The Boat on the Plain

This is a story that initially appeared in  Not One of Us.

The boat lilts permanently to one side, standing alone amidst the wispy grasses of the flatland. Its hull has begun to sink into the hard earth, but still its height is matched only by the brown hills on the horizon. At around sixty feet long, it was a fishing trolley once. Now it is rusted nearly completely. Faint traces of paint indicate that it had once been white, except for the red band that should have fallen below the water line. But here, there is not a drop of water for thirty miles in any direction.

Like many such boats, the sea has gone and left it here.

So too has the sea left the man that lives inside of this boat: the man for whom I have been sent. To the local Uzbeks who live around the retreating remnants of the Aral Sea, he is a legend, a creature of myth. He takes no food, no drink; he lives without aging; he survives the poisonous dust storms that build over the polluted saline earth; no one knows his name. Unlike the locals, he speaks only Arabic. In the nearby town of Moynaq, some went so far as to call him a djinn, one that migrated north with the ancient Arab conquerors.

But I do not believe in djinn. I have come from Qatar to investigate, armed with my pad and my pen.

And now, I am looking for a place to board. I circle, but the sheer metal sides of the vessel offer me nothing. I decide I should call out to the man.

Before I can, however, I hear a voice call out to me.

“Man overboard!”

I look up, and I see him: the legend in the flesh. He is old and he is thin. A white beard drifts down from the end of a sun-darkened face. Desiccation cracks run across his skin.

He draws a lifebuoy from a post on the deck and throws it out to me. “Take hold there, young man! We will have you safely aboard in no time!”

“Hello!” I call up to him. “My name is Ahmed Nozari. I am here to speak-“

“No time,” he says. “You must take the hoop quickly!”

Cautiously, I approach the lifebuoy and bend over to pick it up from the dusty plain.

“Around your waist!” he calls.

“Are you sure?”

“No time! Now now!”

I obey and stand inside of the ring and draw it up to my hips. Without wasting a moment, the old man begins to pull on the rope that connects the buoy to the deck and I can feel the tremendous power of his arms. I am lifted right off the ground. I bounce twice against the hull as I am pulled up to the deck. After, I free myself from the lifesaver and climb over the railing, landing next to the man.

Around us, I can see nothing but plain for miles. A wind grabs my robes and his, tousling them, waves rolling across the cloth.

“Thank you,” I say. I offer him my hand. Instead he grabs my wrist firmly, and I return the gesture.

“Glad you’re safely aboard! I can always use an extra hand. We have a big haul to take today.”

“Actually,” I say, “I am here to interview you.”

“That’s quite the thing. An interview with an old fisherman?” He picks up a net from the deck and casts it out onto the plain. “What could I possibly say to interest a young man like you?”

“You have lived here alone for nearly thirty years, since before the sea retreated. How do you do it? What do you eat, what do you drink? I have a thousand questions if I can just get you to sit for a minute.”

The man cast another net over the other side. “I may be alone, but I can drink the water from the sky and eat the fish from the sea. Between the two, I have my faithful boat to keep me warm and safe.”

“But the Aral Sea is gone,” I say, pointing into the empty distance, “thirty miles hence.”

“Nonsense,” he says. “I’ve never left the sea, and the sea has never left me.”

“Can you tell me your name?” I ask him.

“Captain Bahr,” he says. I laugh, but his face is grim. He is not joking. In Arabic, Bahr means the sea.

He carries on with the nets, and I take a seat on the railing. While I watch, he draws one of the nets back onto the boat, and tells me to step back as he dumps its cargo of air and dust onto the deck.

“The sea has always been bountiful,” he says as he scrapes an empty metal bucket across the deck. I watch him as he takes the bucket to a table and dumps it. Then, with a knife, he begins the terrible charade of gutting the emptiness he holds between his ancient fingers.

I wish I could see what he sees, I wish I could understand. All I can see is an empty ship and a dead plain.

“Where are you from?” I ask.

Captain Bahr’s knife freezes in the air for a moment. “I do not know,” he says. “Old minds like mine do not work as well as young ones like yours.” The knife begins its work again. “It seems like I’ve always been here.”

I shake my head. “When you look over the railing, what do you see?”

“Home,” he says. “The sea. Do you not?”

“I see sand and salt and dust.”

He laughs, loudly, hoarsely. But the sound comes not from his throat, but from somewhere deep inside. “Sand,” he says. “That is a sad thing to see.”

“This ship has been aground for more than a decade. The Aral Sea is mostly gone. Diverted. But you see water? You see fish?”

