Land and Water - 1
“Nothing is but what is not” – Macbeth.
Char leans against the low wall and looks over at his boat. She’s seen better days. Hell, he’s seen better days. Somehow still, they work together – bound by a kind of common purpose. A coming and going; an ebb and a flow, so to speak.
The move into dusk prompts the switching on of the lanterns round the boat’s seating area and in the small cabin. The lights are not for Char’s benefit – he knows this crossing blindfolded – but the people he ferries sure could use at least the pretence of brightness. As he moves round the boat, Char plumps the thin, back cushions and mops up the silty water by the benches, hoping against hope that the amount of water doesn’t herald a leak. Out on the river, the bullfrogs begin their night-time bellows.
Char is slick with perspiration and his hair is that wild, nappy, wool that women used to admire; but these days, the comments (if he gets them at all) are only in the form of encouragements to spruce-up, if not full-on restyle. This concerns Char not a jot. If anything, disapproval has only spurred on the growth of his beard – the rough, crazy maelstrom that hides how kind the features of his face really are.
When the wind blows over the water, sometimes Char’s hair acts like the spin of a weathervane. Veering north, south, east, west, depending on the wind’s direction. You need daylight to completely appreciate the effect though and this lilac-grey dusk is most definitely not daylight. In fact, Char is sensing a mist rising from the river that thickens the air and appears to slow time itself. The drip of the water from the boat’s motor signals, not seconds, but minutes. Maybe hours. Unrushed, deep time.
What’s on Char’s mind is food and the people he ferries across the river. Over the years, the few people he can count as friends have asked him guilelessly how he spends the money he earns. Seeing his barely furnished condo and his age-creased oilskins, it’s hard to imagine. What he’s always told them is his money goes on good shrimp, good beer and a bellyful of chuckles at late night TV. The thought this minute of a plate of shrimp, maybe some gumbo, is carrying him through.
The majority of people he takes in his boat just need to be somewhere else. Take this week and Ash, the boy running from the kids at his school who, despite every fucking lesson in the world, can’t accept him for who he is and who he loves. Gina, the woman leaving the streets at last to return to her mother - the biggest monster she knew, until she realised there were bigger in back alleys and dark bays behind the mall. Whether it’s escape or going back home, Char sees his job as easing passage. Just that. Easing passage.
In the end, it’s not for him to judge or advise. He’s simply the negotiator of the river, an unkempt sailor, balancing the books for shrimp and beer. Char, the keen-gazed attendant of the water. What he’s never told anyone, however, is that he imagines the ends of these journeys. After the boat comes to shore on the other side of the bayou - after the payment and the helping to land - he always sees open doors in houses on old streets. He sees welcoming smiles and hastily arranged places at full tables. Char always hopes for the best.
He supposes that’s why today’s girl has bothered him so. Not leaving, but coming back with him from the other side. Tiny, birdy thing. Barely a woman, little more than a child. He didn’t ask her name and she didn’t offer it, but she did accept the blanket he put round her shoulders when he noticed her shivers as she stepped on the boat. Despite the rough damp of the blanket’s weave, the girl wrapped it round her like he’d offered her heaven.
The girl’s hair hung long and defensive round her face and down her body. It failed to conceal the fragile swell of her belly. “In my home state, it’s not allowed any more”, she had said. “That’s why I’ve come here. I’ve got a little money saved. Could you help me? Is there anyone you know who can help me?” As she spoke, Char watched how she wrapped her arms around herself.
He’d given her a couple of numbers - people he’d met along the way. She’d thanked him and folded the blanket, leaving it on the steps of the boat; then she’d disappeared into the blackness of the woods. Char felt she was safe at least while she was within their borders. Trees don’t care where you’ve come from, or where you’re going to.
Char starts the motor for the last crossing of the night, but he’s still unsettled by the girl. Too old for the privilege of thin skin, he can’t help thinking about her – little Russian doll with another inside her. A bunch of cells that could be something or something else.
The river runs sluggish and starless tonight and despite the gloom, Char sees the weeds stream in the water like long hair. Char, the mouth opener, the coin conjuror, considers how beautiful the river is. How it frightens and calms him. Sometimes, Char thinks, we don’t even know when we’re dead.