha asked: “Father, we should, then, christen this ship, lest ill befall her sailing.”
“Does it so please you so to do? Then, by the power granted me by Her Majesty…” and he chortled, motioning to Martha, handing her an imaginary bottle.
“I do christen thee………HMS..Prayer’s Sake!”
“Full fathom five, aye, and then some, the sea doth take before she gives, and, so, pray ye, fer me humble keepin’s sake must I take mere ocean-less coins from such as yourself afore givin up these here landless gifts” Martha’s mind’s feet now firmly upon the terra firma of potential transaction.
“How much for the basket?”
“That old thing, why it’s not for sale, just for holdin items such as these scrimshaws what’re in it.”
Martha had no interest in such remnants of the horrific butchery men had inflicted upon the most forgiving of fellow mammals, with the exception of the fact-filled gruesome gray November of their slaughtering souls chronicled by Melville, and nearly at first-hand. A first edition her grandfather had obtained for a pittance at auction when that tome was still long-forgotten had been a Shakespearean education with a memorable Miltonian reminder of Paradise lost in the strangely attractive (to Martha, at least) character Tashtego, native inhabitant of Martha’s Vineyard, the isle known to his people as Noepe. She never failed to smile when sounding the alien word as an Anglicized ‘nope’, her girlish imagination then, as now, fancying it as Tashtego’s utterance to the whites uninvited status on his island.
“That wooden ship, there, did it used to be one of those inside a bottle?” her eyes finding its tininess despite being surrounded by all manner of wood carved bric-a-brac, her unconscious system having ferreted it out easily at the precise nanosecond the name Tashtego had percolated upward as if buoyantly having surfaced from many fathoms beneath a turbulent bottomless Freud-discovered subterranean sea. Her unconsciously pointing finger, visibly shaking, ceased its motion as the icon was placed into Martha’s enfolding palms, clasping it now as if within a silent prayer, seeing no legible name carved at the rear of the miniature vessel.
The conscious surface of her complemented awareness shimmered with the thrill of a friendly yet alien frisson, the shudder snapping her back, untying her tongue: “The name, in red paint, on the postal box….”
“Oh, yes, a kind of joke, ya see, me shipmates, they called me Stubb, see” as he slapped a walking stick, lifted from the display table, against his surrogate leg. “They figure most, includin the postman, don’t ya knows, don’t be rememberin Stubb, now, but we be sure to re-call that ole Captain, for certain; well, they’s full– them’s pick pockets, an full of what ye call puns, ya see, an decide ta address me as ‘A. Hebbe’, after he what pursue the white whale, his name bein Ahab, from ye olde Bible, ya see, the Hebrew king what was led to destruction by Jezebel, the very same force of evil spoke of til today” her host, ghostly pale, held forth, having only a tangential hold on Martha’s attention the bulk of which was now revisiting Cape Cod with second mate Stubb, the laugh-in-death’s face fatalist aboard the Pequod; such was her fixation on him that she failed to notice that she was there, aboard his less than bulky whaling rowboat, closing upon a hapless gray whale, steadied by the surprisingly gentle hands of the solitary harpooner of Stubb’s crew, Tashtego.
“The sun, it’s well past the yardarm, isn’t it?” Martha recalled his touted remedy for the taming of the clinging vine and how it seemed to have wrapped itself around her truck’s body, and her mind, that mind now fully holding truck with the enfolding of the vine.
“Darlin girl, allow this old mate ta remind thee that the Sun, she never do set, ever-shinin through time and space—’tis we what sets, turnin as we do round ‘n round, at some thousand knots I reckon; now, then, permit old Stubb here ta pour ye some of this vine’s rarest of vintages, red as that name of mine on that postman’s box, and the fuel of yer heart—free ya up, like oy done tole ya, for…shore.”
As Martha’s pewter mug, looking as new as if it had just been itself poured from its molten mold, was filled with the strange wine of Stubb’s vine, she spied a jade Buddha hung about his neck, unnoticed until then; she smiled, in memory of old Sid the good-hearted, and put a question to him.
“He’s here, isn’t he?”
Stubb smiled the smile of one who knew, and always had, that all was more or less predestined, so why not be consoled by the wisdom of that old Book which has counseled all that beneath the ever-blazing Sun naught that’s new will ever be, as space–and time–like fated mates, they do reunite, despite themselves, and revisit thee, and he, old kindled love, ’twill ignite. All that, and from a silent smile.
Martha rose from her captain’s chair, causing her to step down a short distance; she paused, not recalling having sat there, noticing that she wore an ankle length summer dress of gingham, adorned with delicate lace. Standing gingerly at first, she saw her unrecognizable self refracted upon the shiny pewter, then approached the edge of the hill abutting the water’s beach head.
His bare tawny skin glistened such that her eye took him for a surfacing denizen of what was now the shine upon the wine causing her divine surrender to the rippling muscles surrounding his smiling mouth, and she lept barefoot onto the beach where he now stood, a vine-like offering in his outstretched hand.