The old man looks back at me, sadly, as though I was the one who had lost his mind. His eyes ripple blue. “Nothing else.”

There is another silence then. I begin to pace around the deck, the sound of my footfalls against the pitted wood is all I can hear. He carries on, in dead quiet, in mime. Around us, the poisoned desert meets the horizon in all directions. The wind has picked up. I need something to break the silence. The emptiness of this place, and the hollowness of this man are beginning to make me anxious. I want to leave.

My fist hammers against the railing, the pain fortifying my resolve. I cannot be so easily shaken. I will find my answers first.

So I ask: “Were you ever married? Did you have any children?”

“No,” he says. His voice is quiet. “No wife. No children.”

I do not press him on the issue. I turn my line of questioning to other things. But he does not remember his childhood; he does not remember his parents. Upon being questioned of his place of birth, he only says “far away,” and falls silent. I ask him more, but I learn less with each truncated answer.

For a while longer, I watch him, and occasionally help in his delusional tasks. I have decided that I will find my answers by observing, not by asking.

I stay for hours, but still he does not eat, nor does he drink. I am fortunate that I have brought enough for myself. I offer him some, and politely, he refuses.

I cannot accept this. I wonder if there is something else, some other trickery at play. I have been here hours, but I have only yet seen the man and the deck. I decide I will investigate further, to see if he has stores hidden away below.

I ask him if I am able to look around, and I am given permission. I enter the wheelhouse, and find it predictably dilapidated. Only the wooden wheel remains whole. There looks to be the faded imprint of a map on one wall, but I cannot read it.

I descend into the hull. There are no lights within, and the dim corridors and rooms are illuminated only by the portholes. The metal has rusted through entirely in some places, forming passageways between rooms that should not exist. I find empty bedrooms and crew quarters. Fallen skeletons of bunk beds lie on top of each other like dominoes.

Then I find the kitchen, and I search through it looking for something, for anything to explain this man. But the chests and drawers are all empty, and the stove has no gas.  My finger futilely flicks the switch of the only electric light I can find. There is not even wood for a fire.

I want only a picture, a locket, a keepsake to make this man human, to make him something of this world. But rust and dust is all that exists in this boat. It is all I find in the engine room as well. The turbine looks not to have turned in a thousand years.

There is only one place I have not yet been, and it is the staircase to the hold below.

There is barely any light as I descend into the gloom. Above, I can still hear the footsteps of the man on the deck, pacing back and forth with his nets. The metal walls reverberate in this expanse, and then my feet touch something solid beneath me.

I imagine horrible things in the dark. In my mind, I see the skeletons of his crew littered about the ground. I picture him appearing behind me, knife in hand, some otherworldly murderer. I imagine seeing his own grave, and then my own.

But still I hear him above me, and as I my eyes adjust, I see only the empty hold, the bottom layered with hard-packed earth. Nothing.

I am about to turn to leave, but then the faintest of flickers catches my eye. There is something white and small near the far side in the earth. I approach it, kneel next to it.

It is a skeleton of a fish. The head is poking up through the earth, the body buried, empty eye sockets watching the gloom. I reach down to touch it, and just as my finger traces the jaw, it crumbles and falls to dust.

There are not even dead things on this ship.

I rise again, walk up the stairs, and return to the growing wind of the deck, unsatisfied. The Captain remains, fishing, trawling the salt flats. The wind is picking up, and I can taste the salt and the chemicals that the Soviets dumped for decades into the sea.

I am beginning to think my trip may have been in vain. I cannot stay much longer. My ride awaits in Moynaq, two hours away, and I fear the growing wind. I do not yet know how he survives. I am not sure I have learned his name.

The sun is setting in the west and the wind is still getting stronger.

“I will have to be going soon,” I say.

“Already?” he says. “I was enjoying the company. But, very well. I will drop you off at the docks.”

“Thank you,” I say. I am curious to see what he will do. The wind is beginning to blow sand into my face. The horizon is obscured by the swirling grains.

I wait. The boat does not move, but five minutes later, the Captain announces that we cannot make port. The squall is too strong, he says. He fears the boat may run aground if we go in too close. I would laugh, but the sandstorm is becoming fierce. I will not make the two hour trek to Moynaq, and the cold realization sets in that I will have to stay.

The captain is gracious and offers me quarters below deck. We retreat together, me from the stinging wind, him from the pounding waves.

He shows me my room, one I have seen before. There is a rusting, squeaky bunk bed, which I will have to myself. There is a porthole, out of which I can see nothing in the storm. There is a desk, on which I sit, and after the captain has taken his leave, I begin recounting my experiences with my pen and pad.

My mind searches for metaphors, but they are all hollow, all inadequate. They cannot convey the emptiness. A tomb in the desert, perhaps. But I am unsure if that is a metaphor at all.

For hours I write, but still I can hear the screams of the wind outside. The sand keeps blowing, and the light from the porthole fades as darkness settles. I eat a small meal from my pack. Then I prepare for bed, and minutes later, I am asleep.
 

#

 

My sleep is restless. I dream of djinn. I dream of the sea.

 

#

 

The boat rocks me gently awake, but I rise with a start. It is still night. I can see nothing out of the porthole. The room sways back and forth, as though the sea had returned.

I rush out to the deck, climbing the stairs in a flurry. The night is dark, but I can see the sea spray splashing onto the deck. I can feel the salt air. Around me, for endless miles, waves crash under black clouds.

Could madness come so quickly?

But then I see the captain, sprawled out on the deck, face empty, eyes towards Allah. I approach him, prod him, but he does not move. He is dead.

The sea rocks the boat. Waves hammer the sides.

I run to the bridge. The old boat’s motor still works, and so I gun the engine, crashing through the water towards the south. For hours it runs, but I do not see land. The fuel gauge circles towards empty, and soon, the engine sputters and dies and I am alone on the sea.

The black clouds clear as morning comes, and the waves calm as the light settles upon them. The boat drifts, but to where I do not know. The center, I think.

Can something endless have a center, I wonder?

I would think on it, but a powerful hunger overtakes me.

I pick up a net and cast it out into the waves. The haul is bountiful, and a hundred frantic fish come up and splash onto the deck.

I put most of them on ice. Two I cook in the kitchen, and when they are done, I return to the deck, and begin to eat. The fish are better than anything I have tasted in my life.

When I am done, I walk to the twisted railing overlooking the endless sea.

“Al-Bahr,” I say into the void. There is no response but for the gentle tickle of the wind against my robes.

But the body is still there, and I know the sea will never leave him. But I must.

I want to prepare the Captain’s body for burial, but only the sea can wash him, and there are no shrouds. Instead, I pull two rotting planks from the deck and lash them to the man with rope from one of his nets. Near his feet, I tie a broken section of the railing, and then, I push him into the sea. He slides in feet first with barely a splash, his head gone a moment later.

And there I stare, hoping he is free.

I watch the sea for hours, until finally, night returns, pierced only by the mute light of a crescent moon. I do not go to bed. I simply lie down on the deck, and let the sea rock me to sleep.
 

#

 

My sleep is restless. I dream of djinn. I dream of the sea.
 

#

 

I awake to stillness and emptiness. Light shines in through the porthole, illuminating this desecrated tomb. The destroyed bunks have returned, as have the dust and the desiccation. I am in the room the captain had given me.

I pull myself from my haphazard bed, and run out to the deck. Around me, there is nothing but desert, hard packed earth, weeds.

A dream.

But the captain is not there. I linger a moment to find him. I search the rooms, the kitchen, but they are all empty. Then I head down into the hold. It too is empty, except for a glint of white at the far end. I walk slowly over and kneel down. The fish skeleton has returned. I do not touch it this time. Memories are best left memories.

Instead I head back to the deck and climb down on to the earth. I linger for a moment and circle the ship, recalling dimly where I threw him in my dream. He is not there. The earth offers nothing but weeds and salt.

I check the time. It is almost nine in the morning. But the calendar on my watch catches my eye. It reads two days since I arrived. Two days on the boat. Two nights.

I want nothing more than to leave this place forever.

I walk for hours back to Moynaq. I cannot think; my thoughts churn like waters in a storm. I know only that I want to get away.

I pass the fleet of derelicts in the port, and walk up the lost shore. Then I hire a car to Nukus. Only there do I realize I have forgotten my pad and my pen, but I do not look back. They will remain there for the next visitor to find.

A plane returns me home to Doha, at the boundary of the sea and the desert. Only here do the gales of my thoughts subside. Only here can I reflect. But my thoughts come to nothing. I cannot understand what I have seen.

Later, I hear from others that the old man is truly gone, his boat empty at last. I hear that there are efforts to restore the Aral Sea. I hope the captain is happy, wherever he is.

But I am not.

I stand with one foot in the water, and one foot on the sand. My sleep now is always restless.

And when I dream, I dream of djinn.

I dream of the sea.

Matthew Marinett

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